W. G. Sebald, a writer who died in 2001 at the early age of 57, wrote strange books that resist categorization: they combine fiction, criticism, biography, and scrapbook.
“Max” Sebald wrote in German in a style that was (at least in Michael Hulse’s English translations) both precise and completely mysterious. In books like Austerlitz and The Emigrants, paragraphs begin with numbing specificity and then continue for pages, drifting in and out of various characters’ points of view. His great theme was (I think) the displacement of individuals from their pasts. This has something to do with Sebald’s personal history: the Germany where he grew up was committed to a kind of collective amnesia about the Second World War. As he grew older, Sebald said, the memory of his dead made him anxious–and when he was in his middle 40s, he began constructing his weird, elusive books.
To any reader new to Sebald, his books’ oddest property is their use of photography and quotation. Nearly every page includes one or two unexplained, dark and fuzzy, black-and-white photographs – of people (all of them, one fears, long dead) and of buildings, animals, or scraps of newspaper. Long swaths of his texts purport to be selections from the unpublished diaries of family and friends or are presented as recorded speech. Sebald gleaned from the past in a peculiarly evocative way – one he derived, I suspect, from the “commonplace books” popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In “Scissorizing and Scrapbooks: Nineteenth-Century Reading, Remaking, and Recirculating,” included in New Media 1740-1915, a collection of essays from MIT Press, Ellen Gruber Garvey describes the fad. The first commonplace books appeared during the Renaissance and contained hand-copied excerpts from manuscripts – and, eventually, from printed books – along with personal annotations. As Garvey describes, these were succeeded by something closer to what we think of as scrapbooks. In them, people of a literary bent would paste photographs or cuttings from magazines and newspapers. Between the keepsakes, they would scribble appropriate scraps of prose or poetry, or associated thoughts that might profit from later revision.
According to Garvey, such collections were “vernacular” responses to the anxiety many people felt about throwing away the printed materials that proliferated in the 18th and 19th centuries: “They constituted a new subcategory of media – the cheap, disposable, and yet somehow tantalizingly valuable, if only their value could be separated from their ephemerality.” Perhaps the most famous commonplace book is that of Thomas Jefferson, where the Founder wrote notes to himself about cuttings and quotations he found interesting. (An edition of Jefferson’s commonplace book was published in 1926 and can be bought through online book dealers for less than $200: well worth the price.)
I recently began writing a Web log, or blog (under protest: starting a blog at this late stage feels a little like developing an interest in disco music in 1980), and I have been struck by the parallels between blogging and the commonplace book. Indeed, my blog is called the New Commonplace.
Although Chris Anderson, Wired’s editor in chief, wrote on his blog the Long Tail (http://www.thelongtail.com/) that “the first rule of the blogosphere is not to generalize about the blogosphere,” the medium’s technological properties – pasting, linking, tagging, and so on – have very quickly encouraged a common style of publishing that very few bloggers resist. Anderson is surely right to suggest that blogs are as various as humanity – because posts can be intelligent or silly, rigorously reported or carefree, essayistic or written in a kind of telegraphese – but blogs do seem to have a secondary, critical relationship to primary forms of media and to other blogs. Garvey calls this process “gleaning,” an idea she adopted from the critical theorist Michel de Certeau, who spoke of “reading as poaching” to describe the cutting and recompiling of published texts. Gleaners were indigent peasants who collected the spare corn or fruit farmers left behind in their fields. Gleaning seems a useful metaphor for how bloggers select, comment upon, and then redistribute media – and it’s a useful metaphor for Sebald’s art, too.
In the narrow sense of gleaning, this editor’s letter was also a kind of blog. I tried out its themes at www.jasonpontin.com and am indebted to Matt Locke’s blog Test (www.test.org.uk) for introducing me to New Media 1740-1915. Write to me at email@example.com