REPS Recommends… Breathing Machine: A Memoir of Computers

Breathing Machine: A Memoir of Computers by Leigh Alexander

reviewed by Annalisa Moretti

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Image credit: Goodreads

Increasingly, many archivists find themselves faced with digital records and, sometimes, the equipment or emulated environment required to run them. This requires an understanding of digital history, a history many archivists have lived through, which we are living through right at this moment. It’s this living history — the experience of interacting with technology which we have been engaging in for decades now, which is so integrated into our lives and is a witness to so much of our passions, dreams, and hard work — with which Leigh Alexander’s Breathing Machine: A Memoir of Computers is concerned. A brief, satisfying read with truly beautiful prose, available in e-book format, it chronicles Alexander’s life with computers from her childhood exploration of adventure games on the Apple IIe and an adolescence spent on the early internet, to her present career as a game journalist and her struggles as a prominent woman on social media.

In the early chapters of Breathing Machine, we are brought back to the mid-80s, when Alexander, at the tender of age of five, is trying to learn how to commune with her father’s computer: “An arcane language lives inside this box. The computer can understand things, so long as I put them to it in exactly the right way.” The “magic spell” which is needed to command the computer to do her bidding is later mirrored in the adventure games she learns to play, patiently convincing the game, in whatever particular language the parser could understand, to go north, climb the mountain, turn the key. “Those old things were blunt objects, the kind that make you think about how many tiny corners must have existed all over the surface of the very first wheel,” she writes of these games’ gradually loading graphics. “Slowly, a line drawing loads, etching a graphic abstraction of a path, a house, a forest, into the black mirror of your boxy computer screen. You are an international spy. You must find the wizard. You are standing outside the house. You are on a path facing EAST.”

Lately, Alexander has begun revisiting these games of her childhood, and uploading her explorations to YouTube in a series called Lo-Fi Let’s Plays. (Let’s Plays are a genre of video game walkthroughs in which the player provides commentary as he or she plays the game.)

Though I am around the same age as Alexander, my family’s first computer wasn’t purchased until the mid-90s, and so my experience with computers of this era was limited to elementary school computer class, where we played Oregon Trail and typed out our Christmas letters to Santa Claus once a year under the watchful eye of Sister Mary, the computer teacher. So I found these chapters endlessly fascinating, as though they took place in an alternate reality to the one I experienced.

As Alexander moves into the internet era, however, things become more familiar to me. The internet she describes seems like such a real, physical place, much like the virtual worlds of those early adventure games. Our desire to make digital space physical is apparent especially in the names we gave (and continue to give) things associated with it. “You browsed the web with Netscape Navigator, like a starship captain,” Alexander points out — a trend that continues with today’s browsers, such as Internet Explorer and Safari. But today “the whimsy is gone. There’s no more of the childish magic that birthed “web rings” — like faery rings, groups of affiliated websites you could travel through in order.” And remember guest books? This is an especially potent image for those of us in the archives profession, a place where you’d scrawl your name to let the world know you’d been here, a record of your passage — “At one time, it seemed almost every website had one. Now, none of them do.” More than simply a lack of whimsy, there is of course a darkness to the internet, as anyone who has stumbled across a terrifying image, tangled with a troll, been hacked, or shaken their head at conspiracy websites can attest. And Alexander certainly does not shy away from discussing that aspect of life online – as a highly visible female writer on social media, she experiences abuse and threats on a daily basis.

For the last few months I’ve been following a fantastic Twitter account, @wwwtxt, which has been spewing out contextless quotes from the early internet (defined as pre-Web 1.0, 1980-1994). Here, on its associated website, you can read about the project’s creator, Daniel Rehn, and his methodology, and the mission behind the project. One of the reasons he gives is especially striking to me: “to trace and document the origins of net culture”.

These origins are becoming further and further away for each generation. The experiences of those who participate in the birth of the digital era are so important for us, as archivists, to read. Digital records and machines are more than just the sum of their parts. The act of making, using, and interacting with them is also integral to understanding them. It’s the context to their content. And in this brief, transitory time in the digital era that we are living in, we must remember the mayfly existence of these programs, devices, virtual worlds, and ways of life. As Alexander puts it, “Everything I write in this moment will be a relic […] every single thing.”

Annalisa Moretti graduated from Simmons College in 2013. Currently, she works at MIT Libraries in Curation, Preservation, and Reformatting Services. She is the Website and Social Media Coordinator for REPS.

