There are few words that sound less inspiring than “research.”
“To my youthful ears,” writes Margot Livesey, “the very word research suggested dusty books, indexes, and crabbed notes. If I’d wanted to spend my days in the stacks of a library, I’d have stayed at university rather than becoming a waitress.” Of course, she’s since changed her opinion, which is why the essay from which these sentences come is included in Curiosity’s Cats: Writers on Research, a new anthology edited by Bruce Joshua Miller.
Curiosity’s Cats is quite possibly the first collection of essays by writers on the challenges and excitement of research, and it’s a good one. The 13 pieces—which include works not just by historians, but also by literary novelists, journalists, screenwriters, and mystery writers—conjure up the pleasures of sitting in library reading rooms, paging through census records and city directories, poring over old diaries and newspapers, and the occasional signs of actual life, like a scribe’s thumbprint or a hole left by a bookworm. (One contributor, Philip J. Anderson, had the dubious joy of finding, in a 400-year-old volume, an actual live bookworm.)
The impulse to put together Curiosity’s Cats, Miller says, came about three years ago during a conversation with Pam McClanahan, the director of the Minnesota Historical Society Press, which eventually published the book. McClanahan, like many academic press directors at that time, was concerned that digital technology would make not just the books they were producing, but also the concept of an analog research library, obsolete. She and Miller thought it would be a good idea to create a collection of essays that highlighted the importance of nondigital research. Miller got in touch with writers he knew, both friends and acquaintances he’d met through his job as a sales rep for university presses, and asked them to contribute. Originally he’d conceived a grand, two-volume project encompassing every possible discipline, but he scaled back when he realized that some of the writers he was hoping to include were already dead.
In his introduction, Miller quotes from an essay by the scholar G. Thomas Tanselle called “Texts and Artifacts in the Electronic Era”: “The misconception that texts are easily extractable from books has contributed to policy decisions—all the more shocking for being deliberate—that will mark the present as an age of destruction on a scale beyond even that of the book burnings of the past.”
While some of the essays in the book address the tension between digital and analog research, Miller wants to make it clear he’s no Luddite preparing to smash the servers that hold JSTOR, ProQuest, or Ancestry.com. “We all use digital technology,” he says. “We’re not arguing against it. It’s just that Google isn’t the whole world.”
Also, from a narrative point of view, old-fashioned research, which requires writers to go places and talk to people, makes for a far more interesting essay than someone sitting in front of a computer screen. “We challenged the historians to write more like fiction writers or memoirists,” says Miller. “We wanted the essays to be personal and entertaining, like short stories.” (Mystery writer Marilyn Stasio’s contribution even has a surprise ending.)
The essayists investigate a broad range of subjects: different methods of murder, the search for the Vinland of the Norse sagas, tracking the life of a boy in Duluth whose Boy Scout diary from 1926 ended up in a junk shop. Each essay chronicles the amassing of clues, like a detective story, all fueled by an obsession. Some quests, like Alberto A. Martínez’s to figure out the exact date Einstein came up with his theory of relativity, are successful. Others, like Livesey’s to find out more about her father’s early life, are not: all the man who was her father’s boarding school roommate for two years could tell her was, “He liked custard.”
But in most cases the true pleasure of research comes not from the result, but from the process. Miller’s own contribution is about his search for information about the “Mad Bomber,” George P. Metesky, a disgruntled former Consolidated Edison employee who for 16 years planted bombs on the utility company’s property in and around New York City. Over the course of his research, Miller accumulated more documents than he had time to look at, until it was time to sit down and write. “I was always looking for the next thing,” he says. “Finally I looked at what I had. [Dr. James A.] Brussel, the psychological expert, I found out he was full of baloney. He made a lot of stuff up. I can document that. I didn’t even know that until I sat down to write.”
Ultimately, Miller hopes that the collection shines a light on an aspect of the writing life that is often ignored. “Research is a part of writing,” he says. “We tend to think of it as separate.”
Miller will be reading from Curiosity’s Cats and discussing the art of research at 7 PM this evening at Women and Children First, along with Bruce White and Steve Yates, two other contributors to the volume.