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Vol. LXIV, No. 16
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
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Slide Show, Rare Books From Firestone Illuminate “Cartographies of Time”

Ellen Gilbert

Ways of looking at time were abundantly in evidence last week at Labyrinth Books when authors Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg talked about their new book, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline (Princeton Architectural Press $50). A visibly appreciative audience witnessed not only a slide show, but the presence of actual examples of representations of time used in the book, courtesy of Firestone’s Rare Books and Special Collections Department.

Mr. Grafton, who is the Henry Putnam University Professor at Princeton University and the author of numerous books on European history, credited Rare Book Librarian Stephen Ferguson and his colleagues for their support in producing what Labyrinth Books co-owner Dorothea von Moltke described as “a lavish book.” Mr. Grafton acknowledged that Cartographies of Time is a good example of the “printed book as an art form.”

“I challenge you to get through a day without seeing a timeline,” said Mr. Rosenberg, who is associate professor of history at the University of Oregon. “They’re all around, but not given much thought.” Although timelines are ostensibly based on simple lines, the authors said that their research proved them to be “much more colorful and complex” than one might think.

In the book the authors cite examples from ancient history through the present to answer the questions “what does history look like?” and “how do you draw time?” In last week’s presentation, Mr. Rosenberg, who is editor-at-large of Cabinet magazine, half jokingly described the function of timelines as helping people to know “when to celebrate Easter and when the Apocalypse was nigh.” Indeed, humanist Hartmann Schedel’s wonderfully illustrated Nuremberg Chronicle came with some blank pages for “filling in the short remaining history of the world.”

The eighteenth-century English theologian Joseph Priestly, best remembered for his discovery of oxygen, emerges as one of the heroes of Cartographies of Time. Describing his “staggeringly interesting charts,” Mr. Grafton credited Priestly with bringing “the vision of a scientist” to the graphing of time in large, elegant depictions of history and biography. Aggressively marketed for sale to both scholars and the general public as either posters or scrolls, the charts were “masterpieces of visual economy” that offered “ocular demonstrations of Newton’s mathematical principles.” They became, Mr. Grafton said, “an essential part of a gentleman’s library.”

Mark Twain’s 1885 Memory-Builder, described by the authors as “a truly modern chronology game,” was of an entirely different order. Its “straightforward” concept had players naming “the dates of significant historical events, earning the right to push pins into a field of numbered spaces.” The authors note that while “Twain believed in memorizing lots of dates. the payoff for him was not just accumulating facts, it was creating a skeleton for real knowledge.”

A kind of skeleton is apparent in the cover of the 1936 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art,” which, according to the authors, “projects the underlying arguments of the exhibition in a stylized and economical form.” It depicts “a fundamental transition in the history of art,” including an array of the names of important nineteenth-century artists.

At last week’s event, Mr. Rosenberg expressed the hope that Cartographies of Time will do some “consciousness raising” about this little-recognized, but “familiar part of our mental furniture.”

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