August 20, 2019
My favorite job was as an illicit-sounding “book-dealer” after college in my small town on the shores of Lake Superior. The shop had a musty smell that three out of ten patrons would praise after entering and inhaling. I spent my time reading and writing while waiting for customers, and I was able to indulge one of my oldest pleasures: vigilante archivist. I made lists of requested books so that I could expand my knowledge of popular reading. Under the front desk, I kept a map of town where I would plot all of the bear-sightings reported to me. There was also there a cardboard box for sale for $40, containing the strangest collection of information about the “Kensington Runestone,” the probable-hoax artifact found by a farmer purporting to record a fourteenth-century voyage of Vikings to Minnesota. Some funny man in the 1970s typed up letters to various groups and collected articles, zealously researching this runestone, trying to investigate, discover, and reveal the Truth—and somehow it ended up in my bookstore, gathering dust, until the day I would open it in a state of wonderment.
The shop had an upper shelf of old volumes that I catalogued one week. Their final value was thousands of dollars, but they remained out of reach, unbought, venerated relics. Among these was a $145 moldy, marbled second edition of the Ann Radcliffe gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho. Like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, I was both attracted to and amused by this mysterious tome with its dripping blood, creaking doors, and mysterious “black veil”: “Oh! I would not tell you what is behind the black veil for the world! Are you not wild to know?” In the novel, Catherine responds to Isabella’s teaser with a line that exactly captured my own tickled feelings about this beloved, chill-inducing book: “Oh! Yes, quite; what can it be? But do not tell me—I would not be told upon any account. I know it must be a skeleton, I am sure it is Laurentina’s skeleton. Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it. I assure you, if it had not been to meet you, I would not have come away from it for all the world.”
Years later at Cornell, I continue to suffer from bibliomania and archive fever, and I got to enact my Encyclopedia Brown fantasy—the boy-detective of my childhood reading—when I became infatuated with our world-renowned department-affiliated journal, Diacritics: reading around the articles, trying to uncover secret connections between them, revealing hidden truths. While trolling online for my regular book-collecting activities, I found an inexpensive collection of dozens of copies of the journal from the 1970s to the 1990s which I quickly purchased for my own at-home archive. I quickly found great pleasure in flipping through the physical copies of these historic volumes, not so much as a scholar, but as a curious reader, collector, and investigator.
There is perhaps a difference between thorough academic research and the special type of enjoyment that is had from such personal archives. I am an obsessed collector of books, and a partial reader of several at a time, so I understand well the percept in Proust’s essay on reading: there is a thrill that one gets simply from the desire the book creates as opposed to from any actual answers it can give. It is like the line in Rimbaud: he gets shivers simply from the title of a vaudeville. But I don’t buy just to possess, as Benjamin might have it in his theory of personal libraries. So, I did get to dive into the journal and what I found there was as thrilling as it was educative.
Maybe that’s what we need right now when it comes to keeping such vibrant journals as Diacritics alive for a new generation of scholars and readers: not just debate and the functional utilitarianism of journal-reading for one’s own research, but a broad joy of reading scholarly work of (and writing for) others that inspires sharing, and keeps alive the pleasure and curiosity that secretly animates us all.