Caryn Radick 2016-05-12 11:51:29
I have too much to read. The books are piling up and yet I buy more. Perhaps this is why I am inaugurating a new column in Archival Outlook—Fiction Through an Archival Lens—to compel me to get through my “to read” pile! But first, I want to say how thrilled I am to be writing about archives and fiction. I came to the archival profession after a brief career in publishing and with a background in English literature. In library school, when an assignment asked for a two-page paper on any archives or records management topic, I couldn’t resist exploring a connection between archives and fiction. I thought about novels with important moments that hinged on someone looking for, finding, or showing up at an inconvenient moment with a record. I quickly remembered the assignment’s two-page limit and focused on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Reading it again, I discovered how much archives and recordkeeping were threaded throughout the story. I got an A on the paper, which I later turned into a conference presentation, and much later, into an article whose publication in The American Archivist (Fall/Winter 2013) showed me that there was room—and enthusiasm—for such discussions within the archival community. So I’m delighted to point the archival lens toward diverse topics, authors, and works. Turning back to my unread book, I learned about Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us from a New York Times book review by Penelope Lively. I was intrigued by the headline, “Curiouser and Curiouser: An Archivist Explores a Disappearance in Victorian Yorkshire,” and the description—an archivist haunted by an incident in her past (the child she was watching disappeared) works to solve the mystery of another child’s disappearance more than a century before. Reading on, the review was favorable and the book sounded great, but I found myself dismayed by two of Lively’s comments. The first was that she wished authors of fiction wouldn’t add lists of sources to their books, “as if this were a doctoral thesis rather than a work of fiction. . . . I don’t want to know about the ballast of research.” Lively found it interfered with her ability to judge the story on its own merits. Although I understand her point, I’ve always enjoyed knowing the real story behind works of fiction. Am I the only one? Also, knowing the amount of labor that goes into research, I wish sources were more celebrated than dismissed when it comes to fiction. Where the first statement annoyed me, the second one floored me. Lively writes: “Jane has a fling with a local youth. This did not ring entirely true, for me. Would a 34-year-old archivist (who has not sounded as though she’s given to such adventures) really be likely to embark on a sexual spree with a 19-year-old who chats her up in a pub?” This set off what is possibly one of the oddest discussions I’ve ever had with myself about the nature of archivists. Maybe Jane herself isn’t “the type,” but what is it about being an archivist that makes a fling so out of character? Admittedly, I’m not sure what Lively was thinking, but I read her question as suggesting that archivists are . . . cautious . . . sensible . . . dull. Whatever our own individual feelings about flings (not to mention our perceptions of exciting versus dull), archivists are people. And people—not all of them—hook up sometimes. Implying that it’s not in any archivist’s nature suggests that we are somehow apart from everyone else—we document and preserve evidence of human behavior, but don’t participate. Such a view of archivists erases the fact that not only are our lives and experiences varied, but that such differences enrich our profession. As far as what’s definitively out of character for an archivist, perhaps if Jane had thrown a hundred-year-old packet of letters into a fire without looking at them first . . . My disagreements with Lively’s statements aside, the review brought The World Before Us into my pile. I’m looking forward to reading about Jane’s adventures, not to mention Hunter’s sources! What’s in your “to read” fiction pile? Any books featuring archives or archivists? Tell Caryn Radick at email@example.com.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.