Currently viewing the category: "History of Memory"

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1964

The "encyclopedia" is not just an encyclopedia, but The Encyclopedia, the great and costly work of Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783). It was published as Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (English: "Encyclopaedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts") between 1751 and 1772, and was mudded in controversy for just about the entire time. Diderot was a great product of the Enlightenment, and managed to write on matters that could offend politicians and theologians to such a point hat the publication and even the writing of the work was suspended from time to time, and the author/editor saw a need to flee the country for a time. It was seen as a seditious book, and Diderot paid the price for it–it was however, a successful enterprise, and a crowning achievement in the gathering of good information of the 18th century, and is today–in its 28 volumes, 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations–an indispensable resource to the times.

Diderot frontispiece detail 1

The image above is a detail from the frontispiece to the work. It was designed by C.N. Cochin fils (1764) and engraved by B.L. Prevost 1772). The full very highly flavored Baroque image is here:

Diderot frontispiece[The image is very deeply clickable]

In the end and in the beginning, the Encyclopedie was dedicated to Truth. And in the gauzy, veiled, billowing cloud architectural ionic temple of truth we find the subject Truth herself, front-and-center, surrounded by her admirers offering their trade and belief, while some–reason and Philosophy attempt to hold back her veils. She towers high above all, and there may be an order to the aspiring logics and arts as they are placed further down the pyramid of truth, though I'm not sure about that. On the bottom level, for example, we find Music, Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, areas which may be perceived as good foundations for everything else. High above that though we can see Theology (catching the best light in the image and holding an open Bible), and then Memory, Ancient and Modern History (already recording the events as they unfold in front of her, with "ancient" holding a Sphinx). In the middle of the group seems to be the best of them: the sciences, including Geometry, Astronomy and Physics, which are just above Optics (holding, Botany, Agriculture and Chemistry.

It isn't nearly the same, but the composition of the image and the organization of the encyclopedia (which is more-or-less divided into threads of associated articles rather than the standard encyclopedic work) have some vague similarities…

For all of their troubles, Diderot looks like a complacent sort in his portraits; d'Alembert (a polymath and prodigiously gifted mathematician) is usually seen with a very sweet smile. Interesting.

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post

This image stabbed me right in the eyeball. It popped out while I was grazing in a heavy lap-busting volume of The Illustrated London News for 26 March 1949–the yearly volume resists being held in just one hand. Anyway it was first a photo of new tanks in an American cavalry regiment; beneath that, though, was this image:

Negro troops980

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1957

Five years and 2,200 posts ago, in the young pages of this blog, I wrote a short bit on what might have been the most obscure and removed reference to the American involvement in the Vietnam War, here. It appeared in the 5 April 1954 issue of the Atomic Times, which was a newspaper of sorts produced by the U.S. Army and printed on a mimeographed, single-sheet page, and distributed at
the tip, or bottom, of a very skinny piece of nearly-circular land far out in
the Pacific Ocean at Eniwetok Atoll, 5 April
1954. The piece of news related to the hoped-for victory of the French Expeditionary Force in the doomed garrison of Dien Bien Phu: “French troops have been
parachuted into the Indo-Chinese fortress of Dien Bien Phu to join weary defenders in their battle with the Communists. French officials now have a high hope pf a
French victory, and they say the Communists cannot possibly continue their
assault unless they receive thousands of reinforcements”. Of course, this was not the case, and the French were badly defeated there, spelling out the beginning of their end in that country and about the earliest beginnings of American involvement in their place.

Then a remarkable thing happened. I was reading in a small cache of mimeographed newsletters called The Parry Island Breeze, which was also produced by the U.S. military (Army engineers?) on Parry Island, which was just down the end of the long arm of slender island from Eniwetok in the Marshal Islands group. This issue (volume 16, No. 5) was released on 6 April 1954, and it was–like the Atomic Times–a legal sheet printed on two sides. In the second column, for the day following the Atomic Times notice, we see the following:

Parry Island 2963
Again! There was no victory in sight for the French at Dien Bien Phu in April, and only misery and heroism and bitterness and death and division lay ahead in the coming month, and then too in the coming decades.

