Textual Scavenger Hunting and Other Pastimes of the Digital Age Part I :: Shipwrecked! Texts that time forgot (X Marks the Top Ten Treasures Spot, Ahoy!)

What will become of The Book? No no, not that book, but the thing that is Book: the physical, papery, rippy shreddy foldy thing of pulped plant and ink that is read without a computer involved…remember?


As part of a larger effort to be addressed in a series of posts here regarding the possibly questionable, certainly complex future of text ex libris in the age of new media, I begin by proposing the following: that the trajectory towards online and digital textuality and scholarship plays as essential a role (ironically) in saving the book as it does in heralding its extinction. For the mode of producing and publishing texts, as well as disseminating and sharing information about texts is molting – shedding its constricting, stuffy garb to emerge phoenix like from the open source sunrise… which, as it turns out, can be not only a generator but also a resuscitator of textual objects, on paper or not.

In so far as these pieces seek to address the issue at hand, so too do they serve as Praxis to their own Theoretically underpinnings; for here, in a new medium only made possibly by the digital age, will I draw attention to – and hope to spark interest in – books, authors, and ideas that have sat too long unread. Perhaps next time I will swing the claim towards the other direction, for environmental reasons? Suggestions are welcome.

Bestsellers come and go, though of course, some (and even some that fared less successfully at the time) endure…you’re familiar I’m sure with what we call “classics”? However, there is an incredibly complex game of cultural canasta that determines exactly which works will (or won’t) make the cut. Politics, economy, interpersonal relationships, cultural trends and turns, legal systems, religion, technology, and a whole cast of other familiar characters are the players at this literary casino. It has far far less to do, unfortunately, with the relevance or staying power of the works themselves.

Like a salmon swimming upstream (hmm, weighted down by a net full of books… bad metaphor) I seek to change the tide for these titles: texts, and their authors that lost the coin toss. That awkward, unwieldy behemoth we know as the internet – even as it brings the word to more screens and less pages every day – also offers exposure to books, in their traditional form… as well as opening up new avenues for freeing their production and publication from former constraints.

The silent, dark corners of literary history, which previously could only hope for a lone visitor on that thankless journey known as graduate research to stumble upon their hidden ISBN’s in the quest to say something (anything!) new… perhaps you may, once, have found these unweeded shelves and dusted off a treasure found there?

But not all volumes can hope for a fate as good as this, somehow grandfathered in to library tenure. In fact, some of the titles I hope to shake the cobwebs from were rescued from an even worse fate: defrocked from even hope at academic recognition via that textual deus ex machina known as the “library sale.” These are the stuffed-shirt cousins of the sidewalk sale – where one may also find the truly intelligent people who hightailed it from l’academe selling these titles. This character is indigenous to most urban spaces, and is often known as a “street philosopher” – a frequently accurate description for these deep reservoirs, known for dealing in off the cuff encyclopeadic factoids about pretty much anything. On these tables are found the lost treasures of textual atlantis, where the dog eared, yellowing veterans are given a second chance.

Proudly I wear the compliment one such yogi bestowed on me like a medal: I was told I had good taste – that even among these amazing books I picked ones that made them look me over. To tell the truth, my secret is none too impressive – I go for bizarre old graphics demonstrative of other periods of publishing, authors I’ve never heard of, intricate bindings, and other aesthetic characteristics. I also just pick up the most random thing I see – thankfully, too. I’ve found some of the list here in just that fashion.

These books and their authors (some of whose other work I’ve now sought out) have brought yielded up unexpected pleasures, insights, and information, and my life would be much the poorer for never having picked them up – I suggest you do the same!


This was incredibly hard to do! These were important to me for a variety of reasons, and just like any book suggestion, they won’t all be right for everyone! But I’ve attempted to cull for this list those that in my mind are indeed “classics” – #1 was lifechanging. Many of these titles were household names, culturally and publically central, despite their subsequent disappearance. This may be due to something that is true for almost everything on this list: each is clearly bald cultural criticism, intended for a thinking public. We might do well to consider why they were excised.

1. Paul Goodman: Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System

(1.5: w/ his brother, Percival Goodman: Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life)

Goodman’s main thesis – that of the increasing “absurdity” of addressing one’s place in a world where social, cultural, and economic thrusts condemn increasingly more of the populace into a mode of operation that is all too often devoid of meaning – and subsequent exigesis on how this internal, emotional condition is at the core of problems such as drug use, mass incarceration, intransigence, and other issues in particular affecting youth remains just as valid today. More than that – his is a populist intelligence aimed at motivating and informing the masses. It neither panders to them nor the powers that be. There is a bravery and a desire to serve the public via open dialogue and a sharing of vital, rich inquiry into public ills – in a form neither “journalistic” nor “academic.” For me, it was a watershed – truly important in helping me look at the mixed feelings of impotence somehow masked by both entitlement and resentment that is so common both in my classrooms and beyond. Communitas offers a similar, populist approach to planning dialogue and ideas for livable, functional cities beyond the “modern” rhetoric.

