Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Threatening to fall off the map is the city of Cheltenham.

I think that if I could tell you what it is that intrigues me about this detail, it would go a long way towards making some of the theoretical points I am forever deferring in the writing of this blog. There is a map of England and Wales at one inch to a mile, a beautiful object in and of itself – printed on cloth in the nineteen-twenties – a work of great accomplishment, of self-assured technocratic will to knowledge, and then there is that little bulge in sectors E/F-14 of sheet 92: Cheltenham protrudes eastward, into the uncharted void. And to be sure there is nothing unconventional about this, it’s just commonsense applied to cartography, but still it tickles me. What does it mean to imagine oneself or see one’s community represented in that space, at the very edge of the map; what does it mean to go over the margin.

On a very concrete level this blog is a map of my interests, some of which are very marginal indeed. And then on each blog anniversary I get to talk about my second-hand books acquisitions for the past twelve months, which are another such map – random, idiosyncratic, and yes, marginal. Blogging itself is about writing on the edges of the public conversation, but the aptness didn’t occur to me until later. When I started this tradition I just wanted to indulge, share my excitement of a fresh visit to the Wellington Downtown Community Ministry Book Fair.

That’s where I got sheet 92 of the Ordnance Survey of England and Wales of 1918, in an undated edition published by authority of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Such an exquisite little object. And priced at $2, like almost everything else in sight on the day at TSB Arena. A most democratic approach to discarded knowledge.

The loot from each fair tends to have a theme, but not so this time. I guess it’s got to the point where I’m mostly building on the existing collection – New Zealand social history, old feminisms, pre-cyberpunk science fiction. I always seem to go back to those.

So much to love about this railway magazine from January 1934, not least the cover design. I hope my antiquarian interest in such things never comes across as a knowing appreciation of things that are cool. Quite frankly I loathe retronauts and everything they stand for, and it’s not a nod to the hauntology of it all either, although I’m certainly closer to that sensibility. I just think that all of these documents still have a lot to say, things that matter in the present. They trace genealogies of knowledge, aesthetics and thought. They contain concrete ways of thinking that deserve to be examined and grappled with, even, where appropriate, salvaged.

Pocket size Penguin and Pelican books hark back to a time when speculative fiction and criticism alike were affordable, portable and marketed to a mass public, and I’m always on the lookout for those.

You need more space on the shelves to build a comparable library of works of a local bent, but that’s no reason not to do it.

And hey, look, my very own copy of The Quest for Security.

Speaking of my adoptive country, I nabbed a rather formidable gazetteer that predates Maurice Shadbolt’s by a decade.

Also in 1962, this classic’s outsider’s view (another favourite genre) reached its fifth edition.

Sometimes a great find leaves me a little sad. I wonder for instance what motivated the owner of many of Joanna Russ’ finest books to get rid of them on the year that she died.

But life goes on, and indeed I never leave without a few books for children, especially of the instructional kind

or aimed at adults so that they can then go teach the children

or, most ominously of all, that teach children to teach themselves.

Speaking of which, as soon as I’m finished teaching myself Italian

I’ll be able to have a crack at a few more languages.

And I could go on. This was the year when I found two more This Is New Zealand books by the wonderful Sheffield House, as well as this, and, in Italy, a monograph on Socrates portentously entitled ‘He drank the hemlock to create modern man’ that turned out to include a little paper bust of the philosopher that you could send back to the publisher to go in the draw for the Golden Socrates prize competition (closes: June 1973). I like that books can still surprise you with things like that.

This may also be the year that I finally buy myself a Kindle-like product, because after all it’s not as if I am greatly prejudiced against electronic books, or can’t see the use. It’s just that I persist in finding the old kind so much more interesting and provocative. A book is an object that creates a friction, that weighs you down, that slows you down – not unlike culture, history, memory. It should have physical characteristics that match that.

There is another idea I’ve been playing with in these anniversary posts: that writing doesn’t take time, it makes time. Of course I need to keep telling myself that in order to justify the whole enterprise, since this elaborate hobby is something I have no business finding the time for, but when I look back on a year of these posts I can at least see where some of that time went, and then it looks like something that might not otherwise have been there – if not quite a body of work, at least the concrete trace of a discipline, or possibly a habit. I tried to give it a visual representation below, inspired by the widget over at Poemas del río Wang’s. Clicking on each image will open a post from the last twelve months.

A diary of course will also do that, expand time by allowing you to walk back through it. And I don’t have anything whatsoever against diaries, but how I know that I’m not keeping one is that along with the 47 posts this past year there have been 572 comments, and other forms of engagement through social media and conversation for which I continue to be both delighted and grateful. That there are people that choose to spend time here is still the single thing I value the most, so thank you all for sticking around.

How to Make Love Liveblogging the Apocalypse (7): Combined and/or Uneven The Looting
Our Memory Is a Never-Grey Wall True Names Temple Grandin
Liveblogging the Apocalypse (6): The Triumph of Death This Is New Zealand - American Edition About Postmen
On the Art of Making People Disappear The Deep All Spoons Are Level
Laconia The Shallow The Election
At Sea if:city You Are Not a Gadget
I Write Because I Don't Want to Die War Is Hell (for other people) What Do People Do All Day?
His Journey The Quest for Security Palombella Rossa
On Not Writing Slow Time Toy Story
European Monsters The Museum of You (4): Favourite Things Golden Days
The World Will Be Tron More Than Able The History of Her Blood
The Immortalist In Order of Disappearance Death or Lentils
It's Just a House Landscape with the Fall of Icarus F-f-f-falling
Work-Slash-Life The Lives of Others The Two New Zealands
I'm on a Plain Books in Homes I'm on a Plane
The Questions Asked Two.