In the first week of April ,1954, the French garrison was just about conquered–there would be one more month of agony to endure before the Vietminh would claim full victory.


After an eight-week siege, the garrison was defeated. Badly. Brilliantly. The French were
overrun by the Viet Minh forces on 7 May 1954, effectively ending the First Indochina War and the French presence in Southeast Asia came to the end. And here, probably cranked out by hand in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a narrow bit of land separating vast collections of ocean, on long narrow strips of earth from which many nuclear tests were conducted, news reached the soldiers and sailors stationed here about the coming French victory in Vietnam. Of course not even the French knew at the time that the Vietminh army was tunneling its way through the mountains surrounding the garrison, carrying up large cannons in small bits and pieces up through "impenetrable" jungle mountain slopes to install into those tunnels once they breached the other side of the mountain so that they could fire down onto the French. All of that was yet to come. In April, there was a certain bit of hope, but I think in reality it was on fire.

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 12 (from 2008, expanded in December 2012)

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Can We See More or Less than We Used To Be Able To See?

An early study of attention and perception (or “How Many Items Can it Embrace at Once?”) popped out at me while muscling my way through another year of Nature magazine for 1871. The article was by the polymatic W. Stanley Jevons ("The Power of Numerical Discrimination," in Nature volume III, 18711) who contributes an interesting and very early experimental bit on the success of the brain to correctly formulate an accurate memory when in a flash shown a number of items. (That is to say, when shown a certain group of X-number of items instantaneously and then removed, how often will the mind be able to remember the correct number upon recall–and without committing them to memory per se or counting them?) In this fascinating study Jevons records not only right/wrong answers but how "close" the remembered fit is to the original number, and in effect is a pioneering scientific effort towards understanding our abilities and limits in information processing. And as it turns out the ability to precisely recognize and remember groups of objects with success and without counting stops at about four items for the vast number of people texted. (It is another display of a famous four, including the four faces of Brahma, directions, Gospels, minute mile, playing card suits, seasons, corners of a square, virtues, color problem and of course four- letter words, to name a few.)

Jevons numerical 1
[Source: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections, here.]

Its important to distinguish Jevons’ experimental work on apprehension from earlier (and much earlier) philosophicalJevonsbruno_2
and semi-scientific work on memory formation and retention. This of course goes back as far or as deep as you want to go—taking a stab at random we’ll use Simonides who while trying to organize poetry and other data in his head came upon the idea of using Mnemonics and using associative processes in art and poetry to establish his own history of memory. (I should point out that one of the early-modern experimenters in the formation of memory was Giordano Bruno (at right) who wound up being tortured and burnt at the stake for other offense against The God while trying to formulate a truthful approach to science; evidently the memories that would be threatened by his scientific approach proved to be too much for the righteous in power, and he was removed before he could threaten corrective memory any further.)

It is interesting that many of the crimes of science punished by the Catholic Church during this period (1450-1650) were as much crimes against memory than they were crimes against the future—changing and challenging collective memory often proved fatal.

Getting back to Jevons—who was a very smart guy and who applied himself to a number of fields, not the least of which was constructing a logic machine: his experiment proved to be a springboard for a host of others, some of which didn’t do Jevons justice, misreporting his finding, misrepresenting the stuffy, and so forth. Perhaps the greatest of these was the greatest of the efforts based on his—Raymond Cattell —who for some reason stated in his very influential textbook of 1907 that humans can remember around 7 things (without counting) when the objects are flashed before their eyes. And for a hundred years this figure stuck, even though the Jevons report issued a more complex summation, and saying, anyway, that the number was around 10.