2. Moses Rischin: The American Gospel of Success, 1965.

Whether or not it is intended as such, Rischin’s tome is a tongue-in-cheek trip down the memory lane of US Rhetoric Route 66. Including excerpts from texts both historical and literary, speeches, journalism, and more, it paints a linguistic picture of the development of the “American Dream” ideal, and how what has been called our “Civil Religion” has been penned and spoken as – from day one – a gospel of success. I found it riveting and oddly consistent, considering the changes of style, tone, and time period – a great find.

3. Charles P Curtis, Jr and Ferris Greenslet, The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker’s Anthology, 1945.

I actually found this one in an old dusty box of my mother’s, and believe it hailed from her days as an undergraduate at Hunter College in the early 1960’s. Like many of the books on this list, it appeals to and desires a critical thinking public. Finding these books reminds me of a quote that I read somewhere last year, in which then-president Reagan warned that we were “in danger of creating an educated proletariat” or something close to that…he was discussing Educational reform, which perhaps sheds some light on how the culture has changed in a way that these books would seem so démodé. For far outpacing what we know as “nonfiction,” The Practical Cogitator should be understood as public philosophy: an anthology of thinkers throughout history, whose words and ideas have been organized around some of the deepest and most profound questions we face as philosophical beings…with the assumption that each and every person is. The sections are as follows: “Man in Search of Himself,” “He solicits his Past,” “He Turns to Nature,” “And Scrutinizes Her,” “And Himself,” “He Lives with his Fellows,” “They Better their Condition,” “They Must Have Peace, Security, and Liberty,” “And Justice,” He Seeks Solace and Beauty,” “And Friendship and Love,” “And Even Something More,” and finally, “He Takes Better Aim.” This collaboration travels deeps into literature and thought modern, ancient, and in between, from West and East – in a few pages, Brandeis, Heroclitus, Confucious, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Oppenheimer are a few of the players. It rises up the everyman, assuming and expecting an internal struggle as essential to not only elite life, but simply life. In this, it is a celebration of our humanity, our great conscious possibility – far outside the institutions that have become too synonymous with such thought. It suggests we’ve never left the agora, and it’s high time we expected as much from a thinking, active public.

4. Peter Drucker: The Future of Industrial Man: A Conservative Approach, 1942.

Perhaps the best way I can describe this book is to relate an anecdote: I am famous for frequenting old New York coffee shops, and sitting at the counter with a cheap meal and a book – conversations with fascinating people are wont to ensue. On one such morning, as I was tucking into eggs and toast with Drucker in hand it was an older gentleman in a suit sitting to my right who interrupted my revery. Why? Because when he was in business school in the 50’s, “The Future of Industrial Man” was the bible of invisioning a new, modern, economy based on Fordist industry, new systems and streamlined practices (the MBA equivalent of the rigorous International Style regimen being hammered into the heads of their colleagues in the architecture and planning schools) – training and philosophy that would very much lead philosophically to a redistribution of critical thinking work in the Education sector. On the heels of that shudder-inducing quote from Reagan, this seems an appropriate rejoinder.

5. Patrick Tanner (aka Patrick Dennis, aka Virginia Rowlands) :

The author of “Auntie Mame” and “Around the World With Auntie Mame” was, to his own great irritation, eclipsed in his establishment as a major mid-century scathing literary voice by his own astounding, and singular success — for the authorship of a book that begot an (amazing) movie, a musical, and a less amazing movie of said musical. But his 16 other books (not to mention dramatic offerings) have largely gone the way of the eponymous Dodo. They are clever, hysterical, satirical-if-frothy things, but under this thin film, deeply engaging social commentary is always near to hand. A review of 1964’s The Joyous Season in The Saturday Review had this to say, and I can’t imagine a more on-point take of the work: “Mr. Dennis [Tanner] is wonderfully funny, although these are the central diseased nerves of our society that he twists into snares with which to catch the dancing feet of folly…. His sole purpose seems to be to amuse, and he accomplishes it exquisitely. But he has a sort of inaudible gravity drive that you feel in your bones like the whine of one of those high-frequency dog whistles… It says on the dust jacket that Patrick Dennis’s [books] have sold over ten million copies. Not Enough.”

