I looked at light from both sides now

At a time when journalists are waxing nostalgic about the “warm glow” of incandescent light (see last week’s post), as the more expensive and energy inefficient technology is being usurped by longer-lasting fluorescent bulbs (their lighting quality described variously as “sickly,” “yellowing,” “cold,” and “ghastly”), I remembered a passage in one of my favorite children’s books, The Borrowers Aloft.


The Borrowers, characters created by the ingenious British author Mary Norton, are tiny, secretive human-like creatures who live in people’s (“human beans”) homes and survive by “borrowing” trinkets like buttons, thimbles, pins, even doormat hairs as tools and furnishings. Encounters with humans are considered unsafe. The series of 4 books traces the adventures of the Clock family — father, Pod; mother, Homily; and teenage daughter, Arrietty — as they flee from one home to another, migrants and refugees, searching always for safer shelter. Homily dreams of one day having a home of her very own, with real, not borrowed, furniture and all the latest amenities, including a marvel she’s read about — electric light. In  The Borrowers Aloft, she finally gets her dream home, courtesy of a dotty, kindhearted old lady who wants to keep them as pets. But the family painfully decide they can’t stay; exposing themselves to the human’s world and gaze and concern is too dangerous. Before they leave, Homily insists on taking one last look at all that she’s sacrificing:

As the room became darker, Homily said suddenly, “Couldn’t we try out the light?”

“The electric?” said Pod.

“Just once,” she pleaded.

“Don’t see why not,” he said, and went to the switch by the door. Homily blew out the dips, and as almost explosively the room sprang to brightness, she covered her eyes with her hands. Arrietty, blinking hard, gazed interestedly about her; white and shadowless, the room stared starkly back. “Oh, I don’t like it,” she said.

“No more do I,” said Homily.

Quoted here, without the building of Homily’s anticipation throughout the novel, this excerpt doesn’t quite convey the heartbreak of Homily’s fond dream turning into banal, disappointing reality. But I do think of this passage often whenever I read complaints about the harshness, starkness, or coldness of fluorescent light. How long will we be griping about its inferiority? Or complaining about the sacrifice we’re making to lower our carbon footprint? Until some other form of illumination replaces it? When that day comes, will we look back fondly on that distinctive, characteristic, attractive glow and write vivid odes to the light that’s now fading away?

What do you think?


3 responses to “I looked at light from both sides now

  1. On this topic of light bulbs and transitions, you might be interested in the lovely (aren’t they all?) book by Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten:


    It’s a fascinating peek into so many historical moments: fin-de-siecle England, Jews, World Wars, and the beginnings of the field of Chemistry. He specifically discusses how his family handled the switch from gas lighting to electric – and the different qualities of different elements used for lightbulbs. I think you would like it.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, Kalyani.
    Sounds like I’d love it. I’ll definitely take a look.

  3. Oh, The Borrowers, those were the days! They helped us re – see so many mundane things!

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