Grappling with the Evil American Curator

October 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Possession, by A.S. Byatt.

Now reading: The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning.

Possession is just a freaking brilliant book — one of those freaking brilliant books that’s freaking brilliant in that particular way that deflects both criticism and explication.  You want to explain to someone what Possession is about, you hand them the book and tell them to dig in.  It’s great at explaining itself.  It’s the perfect postmodern romance, which is exactly what it sets out to be.  It seems sort of criminal that it’s not on any of those “Books of the Century” lists, which I can only blame on the blatant ageism evident on those sorts of lists.  (How dare anyone suggest good writing is evident after 1970?)  It’s that good.

All of which makes this an odd entry to restart this enterprise after a two-month hiatus.  It was great fun, as I was reading, charting the ways that Byatt wove into her text the various meanings and interpretations of “possession,” the powerful connotations of her self-proclaimed “Romance,” the points at which the narrator steps back and explains to us that we are reading a novel in a long tradition of novels, a narrative that draws upon many other kinds of narrative — but hey, it’s all in there.  Read the book and you’ll see the same things I did.  You’ll see the same powerful critiques of academia and the whole literary-historical enterprise that I did, as well, and maybe you’ll even enjoy them as much.

Instead, I’ll address myself to Byatt’s exploration of the trade in literary manuscripts and artifacts, and her magnificent, malevolent creation, the Evil American Curator, Mortimer Cropper.  Byatt actually does a much better job with this aspect of the work than I expected: overall, the machinations by which manuscripts make their way from private to institutional hands, and the ways in which access is provided to same, are fairly true to life, with concessions to the needs for narrative tension, conflict,  and drama.  I love the initial action of the book, that scene in which Roland finds that Ash’s copy of an important book, now held by the London Library, has never been viewed and is actually a treasure trove of notes.  (Given cataloging backlogs everywhere, and especially in Europe, this, too is at least plausible, but not likely. It did give me the false impression, initially, that Ash was not such a well known and important figure as he ended up being; if he was such an important figure in Victorian lit, surely another scholar would’ve been by to see this copy, and surely it would’ve been cataloged as Ash’s.)  There’s even a crucial and gripping (gripping!) discussion of copyright law near the end, that ends up being one of the truly pivotal moments of the entire work.

But then there’s Mortimer Cropper.  Possession springs from a period (arguably ongoing) of great English angst about the removal of collections of authors’ papers and historical documents to American libraries, spurred by the large sums of money offered to English writers and collectors.  Cropper here stands in as the archetypal Evil American Curator: possessed (ahem) of a  blank checkbook thanks to wealthy industrial patrons, and further possessed of an unquenchable thirst for the cultural cache that the documents and artifacts of English Literature can provide to young, striving institutions (and young, striving curators), he drives prices for desirable artifacts and manuscripts to ludicrous heights.  He thinks nothing of cultural heritage or the symbolic importance of so many unique materials leaving their homeland: English Literature belongs to the world, and his department/institution/nation studies English Literature as intensively as any English institution does.  He wants the stuff — is possessed by the desire to possess the narrative the documents represent, not only the documents themselves.  Byatt points out the mystery at the heart of all archival collecting: why do we care about the things themselves?  We do we not photograph/photocopy/scan/digitize and let originals crumble to dust?  While Cropper makes his pitch for the perfect climate, storage conditions, and access he can provide to researchers from around the world, he also takes furtive photographs of the objects he desires, and at one point Byatt shows us his love of these surrogates as much as of the originals he pays vast sums of other peoples’ money for.  Possession is a matter of knowing as much as having, throughout this book.

The critique of the collecting of elite American libraries embedded, here, in the person of Mortimer Cropper, is really quite well done, and makes a polemical point with a good deal of subtlety and narrative force.  The story needs a villain, and Cropper is a good one: as someone who works at an American library and collects English literary materials, it was surprisingly easy to root against him, when I sometimes find myself in his position (though I try not to be so doggone evil about it).  Of course he’s an exaggeration — but if I was an Englishwoman like Byatt, I’d probably make him the same kind of exaggeration.  I must say that I did somewhat resent Byatt making him a furtive collector of porn, but even there the thematic importance of the characterization was not excessive.  Nothing telegraphs Evil American Curator like dabbling in Victorian erotica, after all.

Various Nigerian Narratives, Part 1: Print Culture

February 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: GraceLand.