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REPS Recommends: Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes

Rose Oliveira is a library student at Simmons College and currently works at Tufts Digital Collection and Archives. In her free time she likes to watch as many movies as possible.

Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes by Jon Ronson

Image credit: Rose Oliveira
Image credit: Rose Oliveira

Jon Ronson’s connection to Stanley Kubrick began with two phone calls (the recounting of which is perhaps one of the best introductions to a documentary that I have recently seen). These phone calls led to a five year involvement with what would become the Stanley Kubrick Archive and resulted in the 2008 BBC documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes.

Stanley Kubrick, one of the great directors of the 20th century with films such as Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, was known equally for his remarkable films and his extreme privacy and perfectionism. The ever lengthening gaps between his films only added to his mystique. Jon Ronson (journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker) explores the enigmatic director through the thousands of boxes he left behind. Through interviews with the Kubrick family, his assistants, clips from Kubrick’s films and archival footage, the story of both Stanley Kubrick, and the creation of the boxes themselves becomes clear. The documentary also captures the final move of the boxes from their final home on the Kubrick estate in St. Albans, England to the University of the Arts London.

Ronson’s documentary offers insight into Kubrick’s life and artistic process but it also illuminates people’s relationship to what is left behind. As Ronson explores the boxes, he unveils the level of detail that Kubrick invested into all aspects of his work and life. For example, Kubrick even went so far as to create and manufacture perfectly fitting archival boxes, a touching feature close to many an archivist’s heart. Ronson’s movie connects directly to the archivist work; he shows what it means to be intimately connected to boxes and difficulties of trying to make sense out of what is left behind.

Not only does the movie deliver an avenue into Stanley Kubrick’s artistic world, it also offers a reminder of the experience of the donor. I was particularly moved by Kubrick’s wife, Christiane. She eloquently notes the sadness of the absence of Kubrick confirmed in the yellowing of pages but also the impossibility of throwing the boxes away: that it would be like burying the person twice. Her observation on the material was a poignant reminder that these boxes are not just containers of stuff but they are connected to people both living and dead.

For cinephiles, this documentary offers a glimpse into the life and work of a great director. For archivists, it is an engaging look at the archival process from an outside perspective. Ronson gets across the mysteries of looking at someone’s life in boxes and asks similar questions we have all asked about our own collections. The thousand boxes left behind tell many stories but most importantly they give us a look into the obsession, detail, and organization needed to make the masterpieces that Kubrick created. As Ronson notes “the boxes contain the rhythm of genius.”

Image credits for photos used in collage:

  1. Mask from Eyes Wide Shut By Marcel Oosterwijk from Amsterdam, The Netherlands [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
  2. Twins from The Shining By Yaffa Phillips (Eye, Amsterdam Uploaded by SunOfErat) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
  3. Peter Selllers in Dr. Strangelove By Directed by Stanley Kubrick, distributed by Columbia Pictures [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  4. “Stanley Kubrick Exhibit 008 (8771537660)” by Matthew Gallant from Santa Monica, California – Stanley Kubrick Exhibit 008 Uploaded by SunOfErat. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
  5. “Kubrick – Barry Lyndon candid” by Unknown photographer – eBay. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

REPS Recommends … Astray

Annalisa Moretti graduated from Simmons College in 2013. Currently, she works at MIT Libraries in Curation, Preservation, and Reformatting Services. She is the Website and Social Media Coordinator for REPS.

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Image credit: Goodreads
Image credit: Goodreads

Have you ever come across an obscure reference in a collection and wondered what the story behind it was? A court record containing a mysterious crime, a letter referencing a lost child, a newspaper article with an unresolved story? It’s these sorts of peculiar incidents which history has almost forgotten that form the basis of the fourteen short stories which make up Emma Donoghue’s collection, Astray.

Donoghue, author of the acclaimed novel Room, has gathered together tales of people on the fringes of history and given life to the bare details outlined in the documents which are the only records of their existence. Astray concerns characters who are all in some form of transition. Therefore, the book is broken into three sections: Departures, In Transit, and Arrivals and Aftermaths. Each story begins with a location and year, and ends with a short note in which Donoghue describes the documentary evidence that inspired her story.

For example, the first story, “Man and Boy”, takes us to nineteenth century London, into the mind of Matthew Scott, an elephant trainer employed by the London Zoo and the main caretaker of the famous elephant Jumbo. It details P. T. Barnum’s purchase of Jumbo and the ensuing controversy over the sale, as described in newspapers articles of the time. But it’s Scott’s and Jumbo’s deep affection and loyalty to each other, something too private and inaccessible for the London papers, which is Donoghue’s main concern.

