Friday, July 15, 2011

Voici venir les temps . . .

It's my last full day in the reading room at my favorite library, and I'm trying desperately to see all the rare books I need to see, and to consult all the sources at my fingertips before I have to go home, put the final touches on my manuscript and send it out. Oh, and I start teaching again in a month, so there's that grad course syllabus to prepare (Note to colleagues: Do NOT open an email from a student in the summer if the subject line is "Reading List." It will make you very unhappy).

I've just returned a wonderful, very rare manuscript bound in vellum and created by the Goldsmith's Company. It's in two books, the first dealing with weights and measures, assaying gold and silver and the mint. The second, which is more along my lines of research, lists precious stones, and describes where they are found and how they are valued. This was very helpful for a few references in my chapter on pearls, but also for the piece I hope to write on Jessica's turquoise ring in The Merchant of Venice.

The book ends with descriptions of some hard substances that are decidedly not precious stones, but were also of great value in the East and were traded as currency: lack and indigo (red and blue pigments), ambergris, musk, and civet (animal excretions used in perfumes and aphrodisiacs). These things interested me the most, in part because what are dyes, perfumes and aphrodisiacs doing in a book whose title is ye knowledge of all sortes of Gemmes or Praetious Stones, describing the Places wheare they growe, their Names, Coullors, Vertues & Valewes, According as they are bought from Marchant to Marchant worthy their Studie, which profess themselues Iuellers or are desirous to be made acquainted with those Secrets of Nature? In other words, how is indigo a precious stone? Yet from an early modern sensibility, the inclusion of pigments and perfuming materials with gems makes perfect sense, as all of these objects were traded, along with spices, "from Marchant to Marchant" in the East Indies, Persia and the Ottoman empire, and all of these items were employed together with sugar and spices and mummia (mummy) by apothecaries in the early modern pharmaceutical industry (if you can call it that).

I learned a lot from this manuscript, and because it's my last day at this beloved archive, was sorry to have to say goodbye to it, just as I'm sorry to have to say goodbye to my new friends.

I'm feeling melancholy and out of sorts today in general, as when anything stimulating and inspiring--not to mention frequently frustrating--comes to an end. We had our last seminar yesterday, and I am very grateful for the new colleagues and friends I've made, but oddly sad that it's over.

Despite all of the work I have to do today, I'm finding it rather challenging to concentrate, feeling a little distracted. I move around as if I were under a spell, or as if I had taken some powerful drug, my heart beating a little faster than usual. (It doesn't help that I've been reading about early modern aphrodisiacs and Sonnet 119 is thrumming through my head). I will be relieved to return to the regularity of daily life at home. But today everything is triste et beau comme une grande reposoir.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Blogging about the New Media

So I've been in a summer seminar for the past month, at my favorite library. This is what we academics do in the summer: when we're not teaching as many summer school classes as we can manage in order to afford home repair, or churning out another manuscript or set of articles, we get paid to go back to graduate school. Except that it's like one of those accelerated summer-school classes that we teach, only grad-school style. This means 4-6 hours a day, 4 days a week, with a nightly reading list that far exceeds the weekly reading list I had from some of my most demanding professors back at Quill & Stylus. And if you're also trying to get a manuscript ready for a preliminary review, then farewell liberty.

Still, it's been a wonderful, stimulating and engaging experience. The seminar seems to span time, space, and dimension. It's too broad to describe here, and since I'm still writing under the gossamer veil of anonymity-ish-ness, I won't bore you with the details. But it's nearing its end, and the last two days have been devoted to readings, explorations, and discussions of The New Media, led by a brilliant pair of guest scholars.

We talked about film, database, archive and virtual space. We all created avatars and jumped around virtually on the Globe in Second Life (well, some people did. I couldn't figure out how to get off the roof of the balcony). We looked at a number of interactive on-line learning communities. But we haven't yet talked about blogs. A colleague mentioned blogs in an email message addressed to seminar participants today. The gist seemed to be "So, folks, what about blogs? Do they participate in the curatorial function of databases?" (We established last time that archives and databases kind of do have an author function and even an argument, even though many present themselves as being objective and all encompassing). Anyway, this made me think about my almost-defunct blog, and how only a couple of years ago everyone seemed to be participating in the academic blogosphere and now, well, notsomuch. That said there are still some wonderful academic blogs that I read regularly and for which I am grateful (shout-out to Flavia, and In The Middle!) I have to remind myself to blog, in a way that I never did before facebook, or twitter, or smartphones. Obviously blogs aren't just curated archives. I'm not sure they are archival at all, but they do participate in the collaborative thinking that goes along with new media. And what about blogs that are no longer active, like Blogging the Renaissance? Do people still read "dead" or "dormant" blogs, when there is no activity there any more? Or are they kind of like virtual archival materials themselves?

What will people think of blogs in times to come? What would Herzog's mutant albino crocodiles think of blogs?