Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives

By Susan Howe

First, what a striking cover: a monochromatic blend of blues, overlaid with stark and simple white text. I haven’t previewed the text itself and don’t have much to comment on concretely — but I love the design.

Second, the title is wonderful, seems at once abstract and specific, evocative in a poetic way. It calls to mind science fiction and libraries and repositories and emergent behavior and object oriented ontology and more.

The book is a “rapturous paean to discoveries and archives, gorgeously illustrated.” It explores the “archival manuscripts” of many great American writers — showcasing the physicality of their work amidst other elements woven into the text. These materials are: “links, discoveries, chance encounters, the visual and acoustic shocks of rooting around amid physical archives.  These are the telepathies the bibliomaniacal poet relishes.”

Doesn’t this sound great? The intersection of the word and the object, ideas and poetics made tangible, the storehouses of memory, legacy, that which endures. It’s a kind of response or counterpart to digital scholarship, affirming the roots of knowledge and learning and creativity in physical existence… With its “ode to the insights, connections, and discoveries available to those who dig through archives the old-fashioned way” this book reminds me of Nicholson Baker’s “The Size of Thoughts”.

Howe considers “such odds and ends as drafts of poems on envelope scraps by Emily Dickinson; first-draft lines of “Paterson” that William Carlos Williams scrawled on pages of prescription pads; handwritten notes Noah Webster made in connection with his 1828 “Dictionary”; and manuscript books that Jonathan Edwards fashioned from discarded semi-circular pieces of silk paper his wife and daughters had used for making fans.”

The one reviewer quotes the concluding paragraph; I’ll do likewise as it’s lovely: “Poetry has no proof nor plan nor evidence by decree or in any other way. From somewhere in the twilight realm of sound a spirit of belief flares up at the point where meaning stops and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us. The inward ardor I feel while working in research libraries is intuitive. Its a sense of self-identification and trust, or the granting of grace in an ordinary room, in a secular time.”


Additional information:

  • ISBN: 978-0811223751
  • Publisher: New Directions

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* Independent online book marketplaces. While these sites are often lighter on data / reviews, and thus not the first place to go to learn about a book, they're a great place to actually purchase!


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