SEPTEMBER 25, 2014
I TOUCH DOWN at Heathrow. Within the hour, I’m on a train. It’s hot and humid, and I’m hungry, so I buy a pastry from the train trolley. It’s so stale that it has sweated onto the plastic wrapping. I haven’t been to England before, or anywhere, really, beyond the western United States.
I know what I have to do. At my stop, I walk the cobblestone path to the library and sit for my photo at the admissions desk — I have a letter of introduction from my professor in Arizona — and only then am I allowed to climb the spindle staircase to the Duke Humfrey’s Library, the oldest reading room in Oxford.
Upstairs, bespectacled men twice my age are hunched over manuscripts. I hand my request slip to a young man in a smart brown suit, and his eyes grow large. “You must have permission before you can see this item,” he whispers.
I’ve only ever been in my university library in Tucson and the county libraries of my childhood in the Seattle area. “I need to see this manuscript for a presentation,” I say.
Dr. Barker-Benfield, the keeper of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Bodleian manuscripts, appears in a black suit and tie. We shake hands. His skin is pale and baby soft. He too speaks in a whisper. Why do I need to see this rare Shelley manuscript? Don’t I know that it has been printed in facsimile? Am I aware that the manuscripts have been transcribed so that scholars like me will not wear out the fragile originals by repeatedly pawing through them blindly?
“I’ve seen the facsimile,” I say. “But there’s one line I can’t make out. Shelley must have written it faintly.”
He scurries away; I look around. The library is enormous, books wrapped around a Gothic room. Stained-glass windows and mahogany make it seem like a cathedral. It has the scent of historic dust, the residue of all the places and time periods through which the books have traveled. Some are 500 years old. They sit patiently, wanting and waiting to be opened and touched.
Dr. Barker-Benfield reappears and leads me to one of the larger tables. I’m so new to this; it’s as if my Americanness coats me along with the layer of sweat on my skin. He sits me down, puts a spongy cube in front of me to hold the manuscript, and instructs me to touch the pages only at the edge of the corners. The pressure of a millimeter of my flesh is all the manuscript can bear.
I’m looking at Shelley’s final poem, “The Triumph of Life,” which — ironically, we might say — he died before he finished. This is the closest to a religious experience I’ve ever had.
Although, it might have been better if Dr. Barker-Benfield had said, “I’m terribly sorry,” and escorted me out the door. He would have saved me from the rabbit hole of research, where I disappeared for the next 15 years.
Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research contains 13 essays by writers explaining how they discover what it is they need to know. They are journalists, biographers, historians, cultural theorists, filmmakers, literary fiction and mystery novelists. The best essays in the volume fall into a subgenre I would call “research memoir”: tales of investigation as personal essays, with the essay’s digressions, explorations, formal experimentation, voice, and humor, with the information on a slant, and with internal coherence. So much of the time writers hide their seams, but these essays don’t hide the means of their own production, and that makes them charmingly modest and special indeed.
At the same time, the authors know that they are doing something deeply important and under-recognized, and, being writers, they are quick to bump their quests to the level of metaphor. They call themselves prospectors, archaeologists, gravediggers, hunters, thieves, story-gatherers, eavesdroppers, addicts — and most persuasively, collectors. One of the many strengths of the book is that its authors are researchers in the deepest sense of the word. The word “research” appeared in English in the late 1500s, and by the first half of the 17th century, it meant “a careful search for facts.” Its roots go back to Old French recercher and Latin circare. Researchers are seekers and wanderers.
The volume’s editor, Bruce Joshua Miller, sees his research as “a strange poem requiring explication.” He includes an essay of his own, nominally about George Metesky, a serial pipe bomber in New York during the 1940s and ’50s, but really the essay is about his research obsession. “I carried in my mind the unstated conviction that the Metesky story, as presented in the press, was a kind of code […] that I might only understand in historical context,” he confesses. “From the start I felt I needed every article.”
The longing for comprehensiveness is characteristic of collectors. So explains critic Susan Stewart in her book On Longing, in which she examines the narratives we attach to our souvenirs and belongings. It’s not surprising that some of the essays here — Jan Reid’s and Theodore Kornweibel’s in particular — suffer from too much detail, while the best — like Margot Livesey’s and Annette Kolodny’s — are more selective. “Writers are people who notice things even when they aren’t exactly sure what they’re noticing,” declares Ned Stuckey-French. Researchers-as-collectors take pieces of information out of one context and into another. The original context falls away as they make a new aesthetic whole, and in so doing, define themselves. This is what all collectors do, says Stewart.
The longing of a collector is at the heart of Alberto A. Martínez’s wonderfully precise “Dating Albert Einstein.” Martínez sets himself the task of pinpointing the day that the physicist had his famous flash of insight about relativity. It occurred in 1905; Einstein was 26 and living in a “small, cramped apartment on Kramgasse” in Bern. To find the day, Martínez examined newspapers, music advertisements, interviews, Einstein’s letters, and even weather reports. When he steps back, he reflects on the “curious and obsessive process by which researchers meticulously collect, combine, and even strangle little bits of history.”
The process can feel very much like an attempt to revive the dead. Ali Selim’s “Stay Here as Long as You Like” describes a 20-year project that began when he read a newspaper story about a man who had buried his wife in a wheat field. Bruce White (“A Good Turn Every Day: A Boy in Duluth in 1926”) finds the diary of a young man named Philip Good and seeks out his gravestone in the local cemetery. While researching Morkan’s Quarry, a Civil War novel set in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri, Steve Yates returns to a limestone quarry near the cemetery where his sister was buried as a young girl. “Research of the heart must go straight to the wound,” he writes.
