| Now Where Did I Put That Scroll?
The following article was originally published in
AB Bookman's Weekly, in the issue of September 11, 1989, on the set topic The
Antiquarian Bookman as Discoverer. AB murdered my paragraphing and replaced
my original title by the leaden Selecting Fragments from the Artifacts of History.
In the slightly modified version below the original title and paragraphing
Reading again this deliberate exercise in candlelight
nostalgia is a strange experience. To reconstitute the article I used OCR on
the original magazine pages, an alchemical transformation of ink into bits.
My original version, written on a first-generation Zenith portable, if still
extant at all, is on a forgotten and probably now unreadable diskette. The
decades of reading distilled in the article would be dwarfed by the simplest
Google search for "lost manuscript." To which, in fact, I have just
But even more strange is to look at the pages of
the magazine itself. In those days an experienced dealer or scout needed to
know what books were where, or who might be likely to turn up something interesting.
This hard-won territorial and social knowledge was something like that possessed
by a hunter-gatherer and now is about as useful a skill as flint knapping.
AB Bookman's Weekly, with its gender-unneutral name, was at the time the primary
vehicle for exchange of information in the North American book world and beyond.
AB carried articles, but the raison d'etre of the magazine was its advertising.
Catalogues issued, book sales advertised, business announcements, and, most
importantly, books offered for sale, which any individual could do, and books
looked for, which only dealers could advertise for. That a copy of a certain
book resided on a shelf somewhere in the world was ascertained by the equivalent
of putting a message in a bottle. If someone read the message, and was inclined
to sell you what you wanted, contact was established. As the exchange of books
over the Internet took off, AB lost its advertising. It became thinner and
thinner, like a patient with a wasting disease, and eventually expired.
* * * *
The realm of true discovery - the revealing of things not known before
- belongs to the inspired researcher or occasionally to the serendipitous fool.
To know what has passed before but may have been totally effaced by the passage
of time is another matter. Knowledge can only come from two sources - direct
experience, that is, things seen, heard, or heard spoken of - or transmission.
The province of the former is inhabited by everyone; the territory of the latter
counts in its census those who burrow in its artifacts: in short, bookmen.
What an antiquarian bookman, if we define that label by action and not commercially,
may discover then comes out of history, out of a past which we receive
in written form.
The irony is, that in such circumstances, there can be no discovery without
loss. The bottleneck of time is extremely efficacious in this regard. Natural
losses are enhanced by the actions of what I term logoclasm, or deliberate
destruction of the written word. History is replete with acts of logoclasm.
Shih Huang Ti, the first Ch'in emperor, ordered all books not of a practical
character and ipso facto of subversive content destroyed, although single
copies of each condemned work were to be kept in the Imperial Library.
Thus this infamous logoclast probably had more unique copies than any bibliophile
Other events come to mind: the loss of the Alexandrian
Library; the burning of nearly the entire corpus of Aztec literature by
the conquistadors; the papally commanded destruction of the Talmud and other
Jewish books in the mid-16th century, which the afflicted communities yielded
to the pyre by the cartload. That anything survives for any length of time
is remarkable. The bookmen of the Renaissance, who discovered the sole surviving
examples of many Classical works, in a few more centuries would probably have
found not merely some Aeschylus or Aristophanes but none.
Nor have modern times been better for books. The
historical incongruity between the madness of the present century and the artifacts
of humanist learning is well captured metaphoricallly by two works which
emerged from the maelstrom of the 1930s: Auto-da-Fe (or variously The Tower
of Babel) by Elias Canetti, and The Lost Library by the one-time Dadaist
Walter Mehring. Canetti's novel describes the hermetic world of a professor
whose sole pleasure in life is his enormous library, which could be described
understatedly as a large accumulation with an emphasis on Orientalia.
The unfortunate professor is ultimately swindled by his scheming housemaid,
who wins his confidence with the tenderness with which she dusts his collection,
and he and his world construct, for such it is, are ultimately consumed in
flame. Mehring's memoir uses the inheritance of his father's library, one heavy
in rationalist works, as a metaphor for the illusions shed, along with
books, as he dragged his dubious legacy across Europe. Once arranged on
his father's shelves like soldiers of positivism, they proved unequal to the
irrationalist tide of history in which their owner found himself. While many
have conversed with their books in print, Mehring's is probably the best dialogue
between books and the unwilling possessor ever penned.
Despite these difficulties, ransacking the past for
the purposes of the present is probably as old as the concept of a past
itself. Adam and Eve in Paradise, Golden and Heroic Ages, not only look
back on better times but indicate that better things are possible. The accuracy
of the received word, often in a revered but dead language, becomes critical.
Thus, throughout recorded time, the written word has been salvaged, partly
to enlighten, partly to indict, often at stupendous effort. Hsuan Tsang
undertook in the early seventh century an arduous journey to India to
procure sacred Buddhist works lacking in China. For this feat he became known
as Tripitaka after the texts he returned with, and his exploits entered
A millennium earlier, Confucius, staying put, saw
the summit of Chinese literature reached at its birth with the Book of Odes.