Sprinkled throughout this book are these fascinating little glimpses into Nigerian pop culture of the ’70s and ’80s.  Because of my work, I’m especially interested in the print culture in evidence here: the interesting uses and kinds of books that Elvis comes across in Lagos.  And I initially meant to write just about these, but so many fascinating little memes about movies, memories, and music kept popping up that I had to expand my vision of narrative to include these, and will address them in future posts.  But to begin with print culture:

References to Elvis’s reading pop up again and again throughout the book: it is in part a Bildungsroman, and a very interesting one, though I think it’s also more than that.  Elvis reads Rilke, the Koran, Gibran’s The Prophet, and many other books.  There are two book-focused episodes in particular that stand out.

The first is in chapter five, where we get a glimpse of Elvis’s library use.  We find that he has been using the United States Information Service Library on Victoria Island, which carries “the show-biz magazine Entertainment” among many other things.  Here’s what he has to say about the local library:

Apart from the endless old tomes on chemistry, physics, electronics and philosophy, the local library had an anthropology section that only had books with the word “Bantu” in their titles… Something about the word “Bantu” bothered him and made him think it was pejorative.  Maybe it had something to do with not ever hearing that word used outside of that section in the library.  The only other books there were treatises on Russian and Chinese culture and politics.  These came either printed in bold glossy colors or in badly bound volumes with the fading print slanted on the page as if set by a drunken printer or as though, tired of the lies, the words were trying to run off the page.

This is fascinating in a number of ways: Elvis’s preference for the US-sponsored library, his distrust of his own local library’s labeling and categorization of African people as “anthropological,” the shelves of “endless old tomes” and propaganda that are supposed to edify but have no interest for him.  The USIS library is a propaganda tool, too, but an attractive, useful, well-stocked one, with the products (however curated and propagandized) of a free press.  In a culture with an American pop-culture obsession, access to an American library for a kid like Elvis is a real treasure.  I think Abani is interrogating that America obsession throughout the novel, but more so with mass-media products like movies and magazines than with books.  I think he presents the USIS library as a good thing, however Elvis chooses to use it.  (The USIS was actually disbanded in 1999, another Cold-War casualty.)

The second is in chapter eleven, when Elvis visits the huge Tejuosho Market to buy some clothes.  It’s a very evocative scene, with Elvis threading his way through the open-air stalls viewing the fruits and vegetables for sale, hearing the cries of kids selling Cokes, the crowded bustle of people about their business.  And then he stops at a used bookseller’s cart: Abani’s descriptions of the Western-canonical paperbacks (Dickens) and West-African novels (Achebe, but also “thrillers like Kalu Okpi’s The Road“) give you the true feel for the cart and for the market.  It has the ring of truth, this mix of used books, at least to someone who’s never set foot in Africa.  Elvis buys two books, slyly symbolic of the crossroads he’s facing: “a torn copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a near-pristine copy of James Baldwin’s Another Country.”  There it is, in a nutshell: will Elvis turn to the life of crime, corruption, and self-interest, of masculine posturing and violence, or will he follow his artistic dream, his desire to help and support his people and his country, and (perhaps) his homosexual inclinations?  But the books are not just symbols or signifiers of Elvis’s identity crisis; they’re possible pathways out of that crisis.  In other words, it’s not just important that we the readers get the significance; it’s also important that he get it — that he read the books.  That he’s buying them in the first place, when he’s dropped out of school and has very little access to books in general, adds important complexity to his personality.

Then Elvis hears another bookseller calling out from an adjacent stall, and we’re introduced to another fascinating aspect of Nigeria’s print culture: the Onitsha Market pamphlets.  As the bookseller sells them, they are “de books written by our people for de people.”  Here’s Abani’s description:

These pamphlets, written between 1910 and 1970, were produced on small presses in the eastern market town of Onitsha, hence their name.  They were the Nigerian equivalent of dime drugstore pulp fiction crossed with pulp pop self-help books.  They were morality tales with their subject matter and tone translated straight out of the oral culture…. The covers mirrored American pulp fiction with luscious, full-breasted Sophia Loren look-alike white women.  Elvis had read a lot of them, though he wouldn’t admit it publicly.

Elvis scans one that the bookseller suggests for an “educated man,” called Beware of Harlots and Many Friends. He turns it down, though, opting for the more narrative-driven Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away. These are, apparently, real Onitsha pamphlets: Abani gives their full citations in his acknowledgments.  And if you’re really curious, you can see a bibliography of over 100 and 21 digitized examples from the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas here.  Elvis hides his pamphlet between the Dostoyevsky and the Baldwin, and this too signifies, I think, in some way: the indigenous culture Elvis is embarrassed of, but that Abani celebrates — giving us an excerpt from Mabel between this chapter and the next.