Jumbo and Matthew Scott. Credit: Wikimedia Commons & Tufts Digital Library.
Jumbo and Matthew Scott. Credit: Wikimedia Commons & Tufts Digital Library.

Throughout Astray we become acquainted with a myriad of characters and settings, and it’s amazing how Donoghue convincingly brings to life some of these very disparate voices. “Last Supper at Brown’s”, set in Texas during the Civil War, reconstructs from newspaper articles and census records the tale of a slave and his master’s abused wife making a bid for freedom together. “Onward” delves into the letters of a famous author and philanthropist and focuses on one of the desperate families he tries to help. In “The Gift”, Donoghue follows, via the records of the New York Children’s Aid Society, the path of one of the many children sent away on the infamous Orphan Trains, and her biological mother’s desperate attempts to get her back. And in “The Lost Seed” we try to understand what lies behind some perplexing court records involving repressed passions and desperate loneliness among the early English inhabitants of seventeenth-century Nantucket.

I think that Astray holds a special sort of fascination for people like us — archivists and historians — because we are so used to puzzling over these enigmatic scraps of information. To see them brought to life and made three-dimensional by the trick of fiction is incredibly satisfying. In a way, it gets at the heart of what we do: preserve the record of yesterday and today so that at some point, others can try to understand what really happened.

REPS Recommends… The Cabinet of Curiosities

Abigail Cramer is the Librarian/Archivist at Historic New England, a member of the REPS steering committee, and a member of a handful of NEA Program Committees. Abby received her MLIS from Simmons College in 2012 and has a B.A. in English. She loves reading, loves her profession, and especially loves it when the two overlap.

The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Cabinet of Curiosities
Image credit: Goodreads.com.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s third installment in the Pendergast series might seem like an odd choice for a recommended read. The Preston and Child books are lightweight thrillers, and they’re honestly not great fiction. They are fast paced, fun, and make for great beach reading, but they are not to be taken seriously! Let’s just get that straight from the beginning.

If you can buy into the cheese-factor, the books in this series can be fun historical mysteries. They each take place in modern New York City and feature oddball FBI agent Pendergast, who appears to specialize in supernatural and/or creepy cases. Others in the series tend to have some sort of historical element to the mystery, but this one in particular is about a series of murders that took place long before the events of the book. It’s creepy, it’s a page turner, and in if you’re into that type of thing you’ll probably enjoy it.

What makes it fun for us book-folk is that this particular installment in the series includes a reclusive librarian as a recurring character. He’s many of the negative stereotypes about librarians, but he’s also the unsung hero of the book. His help is invaluable to Agent Pendergast, and we all know librarians are saving the world every day. I liked seeing that in print for once.

What do you think about The Cabinet of Curiosities? Tell us below!

Explore other REPS RecommendationsInterested in recommending something? Contact Abby (abigail.cramer[at]gmail.com).

REPS Recommends… Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

Abigail Cramer is the Librarian/Archivist at Historic New England, a member of the REPS steering committee, and a member of a handful of NEA Program Committees. Abby received her MLIS from Simmons College in 2012 and has a B.A. in English. She loves reading, loves her profession, and especially loves it when the two overlap.

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

Different Seasons
Image credit: Goodreads.com

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is one of four stories in Different Seasons by Stephen King. You’ve probably heard of and/or seen the film adaptation, The Shawshank Redemption, starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. The movie is great, but I love the novella even more.

The book is narrated by Red, an inmate in a prison who volunteers in the prison library. We learn, somewhat tangentially, that Red has helped a number of inmates through his work in the library, including helping people appeal court decisions and research legal issues. He’s also responsible for providing recreational reading material to the inmates, and one of the subtle themes of the story is the power of the written word in inspiring and helping those in need. That’s not really the point of the story, however, although it is the excuse I’ve used to include the story in this blog. 😉

The story is actually about the attempt by a fellow inmate to escape. He claims, as all the inmates do, that he was wrongfully imprisoned. The reader learns the truth of his story, and in the end roots for him. This is really a story about the power of hope in the face of wrongdoing, and it’s actually this theme that makes me so much more a fan of the novella than the movie. The endings of the two are only slightly different, but they make a world of difference in the final message. The movie ends (don’t worry, no spoilers) with a thorough resolution. The end is the end, and you know exactly what happened. The book is less final, ending on a hopeful note rather than a final resolution, which reinforces the theme of hope and positive expectation for the future. It’s an uplifting story, plus it’s clever and sneaky in all the right ways. I recommend reading the novella if you’ve only seen the movie, and I highly recommend doing both if you’ve never done either. And keep your eye out for the prison library!

