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.

Reading at 30,000 Feet

January 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

I’ve been traveling by air quite a bit lately–home to Nebraska, on business to Minneapolis and New York. It’s funny: for all the hackneyed comic routines about air travel (“What’s the deal with those peanuts?”), examinations of the experience itself, once you’re in the air, seem rare and, when you do find them, superficial. (A notable exception: Ron Rosenbaum’s hilarious but thought-provoking analysis of SkyMall products, in Slate.)

What we’re talking about here is one of the great marvels of modern life, an utter miracle that has become so mundane that I can, without batting an eye, use the word “hackneyed” in descriptions of comedians’ complaints about the experience. Flying out from LaGuardia on Friday night, my plane was stuck in the queue to take off for half and hour and everyone on the flight was getting restless, annoyed, fidgety. And then, finally, it was our turn; we hurtled into space; and, thanks to the enormous air traffic of NYC, we were directed to circle around for a while before heading south. The night was wind-swept, clear, crisp. We were treated to a 360° view of Manhattan–this country’s nerve center, the apple of the world’s eye, radiant and golden, its entire length and breadth and height encompassed in the view from my window. The other boroughs sprawled to the horizons, the Statue of Liberty stood with ships passing on all sides, other aircraft whizzed and angled below us. I looked around: maybe ten people were looking out the window. The rest were trying to sleep, preparing iPods for the moment they could be switched on, reading printouts or magazines or books.

Don’t get me wrong: air travel is definitely a pain in the ass, and there are countless things wrong with it. A good book is a godsend for a flight, if only so you can look preoccupied to the chatterbox sitting next to you. But I wonder if we appreciate that many of us now routinely view things in a way that, only a few generations ago, a large percentage of the population would have thought reserved for the eyes of God and his angels.

But I digress. It’s a great pleasure to glance up from your book to the sight of an ephemeral cloud-continent, a sun on the horizon obscured from the ground, or a vast snow-covered plain, a quilt of roads, acreages, towns, and rivers. Dickens or Tolstoy might be the perfect reading for air travel: their all-encompassing social landscapes nicely counterbalanced with the individual, the specific, the episodic and anecdotal. You look out the window and imagine all those lives, down below: the beehive of the world, all of those individuals on their various paths, about their various tasks, bound together in ways you’d never be able to see from the ground. (Not to mention all those lives on the plane with you, with their varied destinations, motivations, inhibitions, and phobias.)

Of course, you can go the opposite direction, as well: the writers of the OuLiPo group, with their emphasis on the innumerable possibilities to be found within rigorous restraints, read very well in mid-air. Life: A User’s Manual, by Georges Perec, is recommended here, as is The Conversions, by Harry Mathews. The mixture in both of these of surrealist incident, wordplay, and human futility is especially compelling when dangling six miles above the earth in a metal tube at high speed, entirely dependent for the continuation of your life on the workings of many, many intricate machines. I’d imagine Beckett is also interesting–I mean, the absurdity of it all!–but I’ve never partaken.

In any case, a flight provides an excellent opportunity to focus, reflect, and ruminate on literature in what passes these days for a distraction-free environment. Get a window seat, rest your eyes on the landscape or the cloudscape, and think about the connections among things, the distances between things, the spaces above the earth that the gods alone used to inhabit.

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