Pushcart XLI: Jenn Shapland, “Finders Keepers” (nonfiction) from Tin House #65

Tin House Art by Martin Wittfooth

Tin House Art by Martin Wittfooth

A library is not a list. A library is dirty, has smells. I know this because I interned in a special collections library. It’s a special collections library that happens to house, along with its First Folios and signed copies of The Waste Land, a larger assortment of socks than you might guess.
Personal effects generally arrive at the Harry Ransom Center’s loading dock on the University of Texas campus via happenstance. They get stuck into boxes of manuscripts and books for reasons unknown. They’re stowaways. That is why I’m so fond of them….
It was in 7B, before my long afternoons itemizing and categorizing the socks of the dead and famous, that I began to collect certain stories. Stories about wanting and having, giving and taking, even stealing…. Yet as I poked and prodded into what began to seem like the dusty broom closet or unexamined under-the-bed of culture, it was my own relationship to objects that began to feel illicit.

What does it mean to own something? Not the legalities – those are easily determined by consulting a list of conditions that must exist. But what does it mean to us, psychologically? Is it purely for the practical reasons of economic advantage or control over disposition that we want to own a house or a plot of land or a business – or a letter written by Einstein, or the socks worn by someone powerful or famous – or is there something more, a kind of closeness? If it turned out the socks were mislabeled and were just thrown in the box by a packer with sore feet, what would that mean – that it is knowledge that determines value? Would we even want to know? Does that make the determining factor something more like faith?

Shapland’s essay about her internship at the Harry Ransom Center focuses on her work with a molecular model kit owned by Einstein (I was just looking at a similar kit the other day, available on Amazon for less than $20), but branches out to consider motivations behind thefts from the archives, and the human relationship to property in general, a relationship that is, in some crucial ways, fundamental to the spectrum of capitalism and communism but remains fundamentally illusory, as her last paragraph makes clear:

Maybe this desire for communion, for identity – the longing in belongings – is what Walter Benjamin means when he says that collection is a renewal, acquisition a form of rebirth. And isn’t it funny, the big lie at the heart of the enterpriser. All of this stuff is ultimately just that. No apparatus, no matter how meticulous or expensive or careful, can protect a collection from the inevitable slippages, losses, thefts, whether the perpetrators be people, bugs, mold, disintegration, or time. Acquire it, collect it, steal it, forward it, conserve it, preserve it, store it, house it, box it, hold it, wear it, but there’s just no keeping it.

The essay triggered a great many thoughts I’ve had floating around for a long time. So this post will be even more self-indulgent than usual: less about the essay, more about me and my reactions, which float around the fringes of ownership, since Shapland does such a good job with the center portion.

I live near the Maine Historical Society, which includes “the boyhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow”, a phrase I’ve heard so often it’s implanted in my brain. Why is this home so special, why is the Rainy Day Room a place people visit in hushed awe, why is it so special to look out the same window where “it is thought” he wrote, “Be still, sad heart! and cease repining; / Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; / Thy fate is the common fate of all, / Into each life some rain must fall, / Some days must be dark and dreary” in response to a rainy day? Do they hope to be graced with the same inspiration? Is it an homage? An attempt to own something? I wonder if someone has tried to buy the property, simply to own it. And I wonder: if some document were discovered that proves he wrote the poem elsewhere, how would the room change?

Transference. That’s the psychological function at work here. It’s a combination of projection, ascribing some aspect of yourself – fantasies, desires, imagination – to the object, and introjection, taking some part of it unto/into yourself. For William James, this is the way objects (which, importantly, can also be whole people) become extensions of the self.

I wonder if that’s what’s behind my occasional obsession with songs: I’ve been known to play a song over and over, then I suddenly stop. I’ve called it ownership, though it has nothing to do with purchasing anything. It’s more than the point of memorization, but less than understanding (I never feel like I fully understand anything), so that’s not it. I don’t know what it is that happens, but it’s like an orgasm without the burst of pleasure: a sudden sense that I’m done, and I don’t want any more. The song is mine, in a way I can’t define, a way that has nothing to do with legalities.

The thefts Shapland describes (the essay appears in the issue of Tin House named “Theft”) are again puzzles on the fringes of ownership. A page of an original Einstein manuscript was stolen, and carefully protected – locked away, self-archived – by the thief (who was eventually found). Was it just the illicit thrill? Again, was it a hope to be inspired, a wish that genius could be transmissible through century-old paper? Or again, are we back to homage, communion? Or is it just a way for a poor schlub to feel special?

Shapland tells of processing a set of papers for the David Foster Wallace collection, and of being unable to part with some of the clips she was authorized to discard. Other paper clips, labeled and sorted, are kept in a locked archive box. “Once we decide objects are worth collecting for reason apart from monetary value, where do we draw the line?” I don’t fully understand the need to archive paper clips – or socks, or Andy Warhol’s gas bills – yet someone does, as these activities are funded somehow. Why are Warhol’s bills items of importance, whereas mine, hell, even my best creations, have no value at all to anyone but me? What makes someone’s paperclips a big deal?

It’s interesting, as I wander around these fringes, that in current gaming and internet vernacular, to own someone is to defeat them or make them look ridiculous in some way. This particular usage has technical roots (I understand the term originated with hackers successfully breaking into a system, thus owning it), but ownership of people has a long and horrible past (and I use the term “past” with some caution, since that past extends to the current moment) in America. I wonder if that past adds to the sense of humiliation a mocking own conveys.

Is there something wrong with me, that I am missing this urge? Given how common collecting is, perhaps it’s a normal part of human behavior – so what’s wrong with me, that things hold so little interest? I do crave owning books, but only for practical purposes, so that I can write in them and crack the spines and dog-ear the pages and love them in my own way. I’ve become fiercely interested in old books and manuscripts, but again, not to own, but to learn about, to understand who made them. Am I missing the ownership gene? Is this why I’ve always been an apartment dweller, and view major ownership – a house, a car, a business – as a burden? It feels like a major failing, almost feels unAmerican, to lack this ownership urge.

I started to write letters to the personal effects I itemized in 7B. I wrote them on the HRC’s yellow paper, on which I was supposed to be recording details about the collection for the finding aid. That’s one reason I’m not a librarian. And one reason the librarians started to give me some side-eye. You’re not supposed to have all these feelings when you’re working behind the scenes. Or if you do, I guess you’re not supposed to write about them. You’re not supposed to commune with the objects. That gradually became clear. It now occurs to me, at the distance of several years, what I brought to this job as a twenty-five-year-old graduate intern, and what gets me in trouble at most of my jobs: unlicensed perspective.

I don’t have the same unlicensed perspective (I love that phrase) as Shapland, but I have my own. I can commune with a 15th century manuscript from my living room via a cable connection. I own songs via memory. I own books of wisdom and unique ideas through cheap used paperbacks. I have my own unlicensed perspective.

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