Inexact Sciences

December 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

I requested a book I’m working on (see earlier) – Rayner Heppenstall’s The Connecting Door (1962) – from the Oxfordshire central library reserve; I imagine that it doesn’t fly off the shelves. Aside from enjoying the wonderful front cover (see also, earlier, via Juliet Jacques’s article over at 3am Magazine), one thing I was interested in was that, though nearly fifty years old, as a pretty minor novel, the library copy had its full borrowing history stamped on the first page:

It can only ever be an inexact science, but the speculations this provokes are interesting. I would guess that the steady – though hardly fervent – borrowing in the sixties and early seventies correlate with Heppenstall’s relative prominence and prolificness in the literary scene, as well as perhaps with the major period of interest from the general reader (and British publishers) in the nouveau roman, from which Heppenstall (and the book’s dustjacket) claims to have drawn heavily in The Connecting Door. Then, as Heppenstall drops off the radar and people start looking at Robbe-Grillet and co. like a now-dated, rather passing fad, so does the borrowing. And then, perhaps with enough hindsight, enough generational turnover, the interest starts to spike a little into the noughties: someone was even keen enough to go as far as an inter-library loan, and then there’s me too, writing about it on this blog and elsewhere.

I think the example this gives and the method it provokes is a good one if you have a kind of Benjaminian itch to scratch. As an object of study it is a pointless one, doomed to inexactitude and the purest, most useless kind of speculation. It couldn’t find a place in a broader work, couldn’t justifiably supplement something else seriously, become a part in a justifiable whole: it is there only to be dismissed, filed away as fancy, or a pleasant thought, a rainy-morning moment of ponderousness, a minor subjective event, nothing more. But at the same time, and perhaps because of this, it has a peculiar intensity as you hold it in your hands and look at this record of a single object’s history, a local indicator of an individual novel’s success with a public. The shadows of empiricism are there, they positively beckon in those hard dates, the particularity of a local library system’s copy of a book, and yet they always withdraw at the moment when you start to consider them non-peripherally. This near-presence is brought especially into relief in the physical memory of the stamp forcing the ink onto the page, meant as a record of a future moment when the person who wants the book must give it back, or defer giving it back another time. (I guess the afterlife of this kind of book history could gain some kind of informational reality in the age of computer records and data profiling: how many renewals, extrapolations out to other books the borrower borrowed, and so on, will all be more definitely there. But for material fetishists there is a tasty double movement here, because as the data becomes harder, more usable, more real, so the physical trace becomes more spectral: I think the library stamp is quickly becoming a relic.)

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