By Danielle Susi
In 1988, an article entitled “Walter Benjamin’s Collector: The Fate of Experience” was published in New Literary History. In that article, author Ackbar Abbas poses a question:
“Is it possible that the largely dated figure of the collector has anything to tell us about the experience of modernity?”
In response, we look to Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” She focuses on the concept of personal record keeping—not necessarily accurate record keeping, but the recording of how the individual interprets the moment and the experience.
She writes about what has compelled her to keep notebooks throughout her life. Primarily, the action is driven by the desire to know oneself. She writes that when she looks through her notebooks, she sees the many different people she has been at many different times. Most importantly, Didion writes about her impulse to record as a means of preserving the observed. She is a collector of observations. Observations that can point to her current individual experience.
We set ourselves in a particular context when we read. When we read the news, Twitter, and other easily accessible sources, we, of course, are setting ourselves in a place of immediacy. We read these things to gather, research, learn. Books ask more of a reader. They require deeper attention, more time, and a particular level of engagement. The book’s relationship to immediacy is complex – where Twitter is now and so very temporary, the meaning of books often accumulates long after we’ve finished them.
When I consider the many things I have read, books especially, the memory of who I was and what was happening in my life when I read them is almost more important than my individual interpretation or experience with the book itself.
I spent the summer of 2012 living and writing in Vermont where I had my first experiences with interdisciplinary art. Shortly after, I read Justin Torres’ We the Animals, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, and Nude Men by Amanda Filipacchi. I remember these books most distinctly because they mirrored the sort of revelatory personal philosophies I was creating about art and the self. My selections triggered past experiences of place and reflected the person I had become. They allowed me to feel a freer version of myself again and to see my art from another angle.
Now, as I set down Joshua Ferris’ third novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and Lena Dunham’s somewhat-controversial Not That Kind of Girl, I am reminded of modernity. Of conflict and technology and how I found out about recent grand jury decisions through Twitter because I don’t have a television and needed to know right now.
In November I read A Sunny Place with Adequate Water, Mary Biddinger’s newest collection of poems, and I thought about gentrification and darkness and ruin. I am reminded of this too beautiful line from “A Coin-Operated Gentrification Zone of the Heart“:
“My/ city died because we made it die, and then we loved it even more”
The list of what I’ve read serves as a record of who I was. Much like Didion, when I return to these lists I see that I too have been many different people at many different times, and that what I’ve read has served as the punctuation of those times. As the “largely dated figure of the collector” of stories and the maker of lists, we can say, yes, our past might just have a little something to do with our experience of modernity. And it will continue to do so.
Danielle Susi is the author of the chapbook The Month in Which We Are Born (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Knee-Jerk Magazine, Hobart, The Rumpus, Lines+Stars, DIALOGIST, and Midway Journal, among many others. She is a READ section contributor for The Angle and Newcity recently named her among the Top 5 Emerging Chicago Poets. Find her online at daniellesusi.com.