Jed Perl: Scholarly Hipsters?





[Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.]

I know there are some communities within our technophile culture, I’m not sure how large or how small, that take a particular interest in technologies past. You see this in the vogue for Victoriana that has overtaken bohemian Brooklyn and its various outposts and colonies. Taxidermy is having a revival. Nineteenth-century men’s clothing and furnishings are all the rage. Enormous maps and charts, designed to hang in public school classrooms, are popular at the flea markets. Indeed, Cartographies of Time has its origins in a feature that Rosenberg worked on for Cabinet, the quarterly review with offices in Brooklyn that mixes art and history and the history of science to achieve a brainy stylishness that is well nigh irresistible. The hipster appeal of both these books, and I would not underestimate it, has nothing to do with hipster lite; it’s the real McCoy, grounded in scholarly avidity and original thought. Both volumes might be described as salutes to the nerd imagination through history. That the authors may themselves be a bit nerdy makes them especially sympathetic to the material they are presenting....

Perspective—our perspective on world history—is the subject of [Daniel] Rosenberg and [Anthony] Grafton’s easygoing, brainy Cartographies of Time, a book that bears comparison with two of my favorite illustrated volumes of all time: Mario Praz’s Illustrated History of Furnishing (1964) and A. Hyatt Mayor’s Prints and People: A Social History of Printed Pictures (1971). What Rosenberg and Grafton have in common with Mayor and Praz is a feeling for the poetic powers of material culture, for the way that stylistic evolutions express changing worldviews. By looking at timelines and how their shape and form have morphed over the years, Rosenberg and Grafton manage to describe the evolving physiognomy of the historical imagination. This book does for timelines what Grafton’s glorious The Footnote: A Curious History did for footnotes. It takes intellectual confidence to compose a text that partners with pictures without overwhelming them—that allows the images to dance and sing. Mayor and Praz had that confidence. So do Rosenberg and Grafton.


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