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.

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.”)

City of Historians and Liars

November 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.

Reading next: Redburn, by Herman Melville.  (Really, this time.)

It’s oddly fitting that I should read Melville after finishing City of Saints and Madmen.  The book is influenced by Moby-Dick — I mean, the name of the fictional city is Ambergris — but, then, so are a lot of books.  What’s different here is how this book gave me some sense of how contemporary readers of Moby-Dick must have felt.  In a very different way than Melville’s masterpiece, VanderMeer’s book is  overstuffed, messy, encyclopedic, cryptic, digressive, formally and typographically adventurous, ambiguously narrated, obsessive about strange central metaphors and images.  In MD the central mystery and metaphor is the whale; here, it’s fungus (and also, perhaps, squid).  What you end up thinking is, Where the hell did that come from? It’s out of left field in the best way.

Labels and genres are beside the point here; this is interstitial/new fabulist/new weird/insert-buzzword-here fiction.  It is closest to fantasy in that it creates a world and populates it with a history, a mythology, a cast of characters; it’s also part of the charming subgenre of steampunk, for which I’ll admit I’m kind of a nerdlinger sucker.  What I was most impressed with, though, was the way that the book becomes about the subject of writing history; this is historiographical fiction of the highest order.

VanderMeer makes some obvious nods toward Nabokov, as well, and the unreliable narrator is the order of the day.  However, that’s not exactly groundbreaking.  What’s really interesting here is how the book is structured: there are four novellas followed by an “AppendiX” as long as the novellas put together, made up of bits and pieces shedding light on the writing of the novellas and the book as a whole.  Bibliography, genealogy, glossary, periodical, souvenir, bureaucratic memo: all are put to the service of literature.

Through it all, there’s an emphasis on the difficulty (impossibility?) of getting history right: of telling the story properly.  For instance, the second novella is “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek.”  There we learn that the primary source on Ambergris’s founding is the journal of one Samuel Tonsure, whose identity is more or less unknown.  Tonsure kept an apparently secret and frank journal, but also wrote a hagiographic history of the town’s founder, Cappan John Manzikert.  And we also learn that there are rumors that the secret journal is a forgery.  And Shriek is disgruntled about writing this guidebook/history for the general public anyway, and subverts the form by filling his text with digressive footnotes that overwhelm the body of the text with detail and equivocation and axe-grinding against rival historians whom he considers crackpots (and vice versa).  Alternate readings of events and the evidence they leave behind are everywhere in this book, and presentation is key, as we find out that works written in the third person are supposed to be autobiography, and even (maybe especially) bureaucrats, doctors, and bibliographers tell their “narratives” with hidden agendas, from the skewed perspective of the present.

As someone who deals with manuscripts and contemporary printed accounts, the creation of a fictional universe with an intentionally imprecise and unknowable history — one with the wires of its own creation exposed — is really interesting to me.  We in the world of archives and special collections libraries are always extolling the importance of students (and faculty, for that matter) learning the importance of “primary sources”: those original documents that can shed light on history from contemporary perspectives.  We often don’t get into the complexity of this importance: along with the assumed value of  primary sources as verifications of secondary accounts presented as “facts,” those sources also serve as important muddiers of waters that were presumed clear.  They’re messy, they almost always contain incomplete or inaccurate or irrelevant information, and they are dependent on the interpretation of flawed human beings who are prone to jumping to the conclusions they want to find based on the evidence they happen to see.

What’s coolest about this book, I think — and a lot of it’s cool: indigenous fungus-beings bent on revenge, squid-worship, ekphrastic descriptions of scary paintings, a legendary Wagnerian composer-politician, encoded stories within stories — what’s coolest, though, is the way that VanderMeer represents the messiness and deep, deep complexity of history, and the way it’s entangled with the creation of narrative.  Behind everything in this book there’s the uneasiness of the city-dwellers at the history within their midst: these “mushroom dwellers,” these “gray caps,” whose city was destroyed by colonizers.  Who live on their streets, who collect their trash, who seem to infiltrate people’s houses and snatch citizens away into their underground world.  History is all around the people of Ambergris, layer upon layer of it; it seems impossible to ever reach the heart of the truth of how things happened.

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