Besides iPhones, hip-hop and hi-def television, another compelling curiosity of present-day humanity would very likely be the way we perceive and process knowledge, particularly our own past.
Take the word "antique," for example. First written as "anticke" in the early 1500s and derived from the Latin word "antiquus," or "existing earlier," it's interesting to consider how the concept itself must have shifted over the centuries.
When Virgil wrote, in the 1st century B.C., of Tityrus playing his "rustic pipe" and Silenus' "heavy tankard with its well-worn handle," I doubt he regarded those items as prized possessions because they were antiquus. Nowadays, though, the notion that an object's value increases with age has become embedded in our culture on numerous fronts.
Type in "antique" on Google and it yields more than 100 million results, on eBay nearly 200,000 items and on HGTV more than 4,000 listings, with entire shows devoted to the admiration and valuation of odd objects like inkwells, tobacco labels, doorknobs or oil cans.
Common vernacular also turns "antique" into a verb form that doesn't simply mean coating one's shabby dresser with a faux-patina: These days we don't merely shop for antiques, we go "antiquing" — and how.
With the rich historical heritage of this region, antiquing has become a passionate pastime for a lot of folks in New England, where experts and exquisite wares abound in antique shops, dealers' co-ops and renowned annual and multi-vendor fairs.
One of Southern Vermont's most popular versions of the latter — Vermont Antiques Week — takes place this weekend in five spacious locations along a 30-mile stretch of road between Ludlow and Manchester from today through Sunday, so if you're wondering just how one gets into "antiquing," that's the place to start.
As an inadvertent antiquer who has unwittingly started rather unusual collections in unconventional ways, this kind of event is terribly enticing, for I'm quite sure I could launch new and quirky collections in one fell purchase.
That's how all my collections started. Take the row of elderly manual typewriters that adorn the top of my piano. I spotted the first one — a diminutive, rickety World War I journalist's Underwood — sitting on the floor of a cluttered garage under a table full of things I did need, like pots and pans, at a neighbor's tag sale when I was in college.
I'd just moved into a new flat on Haight Street and needed a good saucepan or two, but did I come home with any of those practical items? Nope. When the neighbor saw me crouched down examining the typewriter, he said I could have it if I promised to fix it up since he'd never gotten around to it and thought the thing deserved some TLC. So, I hefted it up my steep hill, put it in my Plymouth Valiant (my biggest antique), took it to a repair shop and laid down a hundred bucks to give it a much-needed tune-up.
Twenty years later, here I am with five other beautiful black manual typewriters, bearing names such as Remington Rand, Royal, Oliver and Woodstock, all of which at this point feel like members of the family. I once looked on eBay and found that some of my typewriters, which either came to me as gifts or for less than a tenner, are now worth several hundred dollars. Not that I want to part with any of them, but it's nice to know I own a few truly valuable antiques.
Same goes for my circa Civil War captains' chairs. I'd initially bought two at a second-hand shop just because I needed a couple of extra chairs for a dinner party, but when a friend attending the soiree examined them, he found a symbol on the underside that confirmed his suspicion that they were not only from that period, but had been at a veterans' hospital during the war.
I scooped up the other two at the store the following day and ever since then have been fascinated with the provenance of old chairs. You'd think I regularly hold town meetings in my house or that I had 38 children, considering how many chairs I own, but it's become a bit of an antiquing obsession, I suppose.
One specimen is a fragile 200-year-old thing from England, with no finish remaining and yet even the splits in the grain are enthralling to me. I think about the conversations to which that chair must have been a part and the life stories of the people who've sat in it.
I find antique dealers to be just as captivated by the stories behind what they sell and more than willing to impart everything they know about an item. Bend the ear of the average shop owner and you'll likely go away with not only a beautiful purchase, but very likely an intriguing morsel or two about the lore surrounding it.
Many dealers are themselves historians, often specializing in distinct eras, furnishings or fine arts and this weekend promises a broad range of wisdom, styles and sensibilities.
Phyllis Carlson and Timothy Stevenson are antiques and art dealers who coordinate the Manchester branch of Vermont Antiques Week, where 75 vendors from across the country will fill the Riley Rink. The work that Carlson and Stevenson sell reveals their personal taste in genres, with 18th- and 19th- century "schoolgirl art," handmade textiles and "high country" furniture.
Each location has a distinct atmosphere as well and, since most of these shows have taken place every year for decades, the professional lineage and comradeship go deep.
The Bromley Mountain Antiques Show is celebrating 30 years with 30 vendors selling their country antiques in the base lodge and Jim Dunn, who organizes the event with his wife, Elizabeth, cherishes the camaraderie.
"I grew up with antiques so one of the things I appreciate about our participants is that they're more like a family than vendors," Dunn explained.
The Dunns also invest the event with their unique aesthetics.
"The Bromley show is considered 'strong country,'" he said, "with a lot of blue- and yellow-painted furnishings from the early 1800s as well as samplers, sterling silver, ceramics, boxes, chests, stands, fabric, quilts and linens."
To celebrate their three decades of involvement in Vermont Antiques Week, the proceedings at Bromley start early Saturday, with a buying preview breakfast from 8 to 10 a.m., featuring homemade scones, pastries, fruit and coffee.
The show also takes place at the Okemo Mountain Resort, Black River High School in Ludlow and the Weston Playhouse which, in its 48th year, is the longest running of all Southern Vermont's antique shows.
I just hope nobody's selling antique pianos because that could mean trouble. I found my 1880 upright grand Steinway on eBay a few years ago and I love it so much that whenever I come across an old piano for sale it's all I can do not to whip out my checkbook. Now chairs, on the other hand …