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 are restored.

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 inevitably added.

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.

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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 in history.

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 Chinese myth.

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 made.

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.