Raiders of the Lost Archives: Esearch and lamenting the end of the thrill of discovery amid dusty, uncatalogued manuscripts
She was going to a conference on biography at the University of Southern California, Sarah Churchwell said, and intended to make her first trip to the Huntington Library. Did I know it?
Yes, I muttered, I worked for 25 years half a mile down the deodar-arched road. When I first went there, you had to walk through the institute’s fragrant orange groves to get to the reading room. After I secured a job at the California Institute of Technology (a post that elicited awe, until your interlocutor realised you were not a rocket scientist), I spent eight years virtually every working day (classroom “work” was not crushing at Caltech) on a labour of love, an encyclopedia of Victorian fiction. Yes, I knew the place.
It is the most civilised library anywhere, set as it is in the finest dry gardens outside Mexico (cactus rustlers are a constant threat) and the best art gallery on the West Coast. One of my friends said that if she died and went to Heaven, she would expect St Peter to ask for her Huntington reader’s card at the pearly gates.
Churchwell is the scholarly equivalent of an electric storm. Ten minutes with her is a Christopher Walken hair-job. She has a book on The Great Gatsby coming out soon. Careless People will hot-cake off the Kindle e-shelf and the Amazon warehouse so fast that Little, Brown will be reprinting before Times Higher Education gets its review out.