Just because you read it in a book?

Draft of 2006.01.16 ☛ 2015.04.07 ☛ 2017.07.17

There are people, including my wife and me, who think an entertaining vacation must include a day or two of driving out into a desert in a rented sedan, following a hand-drawn track on a sketchy mimeographed map, bumping along washed-out logging roads and beside precipitous drops—to stare at the ground and pick crap up and take it home with us. Rocks, fossils, mainly. Most times we manage to find the place, and park the car in the middle of the exactly-car-sized dirt road, and set to. Stare at the ground, put some stuff in our pockets, and head back to the hotel before search parties are required.

Now, we are pure amateurs. Our enjoyment comes from no driving need to discover Important Things, nor from avarice, nor EXXXtreme Thrill-seeking[!]. What we are in fact seeking in our travels is the density of the world. We search for the unremarked, the fraught.

To walk, for example, in the noonday sun along the edge of a ranch fence in the Mojave Desert, just 500 yards from both a high-traffic Interstate and a disused railroad track, and in twenty minutes fill a box with snowflake obsidian: Who knew it was there? Arguably almost nobody.

To drive five miles along muddy ranch roads (yes, with permission) on Sandra Day O’Connor’s childhood stomping grounds to reach a public pasture of a park where you can pick among the cow pies for fire agates: Who knew it was there? Almost nobody.

To park at a fishing stream in a state park in Ohio, and trudge a few hundred yards up towards the dam, and there face a rock wall where any easily-grabbed handful of the soft clay seam will contain hundreds of perfect casts of brachiopods, trilobites, bryozoa. And there to drop a perfect brachiopod, one of your prizes, and have it crack open on a rock and discover that inside the cast of the shell are a million shining calcite crystals? Who knew those Ordovician fossils were also geodes, little caches of antique light?

And more specifically, who knew about that particular obsidian, that particular fire agate, those particular brachiopods? Nobody at all. They were in the ground ‘til we found them. And also right there in plain sight. Unremarked.

Interestingly, we do not display these wonders. We tend to leave them in boxes, often in the same wrapper we used to pick them up. As if the exotic Piggly Wiggly bag is an annotation of the time and place, nearly as important as the stuff itself.1 You might think that’s weird.

What we collect is not specimens, but their implications, their connotations. We do not aim at completeness; there is no such thing. Indeed, the point is to capture a fragment the illimitable. The junk in our boxes is not there as a scrapbook of nostalgic memories; they’re pieces of little-known dense contexts.

They’re esoterica. The object itself is less important than its chain of meaning.

And so it is also with books—using the term very generally. We have many, many books (though we’re trying to cut down a bit). We’ve specialized. For the last five years or so, we’ve essentially stopped buying new books entirely, except for programming books and the usual interesting stuff at book sales (that’s cutting, trust me).

Instead, now we are surrounded (alarmingly, in fact) with old books. Which, you will ask? The classics? The canon? First Editions? Pay attention much? Scroll up, and re-read, and come back here when you get it.

What we have here are about 4000 books of (1) Privately Printed kookery, (2) cheap pirated volumes translated badly from the European originals, (3) bound magazines, and (4) lots of other things lost like that. Books that exist in fewer than 1000 copies. Books that have never been checked out of the libraries where they were housed. The ubiquitous, but rare: the unremarked.

By weight and volume, the thing we have most of is magazines. There were a lot of magazines published in the last 150 years. Not just your common staples like Harper’s, Frank Leslie’s, Munsey’s, Scribner’s and Graham’s, but also your more exotic Arena, Mother Earth, Magazine for Mothers, and Unpopular Review. We have a few examples of many (like The Radical), and many volumes of some (say, The Knickerbocker).

Right next to my left foot is a shopping bag with four volumes I picked up at John King the other day. Three bound six-month volumes of the Eclectic Magazine, and one interesting bound volume of Chapman’s Magazine. In the latter are works by Robert W. Chambers, and Joel Chandler Harris, and folks like that.

And mixed in among the authors you recognize are twice as many pieces by those you won’t. Articles and stories and poems by people the editors considered to be worthwhile contributors, some of the world’s best (established or new) thinkers, authors, theologians, politicians.

And when you read all that work, you must be struck by its similarity to the Famous Authors interleaved. Editors were not fools: they tended to pay for work of a certain quality and voice. Right next to Washington Irving’s amusing but lyrical travel piece, you will find some other author’s amusing but lyrical biography. Serialized novels in one magazine might include chapters of Dickens or Holmes, but in the same issues a novel of similar quality by a now-forgotten “lesser” author.

Who knew all this treasure was in there? Nobody, apparently. When it comes to some of the scarcer magazines, the only reference to the volumes you will find will be a library card catalog or a bookseller’s price list.

By way of Danny Yee, I have just been reading an Inside Higher Ed piece on Franco Moretti. And there’s the ongoing seminar/event at the Valve. I am reminded of the Genre Evolution project here at the University of Michigan.

But it’s all about the books. Not the magazines.

So this is me drawing a map to the abandoned mines, for you historians and literary types: Go to the magazines. For every piece of classic and important writing you know from books—the stuff that’s been vetted and culled and revised and reprinted over many decades—there are five or ten or a hundred times more pieces that fell by the wayside. They never made it out of the original magazines.

So, 19th-C literary scholars: have you read The Quod Correspondence? Me, I have it right here.

I am still reading the Valve seminar myself, and have not yet got my copy of Moretti, but I still think this is the lesson you should glean from Moretti’s work, and related work like the Genre Evolution project: The process of selection is inherently random. Contemporary readers read the whole magazine through, didn’t they? They read their Chambers, and their Machen, and their Irving, and their Holmes, and their Dickens; and they read the other people, the ones you never heard of. These “lesser” (meaning “lesser-known”, not “worse”) authors were presented in their first publications as peers of the greats you know.

How did they become “lesser”? You think it was because of quality? Quality when: then, or now? Whose standards will you use?

Maybe it’s time to take a little trip along the lesser-traveled roads. It will be bumpy, and perhaps a bit thrilling. But I can tell you a place to find some wonderful things. Who knew they were there?

Well, we do here. And I suspect the authors themselves did, too. Because they would have read one another’s work in the magazines. Not in books. Though you do.

  1. When I was 5 years old, my family traveled to Hawaii. A few years ago, in sorting out my father’s effects after he died, we came across a handkerchief of his with something in it. Green Hawaiian sand, as it happens. Clearly, the handkerchief was as important as the sand.