Tuesday, 14 May 2013
Reading The New Yorker on the tram this morning I came across an advertisement for the new Steve Martin book. Martin, an American humourist and comic actor, has recognised that the tweet is an art form. Much of the Twitterverse is not sweet, let alone verse. It is a tiresome barrage of everyone’s opinions that, with time, becomes little more than a choral blur of undifferentiated shrillness. “I don’t like Julia Gillard” or “I don’t like Tony Abbott” makes not much difference after the twentieth time, unless the tweeter says something witty about red hair or cauliflower ears, whereupon their displeasure is plain. Witty or just twitty, witticism at the expense of these underwhelming leaders succeeds because it catches attention and is memorable. Steve Martin has grasped the essential fact about Twitter tweets: they are one-liners, his stock-in-trade. Using this simple observation, he has produced a book of his own one-liners which he subtitles ‘The Tweets of Steve Martin’.
This was not the thing that caught my attention on the tram, but the title itself. More particularly, I asked, how would you catalogue this book? The title is itself a joke about Twitter, tweeters forever changing their minds and trying to update their previous thought. The immediate joke is obvious, this author is not organised but plans to publish a book on being organised. (Organized, when you’re in New York.) It is also a send-up of those lengthy and overly friendly titles beloved of American publishers of business management and self-help books. We know the sort, where a subtitle can go on for so long it may as well be the First Chapter. But there are features of Steve Martin’s title that challenge our ideas about presentation in a bibliographical record.
The first is graphic. He has used a red pen to cross out, circle and underline words in the title. How do you put that in the description so it makes sense? The ten, make that nine, habits of very organized people. Make that ten is sufficient from the title page, but it fails to indicate the crossings-out and other markings that give the title its meaning. Are we expected to explain the joke in an extensive Notes field? The second challenge is that the title is two sentences. The Rules are not very good on two, three, four &c. sentence titles. Is Make that ten a subtitle? Of course not, but then is it a separate title? Is it the second half of the book, a different section? Maybe, maybe not. The run of words tells the reader that this is a piece of comic patter, Steve Martin talking to himself. A computer couldn’t guess. It has no choice, it reads the title as two sentences and so possibly two titles, two works in the one volume. The Rules sometimes expect the cataloguer to separate these sentences with dashes. Added titles can make them flow together, but don’t give the emphasis that is crucial to its meaning. Steve is making fun of Twitter grammar.
Quirky titles of this kind cross the desk from time to time. It can take a reasoned combination of time, sense, flexibility with the rules, and imaginative use of entry points to present something that is both meaningful and findable. One of my favourites of this sort is a, A Novel, by the New York (again) artist Andy Warhol. This one letter title uses the lower case form of the first letter of the alphabet. It is a curious consideration that a person who dropped the final letter of his surname Warhola would later publish a work in which that very letter re-appears as the name of the whole book. Was there something that Andy felt guilty about? Was there something missing in his life that he needed to rescue? Lowercase was all the rage in the late sixties, it was super cool to have a one letter book. His book is full of endless talk by his friends, a style Warhol took to excess. The last thing on his mind at the time was the havoc a would play with law abiding cataloguers. As cataloguers sometimes moan, why didn’t the author think about us when he decided on this?
All online records for this book present the title as a capital A. Whether this is because a is treated as the first letter of a sentence of which it is the only letter, and we capitalise the first letter of a sentence, is not explained. Whether the cataloguer has never been introduced to the world of e.e. cummings, in which virtually all words are lowercase, we will never know. A search using only ‘a’ would get thousands of hits on any catalogue, because it’s one of the two indefinite articles; though at least you might find Warhol’s book somewhere close to top of the title file, as it will have a zero filing indicator. Small-a was the intention of the author, as is made clear by the subtitle, A Novel, where both words are rather conspicuously capitalised.
No such luck for Andy when it comes to the Rules. Appendix 4 opens with the general rule: “Capitalize the first word of a title (title proper, alternative title, parallel title, quoted title, etc.)” Notice that this means we cannot even use a in an added title entry, nor present the full nameof the book. a, A Novel, no; A, a novel, yes. This situation appeals to those who see life as cyclic. Rules say Capitalise. Artists find ways of subverting the dominant paradigm with lowercase titles. The Rules refuse to present the title as the artist intended. The easiest way of finding a by Andy Warhol is to search under author.
