November 26, 2008
Building Yourself Into Somebody
Rachel Leow with a letter to a young historian:
Only Collect; that is to say, collect everything, indiscriminately… Don’t presume too much to know what’s important and what isn’t. Photocopy journal articles, photograph archives; create bibliographies, buy books; make notes on every article or book you read, even if it’s just one line saying “Never read this again”…
… collect newspaper clippings and email them to yourself; collect quotes; save your ideas for future papers, future projects, future conferences, even if they seem wildly implausible now. Hoarding must become instinctual, it must be an uncontrollable, primal urge. And the higher, civilizing impulse that kicks in after the fact is organization, or librarianship. You must keep tabs on everything you collect, somehow; a system must be had, and the system must be idiot-proof (that is to say, you should be able to look back on it six months for now and not be completely stymied as to why you’ve organized things that way - the present versions of ourselves are invariably the biggest idiots, and six months will make that clear).
This is great advice for young knowledge workers of all kinds, not just historians and not just scholars. You never know when some touchstone of information might pay off, whether it’s a book or a news item or a new skill. (I’d be really interested to hear how people outside of academia think about how this works.)
But this model of collecting is especially persuasive to me because as the second half of Rachel’s post indicates, it is, at bottom, a way to protect yourself from who you are.
That’s why Charles Foster Kane piles up so many things in Xanadu, “the art as well as the junk.” Self-defense, as well as self-creation.
P.S.: It was news to me that Rachel is 23, which ought to make me (at 29) feel old, but instead just gives me a very warm, comforted feeling, like there is a cosmic community of budding intellectuals who aren’t stuck in one space or time. I find this feeling very difficult to explain.