Sunday, February 08, 2015

Dig Libraries

As I prepare for another dig later this month (i.e. ignore clothes and such but trying to find the perfect book for the airplane), I was reminded of an essay I wrote for Booksense.com. That website is no longer available so I guess the rights reverted back to me.

Dig libraries can be described in a manner analogous to how Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia described the animal kingdom: the books can be divided into (a) books once read long ago, (b) books that never get read, (c) books that resolve arguments, (d) books of mysteries, (e) books by Patrick O’Brien, (f) books that are passed around so much their spines are broken, (g) books in multiple copies, (h) books about academia, and (i) books of mysteries that are written as thrillers, (j) books about places that are cold, (k) classics, (l) books you would never have read at home and (m) books about the dig.


Digs -- archaeological excavations--build up libraries in an organic manner. An archaeologist in Michigan packs a couple of books with her before she heads to Syria or Turkey and when she’s done with them, she leaves them behind, leaving more room to bring back an oriental carpet or two. Sometimes, if she’s in the middle of reading something she found on the shelf, one of the books returns to America (or gets left in Damascus, or Heathrow, or the seat pocket of a 737).


Archaeology (at least in the Middle East, where I work) is not practiced, for the most part, by swashbuckling Indiana Jones types. (If you must, think boring Professor Jones lecturing in a drone -- but without the girls flirting with him.) Archaeologists tend to be a bookish, not to say nerdy, lot from anthropology and ancient history departments of big universities. Academics, in other words. After a hot day trying do communicate with workers in a foreign language, an adequate dinner, and a couple of beers, we often find ourselves enjoying our books around the dinner table, or reading in bed by flashlight.


The dig libraries I’m familiar with vary in size from a couple of crates of books to a dining room lined with bookshelves, one of which is filled with archaeological reports and two of which are filled completely with mysteries. The latter was at a dig house used for over four decades—and one long time archaeologist there claimed he had read all the books in that library, some of them twice. I write this sitting in the dining room of a dig in Syria and looking at our library: two planks, each about six feet long, filled mostly with paperbacks and one or two hardcovers (who was the fool who brought those out?).


To look at the library is to recall the Chinese encyclopedia, and to remember previous seasons on site: there’s the two copies of John Fowles’ The Magus (Jean took the third one home with her), there’s the Time Magazine Almanac we brought to settle arguments of various kinds (“Who was Prime Minister of Canada when Nixon was in office?” [this was before accessible internet]), there’s the picture book left behind by the camera crew who were documenting a Japanese doctor’s quest to bicycle across Asia and Africa (and through our site last year).





There are two copies of Agatha Christie’s autobiography here, as well as Come, Tell Me How You Live and Murder in Mesopotamia. The biography just mentions this site briefly but Come, Tell Me is a memoir of her travels and work in Syria with her archaeologist second husband, Max Mallowan. An interesting contrast is found reading her account of how a workman died tunneling under the Eye Temple here and then reading Max’s official excavation report that no workmen were injured in all the months they dug here. (The workman was tunneling on his lunch break, and not anywhere he was supposed to be, so Max took no responsibility for it.) Murder in Mesopotamia is a fictionalized account of how the obnoxious wife of Max’s former boss might come to an appropriately archaeological end (someone drops a big pot on her head).


I had a hard time getting into Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues whenever I tried to read it in America, and I thought that bringing it to a dig would force me to read it, given the lack of selection there. It was the perfect dig book, and I recommended it highly, earning it a place as one of the books that gets passed around and read by four or five people over the season. What makes it a perfect dig book? Well, out here, without television, telephones, e-mail and the general bombardment of information, there is more time to contemplate (as Agatha might put it) how we live, and so Robbins’ philosophical ramblings had a receptive audience. Plus, it gets lonely out here and the sex scenes are appreciated.


There are always books that I bring that I don’t read. Some of them were meant to be improving—Madame Bovary, Plutarch’s Lives of the Romans—others are just paperbacks that I didn’t need to carry back across the ocean. And there are books, like Lolita, that I enjoyed so much I had to bring them home for re-reading.


By far the most popular genre in dig libraries is the mystery. Clearly, that’s how many archaeologists see themselves. Our lives are filled with clues. A footprint, a broken pot, a piece of flint. How do these tell a story of the past? Was this room used for the manufacture of bowls, was it attacked by invaders? Grab a trowel Watson, and when we’re done digging for the day, we’ll sit back with Ed McBain, or P.D. James, or Ellis Peters, or Agatha herself.


Last year, when it was still cold at the beginning of the season and our canvas tents weren’t providing much insulation, I was reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica and could empathize with the characters. This year, I’m reading John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country, about the Alaskan wilderness. When it gets really hot, books about cold climates are welcome.


There are certain books that I would never read in America, but I read out here. Sometimes it’s just a book I never got around to reading when they were “hot,” like A Thousand Acres, or The Mosquito Coast. Sometimes it’s a genre issue. I don’t like horror much, but I was encouraged to read Hannibal by someone who wanted to talk about it. The complaints about the ending have now spanned multiple seasons.
A limited book supply results in an instant book club. In fact, when browsing a dig library for a book to read, you can be almost certain to find someone who’s read it and can critique any given tome.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out here at the dig just to read; I do, in fact, get quite a lot of work done while I’m here. But I’ve been here for four seasons—about 8 months total—and 12 feet of books isn’t that much for that amount of time. I may finally get to the Plutarch. And then I’ll start re-reading the top shelf.