but this place is just right.
The problem with the internet is that while it’s great for producing and disseminating new stuff, new stuff is rarely genuinely good or fun or interesting. It’s just new, so we don’t know what to expect, and that process of discovery makes the experience of consuming that new thing good and fun or interesting. But it doesn’t actually mean anything or enrich our lives. Would you rather read this (bad) blog post for the first time or a different, better blog post that you’ve already read read once? Don’t answer that, but you get my point.
Old stuff, which is the opposite of new stuff, also frequently sucks, but at least the passage of time creates a whole new set of ways with which we can engage with that stuff. While the most resonant new stuff often helps us understand and process the way we live now, even the most boring old stuff helps us figure out what life was like when that old thing was made. You might not be enthralled by, say, this minute-long, 120-year-old film of a man eating cheese and then slapping his knee in shock when tiny humans appear on the table, but the fact that it was incredibly enthralling to those who watched it at the time makes it fascinating.
So what if — and just go with me because we’re about to get a little crazy — there was something on the internet that exclusively published new content... about old things? I’m being somewhat facetious here; this is not a novel concept and there are in fact myriad websites and social media accounts devoted to just this. But the best of these, the one most fully dedicated to the pursuit of resurfacing and recontextualizing, is The Public Domain Review. As its name might suggest, PDR is a publication that focuses on materials that have long outlived any copyright restrictions, specifically curios that have been kicking around long enough to live on past any copyright restrictions and are free to be downloaded, posted, sliced, diced, buried, exhumed, analyzed, and occasionally, as in the case of this piece on medieval medical textbooks featuring paintings of an extremely stabbed man, blanched at.
The Public Domain Review specializes in criticism as history, presenting readers with high-quality scans of artwork, archaic books, maps, hand-written journals, as well as early films and audio recordings and photographs — these little bits of ephemeral media that, in part due to the technological limitations of the era in which they were created, engender a real sense of wonder in modern viewers — and placing them in the context of their eras. The board games of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, weren’t just a way to pass the time because nobody had thought to invent the internet yet, they were interactive ideological tracts, morality tales, and educational tools, historical artifacts that over time have evolved into things like Monopoly and The Game of Life. This old stuff is still with us, even if we don’t realize it! Scratching a stray line of graffiti onto the wall of a public bathroom wasn’t just an attempt to deface while defecating; it served as a halfway point between folk poetry and Twitter-esque public communication. And the fact that“celestiographs” — ostensible images of “a form of celestial light hitherto unrecorded” — were actually the results of a failed photography experiment by an amateur astronomer only make them more aesthetically pure and genuinely mystifying. Perhaps most daring is PDR’s new series of “Conjectures,” in which writers approach these same archival materials not unlike a hip-hop producer treats a dusty crate of vinyl records, sampling and remixing the originals in service of creating something new and wholly unique. As PDR’s D. Graham Burnett writes in the preface to one of these Conjectures, such pieces are “history as the integration of the actual and the possible.”
As for why I am highlighting the Public Domain Review now, well, the usually online journal has a new book out for pre-order, featuring dozens of images from its archives lovingly transferred onto high-quality paper, as well as 13 supplemental essays that are among the staff’s favorite that they published in 2018. While the Public Domain Review did not pay me to write this, after I finish writing this, I will be paying them for this book. While the internet is a wonderful tool for resuscitating the detritus of the past, it’s also far too easy for that material to get buried under a pile of the new. In order to actually save the good stuff for posterity, sometimes it’s worth keeping a paper copy.