A physicist loose among the liberal arts

The Agony of the Failed Archivist

One of the strangest things about last winter’s course in literary Research Methods was the citations in the reading assignments.

Back in the 1980s I subscribed to a bunch of magazines of politics and ideas: The Nation, Harper’s, The Atlantic (it was on the left back then), In These Times, Utne Reader…. All of these magazines had a section in the back entitled something like “Books and the Arts”. I would read the articles if they were talking about an author or a subject that interested me. I would just skim the ones that devoted half their column-inches to hashing out arguments so obscure that even the writers seemed to have to make an effort to care.

All that remains of the glory of old

I thought I was making a gigantic intellectual swerve when I decided to start studying literature, so it was a surprise to see that half the references in the reading assignments were to magazine issues that I’d read, and in some cases even vaguely remembered. All the back issues used to be piled up in a precarious stack at the end of the sofa, where I could refer back to them easily. (I even had a minor triumph one time, when a dispute about the price of anti-matter came up in the conversation and I was able to grab the relevant article out of Physics Today in one minute. It was only about 16 inches down.)

I’ve moved three times since then, and the Army proverb is true: “3 moves = 1 fire”. Besides, my wife had some concerns about that style of decorating. And ce que la femme veut, Dieu le veut, as they say down at the Farm Supply.

So this week’s project had me reading an article about William Gibson and his relationship to postmodernism, which referred the reader to an article in In These Times in 1988. Alas, the ITT online archive goes back only to 2001, so I can’t track down the reference without a library. It’s frustrating — I know I used to have that issue!

I wonder if medieval Scholastics, trying to track down a quotation from some ancient Greek, ever had the same feeling.


Tolkien meets the Oulipo


Plucking the Canard


  1. Jeff

    I laughed out loud twice reading this post, I think even at places where you had that goal in mind.

    A convoluted and time consuming potential solution to the problem of not having access to a magazine from 1988: knowing your employer will pay for your classes at an accredited local university, enroll in any course which holds any kind of interest whatsoever, and you suddenly have access to interlibrary loan from the vast majority of universities in the country. Alternative to picking an interesting course is picking an interesting professor whose lectures you want to spend a semester hijacking; it’s an interesting sport in itself, and one where both parties are often enthusiastic participants.

    • Joe

      I was filled with sympathy for your professors, until I got to the last clause. I’m glad it was consensual.

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