I’ll have more to say later about the use of Elvis’s mother’s journal and other excerpts from written works later on.  For now, I hope I’ve given a taste of the complex, intricate ways that Abani is using books and Nigeria’s print culture in the text.  It reminds me a little of Joyce, in Ulysses, with the various books and pamphlets and scraps of culture that Bloom and Stephen come across and mull over in their heads.  (Not a huge stretch.  This is a really, really good book.)

Welcome to the Dream-Factory

September 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Dangerous Laughter.

Reading next: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki and The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders.

Libraries and their ilk play a surprising large role in this collection, starting with “The Room in the Attic,” maybe my favorite story in the book (either that or “A Precursor of the Cinema,” which is just rad).

The title of this post is taken from “The Room in the Attic,” and spoken by Wolf, Dave the narrator’s super-cool, iconoclastic, book-addicted friend.  Here’s the full passage:

“A book,” he [Wolf] declared, “is a dream-machine.” He said this one day when we were sitting on the steps of the town library, leaning back against the pillars.  “Its purpose,” he said, ” is to take you out of the world.”  He jerked his thumb toward the doors of the library, where I worked for two hours a day after school, three days a week.  “Welcome to the dream-factory.”

Of course, this is not an orthodox argument for the American public library system, or for research libraries, for that matter.  Library administrators, organizations like ALA, and well wishers are forced to base arguments for the importance of libraries on things like early literacy and young adult after-school programs, continuing education, provision of internet access for the poor, and arts programming.  Mostly libraries are getting away from promoting themselves as places that hold books, which seems hopelessly retrograde and static.  (Instead they, especially those that deal with “youth,” are all about ridiculous promotions like hosting gaming nights and making sure they have a presence on Second Life.)  Books?  God, how embarrassing!

And yet, there it is: “Welcome to the dream-factory.”  This plays out in a rather literal sense in many libraries: college kids, preschoolers, the homeless napping and (one would think) dreaming.  We in libraries, for whatever reason, resist the idea that we are places to dream.  We have been singularly bad about instilling a sense of wonder in our patrons about what libraries make available to them.  This is perhaps a self-defeating argument: libraries as public resources are an American concept, and Americans insisted on them because they were efficient means of equalizing availability to information and creating an informed citizenry.

Something in me has always bristled at the idea of libraries as merely information repositories, and, indeed, at the naming of my own chosen field as “Library Science.”  Wolf goes on to make clear that he sees books as his way out of the world he finds boring and worthy of contempt; and yes, there is something subversive embedded in the idea of the library, as it now exists in America.  It is where you can learn whatever you want to learn — not what anyone tells you you must read.  It is where you go to make your own world.  It is where you go for dreams, fantasies, utopias; knowledge and wisdom, not (just) data and information.  Libraries are some of the few places left in America that create and cultivate idiosyncrasy, free thinking, and, yes, dreams and visions.  They deal with the crackpots and the geniuses that will not be dismissed as crackpots for long.  These are valuable services.

At the other end of the collection is “Here at the Historical Society.”  This is one of a handful of rather Borgesian stories here.  Its unnamed narrator explains the recent changes in his Historical Society’s curatorial and exhibition policies: because “the present is the past made visible,” the staff now “go out each day to observe and classify a world that is already a part of the historical record.”  In other words, everything belongs in the Historical Society; and candy-bar wrappers and other bits of trash are equally worthy of curation and exhibition as historical artifacts as are arrowheads and other more traditionally “historical” materials.  This is rather the opposite of Wolf’s “dream-factory.”  (Or is it that idea’s logical conclusion?)

The story is the archival equivalent of the headache-inducing idea of the universal library — Borges’s “Library of Babel.”  And frankly, Millhauser is not far off: there has certainly been a shift toward collecting more of the materials of daily life in special collections and archives.  Where everyone once wanted the papers of world leaders, they now crave the diaries of frustrated housewives and the letters of the few literate slaves.  Where the mission was once seen as documenting history, it is now seen as documenting life.

As someone who tries to make these kinds of decisions — what’s worth keeping?  How much more valuable is a 400-year-old document than a 4-year-old document?  Will anyone care about a current organization in 10, 100, 1000 years? — this is a profoundly frustrating thought.  Millhauser’s narrator talks about the Historical Society’s initiative as a way of seeing the world in full, of being enthralled by the world as its own museum, everything a priceless connection to the past and future; but of course, the story is also a satire, and this is closer to the reaction that many people have to this kind of work: Why in the world would you want to save my papers?

