Time travel appeals to me, too, because I write books of history and biography. I might not transport Sigmund Freud to the present, but how fascinating it would be to meet him in his milieu--to observe him interacting with a patient, join him at a family meal, or stroll along the boulevards of his Vienna. Through time travel I could learn what Jane Austen looked like, or hear Paul Laurence Dunbar recite his own verses, or ride the Brooklyn ferry with Walt Whitman. Imagine the thrill of hearing nineteenth-century laborers call to one another over their work, or of attending an actual eighteenth-century English country dance! More significant would be the chance to meet enslaved African Americans and add to our knowledge of their lives, or to visit the orphanages of earlier eras--institutions whose records were largely destroyed and whose residents history has mostly forgotten.
But then consider this: when Charles Dickens traveled by canal boat to Pittsburgh during his 1842 trip to the United States, the gentlemen on board washed themselves in dirty water ladled from the canal and shared a public comb and brush. In the early nineteenth century, cholera traveled out of the tropics to begin a death march through Europe and eventually to sail to the Americas. No one knew that it was spread through contaminated water, so no one knew how to prevent it. As a time traveler I might keep myself safe from this dreaded disease by boiling all my water, but what about smallpox, which erupted in epidemics every few years, and whose virus was airborne? Also, people with active tuberculosis mingled in society a hundred fifty years ago, and very few households had indoor plumbing. A century later much had improved, but we humans rode around in cars without seatbelts, secondhand smoke was unavoidable, and discrimination against African Americans, women, and others was blatant and often unconscious. American life in 2011 has its dangers and drawbacks, but I'll take them over the hazards of the past.
Still, there is one thing I'd love to do if I could travel back: go shopping! Think of how far my twenty-first-century dollars would stretch in the department stores of the twentieth! I could stock up on the fine linens that my grandmother lovingly recalled buying "before the war." It would be fun, too, to browse among the cheap toys and practical household goods in five-and-ten-cent stores, or to wander in grocery markets and see what was offered. No veggie burgers or baby salad greens, for sure, but I might pick up a richly marbled roast wrapped in a layer of added fat--not the healthiest fare, but the foundation of a homey and delicious Sunday dinner. Remind me to make sure my time machine has room enough to hold all my loot!