Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dusting off Your Inner Archaeologist


Archaeology has been on your mind the past several hours.  One reason is because one of your more prolific clients is an archaeologist and you have a meeting with him to discuss approaches to his next book.  Another reason comes from the interplay developed between you over the years and many, many books.

He—the archaeologist—has taken to the notion that nonfiction books have a story, a dramatic throughline as opposed to an argued thesis.  His books surely have a well-constructed logic to them, but they seldom veer from story line, which makes them so readable.

You—with a few exceptions—were terrible in science-based courses.  You might go on further to say you were terrible in most courses, but when they focused on men and women who wrote books, it could be said of you that you loved them.

This is not to say that you have become, through editorial osmosis, an archaeologist, rather to explain that certain aspects of the subject and of discoveries and means of accurate establishing of the ages of artifacts have left the equivalent of the lint in the pockets of your jackets and trousers.

The shift from client to editor status to friend to friend came about when one day you suggested the Stone Age hunter carried about in his tool kit the then equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, at which point the archaeologist’s mustache twitched and he said, I’m going to use that and give you credit for it.  Some years later he told me I was famous for the observation, it having been referenced a number of times.

You are thinking about archaeology because the Swiss Army knife is back again, this time as the principal subject for a book, based on your synthesis-making observation that those of us who do carry Swiss Army knives with them—you do not, preferring a smaller, thinner pen knife; the archaeologist does—carry in effect some thirty thousand years of civilized technology about with them, ranging from the blade to the miniature data storage drive.  Thus the sweep and thrust of the archaeologist’s next book, which will take it’s title from the original name of the Swiss Army Knife, The Officer’s Knife.  It will bear the subtitle, from needle and scraping blade to tweezers and flash drive.

You are also thinking archaeology because you are able to associate the sifting through layers of sediment for potsherds, projectile points, and other tools as well as bits of evidence embedded in rocks or amber.  Archaeologists have advantages of scientific and cultural knowledge you scarcely approximate.  They also have the patience to deal with and classify minutiae you envy from a considerable distance.

Your kind of archaeology involves digging for details from which entire scenes and events may be constructed, sifting through endless detail for one element that ignites the fires of the imagination into a fire of curiosity and outcome.

Some days, your sifting produces nothing, scarcely a sentence or two that totter or wobble rather than stand on their own.  Some days, you think it a profitable work session to have “discovered” the name of a character, a true bonanza to have discovered why that character belongs in the story, which is to say what that character’s archaeological significance is.

You often have to dig for it, look for connections or guard against anomalies.

On your evening walks, particularly as you pass the blocks roughly from Anacapa Street to Laguna and Victoria westward to Arrellaga, which outlines a number of parks and public gardens, you see trash containers filled with the sorts of things archaeologists look for, evidences of eating and cooking, the better to determine what was eaten, how it was prepared, and with what kinds of tools or implements.

In a larger sense, we are all of us archaeologists, coping with, using, preserving, or discarding implements that define and describe us and out levels of sophistication and imagination.

In one of your classes, you are an archaeologist, leading students through a great storehouse of cultural and dramatic information, William Faulkner’s soaring masterpiece, As I Lay Dying, holding up a reference here and a connection with another work Faulkner most surely must have known, placing him and his people in an even more articulate context.

All this archaeology has made a more careful, deliberate person of you, a person with a writer’s eye and patience and persistence, mindful you may have missed a salient detail.  You are aware that there is more than the devil in the details.  Sometimes the character is in the details.  The story is in the details.  And you are the archaeologist who sets a few shards and scraps and projectile points into a meaningful and dimensional orbit that takes the reader directly to the place where persons lived and had social order, expectations, and agendas that they might well have been holding in secret.

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