Armageddon, the metric system, and you.

Tara Gilchrist manages the Antiquarian, Rare, and Collectible department, and shares this recent find.

Old books don’t have to be rare, scarce, or pricey to be evocative and meaningful. They just need to connect you with an idea or a feeling that’s important to you.

For example: the other day, while sorting through a box of books, I came across this:

Suddenly, I was back in the fourth grade, pinned to my desk in fear, choking on the smell of chalk, lead, kid-sweat. We were about to learn THE. METRIC. SYSTEM.  Only smart people who spoke foreign languages used this system! (If you spoke anything other than English, you were smart, of course.) It would be difficult! And if we didn’t convert—we’d perish!

That’s the impression we were given. The story we were told. And look at the cover of this book: tell me it doesn’t feel like Armageddon all over again. Prepare now, all ye foolish Americans, or face your doom! The title page offers no mitigation for this apprehension:

Obviously, this whole process would be a spiky, uphill climb.

Mr. Frank Donovan of the Beard and Pipe Brigade (author):

tried to make his message friendlier by 1974:

Even so, this cover feels like a pyramid; rather like something the Aztecs would build to offer a blood sacrifice. As for the back cover, well, don’t you hear strains of the Dr. Demento ditty, “They’re coming to take me away HAHA / They’re coming to take me away HOHO HEHE HAHA.”

I didn’t make it. I didn’t convert to the metric system. I think only doctors and drug dealers actually made that transition. We should have just “done it”- made pounds, gallons, and miles obsolete in one swoop- no converting- a “new normal.” If that had happened when I was in the 4th grade, I’m pretty sure I’d know the metric system by now. Why do we desperately clutch to our old ways of measurement? Even Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State charged with devising a national standard of weights & measures, couldn’t get this done.

These two old books aren’t worth serious money. But they sparked discussion in our section for a week; made me panicky (and remember the fourth grade); had us talking about how Americans think about themselves & their place in the world; wonder what would be different today if we had successfully converted to the metric system; made me laugh over the disastrous cover designs; inspired a blog post… they’re worth something to me.

My point is: you don’t need deep pockets to collect books. Find your passion (or your fear), your interests, and just… begin.

What are you collecting right now?


  1. Heather Boggs says:

    I love books that make me think in ways I hadn’t thought of before. Those are the books I look for, those are the books I feel are worth collecting. My library will be one that enters thousands of other worlds and minds. They will be different genres, different subjects, different in every way, except one. They will be thought provoking in some way, personal, to me. They might not make my friend think out of the box, but they make me think about something differently, or helped spark a perspective-changing moment. I collect books that change me 🙂

  2. Tara Gilchrist says:

    That’s great- keep on going! I’ve learned that collections like yours evolve, too. Many people start out with one subject that morphs, or grows, or even narrows. A dynamic collection is much more fun. It tells a story, not only about the books and the thoughts therein, but a story about you and where you were at different times in your life. I must reveal my current personal collection: I collect books written for women about how to catch- and keep- a man by preparing food for him. (The earlier published the better.) It seems to me patently ridiculous that a good bowl o’ chili will make a man want to hang with you…forever! But as, I don’t consider myself very good at “cooking” or “men”, I may be just seeking a deeper truth. Or, maybe I’m just seeking a better bowl of chili. 🙂 Best of luck with your collecting, and most of all: have fun!

  3. Interesting post, Tara. I too have occasionally wondered what happened to that only vaguely recalled push to convert Americans to metric. When I think about how many things we’d have to change/give up/replace in our lives if that ever happened, I’m glad it didn’t!

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