- The Literature of Collecting and Other Essays
Richard Wendorf's The Literature of Collecting begins with questions about the purpose, rewards, and effects of collecting. Wendorf, an eighteenth-century specialist and director of the Boston Athenaeum, tackles these questions by considering evidence from both fiction and theory, but he offers no answers in the title essay. Instead, he suggests only tentative ideas about the meaning of collecting and then implies his answers through the rest of the essays. Wendorf addresses subjects as diverse as the history of the Boston Athenaeum, the friendship of Edmund Burke and Joshua Reynolds, and, in what is perhaps the key essay, his own experience as the subject of the photographer Thomas Kellner, whose trademark is fracturing images and putting them back together so that we see the subject anew. Key to his process is that he arranges physical pieces—contact sheets and photographs, [End Page 369] for example—and not digital images. This essay about an avant-garde photographer who manipulates old-fashioned images reveals what truly holds the book together: Wendorf's unshakable belief in the importance of physical objects as sites of knowledge. Wendorf has written an elegant, extended love letter to libraries, museums, and the collection of physical artifacts.
When Wendorf examines the friendship of Lady Elizabeth Montague and Frances Reynolds, the youngest sister of Joshua Reynolds and a painter herself, he makes use of a collection of letters at Princeton that has received little attention. These physical objects teach us a great deal about the experience of a female artist in the eighteenth century and about the network of intellectual support that letters created for intellectual women in the period. In printing these letters in the text, Wendorf reminds and demonstrates to us how the collection of historical literary and artistic material helps us create knowledge. When Wendorf reads Hester Thrale Piozzi's marginalia in a biography of Joshua Reynolds, he makes sense of an eighteenth-century mind through a method that only the preservation of that particular physical volume makes possible. For Wendorf, the collection is an integral part of our understanding of the world; we know history through the accumulation of artistic artifacts. Wendorf reads paintings, novels, and letters with an eye toward explanation that critics rarely display, and he writes with a clarity and an easy erudition that should be a model for academic writing. Appropriately for a book that takes material items so seriously, the book itself is physically marvelous, an elegant production.
The great strength of the book is that Wendorf shows us how collections contribute to knowledge and demonstrates the wealth of understanding that comes from an engagement with letters and portraits and primary documents. Oddly, though, the book never engages the subject of digital media. Wendorf writes in an age in which one of the most important questions facing libraries seems to be how to balance digital and physical collections, but Wendorf never addresses this concern. Along the way we might not notice this absence, for Wendorf mounts an offense on the part of physical collections that obviates the need for any defense. In leaving out the question of digital collections, Wendorf provides us all the answer that he seems to think we need, but however much readers may admire and enjoy this excellent book, questions about how to handle the changing face of information will linger.