And what bothered me a bit with the Jevons experiment is what people remembered when shown the objects (beans)—would his results have varied if subjects were asked how many were shiny or odd-colored or deformed or whatever rather than just a simple number, the results could’ve been more interesting. (I don’t doubt that these issues have been taken up in the 20th century but haven’t looked). Sometimes people are just looking in the wrong places—for example operant psychology labs tested rats via visual stimuli until it was discovered that rats were olfactory geniuses and that humans were using them wrong all along.

It would be interesting to know what the history is of human capacity for image formation. Considering the growth of distractions and the enormous amount of true and trash stimuli—visual bombardment from television, outdoor advertisements, the sheer amount of growth of human construction and interaction—have humans enhanced this spatial/memory information processing capacity? Consider the growth of (just) eye movements over the last few hundred years, with the visual sense being subjected (for all classes of people) to enormously and fractally-expanded print sources, television, digital communication and so on—has this expanded this neural capacity? Has "space invaders" aided bean counting?

I don’t know, though I do wonder (literally) what the effect exponentially-growing mass input of (mostly junk) data might be doing to our noggins. Maybe the effects lean more towards dissolving privacy and reflective time—when does a person think if interruptive stuff is coming into your head at all points of the day, with the brain trying to interpret incomplete and ambiguous strings of sensory inputs?

Seems scary to me. Maybe memory is affected, maybe it makes it go away, shriveled because recollection is being eliminated. Or demented like the wonderful Yossarian (his first name is John, btw) from Joe Heller’s beautiful Catch-22 who develops for himself a condition in which he remembers everything twice (whatever that means).

It would be interesting to see a war of societies in which the sides were a culture that rememberJevonsborges7
nothing versus a culture that remembered everything. The unspeakably lovely Jorge Borges wrote something touching on this in "Fumes the Memorist," in which the humble narrator is capable of forgetting nothing, being able to recall explicitly everything within eyesight, perfectly—the problem is though that it takes a day to remember the events of another day. What would happen in such a culture where everyone forgot nothing?


And I’ve just been dealing here with visual memory, really—and as Proust makes plainly clear (and Borges and other prove), vision isn’t everything.

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1745

The firm that produced crematroia for numerous Nazi death camps managed to stay in business in Wiesbaden until 1963.

What happened to the firm J.A. Topf & Sohn (of Erfurt), the company that supplied the mass incineration devices, the crematoria, used by the Nazis at concentration and extermination camps (from 1939-1945) including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Belzec, Dachau, Mauthausen and Gusen ?

Well, in general, most of it dissolved, and the company’s CEO, Ludwig Topf, committed suicide in May 1945.

Ludwig’s brother–Ernst-Wolfgang, 1905-1979–however, escaped prosecution and re-started the company in the late 1940′s, operating a crematorium business in Germany until the new Topf business went into bankruptcy in 1962. It sold mostly refuse/garbage grade incinerators, but, still, there it was.

Topf liste

[Circular for Topf describing the crematoria they constructed for the Nazis; of particular interest in this page is the entry for May 11, 1942, for a crematorium for "“continuousoperation corpse cremation oven for mass use". Source: here.]

Topf pruferThe leaders of Topf firm would argue after the end of the war that they did not know what the crematoria were really being used for, despite numerous visits for site inspection and repair to Auschqitz and Dachau. Karl Pruefer, the original designer of teh ovens, revealed on interrogation by Soviet officials just after the war that “I have known since spring 1943 that innocent human beings were being liquidated in Auschwitz gas chambers and that their corpses were subsequently incinerated…” There can be little doubt that Topf knew exactly what was going on with their crematoria–in fact, at one point, Kurt Pruefer (pictured at left, in Soviet custody, undated, from Der Spiegel, Archiv) suggested that the use of his crematoria at the extermination camps actually saved lives by disposing of diseased corpses and preventing the spread of fatal diseases and epidemics.(The exact early reference was to preventing the spread of typhus in Buchenwald in 1939. The Nazis adopted a practice in some of the mostly-Russian camps in the East of introducing typhus-laden prisoners into general population so that the disease would spread and aid in the extermination of the camp inhabitants.)