Thursday, 9 May 2013
Before and After: The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul
Five years ago the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk published ‘The Museum of Innocence’. It is a love story that unfolds in the provincial world of Istanbul during the 1950s and 60s. However, this is a novel with a difference because it is also, quite literally, a museum. As Pamuk developed the story he felt a need to construct a physical space that could play out the verbal story through the exhibition of objects brought together and arranged in one place. Pamuk purchased a rundown building in an old Christian quarter of the city, gutted it and began the process of designing and constructing his museum space on different floors of this small corner house. He had been collecting all sorts of things for years from flea markets and antique stores and maybe even what in Australia we call Opportunity Shops: objects from the period of the story, objects redolent of the moderate westernized society that Istanbul was becoming. These hundreds of objects – toys, tickets, tin signs, lamps, glasses, vases, black and white photographs of Istanbul at the time – Pamuk placed delicately into vitrines and glass cases for placement in the house. These cabinets are reminiscent of the boxes of the American artist Joseph Cornell. The museum is what we would call an installation, even if an installation designed with the intention of remaining there for some time to come. The catalogue of the Museum of Innocence is called ‘The Innocence of Objects’. It was published this year, to coincide with the opening of the Museum, and it helps evoke a lost world in which middle class life in Istanbul carried on without a seeming care for the outside world. We find collages of Turkish film stills, postcards of ships on the Bosphorus, collations of work cards and passes. Each box evokes a different chapter of the book, a different aspect of Istanbul society. It is a wondrous invention, this Museum, but tending toward the melancholy which comes to surround objects over time, a melancholy which is a special preserve of this Turkish writer. It is the work of an unfulfilled architect, which in fact is the case: Pamuk gave up architecture courses for writing in his early twenties. There is another curiosity about the Museum that only dawns slowly. For it is indeed strange that a Museum built by a writer and Nobel Prize laureate should have cases full of every imaginable object, except a book. The closest we get is a book of matches and a driver’s license, suggesting that Pamuk’s characters spend their time smoking cigarettes and motoring around. In my copy of the catalogue I cannot see one monograph. Perhaps the people in the novel didn’t read much, maybe there was a conscious choice by the author to exclude books. But there we have it, a Museum built on the basis of a single book called ‘The Museum of Innocence’, a Museum without any books.
This year the British librarian David Pearson gave the Foxcroft Lecture at the State Library of Victoria. The lecture starts out as a hard-nosed appraisal of the digital revolution and its impact on book learning and libraries. It then turns into a fancy-footwork routine to promote special subject collections. In the process he declares his belief that libraries need to become more like museums. While anathema to anyone who thinks libraries have the purpose of serving readers, it is worth giving some time to Pearson’s position. His view is that libraries need “a more museum-like approach” and an “adjusted set of criteria” for management of collections. Closer inspection tells us that he argues from History. Books of long-term historical value, including books with author annotations or that belong together with one ownership, need to be kept together. The book as an historical artefact, like a Wedgewood bowl or a suit of armour, must be kept apart in a place where it can live on, a reminder of how people did things in other ages. The books he seems most interested in are those of unique value because of their rarity, provenance, bookplate, or marginalia. These books must not be discarded. They must be kept together in museum-like conditions for future use and exhibition. Taken on its own merits this idea has some positives. We certainly want to preserve special books, especially in an information environment today where culling and wholesale disposal of collections is an easy decision for some in authority. No one questions the rightness in preserving special collections that can, in time, disclose new meanings about an author or an owner of a discrete collection. It would be perverse to dispute Pearson’s assertion that history matters, that it helps us to understand where we have come from. He lays out a simple case for keeping special collections in museum conditions. Such collections must be saved from the general traffic. This tendency to make a library a museum has the character of the English gentleman’s attitude to a book collection. This attitude is learned, charming and respectful, but the policy is keep it to yourself, only share it with people like us, and turn it into a talking point, only accessible to researchers under certain terms. This vision of a museum displays an entirely different sensibility to Orhan Pamuk’s. In Pearson’s monographic museum the only objects are books, books that no one can borrow. It is a museum built to preserve history, where the books themselves are already exhibits from another era, the pre-digital era.
Signposts in Istanbul
Saturday, 4 May 2013
The Carmelite Library regularly downloads catalogue records from the database of the University of Toronto. Toronto has one of the best sets of Catholic academic titles around, including medieval holdings and precious French language records, so useful for a Carmelite collection. Toronto has hundreds of records that include a special indicator for works in the Northrop Frye collection.
Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was one of the truly influential literary and biblical critics of the 20th century. Toronto was his home town, so it makes sense that his own lifetime of books would find its way into the University of Toronto Library. I use the word ‘sense’ in a world where many universities now ignore the heritage of their own great educators and expect donors to pay for the privilege of having such collections processed and added to their holdings. These Frye records don’t simply indicate that the book was owned by Northrop Frye, helpful enough as that is for scholars wanting to climb the rungs of his bibliographical mind, they were annotated by Northrop Frye. Such marginalia makes this a special set at Toronto, it is a special species of his own written oeuvre. It also means that, without much question, the books cannot be loaned out, except perhaps in very special circumstances.
This vision of a library within a library came to mind while reading the Foxcroft Lecture for 2013. The presenter, David Pearson, believes that with the insistent takeover of digital information, more of this kind of special book collecting will become the practice, even a norm. He talks of the “copy-specific aspects of books where they can offer unique research value.” (A curious feature of Pearson’s lecture is that this digression from the main subject of the digital revolution, i.e. annotated volumes, itself turns into the main subject of the lecture.) Unique research resources of this kind are not new. Pearson cites some of the special collections at Yale University in Connecticut, as well as the William Gladstone Library, heavily annotated by the man himself, at Hawarden in North Wales. In fact, not only are they not new, there are universities, foundations, and families throughout the world dedicated to saving and protecting the private libraries of great writers, artists, politicians and so forth. Long may the practice flourish, especially in an environment where governments, boards, and institutions actually show increasing reluctance or just plain indifference, to the written past. Unless it can pay its way, leave it to survive come what may.
While we applaud Pearson’s belief in the future of special collections of “unique research value”, and no doubt Pearson himself is devoted to such a future, there is a touch of unreality about this being the future of libraries themselves. Such collections have a very narrow clientele, a highly specialised focus, and limited means for expansion. His thesis that libraries will become more like museums may be true of some libraries, but hardly true of all libraries. Our idea of a library as a place that expands research potential by the simple elements of chance and subject concentration has been displaced here by an idea of the library as no more than a set of bibliographical artefacts held together by a limited research focus. While such special research collections should be proliferating, one has to say that this is something of a sidetrack from the main aim of libraries in the 21st century.
David Pearson’s faith in unique research libraries is admirable, notwithstanding, and his argument sparks off other ideas not addressed in the Foxcroft Lecture. The first is the unavoidable truth that although the digital revolution is altering our ways of reading and learning, it has not undone the market force of the printed book or the readerly attention worldwide to the printed page. Nor has it exactly replaced the printed heritage of the book in quite the sweeping manner claimed by Pearson. While unique research libraries are important, they will always be marginal to the main objectives of a library, which are to provide whatever literature is perceived to be in demand, or is anticipated to be in demand. Not everyone is rushing to read the criticism of Northrop Frye, though there are may be a few Blake scholars who would love to know what else the critic said in the column of his annotated Blake edition. Likewise, students of Victorian politics, some of them, may arrive at a point in their study where a visit to Hawarden becomes irresistible. The rest of them want all the best books on Gladstone and his age in whatever form they can find, wherever they can find them. That is going to mean online, at the local library, at the college library, or anywhere that hasn’t been shut down because of cost cutting or denied entry because the license expired, or because your library doesn’t subscribe to that database. There are libraries at the margins and libraries in the mainstream: all are vital.
Pearson’s belief in annotated editions and unique research collections comes, as he himself makes dramatically clear, in the midst of the digital dialup. One wonders if Pearson himself is not retreating into a book world that cannot be threatened with irrelevance. When he talks about the value of private libraries in Yorkshire or the Lake District, and how they tell us about the tastes and fashions in the past, certainly we must acknowledge their value for posterity and learning. But so must we place a value on other library holdings without such pedigree or special status. Indeed, some would aver that the action in libraries is elsewhere anyway.
Interest in marginalia is perennial. Also its practice. Which makes us wonder what happens now that our handheld devices defy any attempt by us to write on them. What do people do now that they can no longer write in the margins of their ebook? The answer is simple, they write it all down on their computer, they save it into a document on their laptop, they send an opinion online via social media, they write everything down in a blog like this one. And whose job is it to save this massive output of opinion? Who decides what is of value? Will this become the job for a new kind of librarian? Are we in fact looking at a whole new set of role descriptions for the position ‘Librarian’? There they are, even as we speak, discerning which words need to be saved online and everywhere digital by the next William Gladstone. Somewhere a librarian scholar at this very moment may have their work cut out for them trying to assemble every word of excellence by the next Northrop Frye.