Friday, December 28, 2007

". . . though of real knowledge there be little, of blog posts there be a plenty . . . "

Once upon a time, a blogger strayed into waters he shouldn't have . . .
(Image originally found here)

This was going to be a silly little post about Melvil (born "Melville") Dewey and the fact that he was born on December 10, 1851, one month after the American publication of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. I was going to make a little hay of what I'd hope would be an entertaining if not humorous sort, imagining that his father, enamored of the writer if not of Moby-Dick, pre-destined his son to peruse Chapter 32 ("Cetology"), there note that Ishmael has categorized whales by size, just as books once were in many libraries, and set him on the course to devise the book-cataloguing system that now bears his name.

(For the record, I can't determine whether Dewey was named for the writer--all the more reason to make up something, right?)

But then I read this:

From childhood, Dewey was fascinated with books. In 1868, when his school caught fire, he rescued as many books as he could from the school library; but inhaled a great deal of smoke in the process and consequently had a cough that lasted for months. Told by his doctor that he would be dead within a year or so, he tried to make the most of what he thought would be limited time, according to the recent and fascinating biography by Wayne Wiegand. (emphasis mine)(from here)

Compare to the opening lines of Melville's novel:

(Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)

"Consumption," for those who may not know, is an old term for lung-wasting diseases such as tuberculosis, often marked by heavy coughing.

I don't know why learning this suddenly took the humor out of this little post for me, why Melvil Dewey suddenly, in my mind, took on more of Ishmael's doomed nature than I had anticipated. But he is also, curiously, Ishmael's social opposite: the Straight Dope site linked to above notes, "We feel obliged to note that Dewey was no saint. He was racist, antisemitic, anti-black, anti- everything not white male Anglo-Saxon Christian." Anyone who has read Moby-Dick knows this doesn't at all describe Ishmael, at least as regards his friendship with Queequeg.

Did Ishmael's novel-length meditation on The White Whale--and Ahab's obsession with him--become for Dewey the quest for an efficient way of organizing and cataloguing knowledge stored in books? So far as I can determine, no. But I do wonder, now, whether Melvil read Melville and in some way, shape or form saw looming out of those pages some inkling, some version of the life ahead of him . . . or, perhaps, the life he found himself in the midst of living out.

UPDATE: The curious may enjoy looking at this map of the voyage of the Pequod. Click on the image to enlarge and move about. Gorgeous in its mid-19th-century feel and in its attention to detail.


R. Sherman said...

I cannot answer the question posed in your final paragraph, but I will say you did a fine job of making a silk purse of a post out of a sow's ear of the facts.

Having said that, if Dewey were alive today, perhaps he'd be diagnosed and treated as an "obsessive compulsive," his cure having the unintended consequence of forcing the rest of us to wander Parcival-like through library stacks looking for an elusive Melville commentary.


The County Clerk said...

silk purse indeed.

I'd never even THOUGHT about Melvil Dewey and his decimal system before. Now I will.

Also... "doomed nature"

"Ishmael's doomed nature"

I think it is - maybe - the only nature. Somthing about Polyphemus' plea for Ignorance. Or maybe I'm remembering incorrectly. And now I'll be thinking about THAT. Doomed Nature and Dewey Decimal System.

Pam said...

God, I love that map site!

John B. said...

Thanks to all of you for stopping by and for the kind comments.

Randall, it just occurred to me in reading your comment that, given the various non-standard ways of organizing libraries before Dewey's system--by size, by "shelf location," etc. (which, by the way, the Straight Dope link gives a quick run-down on)--"browsing the stacks" really DID mean something back then: you'd literally never know what you'd run across, what books would be sitting together, cheek-by-jowl on a given shelf. It's not as bleak a notion as that described in Borges's "The library of Babel," but the element of chance is far more at work than it is in libraries arranged in accordance with the efficiency-mad Dewey and LOC systems.

Hank, this post came about in the first place precisely because I'd never given serious thought to the Dewey system but, when I did, sort of vaguely assumed it had something to do with John Dewey. So, you know that feeling: when I learned not only that my assumption was wrong but learned that this Dewey shared a name with a writer who wrote a book obsessed, in its way, with cataloguing, well. And re "doomed nature": along the lines of your ousia post, if tangentially, language empowers us, at a fundamental level not just to speak of the world but to speak it into existence ("In the beginning was the Word"). But because language is a system and systems make distinctions, it simultaneously isolates its users from the very world it has spoken into existence. The more seamlessly (and, for that matter, "seemlessly") we perceive Nature, the better off we are: think of Emerson's phrase, "all mean egotism vanishes." Yet language traps us--the dilemma created when saying that something is "unremarkable": simply by saying that, you have thereby "remarked" on it. As Stevens explores in various ways, in poem after poem, language dooms the nature of whatever we use to describe something, even as we bring it into existence by naming and describing it.

Pam, it is a cool site. I found it via a map showing the distribution of slaves in 1861, about which more in another post. Of course, I have loved maps ever since I can remember. Speaking of which, if you don't know about it already, you might enjoy visiting Strange Maps, whose subject is exactly what the name tells you.

The County Clerk said...

OK... I'm actually going to have to chew on your comment for awhile. My head spins.

"it simultaneously isolates its users from the very world it has spoken into existence"


Then it must not be possible to... uh... or maybe there is another road to... uh... Criminy John, this redefines reason! But I can see a little in there. Thank you.