Librarians and archivists are demigods in the minds of researchers. On the whole, the keepers of the secrets are stubborn, curious, mercurial human beings. I remember well the diminutive man with a booming voice who let me see glass lantern slides in the Rhodes House in Oxford; the woman who smiled tenderly with one side of her mouth and cruelly with the other, and forbade me to step foot in the door at London’s Linnean Society; and the grandmotherly woman who slipped white gloves on my hands so I wouldn’t soil the manuscripts at the Wilberforce House in Hull and then set a cup of tea next to them. (She told me, sadly, that she had no children.) They know how to put their hands on obscure books, boxes of newspaper clippings, diaries, and odd artifacts and ephemera (a scrap of cloth, a wooden puzzle, a writing desk), and they know the significance of the larger collection within which these pieces belong.
Curiosity’s Cats is flush with stories of this priesthood. “I wish I had recorded her name because she would still be receiving punctual birthday and holiday cards from me,” Martínez writes of a librarian who helped him. Jan Reid remembers one who “was snippy and haughty. She scolded me.” Yet whether they are charming or rude, an aura follows them.
In our digital age, of course, the book describes the ongoing tension as paper records, and the need for these human keepers, recedes. All of the authors extol the virtues of research you can smell and touch. “Those musty wooden drawers, packed with dirty, thumb-worn cards […] smelled more delicious than mountain air,” says Marilyn Stasio. Mystery writer Katherine Hall Page believes “people have always been my best sources.” Her research also involves sampling fine restaurants in exotic locales. Some of the authors are wary of digital sources. “Information has changed,” writes Selim. In the past, it didn’t “float in space.” He gestures toward the perceived instability of digital records and online archives. Others give a balanced view. “The Internet is an amazing tool and not to be ignored for its accessibility to the sources” writes Philip J. Anderson, probably the most classically trained scholar of the bunch.
The contributors to the collection may be of the generation who came of age before the internet, who know the ways of both traditional and digital research. This puts them in a unique position. Yet of all the topics in Curiosity’s Cats, I found the digital/nondigital dichotomy the least developed. Cumulatively, the essays communicate a naive sense of digital research. This is a problem only because the digital/nondigital dichotomy is the raison d’être of the book. Miller says as much in his introduction, quoting experts who warn about the pitfalls of Google research and lament that digital texts have come “at the price of removing them from their original contexts.” But that objection oddly ignores the fact that materials in traditional archives are likewise removed from their original contexts.
Digital archives have a complex ontology. Some 20 years ago, they may have been simply replicas of paper or artifacts in physical archives. Not any longer. Today, some objects are digital to begin with. Salman Rushdie’s archive at Emory University includes his computer games and his manuscripts for Midnight’s Children, which, as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out, exist only in digital form. Rushdie is just one example of how the digital archive is far from a simple antithesis to a traditional archive. By not acknowledging this complexity, Miller has missed an opportunity. He could have strengthened Curiosity’s Cats by unpacking this issue, especially because of where we sit today, on the cusp of redefining not only the archive, but also the nature of literature itself.
Like a sonnet, a classic personal essay has a “turn,” when the essayist discovers a new idea or emphasis. Like the heroes and heroines of novels, essayists change. Selim thinks he’s looking for funding for a movie called Sweet Land: “I truly believed that I would present the [idea] to any Hollywood producer and he or she would buckle, cry as I did, and finance a sizeable budget,” he writes. Twenty years and thousands of dollars later, he learned that “Sweet Land was a small and personal film.”
The turn — where the essay deepens, gains insight, drops down in meaning, in recognition — happens in different ways in the best essays, which take us on a quest for a while and then sit us down to reflect on that quest. Like Truman Capote becoming a kind of doppelgänger for Perry Smith, the antihero of In Cold Blood, obsessive researchers lose themselves in their subjects and reemerge with a new identity. In one of my favorites of the collection, Annette Kolodny goes on a 40-year search for Vinland, the place of first contact between Europeans and Native peoples in North America. She tromps through muddy fields, interviews Norse archaeologists, and reads every scholarly book she can get her hands on. Finally, she meets some amateur history buffs in Maine who show her fake Viking artifacts. In this moment, Kolodny’s essay turns. She realizes that her “real subject” was neither the location of Vinland, nor the actual tribe who first encountered the Vikings, but an investigation of why people want to tell stories about it.
Though he has forgotten me, I’ve thought of Dr. Barker-Benfield hundreds of times since my first visit to Oxford to see a single line of Shelley’s last poem. That line — “And frost in these performs what fire in those” — ignited my desire to understand the Romantic poets. I followed their footsteps from the libraries and archives of Oxford to the fells and tarns of the English countryside. Known for their obsession with nature, the Romantics led me many years later to explore my own family’s relationship with a remote wilderness area in Idaho.
For 10 years, I traveled that wilderness by bush plane, mule train, and hiking trail. I collected documents, interviewed scholars, consulted poets. I learned why the ponderosa pine’s bark is shaped like puzzle pieces and how Chinook salmon know to return to their natal waters; I unearthed the life of a mountain man named George — my grandfather. I thought I was researching his story. But, I see now, my own place in the wilderness was the real subject of my research all along.
Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Duke UP, 1993.
Matthew Kirschenbaum, “The .txtual Condition: Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary,” digital humanities quarterly, 7.1, 2013. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000151/000151.html
D.J. Lee, an award-winning scholar of literature and history, has written and edited numerous books. She is currently editing a collection of essays called The Land Speaks and completing a memoir about the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho and Montana.