For me, at least, the story comes off as satirical at first, but somehow gets more sincere but also more troubling the more I think about it.  Do archives, museums, libraries help people better understand their world?  Do they function well either as a dream-factory or as a knowledge generator?  Or do they merely present a distorted view of the world — an inevitably and unavoidably incomplete picture of an instantly bygone world?  As a librarian, I’ve obviously made my decisions on these questions, at least at a practical level; they nevertheless need to be kept in mind.  It is always important to remember that we are much closer to knowing (and to preserving) nothing rather than everything.  (See also: Rumsfeld’s immortal “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.”)

DeLillo, DFW, and Places of Mortal Drama

November 14, 2008 § 1 Comment

I’m in Austin, Texas right now, attending a symposium at the Harry Ransom Center entitled “Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, and Institutions.”  It’s largely about the process by which writers’ papers (the manuscripts of their works, their correspondence, etc.) are sold or donated to places like the Ransom Center and the handful of university and research libraries in the US and UK (including my employer, Duke University, whom I’m certainly not representing in these thoughts) that can afford to handle these bodies of material.

I haven’t had a whole lot of free time during the day, but I managed to get into the reading room over the lunch hour today.  I skipped a meal because the HRC holds the Don DeLillo Papers.  And this includes his correspondence with David Foster Wallace (primarily DFW to DeLillo, with a few of DeLillo’s responses), from 1992 to 2003.  (I don’t know if there are any later letters that haven’t been added yet by DeLillo; I suspect there are, but perhaps not many, and surely they will eventually come here, too.)

It’s not a huge body of material — just one folder, although it’s a fat folder — but it struck me as profoundly important: to DFW, to the understanding of their works and late-20thc. American lit, to me.  It was poignant and hilarious and amazing.  My faith in the importance of archives had not been shaken, but it was certainly confirmed by looking at them.

I won’t give any long excerpts here — both because I don’t think DFW would have wanted it and because it could be construed as, well, illegal — but I want to share some of the things I found in the correspondence that moved me, interested me, made me laugh, made me sigh:

-I wanted to see if I could find anything about DFW’s thoughts on End Zone, especially after reading the chapter near the end that is clearly the ancestor of the Eschaton section of Infinite Jest, complete with a war game built on apocalypse scenarios and menacing all-caps alliances.  Sure enough, in one of his first letters DFW says, “part of a long thing I’m in the middle of has a section that I’ve gone back and seen owes a rather uncomfortable debt to certain exchanges between Gary Harkness and Major Staley.”  Fascinating that DFW either had End Zone embedded so deeply in his mind that he was able to build and comment upon the Harkness-Staley war game unconsciously, without consulting the text, or forgot the particulars of the war game and ended up reproducing them.  (Or it’s possible he was being a bit coy with DeLillo about this, in this early letter in which he’s still more or less introducing himself and saying how important DeLillo has been to him, and was really quite conscious of the war game section of EZ while writing the Eschaton game, but framed the similarity as unconscious and inadvertent to win the approval of one of his literary heroes, although I can’t imagine DFW not being up front about something like this, especially considering how up front he is about this sort of thing in his other letters.)

-There’s a fantastic letter from October 1995, just before publication of IJ, in which DFW lays bare a number of his anxieties about his own work ethic as a writer and the tension he felt between “fun” and “discipline.”  A fascinating letter: DFW talks about wanting to be a “Respectful writer,” meaning (I think) respectful of readership and of the writer’s own talent and potential, meaning not self-consciously showing off but putting in the hours at the writing desk and the hours of thought to perfectly integrate style and subject matter and thematic concerns.  Not showing off was very important to DFW; as he says, “…I’d far prefer finding out some way to become [a Respectful writer] w/o time and pain and the war of LOOK AT ME v. RESPECT A FUCKING KILLER.”  Quite a phrase, that.  That’s what I’d like to say whenever anyone asks me about IJ (not that anyone ever does): “Respect a fucking killer.”  It is a killer.  And it’s all DFW wanted, I think.

-Some great movie stuff: DFW ended up hating Lynch’s Lost Highway (as he says, “I swear it looked promising in dailies”), and recommends that DeLillo try to rent the first few episodes of Twin Peaks.  He also recommends Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool (a couple of times, actually) and absolutely loved The Matrix.

-A fascinating note (especially for an archivist) on digital publishing in a 2000 letter: “I don’t think it’s the memory-obliteration [of digital media] that bothers me… so much as the way it seems part of the increasing abstraction of everything.  It’s too unphysical.  There’s nothing to hold and get coffee stains on….”

