Sunday, February 24, 2013


Phantoms on the Bookshelves is a charming memoir of bibliomania, by French editor and writer Jacques Bonnet. Treading in the footsteps of classics like Walter Benjamin's "Unpacking My Library," Bonnet offers a series of reflections on his personal library and, more generally, on the quality of a life lived with books. Its 123 pages can be enjoyed in an afternoon; its charm lies in Bonnet's quiet self-awareness and wry humor. Throughout Bonnet mentions not only the books he has read (and re-read) but also the numerous authors who have, throughout human history, written about their reading and their libraries. For those interested in books about books, this tiny volume is a great map.

Bonnet is interested in something I've been pondering a lot lately: from where does a passion for books (or passion for the arts, in general) come? In the beginning of the book, he mentions how "reading...penetrated, like a shaft of sunlight, through the gloomy atmosphere of a provincial childhood of the 1960s" and about how both escape from and knowledge of the world excitingly tarried with each other for him during the tumult of France in the late-1960s. These answers are circumstantial, pointing to the power of books to re-contextualize us, to subvert the conditions in which we find ourselves. But he also wonders about the force of sheer curiosity: "The fanatical reader is not only anxious, he or she is curious. And surely human curiosity--condemned as it was by certain Fathers of the church as being of no purpose since the coming of Christ, and even prohibited, since we now have the Gospels--is one of the determining factors of all our actions? A capital element in the search for knowledge, in scientific discoveries or technological progress, the essential force behind human endeavour..." (29)

Otherwise, I was taken with his repeated assertion about libraries as alive. For readers, this is a common reality; for non-readers, it might seem hyperbolic. It is not easy to explain. Bonnet says, "A strange relationship becomes established between the bibliomaniac and his (or her) thousands of books...We may have chosen its themes, and the general pathways along which it will develop, but we can only stand and watch as it invades all the walls of the room, climbs to the ceiling, annexes the other rooms one by one, expelling anything that gets in the way." (31) Bonnet is genuinely surprised as he writes to us about his library, seeing things he had not seen before. "How did these books get into my library?" he asks at the start of chapter 5. The question is not entirely rhetorical.

One of the funniest moments was his discussion of how "human reality sometimes intrudes strangely into the principles of classification" of any library, noting how book collectors think long and hard about which books should be allowed together or forced apart. Apparently, the author of a rulebook for personal libraries in the Victorian era suggested that works of male and female authors had to be separated "unless the parties are married to one another," (41); Bonnet quotes the hero of a bibliomaniacal novel, The House of Paper, who worries about putting Borges next to Garcia Lorca, Shakespeare next to Marlowe, or other potentially unpleasant social situations.

In the end, Bonnet assert that "hundreds of thousands of people live in my library." First, he notes that each book contains a host of "imaginary" characters, with whom we have a deep experiential and psychological communion, who are always there, living their stories for eternity. Second, while asserting that authors are only fragmentary apparitions about which readers know very little, he argues that readers nevertheless are are invested in their reality and are always in search of books' creators. "We are so anxious to maintain the illusion that the author is a real person that we cannot be satisfied simply with an orphan work of literature." (83) Of course, these are the two foundations of fandom--sustained passion for a work and the quest to establish a lasting and strong relationship with others, famous or humble. Escape and knowledge.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Musicking in Early America

I woke up this snowy morning to check my email and sleepily surf through my usual list of journals and sites, and what did I find? An entire issue of the online journal Common-Place devoted to "Music and Meaning in Early America." Exciting! The articles explore a wide range of issues and topics from musical representations of King Philip's War to sacred music and Southern nationalism after the Civil War. (There is also a review of Listening and Longing by historian David W. Stowe). One of the guest editors, Nikos Pappas, explains: 
...Rather than trying to define American music according to a narrow understanding and definition, the contributors to this special issue of Common-place explore the multivalent world of British North America and the United States for its first three centuries of existence. They reveal uniquely American trends in music performance, composition, and the climate for musicking, especially in the period predating recorded sound as well as the replication of European practice in the Western Hemisphere and its resonance and use in its new environment. Together, their essays explore the many ways in which music existed in the United States. The result reveals how disparate and quirky American music was in that period.
Have a look, if you get a chance.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fandom and the Public Sphere

In 2009, I talked with literary scholar Barbara Ryan about her ongoing project on Ben-Hur fans. She has been researching the political efficacy of Ben-Hur fandom and the complexities of the "citizen-audience," a term that has gained traction in media studies through the work of scholars like Richard Butsch, Joke Hermes, Toby Miller, etc. At the time, I wasn't fully aware of the specific ways that audience studies and citizenship studies had been intersecting, but now I'm starting to encounter this approach more broadly across both academic and professional fields.

The latest was a post by Peter Gutierrez last month on his Connect the Pop blog. Citing the ways that students' participation in online fandom might offer opportunities for learning not only "netiquette" and basic online safety but also civic engagement more broadly, Gutierrez offers K-12 students a "Digital Fandom Checklist" to help students think about the social contexts and commitments the shape their fandom. Given the strong, long-term, communal nature of fandom, Gutierrez notes, "Fans must take into account not just the short-term value of making a point or having the last word, but their long-term relationships with their fellow fans, both individually and generally, the latter insofar as they’re developing a reputation or history within fandom." He goes on to suggest that the particularly social framework of fandom can help students to begin to work out what it means to engage publicly with others in a democracy, especially around issues that are fraught with strong feelings, even tension.

Obviously, there is much much more to think about in terms of how media, audiencing, education, and civics have influenced one another, especially in different historical contexts of social transformation. But I like that Gutierrez has provided teachers, librarians, and students with a means to start analyzing and applying ideas emerging from the growing scholarship on citizenship and audience.