Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Travels in the Scriptorium

Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2006) drew me in because of its title and its premise. Following one day in the life of an old man referred to only as “Mr. Blank,” we observe this main character operate in only one room, struggling with his memory, interacting with a series of other individuals either assisting or questioning him, and guided by labels glued to objects, “four piles” of manuscripts “each about six inches high” (p. 5), and a collection of photographs. Towards the end of the book we also learn from one of his questioners that Mr. Blank is under some kind of charges for crimes committed but that his empty, meaningless routine is likely to continue because there are mountains of paperwork yet to be processed. It is a haunting read, and I am still not too certain what it is really trying to convey.

My own take is that Auster has given us a kind of commentary on our modern information age, an era that has perhaps become more known as a period of surveillance and the marginalization of information because of its excessive quantity. And here is the contrast between all this information and what it really means – as Mr. Blank is constantly recorded he has no memory and we witness him constantly jotting down notes on a pad in a desperate effort to remember something about himself and his life. The novel starts out with us seeing Mr. Blank “staring at the floor. He has no idea that a camera is planted in the ceiling directly above him. The shutter clicks silently once every second, producing eighty-six thousand four hundred still photos with each revolution of the earth.” (p. 1). We learn immediately that Mr. Blank is struggling with one question – “Who is he?” Not long after we also discover that there is a “microphone embedded in one of the walls, and every sound Mr. Blank makes is being reproduced and preserved by a highly sensitive digital tape recorder” (p. 8). Ultimately, we also see Mr. Blank discover, as he stares at the ceiling, painted white in an all white room, that the ceiling reminds him more of a standard, 81/2 by 11 inch piece of paper. So maybe Auster is also commenting on the struggles to write anything meaningful in our overloaded age of data and stuff.

The deeper we go into this short novel, the more evidence we find about the efforts to capture information and the more we witness the frustration Mr. Blank has in seeking to unravel his personal mystery. Mr. Blank can’t determine if the manuscripts he reads are mere stories or reports about real events – and we share Mr. Blank’s frustrations that these documents have no real ending or that Mr. Blank, in his recounting of one of them to one of his interrogators, isn’t allowed to finish his own analysis of the document. He struggles to identify the people in the photographs, having a vague sense that they have some real connection to his past, mostly in some painful or emotional attachment or generating the sense that he has done something evil to them.

Auster’s book may be a commentary on the spiritual condition of our postmodern society, one that has rejected the ultimate search for truth and replaced it with a meaningless overabundance of data. As Auster depicts, Mr., Blank exists because he is one of us and we exist because of him, and he will always exist, just like us, along with his stories: “Mr. Blank is old and enfeebled, but as long as he remains in the room with the shuttered window and the locked door, he can never die, never disappear, never be anything but the words I am writing on this page” (p. 144). I was reminded, near the beginning of the novel and the descriptions of the continuously operating camera, of those investigations by the Roman Catholic Church of alleged miracles, where cameras are set up to record every moment of a crucifix that has started to bleed or a statue of Mary that has commenced to weep.

Make of the novel what you will, but there are interesting depictions of the struggle with words, facts, information, and documentation – enough to merit a reading by anyone who works in one of the information professions.