To expand was heresy, to comment only right, but above all to preserve in correctness
was the acme of perfect conduct. What better fate for such a man than to have
the best text of his Analects discovered, according to one tradition,
in the ruins of his house when it was pulled down? Even earlier, books went
missing. A scroll of laws, the Book of Kings records, was found during repairs
to the Temple in Jerusalem, in the time of Nebuchadnezzar and Jeremiah; King
Josiah read it aloud to the populace and then turned wrathfully on the devotees
of Baal, so powerfully did he feel chastised by the contents.
Hiding texts for vindication by future generations is another time-honored
method of secretion that has produced treasures, if not always posthumous
polemical victory. Heretical and gnostic works like the Nag Hammadi trove and
the Qumran scrolls long outlived their makers' immediate concerns. But the
prisoner's diary, or the records hidden in the burning Warsaw ghetto,
more immediately testify to the faith of the hider in a finder.
Dissatisfaction with the meager gifts of the
past have led some to fill in the gaps. Sea charts filled with monsters,
after all, are possibly more reassuring than sea charts with empty spaces.
Literary imposture may be seen in this light not as an intention to deceive
but to restore. Macpherson's Ossian and Chatterton's Rowley proved too good
to be true. On the other hand, some discoveries are both authentic and
timely. Indeed, this must be so. "A discovery," wrote Leo Deuel
in The Testament of Time, "is never merely a lucky find; it requires a
sense of awareness of the significance of the object found, and a culture
receptive to a potential addition to its knowledge." The Russian
bardic epic latterly translated into English by the multitalented Vladimir
Nabokov as The Song of lgor's Campaign came to light at the close of the 18th
century. So conveniently placed in period was this unearthing, nearly coinciding
as it did with the Romantic movement and interest in national Geist, that its
authenticity was called into question; yet probably it was noticed more
because it was time for it to be noticed. The unique manuscript perished only
a few years later in the 1812 burning of Moscow. In a similar way, half-forgotten
writers like Henry Roth, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Zora Neale Hurston, whose
topics foreshadowed contemporary concerns about individuality, ethnicity,
and gender, have found a new audience. The cumulative effect of such discoveries,
in fact, has shaken the status of the Classical bequests of the Renaissance
bookmen on many a college campus.
Another form of discovery, possibly even more irksome than to
find oneself wrong, is to find oneself anticipated. The experiments of
the obscure Moravian monk Gregor Mendel, though published, long went unnoticed;
but the geneticist William Bateson generously associated Mendel's name irrevocably
with discovery of the laws of inheritance. Charles Darwin, on the other hand,
despite his broad reading in natural history, missed a number of sources
which contained elements of his theory of natural selection; the one which
hit closest to the mark was contained in a treatise on naval timber. Even he,
Darwin said in excuse, could not have been expected to be familiar with such
a work, but these references are included by him, somewhat red-faced,
in later editions of the Origin of Species. Nonetheless in this instance
we speak of Darwinism and not Matthewism, after Darwin's unfortunate predecessor.
Discovery thus has many faces.
But another, more significant, question arises. Is discovery merely
a rescue from total oblivion or is it a recasting of the past in some
manner relevant to the individual? Discovery or invention that informs all
is something only an occasional Darwin, Einstein or Edison may enjoy, but discovery
for oneself is in turn a vexatious proposition. In discovering for ourselves,
are we guided by pure chance or do we consciously shape an individual
past out of the flotsam and jetsam that constitute cultural transmission
in written or pictorial form? It is, to my mind, a fundamental question, to
which one can only offer a personal answer.
The past slips away beneath our feet like sand pulled
by an outgoing wave. Each of us can only save portions of it. Whether we sift
or gather, discovery is a mixed blessing. Passing through our hands or
sitting shipwrecked momentarily on our shelves, books tell us things we did
not know before. Along with this delight comes a frustration, born of
the realization that: we don't know everything there is to know; what we know
we may never have known but for chance; we will never know everything, not
only everything there is to know but everything we might even want to know;
and, most frustratingly, something we might wish to know is irretrievably lost.
Yet must this not, after all, be the case?
We know from information science how everything decrements from sense to nonsense
, like a parlor game of telephone. If parts of the past were not lost, the
burden of remembering everything would be overwhelming; imagine the Babel
of a world in which every utterance was preserved. The true role of an antiquarian
as a discoverer must lie within the bounds of practicality. So we select
chosen fragments - just as I have done for this essay - and build an edifice,
a kind of mental Watts Tower. We collect along lines that no one else
may have conceived of, and we get used to the idea, as we must, that our own
pasts, which have so much presence in our thoughts, will be given a name and
circumscribed. The artifacts of the rebellious culture of the 1960s barely
gathered dust before they became a retrievable episode of history. Who
knows, I might even begin collecting them myself.
Despite the changes in the world of books since the
above first appeared, some things remain constant. The circulation of old books
takes place at the neck of an hourglass. Above is time past, below is time
to come. The forms the culture took in time past are constantly being reconstituted
and resifted for time to come. Each time the hourglass is turned, new,
previously unseen maps of information appear, and new discoveries are
As a strange footnote to the above, I recently
wrote to the British Library for help with an early Icelandic book. My copy
was incomplete, and I wanted to know how many pages a complete copy should
have. The librarian in charge of the Scandinavian books was very helpful
and said she would call for the book so she could give me the pagination. When
next she wrote, she informed me that unfortunately the book, although still
in their catalogue, had been destroyed in the Second World War when the British
Museum was bombed.