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JEFF ALLRED The Needle and the Damage Done: John Avery Lomax and the Guises of Collecting EFORE considering the practice of a single ballad collector, John A. Lomax, and his particular place in a broader cultural and political context, I would first like to consider the figure of the collector a bit more broadly. In order to do so, I start with Walter Benjamin's well-known narrative, "Unpacking My Library: a Talk about Book Collecting ." Collecting, in this narrative, is an act of necromancy, by which an impassioned, even obsessed agent "lock(s) individual objects within a magic circle in which . . . the thrill of acquisition . . . passes over them" (60). The "magic" Benjamin describes, it seems, strips the objects of the markers that formerly placed them in other systems of value: To the collector-magician neither their place within intellectual economies nor their cash value matters. What does matter is solely the idiosyncratic and arbitrary system the collector establishes to house and catalog them. Having described this "magical side of the collector" (68), Benjamin's narrator goes on to pose the question of method: "How do books cross the threshold of a collection and become the property of a collector?" (60). To answer this question, the narrator patches together a whimsical group of responses and anecdotes. The collector may simply choose to write the missing books himself. He might also purchase them at auction; not, however, always abiding by the rules, for experience dictates that a measure of deceit is necessary to jar rare books from their economic niches. Most surprisingly, the narrator advocates the double crime of stealing books from friends and then Arizona Quarterly Volume 58, Number 3, Autumn 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1 610 Jeff Allred neglecting to read them (61-66). In each of these passages made by books over the "threshold" bounding the realm of the public and the social from the realm of "private property," Benjamin emphasizes the need of the true collector to transgress the codes of the former in order to work his or her magic. With these sins against the conventional valuation and use of books—refusing to read them, or cunningly devaluing them at auctions—the aura that suffuses these objects by virtue of their place in broader social contexts is dispelled, preparing them for a new kind of usefulness. The "threshold" that defines the boundaries of Benjamin's collection , then, marks out two distinct realms of value. On the outside is the public realm, in which objects circulate through socially constituted space and time. On the inside is the realm of the private, within which the collector's arbitrary systems create orderly patterns that attempt to exist outside of and uncontaminated by socially constituted space and time. Further complicating this schema (and providing the essay with much of its humor) is the placement of the narrative itself. Beginning amidst heaps of disordered books and ending with the collector's disappearance behind the walls of the newly cataloged library, the narrative itself unfolds from its precarious perch between the public and private realms. From this perspective, the private "speech" of narrative (the title suggests that this is a "Talk," placing the reader/listener within earshot, figuring the text as a conspiratorial whisper between intimates behind closed doors) is opposed to the public acts of reading, reception, and interpretation. Nonetheless, even the intimate presence of the reader proves too tisky to the collector's sense of control. Having acquired the property of self-possession through the collection and arrangement of a system of units of private property, the collector is able to escape the prying eyes of the reader: "So I have erected one of [the collector's] dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting" (67). The shift in this final sentence from the first person to the third thus performs the magic of the collection. The emergence of a disembodied voice to replace the interested, limited perspective of the "I" signals the end of reading and interpretation. What remains—the bricked-in totality of the collection—appears to the observer...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 83-107
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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