While I’m not a historian, I do a lot of textual research, and read far beyond what I can reasonably hope to make sense of, so I can relate to Keith Thomas’s ruminations on the micromechanics of the historian’s craft. It’s a great article, with witty insights on things like note-taking (and -making), tableting, scrapbooking, fiching, indexing, filing, and even the Renaissance practice of cutting pages out of a book and pasting them directly into one’s notes.

“Filing is a tedious activity and bundles of unsorted notes accumulate. Some of them get loose and blow around the house, turning up months later under a carpet or a cushion. A few of my most valued envelopes have disappeared altogether. I strongly suspect that they fell into the large basket at the side of my desk full of the waste paper with which they are only too easily confused. My handwriting is increasingly illegible and I am sometimes unable to identify the source on which I have drawn. Would that I had paid more heed to the salutary advice offered in another long forgotten manual for students, History and Historical Research (1928) by C.G. Crump of the Public Record Office: ‘Never make a note for future use in such a form … that even you yourself will not know what it means, when you come across it some months later.’”

The historian, really, is a kind of glorified collector, like Anais Nin’s ragpicker:

The ragpicker worked in silence among the stains and smells. His bag was swelling.

The city turned slowly on its left side, but the eyes of the house remained closed, and the bridges unclasped. The ragpicker worked in silence and never looked at anything that was whole. His eyes sought the broken, the worn, the faded, the fragmented. A complete object made him sad. What could one do with a complete object? Put it in a museum. Not touch it. But a torn paper, a shoelace without its double, a cup without saucer, that was stirring. They could be transformed, melted into something else. A twisted piece of pipe. Wonderful, this basket without a handle. Wonderful, this bottle without a stopper. Wonderful, the box without a key. Wonderful, half a dress, the ribbon off a hat, a fan with a feather missing. Wonderful, the camera plate without the camera, the lone bicycle wheel, half a phonograph disk. Fragments, in complete worlds, rags, detritus, the end of objects, and the beginning of transmutations…inside the shack rags. Rags for beds. Rags for chairs. Rags for tables. On the rags men, women, brats. Inside the women more brats. Fleas. Elbows resting on an old shoe. Head resting on a stuffed deer whose eyes hung loose on a string…

The brats sitting in the mud are trying to make an old shoe float like a boat. The woman cuts her thread with half a scissor. The ragpicker reads the newspaper with broken specs. The children go to the fountain with leady pails. When they lime back the pails are empty. The ragpickers crouch around the contents of their bags. Nails fall out. A roof tile. A signpost with letters missing…

The ragpickers are sitting around a fire made of broken shutters, window frames, artificial beards, chestnuts, horses tails, last year’s holy palm leaves. The cripple sits on the stump of his torso, with his stilts beside him. Out of the shacks and the gypsy carts come the women and the brats.

Can’t one throw anything away forever? I asked.

The ragpicker laughs out of the corner of his mouth, half a laugh, a fragment of a laugh, and they all begin to sing.

First came the breath of garlic which they hang like little red chinese lanterns in their shacks, the breath of garlic followed by a serpentine song:

Nothing is lost but it changes

Into the new string old string

In the new bag old bag

In the new pan old tin

In the new shoe old leather

In the new silk old hair

In the new hat old straw

In the new man the child

And the new not new

The new not new

The new not new.

– Anaïs Nin (Ragtime, 1944)

The difference between the historian and the ragpicker is that one studies, trying to understand, while the other lives, trying to admire (or vice versa, admiring, lives). Both tell stories. (The Peircian/Deleuzian is both a historian and a ragpicker, admiring, living, and understanding/storytelling all at once.)

What’s striking is that most of Thomas’s article could have been written anytime — anytime, that is, before the age of the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad, and before we were all overcome with the possibilities of internet research and the textual poaching and remixing it makes possible. If blogs and MySpace pages are the digital ragpickers’ bonfires, where are our digital historians?

I still live with at least one foot in that old (analog) historian’s world, but I’m not sure if my students do, at least not without being dragged to it repeatedly, and without some gnashing of teeth along the way. Long live the historian’s craft. Long live history. May it always be with us, in one form or another, garlic wafting on its serpentine song.

Hat tips to Peter Gratton for Thomas, Izabella for Nin, and Tanya Luhrmann for the title.

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