Thinking Inside The Box

Like your average cat, I am endlessly fascinated by boxes (and bags, bins, baskets, cabinets, cupboards, and crates, files, folders, folios, etc.). Or, rather, perhaps it’s more accurate to say this: I am endlessly fascinated by the many ways in which containers (considered both physically and conceptually) structure their contents. This fascination informs both the broad selection of junk in my house (a container to discuss at another time) and some of my academic interests.

One of the ways in which my interest in containers manifested itself when I was in graduate school in philosophy (although I would not have understood it this way at the time) was in the creation of a couple of weird little scrapbooks as a sort of experiment. They were plain, cheap, ring-bound photo books with black covers and black paper, and in them I pasted a selection of newspaper cartoons, copies of photos, snippets of newspaper and magazine articles (mostly about supernatural occurrences and alien abduction stories — The X-Files caught me at just the right time when it came on the air in 1993), a snippet of the occasional semi-serious psychology or philosophy article, and clippings from News of the Weird. I never labeled these things, and I never added any explanatory notations — I just…collected, clipped, copied, and pasted. I assembled my snippets together in an order that, if not entirely random, was certainly not especially deliberate or planned; things were put in the book more or less in the order in which I came across them, and sometimes that meant that themes arose as the discovery of one snippet led me to research something that generated another snippet on a related topic. Rarely, I followed a specific topic or story through several pages in a row; usually, I broke things up so that I didn’t feel like I had too many of the same kind of thing together, although I didn’t really have a hard-and-fast rule about it. The resulting effect (through some sort of weird intellectual pareidolia — a phenomenon well represented in my clippings, as it happened) was something like an alchemical text or some other esoteric tome built in code, simultaneously obscure and yet nonetheless apparently meaningful.* I look back now at this little project (post-MLIS) and think of it as an instance in which the container and mode of assembly created a context for the items it contained such that the whole collection became readable or meaningful in a way only indirectly (evidentially?) related to the individual items thus collected.

During that same time period, I also came across a fun item at a used bookstore (a find that actually inspired my silly little experiment), which I still own and pull out to play with every now and again.

Book cover

The box/cover for the 1983 US printing (by Quill, New York) of Simon Goodenough’s “Murder Dossier” presentation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet

In 1983, a UK company called Web & Bower published a fun version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet in the form of a dossier (edited and conceived by Simon Goodenough, who did similar “murder dossier” treatments for The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles), including letters, diary entries, copies of photos, police reports, newspaper clippings, telegrams, letters, diaries, maps, and assorted small bits of “evidence” (Holmes’ card, a gold (plastic) wedding ring, pills (only one remains in my copy), the maker’s label from a hat). The conceit of the piece is that a certain fellow (coincidentally named Simon Goodenough) discovered a collection of Dr. Watson’s documents in a dispatch box, and shared some of it with Webb & Bower. The contents of the dossier appear to be Watson’s notes, as shared with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so that he might edit and publish the material.

Front dossier cover

The front cover of the dossier folder. Note the “hand-written” notations indicating that the dossier was sent to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and then returned to Dr. Watson, as well as the (entirely factual) note on the publication of “A Study in Scarlet” in Beeton’s Christmas Annual

It’s a fun bit of design, really, and sometimes quite clever (especially when “pencilled” annotations and corrections are used to bring in elements otherwise simply described in the original text of A Study in Scarlet). It shows as much as it tells, including just what’s needed of Doyle’s original material to move the narrative along but not so much as to completely spare the reader the effort of putting the whole thing together. While it is ultimately a one-trick pony — it’s easy to imagine a reader enjoying the game once or twice and then giving it up, have exhausted the novelty of the format — the tactile experience of working through a familiar story like A Study in Scarlet in dossier form rather than book form changes the experience of reading it.

Dossier introductory letter and evidence packets

Goodenough’s “letter” to the publisher introducing the contents of the dossier and the circumstances under which he’s sharing it. Note the little evidence packets on the side.

This is “enhanced” content, back before the digital habit of linking out to other parts of a narrative or DVD commentaries were a thing. It’s the sort of approach to a book that one can easily see done in a digital format, actually, although related “interactive” print book experiences have been published more recently as well. Putting it all in a file like this, a collection rather than a straight narrative, prompts at least some reflection on how the conceptual apparatus of a dossier or a book frames its content. A book signifies something slightly different from a file or a dossier in usual usage, even if they may contain more or less the same content (and even if we could index them in almost identical ways).  While a book can be a collection (of stories, of essays, of letters, of maps, of images, etc.), one doesn’t typically treat it as a collection of the same sort represented by a dossier or file, which may represent a coherent collection toward some end or other without necessarily being offered as a coherent whole in quite the same way that a conventionally edited book often is.** A dossier can be printed in book form, but once it’s edited and presented in the ways common to at least one cultural norm for books, it doesn’t seem to work the same way. The intellectual work done in apprehending the dossier-story of A Study in Scarlet is perhaps a bit different from the work done reading it in its original form due to the effort required to impose or assert connections among provided evidentiary objects in the file. While those evidentiary objects are all described or alluded to in the original story, the assembly here feels a bit different to me (although I’m hard put to say exactly why).

Journal entries and marked map of London

A “hand-written” page of Watson’s journal and a marked map of London (which folds out from the dossier).

Books have maps in them (and sometimes those maps fold out). Why is that experience different from a collection of leaves that includes a map, packaged as a dossier? What work is the container and the form of the collection doing here? That’s what interests me (although I haven’t got tidy answers, and am perhaps making a mountain of a molehill — a case out of a collection? — when I think about it).


*If you want to imagine it, think of my weird little creation as a sort of silly precursor or distant goofball relative to John Winchester’s journal on Supernatural (which, just in case y’all want to think I’m a copycat here, didn’t premier until 2005, long after I had put my little scrapbooks in moving boxes and forgotten about them).

**I am conveniently ignoring contemporary usage in computerese, in which digital editions of books may themselves be “files” stored in “folders.” That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, although I think it bears thinking about in the context of precisely this sort of rumination; the usage does, after all, have a history and a practical purpose.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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