A couple of years back we had the opportunity to deal with a small part of the estate of Jackson Mac Low. I never had the honor of meeting Jackson, but he has always fascinated me. His work unites a number of seemingly disparate movements – experimental poetry, anarchism, pacifism, avant-garde music, and the Mimeograph Revolution - and somehow shows them to be different facets of the same creative struggle. His audience was always small, but a staggering proportion of those who came into contact with his work went on to create work of their own. He was the Velvet Underground of chance operations.
His library was as vast as his interests. It was full of association and dedication copies which bore testament to his influence. Yet my favorite artifact in the library is this form letter from Reader’s Digest. It haunts my problem pile – that mysterious stack of items on every bookseller’s desk which resist being catalogued, and where the most interesting things always reside.
To me, this paper gets to the heart of Jackson’s relationship to his library.
No library I’ve ever dealt with felt so lived in as Mac Low’s. No page was unread, and he read hard. He annotated. He argued with texts. In some cases it appears as if he did physical battle with them. An astonishing number are stained with what I assume was strong tea (one of the joys of bookselling is developing a taxonomy of the tidemarks liquids leave). His library was a living, breathing thing that he tussled with for a good stretch of the 20th century.
Mac Low had the habit of marking a place in a book or magazine by inserting a nearby slip of paper into it, be it a note or a list – or in this case a form letter. His library devoured other pieces of paper, so that the traces of his reading became a palimpsest of bills and announcements and letters and advertisements upon the original text.
This form letter brings the following scene to mind. Somewhere, in a warehouse belonging to the best-selling magazine in the world – a magazine that in it’s reach and outlook is the very antithesis of the Mimeograph Revolution – an early computer, in one of those mysterious and inexorable movements of capitalism, finds Jackson’s name and prints it out on this slip of paper and addresses it to a loft in lower Manhattan. When the form letter arrives, America’s poet of chance operations doesn’t throw the slip away unthinkingly, as I would have done. He keeps it nearby while he reads, and when he is done reading for the moment – perhaps because he needs to go to another proof reading gig to pay the bills - he slips it into the pages of this book to keep his place.
The aura of ephemera allows us to have an individual and unmediated experience of history. It allows us to tell our own stories of the past, and by doing so develop an enthusiasm for it. I’m reminded of Johnson’s accurate and devastating definition of enthusiasm as the “vain belief of private revelation.” It may well be a folly, but without that sense of private revelation history is a dead account.
Perhaps the job of a curator is not to assemble material in order to impose a single story onto it, but rather to discover and preserve and present material in such a way that a multitude of stories can be told, as many stories as there are readers.