• Pamela K. Gilbert

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  • Pamela K. Gilbert
    University of Florida

The study of the body in the long nineteenth century, with its material and textual elements, its physiologies and its cultures, is an obvious candidate for interdisciplinary study. No one approach seems to do it justice, and even to ask the question—what would a history of the body require?—seems to open lines of flight from any one approach. Such a question is exhilarating (where will it take us?) and a bit frightening (are we prepared to go there?). An anecdote perhaps illustrates some of the perils and pleasures of interdisciplinarity. A few years ago, I was working in a university library (not my own) and wanted a reference. Knowing that I had cited the work in my recently published book on Victorian mapping and cholera epidemics, I decided to take a quick look at my book. I found it in a remote and lonely corner of the library next to several oversized and dusty books. Until that moment, the significance of the library of congress designation had not been sufficiently clear to me. The LOC had, apparently after a cursory glance at keywords, decided the book was an atlas. Hence, it had been shelved as an atlas. And, as I discovered in speaking to the librarian, the LOC’s authority was not to be questioned. I had approached the librarian simply as a patron—it felt strangely awkward to claim authorship at that moment. I suggested that the book had been misshelved. When he pointed out that the LOC designation indicated that it had been shelved correctly, I demurred. “This book,” I said confidently, “is obviously not an atlas.” The librarian looked it over. He then patiently explained to me that it was an atlas—that many books that have more text than maps are atlases. I tried various argumentative tactics, to no avail. Finally, the only support I had left was the weak reed of authorial intent, and I felt it was too late to “out” myself as the author without looking even more eccentric than the librarian obviously thought me. As I stood there, having been told in soothing but definite tones that I had written an atlas and had best get used to the fact, I realized that I was no longer sure I had not written an atlas. Wasn’t I buying into the intentional fallacy that I had been told to avoid ever since high school? I looked at the book in the librarian’s hand with surprise and some mistrust. Who was I to say what the damned thing was? So, no doubt exposing my bias as a literary scholar, I turned to the OED (venerable philology the higher authority than the parvenu discipline of library science). Having pored over the atlas beetle, the atlas vertebra and the Atlas of myth, I found my atlas: “a collection of maps in a volume.” No help there. Another definition offered me a bit more purchase: “A similar volume containing illustrative plates, large engravings, etc., or the conspectus of any subject arranged in tabular form; e.g. ‘an atlas of anatomical plates,’ ‘an ethnographical atlas.’” This seemed to get at my objection, which was that the book was not intended to serve, nor did it serve, as a guide arranged in tabular form, but as a narrative, with related sub-arguments, about maps and related documents and a series of close readings to support that narrative. But that definition was not precisely disallowed by the OED. So. Not only had I perhaps written an atlas, (in a fit of absence of mind?), I, putatively a scholar of maps, had failed to recognize it …