Friday, October 9, 2015

Hurricane Katrina, Print Culture, and MELUS

When Joycelyn Moody and I began working on the special issue on African American print culture for MELUS, I decided to ask Jerry W. Ward, Jr. to submit an essay about his views of his book collection. For decades, he had been building a wonderful personal library, but Hurricane Katrina changed things. 

At one point in his book The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (2008), Ward mentions returning to his storm-damaged home in New Orleans and taking inventory. He provides journal entries and writes about himself in the third person while assessing the house: "The room used as an office sustained losses that will cause Mr. Ward to be in agony for months."

He discusses the loss of materials and autographed books that "are beyond recovery."  He concludes, though, that he "is luckier by far than 89% of the residents whose homes suffered win and water damage." As Ward has noted on many occasions, losing rare books does not compare to the magnitude of many other losses, including lives, associated with Hurricane Katrina.

In the context of print culture studies though, Ward's experiences with books matter. For one, he writes about the "practical uses" of a collection as well as how "physical objects allowed me to be in constant touch with the writers I got to know personally over the years." Then, he also references how the storm affected his relationship to physical publications. "The flooding after Katrina," he writes in MELUS, "killed my passion for collecting."

Understandably, much of American and African American print culture studies focus on materials found in libraries and special collections. We study collections of texts from the past. But, what about contemporary considerations of what's been loss, giving attention to lostness? How do natural events shape our relationships to collections and print materials? Ward's contribution to MELUS offers a glimpse of possible answers.  

Notebook on MELUS and African American Print Culture

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