Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Public Domain Review: essays of eclectic weirdness

A guest post from Colin Fisher on the curiosities that spice the imagination at rest.

pdrvol1My father had a shelf above his chair where he stored what most people would have thought were nick-nacks, but which I and my brothers and sisters called his collection of curiosities. There were the scientific – a Galileo Thermometer; the artistic – a cube illustrated with Dali paintings that folded and unfolded into new combinations; and the whimsical – a three-inch tall working oil lamp. My wife, who is Spanish, had no cultural reference to use when I spoke about the objects on my father’s shelf. Spain, on the whole, does not do whimsy. Hence the small shoebox that I bought for him, which folded out into a robot, was viewed warily. Seen in its proper context, she understood its significance: something out of the ordinary that reflected its owner’s personality, above all a delight in all that is curious.

My father would have enjoyed The Public Domain Review: Selected Essays: The First Three Years, 2011-2013. Both continued the tradition of the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities, the precursors of our museums, with their stuffed animals, fossils, rocks and weapons brought back from Japan or the Pacific islands. The thirty-four essays in the book first appeared on between 2011 and 2014, whose aim was ‘to promote and celebrate the public domain in all its abundance and variety, and help our readers explore its rich terrain – like a small exhibition gallery at the entrance to an immense network of archives and storage rooms that lie beyond’.

Hence the book, or gallery, is divided into sections, or rooms, each signposted clearly for the reader, or visitor. There is the section on Animals, nearby you will find another on Worlds, over there Encounters and to finish the visit Networks. There is, like any museum, no need to explore it in a linear order. Like a cabinet of curiosities, surprise should lie at the heart of the experience. Does Mary Toft and Her Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits grab your attention? Or would you prefer The Erotic Dreams of Emanuel Swedenborg? Perhaps Henry Morton Stanley and the Pygmies of “Darkest Africa” is more to your liking? Or perhaps your eye will be caught by the short and poignant Lost Libraries?  Whichever route we chose, we will, as Proverbs reminds us, be like the wise and listen and learn.

My own favourite, and this I have to say took me by surprise, was An Unlikely Lunch: When Maupassant met Swinburne by Julian Barnes. Neither of those names would have held any interest for me, individually or together. Yet, I came away from the essay wiser about the role played by Dieppe in the development of English tourism, providing inspiration for Walter Sickert, giving sanctuary to Oscar Wilde and a bolt hole for the Prince of Wales to visit his mistress. Placed in the chapter on Encounters, it neatly demonstrates, despite prevailing ideologies or moral codes, that the results of surprising, if unsettling, meetings enrich our lives. I took great delight in reading about the American Provers Union who documented the results of taking everything from mercury iodide to cannabis indica, and in reading about the eighteenth-century literary genre of underground worlds in our hollow Earth. Each essay is accompanied by high-quality illustrations, curated from museum collections especially for the book. The book is printed to the highest of standards, providing a rewarding tactile presence lacking in e-books.

I have my quibbles, but they are minor. There is no index. Perhaps this was as a result of a conscious decision to embed the principle of happenstance in the collection, to encourage the reader to roam freely. However, an index would have helped me immensely in writing this review. I also know that in whatever Shades librarians find themselves in the next life, my father has shaken his head and sighed deeply. There are essays in the book which have a more contemplative, philosophical tone to them which seem a little out of place in a collection devoted to people, places, animals and objects. The overall message of the book is that we do not have to travel far from home to encounter the strange, the surprising or the downright bizarre.

Adam Green, ed.: The Public Domain Review: Selected Essays vol 1. (Cambridge: PDR Press, 2014). Paperback, ISSN 2056-953X, RRP £17. The UK title is The First Three Years, 2011-2013. Vol 2 is also in print.

Colin Fisher once wrote a novel about the Spanish Civil War called A Republic of Wolves, A City of Ghosts.

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This entry was posted on March 9, 2016 by in Non-fiction, Non-fiction: essays and tagged .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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