-More than anything, it’s clear (even from the other side of the correspondence) what a considerate, thoughtful, and generous mentor-figure DeLillo was to DFW, who wrote DeLillo out of the blue with a kind of fan letter in 1992 and ended up writing him fairly often for 8 years or so.  It is remarkable to read DFW’s letter after reading Underworld, which he thought DeLillo’s best work by far and which he treated with remarkable subtlety and insight.  (It seems DeLillo might have done the same with IJ; at any rate, he read an advance copy and provided DFW feedback.)

-Finally, there was this great little note, which is both brilliant and rather hilarious thanks to where it appears: in one of DFW’s annual Christmas cards to DeLillo.  “Men’s rooms are place [sic] of mortal drama, in my opinion.  If I ever wrote a play, it’d be set in a men’s room.”

I wish he’d written a play.  I wish he was still writing Don DeLillo.  And just as much as a men’s room, a reading room is a place of mortal drama.  There’s this, for instance: this folder of letters, close as I’ve ever come and ever will to this brilliant mind.  It’s what survives.

Archives, Libraries, Epistemes, and Eccentric Organization

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just read a terrific issue of the Believer, no. 50 (behind, I’m always behind). Three essays, nicely in sequence, had a lot of interesting things to say to the librarian in me.

The first was a really excellent piece by Eileen Myles, about a notebook she lost on a trip to Canada. It’s a fascinating essay in a number of ways, but especially for its discussion of how a writer’s view of her own writing is changed by the deposit of her papers in a special collections library. As she writes:

The problem with writing on the plane is not your neighbor. It’s your own growing sense that these mango-toned reflections at dawn over Buffalo will be read by someone you never met. They will meet this…. A notebook is the definition of private writing — private living. It’s precareer and postcareer in that it’s the only writing only you know as long as there is a you. And that excites me anew. There being a space of knowing apart from any selling, sharing, even making. Just sketching out — OK, I have to use my favorite new theory word: episteme… The word felt like god. It means the possibility of discourse…. It’s all that my notebook gets told.

Apart from being written in this really incredibly skillful stream-of-consciousness that alleviates whatever annoyance I usually have about autobiographical writer-writing-about-writing pieces, the essay touches on a lot of issues I’m really interested in but haven’t read much about: air travel and its weirdness and beauty; lost books, lost words, and the places they go, the spaces they occupy, the ways that they return to “nature” (Myles is fantastic on this); especially the relationship between working writer and archive. How does a writer maintain a sense of privacy, knowing all of her creative work is supposed to end up being read? How does that sense of one’s own importance — all you produce is valuable and worthy of preservation — affect one’s future work, one’s sense of privacy, one’s record keeping or lack thereof? Most uncomfortably for a librarian: is preservation necessarily a good thing? Has the mania for the literary archive gone too far? Are we, the archivists and special collections librarians of the world (and especially the U.S.), intruding too much into the ongoing creative lives of our creative thinkers? Do we need to back off? (There’s a conference touching on these issues later this year at the Ransom Center in Austin — the institution spurring much of the current mania.)

Then there’s an essay on Aby Warburg, the brilliant, occasionally insane art historian. He founded the Warburg Institute in London. He was the oldest son of an extremely wealthy banking family, and made a deal with his younger brother that the younger brother could take control of the family business so long as he agreed to buy Aby whatever books he wanted for the rest of his life. He set about doing just that, and organized his library on “the law of the good neighbor.” As Leland de la Durantaye explains, “the various sections and the books within them were arranged as a function of their ability to engage with the books on either side of them.” Here, then, is a personal library the likes of which Anne Garreta wrote about so well in “On Bookselves” (see my earlier entry “The Dream of Total Recall”). Warburg also worked on a massive project, called Mnemosyne, throughout his life: in it (as I understand), disparate images were juxtaposed to follow the path of themes, motifs, and ideas throughout the history of art. I want to read some of Warburg’s stuff now.

Then there’s Avi Davis’s “The Brain and the Tomb,” about the Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript of Archimedes’s work which was (partially) scratched out and written over by a Greek monk in the thirteenth century. Of course I love palimpsests: there’s no better physical metaphor for the dense, confusing, complicated paths that history takes, the ways that ideas are undervalued, written over, reevaluated, belatedly treasured. As Davis points out, very little has been written about the visible text of the palimpsest, the Greek prayers, which are now being ignored as squadrons of scholars pore over the Archimedes text beneath. We’re always looking one way, missing what’s under our noses as we sniff after some other “more important” idea or sensation; Warburg was on to this, and so is Myles, searching for authentic experience and immediate, personal contact with her own thoughts, ideas, life (harder than it sounds). Of course, this is why librarians preserve, this is why we fear the discarded: one day it will be wanted, you see, but it will be lost — and the episteme it may have made possible will be impossible for the lack of its existence.

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