Friday, December 2, 2011

Pictures in words, needles in haystacks, and the price of a suntan

If you have ever done archival research, you know
that it can be a bit like
searching for a needle in a haystack.
(which, by the way, the French do, too, though they prefer
to look for their needles in bales, not stacks, of hay:
chercher une aiguille dans une botte de foin)

I would even argue that haystacks (or bales)
are easier than archives:
although the pen is mightier than the sword,
it's hard to prick your finger on a word.

Most of the people who generated all that paper disappeared without
ever suspecting that the things
they were scratching out on those pages would be preserved in a heavy box
and trundled from dim shelf to dim research carrel
by people wearing cotton gloves.

And thank goodness they never suspected:
the most unsuspecting of their pen scratches
are the unexpected pinpricks that keep you awake as you work,
winking reminders that the past isn't always a blur,
that boredom has ever been the same
and that no matter how dusty and dry the task,
we all enjoy a bit of whimsy.

This doodle was drawn by a list-maker in Tunisia
at the turn of the last century.

And speaking of mysterious words (see my last post),
his list is full of them:
1 suntan, 1 khodfu, and 1 chasuch
will set you back 3,360 francs.

I'm sure such glittering treasures are worth the money,
but the legs on that officer are really priceless.

1 comment:

Bob Richmond said...

Well, I Googled "khodfu" which promptly found me your blog. "Chasuch" was more interesting - it led me to a "Paralingua" which is a pseudo-language, actually just a random word generator, works sort of like the Voynich manuscript but faster.

Didn't know you were still doing archival research!