Topf[Topf, still in business, 1953]

The two Topf brothers claimed innocence for themselves and for their company; Ludwig committed suicide because he and his firm had done nothing wrong, and had felt beaten by lawless countries and did not intend to be taken captive by them; feeling that justifying his actions would be impossible, he killed himself on 30 May 1945. The text from his suicide note is below.1

The evidence against the firm was exceptional and substantial, an example of which (from the Nuremberg Trials, is seen below2), and their culpability overwhelming. I’m not sure how Ernst -Wolfgang was able to survive the various net that he managed to wiggle through (unlike a number of other of the firm’s officials who wound up being captured by the Soviets and whisked away to cold justice far from Moscow), but he did; and not only that, but was able to start over in the business that he knew best, keeping it running until 1963, well into a time when it was recognized that the shell of buildings from his old business be kept intact as a memory to horror.


1) Farewell letter by Ludwig Topf, May 30, 1945 (excerpt, underlining in original) (from Topf und Sohne website)

“If I have made the decision to evade arrest it is for the following reason: I have lost all belief in any law in this world now that my family has also done me so much wrong and harm. If I am arrested, the greatest of all wrongs will be done to me. I never consciously or intentionally did anything bad; instead it has been done to me.
I was never cowardly – but I was proud. Handing myself over to the mercy or mercilessness of a foreign country is something I cannot do, because I have learnt the bitter lesson that there is no law and no decency left in this world. That is why I, as a decent person, today have one remaining opportunity to determine my fate as I see fit. And that means immediate departure from a world that in general has become unbearable, and in particular has persecuted and wronged me.”
“If I ever believed that my innocence as far as the crematoria are concerned (and my brother is just as innocent) would be recognized and honoured, I would continue to fight for justification, as I always have until now – but I think people need a sacrifice. In which case the least I can do is provide it myself. I was always decent – the opposite of a Nazi – the whole world knows that. If I were still able to feel at peace in the heart of a family, the struggle would be worthwhile – but the Topf family that showed composure, integrity and self-confidence has ceased to exist. I was its sole representative as far as that was concerned. Indeed I am so alone that I have no need to ask anyone’s forgiveness, not even for a suicide.”

2) From the Nuremberg Trials, Day 193, 2 August 1946 [Source, Yale University, Project Avalon]:

“In the office records of the Auschwitz Camp there was discovered a voluminous correspondence between the administration of the camp and the firm of Topf and Sons. Among them the following letters:

” ‘I. A. Topf and Sons, Erfurt; 12 February 1943.

” ‘To Central Construction Of lice of SS and Police, Auschwitz.

” ‘Subject: Crematoria 2 and 3 for the camp for prisoners of war.

” ‘We acknowledge receipt of your wire of 10 February, as follows:

” ‘We again acknowledge receipt of your order for five triple furnaces, including two electric lifts for raising the corpses and one emergency lift. A practical installation for stoking coal WAS also ordered and one for transporting the ashes. You are to deliver the complete installation for Crematorium Number 3. You are expected to take steps to ensure the immediate dispatch of all the machines complete with parts.’ “

“I omit the next document which deals with “bath-houses for special purposes” (gas chambers), and present to the Tribunal as Exhibit Number USSR-64 (Document Number USSR-64), a document which is appended to the report of the Yugoslav Government. This is a certified photostat of a document externally having all the official character of a business document from a “sound business firm.” The name of the firm is Didier-Werke. The subject of the correspondence-the construction of crematoria “designed for a large camp in Belgrade.” The document presented by me characterized the firm Didier as a firm with considerable experience in construction of crematoria for concentration camps and which advertised itself as a firm that understood the demands of its clients. For placing the bodies. into the furnace, the firm designed a special conveyer with a two-wheeled shaft. The firm claimed that it could fill this order much better than any other firms, and asked for a small advance, to draw up draft plans for the construction of a crematorium in the camp.

JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post [Part of the History of Memory series.]

I found this fantastic cross-section of the Harper & Brothers publishing house in Jacob Abbott's The Harper Establishment, or, How the Story Books are Made, published of course and thankfully by Harper in 1855, and found in its entirety here

Sectional view of the Cliff Street building.The whole of the enterprise is explained on pp 43-49 (here). I'd really like to return to this image at some point, because there are more detailed engravings in the book to match every section of the building, and to me it looks like this image could be turned into a 19th Century Printing and Publishing Board Game.

What I was interested in right now was the box on the extreme bottom-right, which turns out to be The Vaults–this is the central memory core of this publisher, a 200-foot-long, 8×8' corridor lined with the original plates for all of the publications of the firm. The plates for their single-volume version of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick would've been put down there just a few years ago.

Interior of the Vaults.

"The plates are stored in subterranean vaults built under the streets that surround the building. The entrance to these vaults has already been shown in the sectional view of the Cliff Street building, on page 42. A more enlarged view is shown on the preceding page. The vaults extend under ground for two hundred feet in length, and in dimensions are eight feet wide by eight feet high. They are shelved on both sides, and the shelves are loaded with plates–stereotype or electrotype–representing all the works published in the establishment. There is one plate for every page of every one of the many hundreds of volumes which the house publishes, making from fifty to seventy tons in all."

"When a new edition of any book is required, the plates are brought out from these vaults and put upon the presses. When the work is finished, they are taken back again to the vaults."

JF Ptak Science Books Post 1738 [Part of the series on the History of Memory.]

Fact: toys have souls. Or, if we can establish that in this case a "fact" can be so identified, then a "fact" this must be.

Toys 6 det325
I've stumbled onto a remarkable short story in Punch's Almanack for 1892 (as part of Punch, or the London Charivari) called "The Evolution of a Toy Soul, or Nursery Karma". This piece establishes that toys have souls, that they have an inner, thinking, emotional existence which is capable of Karma and reincarnation, a life of their own–lives of their own. Cognizant, penetrative, analytical. And a toy.

The story is told partially in the first person, in the voice of a toy who recounts its long series of births and rebirths–eleven (so far) in all–and its (his or her's) long experiences. And this all more than a hundred years before Toy Story. I don't know this literature very well, not really, but so far I have not found other "toys have souls" stories, nor have I been able to find out anything about this particular toy story, with searches done in JSTOR and Google and a host of other repositories turning up nothing at all. Its a puzzling thing, really, because it is a wonderful story.

In a brief summary, our toy soul starts out it life ("my first birth") as a rubber ball ("the body in which I first became conscious of my existence"). The toy soul figures too that it must be its first body, because there is no lower entry point in toydom, except, as is noted, for a brick, which happens to be not-really-a-toy.

"My Second Birth" find the toy soul returned to the nursery as a Ninepin, a Ninepin King, who lives part of its life in the hands of a ("quite mad") human child who dresses the Ninepin in dolls clothes and fabric.

"My Third Birth": "the law of Karma has mysteries which are hid even from the initiated, and I am still at a loss to explain how it came about that I was next incorporated in an Organ Top", which was basically a spinning top that produced a melody of some sort.

"My Fourth Birth": "I was advanced at a bound" in Karmic hierarchy by being held in the form of a fur monkey with bead teeth and glass eyes. Here our toy soul has a recollection of its earlier self as a musical top, as it leaves with the monkey a "chronic melancholy", who takes care (as it were) of a sick girl for a long period of time, and then in the end is given over to a careless boy, and ends up burning in a fireplace.