6. George Ade: Fables in Slang, 1899.

7. James Thurber: The Thurber Carnival (Anthology), 1945.

8. Horatio Alger: Ragged Dick and Mark, The Match Boy, 1868.

Ade, Thurber, and Alger are all examples of names that have lost most resonance in today’s conversations, outside academic or specialist circles, but which provide incredibly insight to the tenor of historical life. Ade and Thurber provided commentary through comedic insights and imagery both personal and social, while a “Horatio Alger” story was such a common tale as to become idiomatic for the “rags to riches” dream of success. American schools continually assign Dickens, as our own version fades away.

9. Gerald Green: The Last Angry Man, 1957 and To Brooklyn With Love (Son of the Last Angry Man), 1967.

I actually found both of these on the same discard pile, in reverse order, a few months apart – a sad little rack outside the Howland Public Library in upstate New York. (I also found not one but two Dennis novels there, but I digress.) Fiction set in the deep trenches of Brooklyn, this book was a necessary reminder for me that in the place of contemporary “historical fiction,” that contemporary fiction from our recent history served as well if not better. A review of The Last Angry Man Urges, “If you plan to read only one novel this year, make it this one.” Why? Again, it’s bold, bald social commentary on race, socio-economic strain, civic morality, and personal choice in the shifting cultural morass that is the United States – but this time, particularly, in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. By the second book, in which the Angry’s man’s son is now the narrator, that neighborhood has begun to show signs of the tide of white flight — as our Angry protagonist refuses to go with the “flow,” and remains staunchly in public service. Perhaps this quote, on the back flap, describes better than I can how relevant our Man’s stance and actions are in today’s world: “There aren’t enough people left who get mad, plain mad. Mad at all the bitchery and fraud. We take fraud for granted. We like it. We want to be had. That’s where Abelman was different. He knew he was being cheated, and he didn’t like it one tiny bit. He was the last angry man.” [TLAG was also made into a movie, with success and Oscar nods, in 1959]

10. David Gelernter: 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, 1996.

While it is by far the newest book on this list, no one I know (except, of course, a fellow academic who happened to need info on that particular World’s Fair) has ever read or even heard of this book. I thought it as important to add something new(ish) just to note how quickly some things come and go. In content, it is similar to “Devil in the White City,” though with more bizarre construction – a diary entry/history/fiction mix. In a way there are two protagonists, both sides of a couple who we follow as they traverse the fair grounds: he, an architect, all modern dreams, and she, his girlfriend, all mixed emotions in this new world, full of new ideas, and roles, and positions to be played. The text is full of astounding historical goodies, images too – for me the introduction of the Salvador Dali pavilion (and the fact that this had been encouraged and successfully integrated into this large, municipal, public venue 70 years ago) was a needed shake of the mental faculties, and the assumptions we too quickly make about the “old-fashioned” nature of the past.

Another truth becoming aware of this process of textual obsolescence makes immediately clear is the temporal natures of objects and ideas of comtemporary “importance” or cultural cache. Then, the surprise is that many of these books didn’t disappear out of lack of interest, critical, or public acclaim but quite the opposite. These are only a few examples of an invisible trove of groundbreaking, important texts, many of which had deep impact at the time of their publication. Despite seemingly secure positions in the notability pantheon, they faded away – just as some of our currently bright stars are sure to do, perhaps sooner than we know. The difference is, we as an interactive, digital public have both access and ability to means to disseminate this information, encouraging reading and rescue alike.

Lynne DeSilva-Johnson

Brooklyn native, of late absconded to the Hudson Valley in search of blessed unrest by the shores of the river that flows both ways. Will have a sailing license sooner than a driver's one. Has a tendency for costume, soup in all seasons, and scavenging for fiddlehead ferns. Deep believer in citizen journalism. All around gadabout, tortured/reticent academic, teacher of writing and philosophy to undergrads at CCNY, prefers pin-striped man pajamas, likes hats and typesetting. "I have never quite succeeded in getting used to existence, whether it be the existence of the world or of other people, or above all of myself. Sometimes it seems to me that the forms of life are suddenly emptied of their contents, reality is unreal, words are nothing but sounds bereft of sense, these houses and this sky are no longer anything but facades concealing nothing, people appear to be moving automatically and without reason; everything seems to melt into thin air, everything is threatened -- myself included -- by a silent and imminent collapse into I know not what abyss, where there is no more night or day. What magic power still holds it all together? And what does it mean...? And yet here I am..." //Eugene Ionesco //

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