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.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Strange World of Collecting

Many people are collectors, and many archives and historical manuscripts programs are the beneficiaries of collectors’ efforts. Still, collecting brings out the quirks in human nature, and one might wonder just how the exotic behavior of collectors might map out to archival repositories and their holdings. Recently, a spate of tell-all discourses on collecting have appeared, giving the opportunity for archivists (and others, such as librarians and museum curators) who collect for their institutions to mull over the meaning of this basic human impulse (and that it is an instinctual activity is more than clear from a reading of these three books).

Let’s start with writer Larry McMurty’s rambling memoir of book collecting and bookselling. In Books: A Memoir (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), McMurty, best known for his Lonesome Dove and screenwriting for films such as The Last Picture Show, describes how he was first introduced to books as a youth, started collecting books, became a bookstore owner, and has always been more of a bookman (or reader) than a writer. One learns more about McMurty and his perspective on his craft as a writer than they learn about book collecting and selling, especially how more comfortable he is with the latter activities than the former. McMurty laments that “eventually all novelists, if they persist too long, get worse . . . . Writing great fiction involves some combination of energy and imagination that cannot be energized or realized forever. Strong talents can simply exhaust their gift, and they do” (p. 115). McMurty tries to tell us that book selling is very different, “being based on acquired knowledge” and, hence, being “progressive.” “The longer they deal and the more they know, the better books they handle” (p. 115). While I admit that I am not a follower of McMurty’s fiction, I was surprised to learn how much he has come to dislike writing. And the chatty nature of Books makes one wonder if this doesn’t show in this memoir; while it is certainly a title book collectors will want to add to their libraries, it is of more interest and value because it reveals the efforts and attitudes of a prominent literary figure in book collecting and selling than in what it suggests about such activities.

Mostly what one walks away with from this book is how much McMurty seems to not like writing, while how much he loves books and their collecting. And here we get the obligatory comments about the value of books, the importance of reading, and how the Internet is not a replacement for books or libraries. While real lovers of books will certainly enjoy McMurty’s lingering descriptions of great deals he has made and famous books he has had pass through his hands, it might be his observations about the place of the book in our culture that one will most recall. For example, “Today the sight that discourages book people most is to walk into a public library and see computers where books used to be. In many cases not even the librarians want books to be there. What consumers want now is information, and information increasingly comes from computers” (p. 221). Those of us in schools supposedly educating future librarians certainly share some blame for this, but there are some who love both books and computers (like me). As McMurty writes early on in his volume, “A bookman’s love of books is a love of books, not merely of the information in them” (p. 38). It is also what attracts many to come to schools like mine, where we then do everything but consider the importance of the book and print in our society. I expect to see citations to and quotations from McMurty’s book in future applications to our program.

Collecting can disintegrate into compulsive behavior, and William Davies King, Collections of Nothing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), provides one personal account reflecting such aspects of collecting. King, a theater professor, describes in intimate detail his own collecting behavior, asserting, “I collect nothing – with a passion.” He explains this statement in this fashion: “That is to say, I collect hardly anything that is collectible, not a thing anyone else would wish to collect . . . .” (p. 6). Of course, individuals who have followed such collecting regimens often have built the foundation for future important research collections, but I doubt anyone reading King’s book will walk away from a perusal of it believing this may happen. King reviews his assemblage of various odd collections, from cutting out and reassembling illustrations in dictionaries to filling up containers with every trademark King has encountered, and his book is his reflecting on his activities.

King is an intelligent, if an odd, character judging by his own self-assessment, and his assessment of collecting as an activity offers much to evaluate this human impulse. Here is one example: “Collecting is a way of linking past, present, and future. Objects from the past get collected in the present to preserve them for the future. Collecting processes present, meanwhile articulating the mysteries of desire. What people wanted and did not want drives what collectors want and do not want in anticipation of what future collectors will want or not want. The mathematical formula connecting these equations of desire is mysterious and difficult, but all collectors engage in such calculations. Usable things sometimes become collectible, but collectible things rarely become usable” (p. 27). So, in this sense, Collections of Nothing joins the list of interesting set of ruminations about the collecting impulse, readings that can assist professionals such as archivists come to terms with what they face when they encounter potential donors seeking to present their prized collections to repositories such as archives, museums, and libraries. King echoes many of the sentiments and ideas of other commentators on this subject (indeed, he notes that he has built a library on the subject in order to comprehend his own collecting impulse), such as this: “Collecting is a constant reassertion of the power to own, an exercise in controlling otherness, and finally a kind of monument building to insure survival after death. For this reason, you can often read the collector in his or her collection, if not in the objects themselves, then in the business of acquiring, maintaining, and displaying them. To collect is to write a life” (p. 38). In this we can see the influence of other scholars such as Werner Munsterberger, delving into the psychology of collecting.

