My resolve to blog more frequently seems to have failed rather quickly. I’ll try to start back up again–I was inspired with Anne’s words on the department’s guide to the orals saying how she did a brain dump two days after finishing a book.

I spent about 6 or so hours reading the Illustrated London News in the Butler stacks at Columbia on Tuesday (you should go there just to see how spooky it is). My impressions?

  1. It’s heavy. I took two volumes, for the first and second half of 1860. The issues aren’t incredibly long–it’s a weekly, and the first of each month seems to be longer, and then issues can get down to about 8 pages. But it’s bound in a folio volume. The paper’s done really well–it didn’t feel fragile, so it must be rag paper, and hence doesn’t have to suffer the “slow fire” that’s making other nineteenth-century periodicals almost literally turn to dust when handled. So yeah, heavy, especially when it’s two volumes.
  2. The writing is tiny–like less than 8 point, I think. I get annoyed by small writing, but I usually have no trouble reading it–but I can imagine going blind reading this on a regular basis. I wonder–did many Victorians require a magnifying lens to read their precious periodicals? Why is the writing so small when the text in books tends to be so much bigger and spacey than current books? Is it because the rag paper was expensive and they wanted to economize? Or to make postage costs lower? The writing’s tiny, but the pictures are huge. Most issues have a centerfold (actually, it’s folded twice) with text on one side and either one big picture, or two pictures side by side, or a panorama and other pictures/texts beneath it. And these are BIG pictures–given that a single folio sheet is probably about the same size as your average Playboy centerfold. I would imagine.
  3. I did get a sense of the paper’s politics. One of the things that I’ve been ashamed of from having most of my knowledge of the archive done through database searching is that I haven’t been able to appreciate individual journals’ political stances. The ILN is conservative, although very much a don’t rock the boat conservatism rather than the mindlessly indignant “conservatism” of today. They’re pretty much fine with whatever the government does, like the books reviewed, and the journals they review. Yes, there’s a section once a month reviewing the major monthlies (Blackwood, Fraser, Cornhill (started in 1860), New Monthly Review). They can be either average or good–kind of like academic book reviews these days. Very little editorializing, and a focus on reporting what other people are saying–which of course can at times be very revealing nonetheless.
  4. Characteristics of supposedly postmodern features of media are in full effect. There’s one section called “Epitome of Foreign and Domestic News,” where each “story” is a maximum of two lines long. And news items in other sections can be really short too. E.g. “Mr W. Nichol, of Peckham, shot himself through the heart on Wednesday at the Lambeth Baths.” And that’s it. There’s fashion reporting once a month, with usually three dresses illustrated. They comment on the fashion of the month–and fashion these days seems to be periodized into the season at the smallest span of time.
  5. When they review literature, they don’t just mean novels. I think the majority of works were non-fiction: biography, history, popular science.

I chose 1860 since I was interested in illustrations of the Second Opium War. I don’t think I’m going to incorporate those illustrations into any current project, but it definitely gave me a much better sense of the “synchronous” at 1860. I.e., instead of thinking, first Crimean War, then Sepoy Uprising, then Second Opium War, my impression was: conflict between Spain and Morocco, tension and then commercial treaty between England and France, Napoleon trying to annex Savoy and Nice, Garibaldi in Italy, and the expedition and then warfare in China, the formation of Rifle Volunteer groups across Britain, scattered mention of the controversy around Darwin (they were not impressed–only negative review I saw was of a book called Pre-Adamite Man)–all going on at the same time. The Second Opium War was a major news event, despite all this going on. It was often mentioned as the top item of concern in parliamentary discussions. It was interesting to see that there was a big build-up to it–as in, there’d be updates every week about what troops were rallied where.
And–it felt weird reading it. When’s the last time anybody read those pages? I kept on thinking about the brilliant title-screen at the end of Barry Lyndon that reminds us that the people in the story are all dead now. Who was this “Mr. W. Nichol, of Peckham”? Does he have any descendents who are alive today? Why did he kill himself, shoot himself in the heart? (Suicides, completed and attempted, were a fairly standard news item to report). It felt eerie writing down the name about somebody who will probably never be named again, and about whom we’ll probably never know anything more about. And yet–when he killed himself, could he have dreamed that almost 150 years later, some Chinese-born-Canadian queer grad student in New York would be writing about him?