What do you think about Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption? Tell us below!

Explore other REPS RecommendationsInterested in recommending something? Contact Abby (abigail.cramer[at]gmail.com).

REPS Recommends… The People of the Book

Abigail Cramer is the Librarian/Archivist at Historic New England, a member of the REPS steering committee, and a member of a handful of NEA Program Committees. Abby received her MLIS from Simmons College in 2012 and has a B.A. in English. She loves reading, loves her profession, and especially loves it when the two overlap.

The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book
Image credit: Goodreads.com.

The People of the Book is easily the best book I’ve read recently. It’s the story of a book conservator working on a very old volume, the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest illuminated Jewish texts. The Sarajevo Haggadah is a real book, and many of the historical events discussed in the book are real, but the characters and specific events they experience are fictional. It’s an excellent example of how to do historical fiction “right” in that regard, with a great balance of true history mixed with imagined lives.

The story unfolds using a pretty clever narrative device. The first chapter takes place in 1990s Sarajevo and follows the main character as she examines and conserves the Haggadah, removing particles and samples from the book in order to research the book’s history and thus help to uncover some of it’s remarkable journey across continents and centuries. The items she removes (a hair, the wing of a fly, a sample of a wine stain, and a sample of a salt water stain), each then become subsequent chapters of the book that are spaced evenly between further chapters about the conservator. The first chapter also exposes the reader to the recent history of Sarajevo.

Each of the chapters about the items removed from the book takes place in another time and place (other than 1990s Sarajevo). They work backwards, starting with the most recent addition to the book (the hair, deposited by the last conservator) and moving to the earliest element, thus telling the history of the book in reverse. What’s clever about Brooks’ method is that each of the episodes also reveals a period in Jewish history (and world history) as well.

The plot of the chapters that follow the conservator revolve around the history of the book, the conflict in Sarajevo, the conservator’s personal life, and the fate of the Haggadah. It’s incredibly well done. My only complaint was that I really didn’t like the conservator. I found her annoying and difficult (if not impossible) to relate to. Yet, even as I was experiencing that in the first chapter, I was also totally engrossed in the book to the degree that I quite literally felt transported to war torn Sarajevo, not an easy feat when riding the subway to work in the morning. But that’s how powerful it is: within the first 10 minutes of reading the book, I was completely absorbed, fascinated by the Haggadah, engrossed in the plot, and unwilling to put the book down. It’s an excellent work of historical fiction, and the details about the conservator’s work are great fun for those who find the handling of rare materials interesting.

What do you think about The People of the Book? Tell us below!

Explore other REPS RecommendationsInterested in recommending something? Contact Abby (abigail.cramer[at]gmail.com).

REPS Recommends… The House of the Spirits

Caitlin Birch is an Archives Assistant at Northeastern University Archives & Special Collections and a co-chair of REPS. Caitlin earned her MA and MSLIS from Simmons College in December 2013. When she’s not in archives mode, Caitlin enjoys running, swimming, field hockey, and reading.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Image credit: Goodreads.com.
Image credit: Goodreads.com.

Over the course of 50 years in the lives of three fictional generations, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits probes the concept of collective memory, animating it in a way that ought to appeal to readers of all types, but especially the archivists among us. Allende’s page-turner is set in post-colonial Chile and follows the Trueba and del Valle families as they become increasingly mired in the social revolutions and violence rocking the country. The story is narrated in non-linear fashion by a member of the family whose identity is veiled until the final pages of the book.

At the heart of the narration are the diaries kept by Clara del Valle. These “notebooks that bore witness to life” are filled with decades of family history and Clara’s observations over the course of her life, and as she prepares to die she collects them together, “arranging them according to events and not in chronological order, for the one thing she had forgotten to record was the date.” From this muddled original order, the narrator builds a looping family history, gripping and suspenseful as it darts back and forth through time. The words the narrator employs to describe the diaries apply with equal accuracy to Allende’s writing: “It was a world in which time was not marked by calendars or watches…the past and the future formed part of a single unit, and the reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of jumbled mirrors where everything and anything could happen.” If you’re an archivist intrigued by temporality, original order, and collective memory, or just a reader out for beautiful writing, an engaging story, and a deeply profound conclusion, I can’t recommend The House of the Spirits enough.