King goes one step farther in considering the psyche of collecting, and his book reads like a patient case file accompanying Munsterberger’s work. Towards the end of his own book, King reflects, “The lessons of the collections is that collecting is not all pathology. Indeed, collecting can come very close to what is involved in the making of art” (p. 126). However, King also reveals that the writing of this book is part of his personal process in grappling with the rather compulsive and sometimes-strange fixation he has with collecting. He describes eight years of psychotherapy, his failed marriage, and an affair with a student, his own misgivings about his career and life, and how all of his personal torments and tribulations are wrapped up in his personal collecting activities. King writes, “My refuge from the present, as from the past, is collecting” (p. 149). As I have reflected in my own writing, most notably my 2004 No Innocent Deposits, archivists ought to consider the scholarship on as well as personal memoirs about collecting to deepen their own understanding of their appraising and acquiring of documentary materials. King’s personal testimony is a lively, if at times weird, account providing another perspective on the nature of collecting. Archivists should read it.

Archivists and those interested in archives also should read Lee Israel’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008), essentially the public confessions of an individual who stole documents from archives, planted forged documents within archives, and marketed for profit the fabricated letters of literary figures. Israel, the author of several biographies, writes about the demise of her writing career, her efforts to hold body and soul together in various odd jobs and via welfare, and then her discovery about the financial gains to be made by forging the letters of literary figures. Early in the book, Israel describes how while doing archival research at the Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center, she lifted three Fanny Brice letters and discovered both how easy such documents are to steal and to sell – ultimately she creates four hundred fake documents between April 1990 and Summer 1991 (forging letters of Lillian Hellman, Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and others). From that point on, Israel learns how to invent provenance, forge letters with the aid of an old typewriter, fabricate signatures, find and steal old blank paper from archives and repurpose it for her forgeries, and to use her research skills to create rich and convincing content. What we are reminded of when reading this book is the Miles Harvey book, The Island of Lost Maps, with one major exception – in the Harvey book the author is after a thieve while in the Israel book the author is the thief.

As one would expect, archivists can learn from reading such a confessional how such a document thief and forger operates, and some of what we learn is truly astounding and disturbing. Israel notes, “None of my forgeries were to my knowledge ever subjected to any kind of scientific testing” (p. 46). Yikes. The inspiration for her forgeries comes from Israel’s continuing work in archives: “The letters imputed to all the other celebrities were based on biographical data gleaned from various sources. But the initial inspiration was always the discovery of an ur-letter that I came across in my archival meanderings” (p. 60). For an archivist, this is like reading the confession of a serial murder. Ultimately, Israel turns her attention to how her forgeries were discovered, revealing that the dealer Alan Weiner tipped her off about a New York grand jury investigation, offering not to testify against her for a bribe of $5000; amazingly, in order to get this money, Israel concocts her “cloning” project where she will copy, steal, and replace original and authentic letters with her forgeries of them. We are reading the story of someone on a slippery path into hell, yet one was still able to evade detection, even when tracing the signatures in the archives reading rooms! Ultimately she is caught because of some suspicious dealers and the sloppy work of an accomplice, serves six months in house arrest, and another four and a half years of probation (yes, no jail time). If you looking to read an account of one who is truly guilt-ridden, I am not sure you will be satisfied (I certainly was not). She is sorry she was caught. She does state this: “My guilt over the original thefts is mitigated somewhat by the gathering in of the epistolary diaspora. I cooperated with the FBI, and the real letters of the drunken American writers were so far as I know all recovered and returned safely to their archival homes” (p. 126).

I doubt anyone will come away liking these writers except for McMurty who already has a substantial fan base and who probably will get quite an audience for his book (although many expecting a rip-roaring, lively account will be disappointed). However, all three volumes provide interesting glimpses into collecting offering some additional insights into the implications for archivists and their mission.