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1713 [Part of a series on the History of Memory]

Poe is not so remembered today by the general public as an essayist, and less so as his almost-forgotten career as a book reviewer and literary critic. Creator (perhaps) of the genres of science fiction and the detective form, a master of suspense, an agent of words, poet and short story writer, editor, yes; maker of taste and keeper of logical insight in literature, well, maybe not so much.

But the weight of it all is that Poe may have been America's greatest literary critic of the 19th century,–perhaps more than that. And it may have led to Poe being remembered for some not very savory things, some everlasting iconic and not-necessarily true I-cannot-tell-a-lie Poeisms that are known by the social mind. For example, a bad review may have bought him this obituary as a huge helping of pay-back:

"EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars…"–by "Ludwig","Death of Edgar A. Poe, New York Daily Tribune, October 9, 1849, page 2, columns 3-4. [Full text here.]

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JF Ptak Science Books Post 1698 [Part of the History of Lines series.]

[All images below via the Library of Congress, The Chinese in California, 1850-1925]

Part of this blog's history of line series inevitably deals with some of our planet's most cutting lines: barbed wire. Talking about just the United States for the moment, it cut land into small, bite-sized chunks in the parceling-out and extinction of expansion in the American Westward movements, and has done pretty much the same in keeping apart the races in some areas of the country where the legal/social/cultural lines begged for steel more than paper. Such is the case in these remarkable photographs from San Francisco

Chinatown barbed wire 2
And the full image:

Chinatown barbed wire
["The Barb-Wire Barricade: From The Wave: v. 21, Jan. - July 1900: no. 21, page 7: Scenes Outside the Chinatown Quarantine Lines, San Francisco".]

Chinatown three gracesThe reason for this barbed wire in the streets of San Francisco was simple–it was a quarantine of Chinese people who were thought to be infested with bubonic plague. The reasons for this were simple and racist–given that the Chinese were seen from (at the very least) the 1860's to be an "inferior" and "degraded"1 race, living in close quarters and in fair squalor at times (given the wages that they were paid and the abuses they suffered from the Chinese Exclusion Acts), and given the codified racist sentiments against them, it was seen that these people were capable of spreading the diseases via their very presence and "vapors". (At least one of these "three graces" of "malarium", "small-pox" and leprosy were seen as coming directly from Chinatown in San Francisco. See notes #1 for source.)

And so up went the barbed wire, "and no Chinese American was allowed to leave the area bounded by California, Kearny, Broadway, and Stockton streets"2. This of course restricted the access of Chinese immigrants and Chinese-American citizens, and held for some three months, prohibiting access out and in, meaning that food was in short supply, prices for goods and food went very high, and many Chinese businesses suffered loss and closure. At the end of three months, the barbed wire quarantine was lifted, and of course not one case of plague was reported among the Chinese population.

There is a long history to this sort of thinking, as we find that, for example, in the 1875/6 smallpox epidemic San Francisco's father's determined that one cause might be the Chinese, and had all of the houses in Chinatown fumigated. This of course had nothing to do with the epidemic; yet, at the end of it all, "the city health officer, J. L. Meares, offered the following explanation: I unhesitatingly declare my belief that the cause is the presence in our midst of 30,000 (as a class) of unscrupulous, lying and treacherous Chinamen, who have disregarded our sanitary laws, concealed and are concealing their cases of smallpox."3

Here's another image from the 1900 quarantine:
Chinatown 2--the ropes
["A Conversation Across the Ropes: From The Wave: v. 21, Jan. - July 1900: no. 21, page 7: Scenes Outside the Chinatown Quarantine Lines, San Francisco" Publisher: Wave Publishing Company.]

And another, keeping San Francisco "clean and healthy" with barbed wire and rope.

Chinatown 3 barbed wire
["No Admittance: From The Wave: v. 21, Jan. - July 1900: no. 21, page 7: Scenes Outside the Chinatown Quarantine Lines, San Francisco."]