What do you think about The House of the Spirits? Tell us below!

Explore other REPS RecommendationsInterested in recommending something? Contact Abby (abigail.cramer[at]gmail.com).

REPS Recommends… The Historian

Abigail Cramer is the Librarian/Archivist at Historic New England, a member of the REPS steering committee, and a member of a handful of NEA Program Committees. Abby received her MLIS from Simmons College in 2012 and has a B.A. in English. She loves reading, loves being an archivist, and especially loves it when the two overlap.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian
Image credit: Goodreads.com.

Yes, The Historian is about Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula), and no, Dracula is not an archivist. You caught me.

BUT, this book does involve the main character doing historical research, and the descriptions of the libraries and archives she visits are swoon-worthy. This book does a great job of utterly transporting the reader to each place the narrator describes, including Turkey, Hungary, and other parts of eastern Europe, and I found the descriptions of ancient texts really appealing. It made me want to hop on a plane to Turkey immediately, completely regardless of the plot. The plot itself is also engaging, following a young woman in search of her father who has disappeared while researching myths about Vlad the Impaler. The story follows multiple timelines, one which follows the young woman’s journey, the other which retells her father’s research. Interestingly, you never learn the name of the young woman who narrates the 900 page book. The Historian‘s focus on vampire lore may not suit everyone, but it’s a great piece of historical fiction with all the mystery, suspense, and archival research a girl like me could want.

What do you think about The Historian? Tell us below!

Explore other REPS RecommendationsInterested in recommending something? Contact Abby (abigail.cramer[at]gmail.com).

REPS Recommends… The Archivist

Abigail Cramer is the Librarian/Archivist at Historic New England, a member of the REPS steering committee, and a member of a handful of NEA Program Committees. Abby received her MLIS from Simmons College in 2012 and has a B.A. in English. She loves reading, loves being an archivist, and especially loves it when the two overlap.

The Archivist by Martha Cooley

Martha Cooley’s novel about the archivist processing the sealed T.S. Eliot papers before they become public is an interesting exploration of archival work, and it is a book that raises a lot of ethical questions about our profession.

The novel is well written and intertwines a number of compelling and parallel stories. Cooley narrates some sections of the novel from the point of view of Matthias Lane, a late-career archivist. Another section of the novel is his wife’s diary, and another is a series of letters between T.S. Eliot and his lover, Emily Hale. It’s a great read, particularly if you’re interested in archives and literary history. It’s engrossing and moving, and while the book employs a lot of parallels between characters, Cooley manages to keep the stories genuine and believable. That is until the end. I loved this book until the last few pages. Really! But the final moments of the novel will leave every archivist who reads it wondering what on earth Cooley was thinking. [SPOILERS AHEAD].

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REPS Recommends… The Eyre Affair

Michelle Chiles is the Archivist for the Handel and Haydn Society and the Collections Assistant for the Noam Chomsky project at MIT. She is a co-chair of REPS and an active member of the NEA Education Committee. In her free time Michelle loves being outdoors, kayaking, reading, drinking lots of tea, and being crafty.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fford

Set in an alternate Great Britain circa 1985, The Eyre Affair is the first in the series featuring Thursday Next, literary detective. In a world where literature is central to everyday life, Ms. Next and her fellow literary detectives spend much of their time tracking forgeries, identifying unauthorized works, and stopping Baconian-Shakespearian debates from taking a violent turn.

While investigating the theft of a Dickens manuscript, Thursday learns that criminal mastermind and top suspect, Acheron Hades has plans to kidnap Jane Eyre directly from the pages of the novel. Hades has stolen a device allowing him to jump in to the pages of novels, wreaking havoc on the beloved plotlines and stealing characters. Thursday, however, has a few tricks up her sleeves, which readers will quickly discover.

As I finished The Eyre Affair for the first time, my first thought was, “When I grow up I want to be a literary detective and have a pet dodo!” Filled with familiar literary characters, extinct animals as pets, time travel, and a tantalizing crime to solve, The Eyre Affair is a great escape from reality while still feeling so familiar and comfortable.

What do you think about The Eyre Affair? Tell us below!

Explore other REPS Recommendations. Interested in recommending something? Contact Abby (abigail.cramer[at]gmail.com).