I’m in Love with a Card Catalog, and Other News


On the Shelf


  • Some people fetishize librarians. Me, I fetishize the card catalog. It’s a lonely fetish—no pornographer, to my knowledge, has yet written a starring role for a card catalog, or even a cameo. But I think it’s only a matter of time. I mean, look at these catalogs! They’re so big—so full—so … alive with utility. The way a card catalog oozes democratic spirit and well-organized accessibility, it just gets my heart racing. A new book by the Library of Congress, The Card Catalog, is almost titillating in its portrayal of objects in obsolescence. As Michael Lindgren writes, beneath its sumptuous photography, the book mounts a compelling and perhaps depressing case for bygone forms of information technology: “The text provides a concise history of literary compendia from the Pinakes of the fabled Library of Alexandria to the advent of computerized book inventory databases, which began to appear as early as 1976. The illustrations are amazing: luscious reproductions of dozens of cards, lists, covers, title pages and other images guaranteed to bring a wistful gleam to the book nerd’s eye … Now, waxing nostalgic about card catalogs or being an advocate for the importance of libraries is a mug’s game. You can practically feel people glancing up from their iPhones to smile tolerantly at your eccentricity … Although some contemporary readers might consider this book outrageously quaint, the card catalog’s conceptual structure was the underpinning of the Internet; the idea of something being ‘tagged’ by category owes its existence as an organizing principle to the subject headings delineated by the Library of Congress. A national card catalog system was the original ‘search engine’ … The card catalog stands with other great twentieth-century works of civic architecture as testament to the potential of what a society—and a government—can achieve … ”
  • Are you an artist over sixty? Are you tired of hot young bucks getting all the fame and glory? Marlena Vaccaro wants to be your gallerist. As James Barron reports, her Chelsea gallery represents only older artists—an attempt to thwart entrenched ageism in the art world: “The gallery began several years ago when Ms. Vaccaro decided that someone should counter an art world problem: Older, lesser-known artists were being passed by just because they were, yes, older. She had heard stories. Ms. Vaccaro was a painter and printmaker who also worked in mixed media. She had owned a gallery in TriBeCa. ‘If, by the time you’re forty, you haven’t demonstrated earning power in terms of sales, it’s hard to get the attention of a big gallery,’ she said. ‘I don’t think it’s only ageism at work. It’s the economy of running a gallery. Sure, there are tons of galleries that show older artists, but they are the high earners. Everyone who was big and famous in the sixties and seventies is older now. They’re still represented if they’re still alive, and their paintings still sell for gigantic dollars.’ ”

  • At the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, a new production of Measure for Measure attempts to make sense of the play’s opaque sexual politics, which have confounded audiences for centuries. Geoffrey O’Brien writes, “Simon Godwin’s pathway into the play … is by way of a corridor through Mistress Overdone’s brothel, along a narrow basement path lined with discreetly closed cubicles and arrays of lubes, dildos, anal plugs, shackles and handcuffs, multicolored condoms, an inflatable sex doll … Given the perennial relevance of the various injustices it circles around—the sexual exploitation and pious hypocrisy and persecution of whistle-blowers—Measure for Measure invites updating … But it’s in the nature of Measure for Measure that whatever contemporary analogies are invoked cannot quite make sense of what happens … An audience that wants to take the play as readily grasped satire cannot evade the puzzlements and reversals of judgment that come in its later scenes—reversals of judgment that do not end even when the play is done. Measure for Measure is a perpetual questioning machine, exquisitely functional, set to a relentless tempo, yet a machine that bristles and crackles in its joints with contradiction and discomfort.”
  • Joshua Rothman is reading Finn Murphy’s The Long Haul, a truck driver’s attempt to pull back the curtain on “the semi-mythic world” of the 18-wheeler: “Murphy understands himself as a chronicler of American decline. He reports that quality American furniture has disappeared—it’s been replaced by IKEA—and that no one owns books anymore. Hauling cross-country means ‘breezing through one dead or dying town after another’ in a landscape that ‘looks like an episode from The Walking Dead’; everywhere, rings of chain stores and pawnshops surround decaying post-industrial downtowns. Murphy concludes that, outside of the big cities, university towns are the only good places left. Ruminating on American tourism posters—apple orchards in New England, porch swings down South, cowboys out West—he writes, ‘If a tourist poster of America were made with some verisimilitude, it would show a Subway franchise inside a convenience-store gas station with an under-paid immigrant mopping the floor and a street person at the traffic light holding a cardboard sign that reads ANYTHING HELPS.’ ”
  • At the Huntington Library, in the suburbs of Pasadena, a new exhibition celebrates the life of Octavia Butler. The show is rich in ephemera and personal artifacts—among other items on display are Butler’s handwritten reminders to herself, one of which reads, “Make People FEEL! FEEL! FEEL!” Karen Grigsby Bates writes, “She grew up black and poor in Pasadena, Calif., when legal segregation was dead, but de facto segregation was very much alive. She was also shy, unusually tall for her age, and not particularly social. ‘I’m an only child,’ Butler told Sci Fi Buzz. ‘I had no idea how to get along with other children. And also, I was a strange kid who learned to stay by herself and make things up.’ She often made them up while sitting on the porch at her grandmother’s chicken farm, in the High Desert town of Victorville, Calif., where she dreamed about animals. The drawings of horses that illustrated one of her early stories are on the walls at the Huntington … In several interviews Butler said she wrote because she had two choices: write, or die. ‘If I hadn’t written, I probably would have done something stupid that would have led to my death,’ she said cheerfully.”