Another example of the institutionalized despoilment of the Chinese is seen here in an 1880 Board of Health pronouncement on the state of Chinatown in San Francisco was an official "nuisance", and that the "Chinese cancer:" must be cut out: "The Chinese cancer must be cut out of the heart of our city, root and branch, if we have any regard for its future sanitary welfare . . . with all the vacant and health territory around this city, it is a shame that the very centre be surrendered and abandoned to this health-defying and law-defying population. We, therefore, recommend that the portion of the city here described be condemned as a nuisance; and we call upon the proper authorities to take the necessary steps for its abatement without delay."4

And of course examples can go on and on–but there is really nothing quite like seeing a racial sentiment transferred into a three-dimensional object–like a barbed wire fence going down the middle of a street in San Francsico, in 1900–to drive home a message of learned bad thinking.


1. An excellent article by Joan B. Trauner, "The Chinese as Medical Scapegoats in San Francisco, 1870-1905," California History, Vol. LVII, No. 1 (Spring 1978), pp. 70-87. Full text is available online with an academic account.

2. Source: History of Chinese Americans in California, the 1900's, blog here.

3. Trauner, ibid. Page 73

4. _____, pg 75.

[The question on the future of the bookstore was put to me an hour ago--this is my reaction. It follows a post I made just yesterday on a related topic.]

I've owned a specialty rare/uncommon bookstore for the history of physics and math since 1985. From 1985-2002 it was a brick-and-mortar location that existed mostly in Georgetown, D.C., with a warehouse in Silver Spring, Maryland. At one point it may well have been among the largest/most complete stores of its kind in the U.S. Now it is entirely online, and even with that, most of the business is very direct offers to particular institutions. My online store was inaugurated in 1999; by 2000, I noticed that in-town customers were buying things of the store online, and foot traffic in the store began to decline. By the Spring of 2002, it was very clear that–so far as making sales were concerned–the walk-in store would not make economic sense, tomorrow. It seemed that the future arrived very quickly.

So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut said. In Georgetown in the mid-1990's there were perhaps a dozen bookstores; after I left, in 2002, there were four, including a fine new bookshop, a Barnes and Noble, a donation shop, and nationally-regarded antiquarian shop. The donation shop and the two new bookstores remain, and I think a paperback shop as well. So far as I can determine, there are no walk-in antiquarian bookshops in Washington D.C.

The bookstore as devices and stores of memory may become a memory itself. Or perhaps–like libraries–they will survive with an old name but a new purpose. (And this not in the sense as brand names have survived, like say the Chevy Impala which underneath it all is still an automobile; not so I think for the bookstore.) But I think they will mostly, entirely, fade away, unless they're cobbled in with something else of associated value to give them a Dorian Gray-ish future life. Compared to what the bookstore has become since, say, 2000, it enjoyed a relatively unbroken run of success and sameness for the distribution of knowledge and as a potential storehouse of wisdom for some 440 years. Data distribution is now entirely different, generally bypassing the old method(s) of parsing information out into society.

Woodblock books put scribes out of business, moveable type did in the woodblock cutters; books in general were seen as a threat to storytellers and the theater; the telegraph was seen as a curse to letter writing and a bane to prolonged thought, as was the telephone that replaced the telegraph; radio threatened everything and was replaced by television, which taught people what "threat" really looked like. Then of course there came Pine and email, and the world wide web, and the easy/basically free access to incredible and vast sources of social interaction…and that is only the beginning of the communication "revolution".

Bookstores as stores selling books seems to me to be becoming a memory in itself–the good or bad of it is not yet the issue. The larger piece of this issue may well be how information is packaged and how it is found, with the subsequent issue of how the stuff is interpreted and analyzed as an end bit, which may well be determined by how it is found or accessed–and that may well be a major cause for concern.

And so the bookstore might come to pass like the Parisian water carrier. Even though this might have been the way to get the cleanest, brightest, sweetest, coldest water in all of Paris, it is hard to argue with just being able to go to a fountain or turn on a spigot.