Teresa Edgerton began telling stories as soon as she learned to talk; she began scribbling them down as soon as a teacher put a pencil in her hand; and luckily for fantasy readers, sixty years later she is still inventing them. Teresa has published many short stories and novels full of wit and charm and intriguing creatures and characters. Her latest releases are Goblin Moon (being rereleased by Tickety Boo Press), and The Queen’s Necklace (being released by Harper Voyager on Kindle for the first time and currently available for preorder on Amazon). Also look for her work under the pseudonym of Madeline Howard.
CABINETS OF WONDER
by Teresa Edgerton
I am a bit of a magpie, collecting things that catch my eye. I like the bizarre, the grotesque, the unexpected. In that I am rather like the seventeenth century natural philosophers who liked to collect curios and display them on shelves behind glass, or in small rooms set aside for the purpose. These they called their cabinets of wonder. Some collections were so large they took up several rooms and were open to the public as natural history museums, though many, many of the items were artefacts rather than natural oddities, and some were not at all what they were reputed to be. (Unless you believe in vitrified thunderbolts, in which case, maybe …)
For instance, “Tradescents Ark,” a London natural history museum of the era, included among its other displays, a bracelet “made of the thighs of Indian flyes,” a set of chessmen turned in ivory, so tiny that the entire set fit inside a peppercorn, “Blood that rained in the Isle of Wight,” a two inch “natural dragon,” and “two feathers of the Phoenix tayle.”
And this is the kind of thing I like to collect — not the fly bracelet, or the bloody rain, but these odd little bits and pieces of history, curiosities, the kind of things you don’t find in the usual sort of history book that concentrates on kings and parliments, wars and treaties. I find these scraps and slivers and morsels sometimes in books devoted to the minute details of life in the eras that I study (these are often bursting with the sort of information I love), in books on food, fashion, medicine, magic, and philosophy. Then I type them up and put them in ring binders that I keep on the shelves in my home office. These shelves make up my personal cabinet of wonders.
Researching these topics, I come across a multitude of facts that charm me, which I am never quite able to work into the novel I am working on at that time. But into the notebooks they go, just in case I find a use for them later.
Along with the historical tidbits, I store up examples of prose that delights me, phrases, sentences, paragraphs that are so vivid I couldn’t bear to lose them. I take these out when I am writing my own books and need inspiration, something to remind me of the pictures that writers can create with their words, of how trancendent and transformative prose can be, which gives me the courage to keep on trying.
If I were an artist who worked in pen-and-ink, watercolors, or oils, I would illustrate some of these more improbable curiosities, and pin the pictures to the walls in my office, and so create a visual cabinet of wonders.
If I had more expertise at storing and organizing information on my computer, no doubt I could find a better way to organize these collections, but the truth is I rather like the opportunity to get away from my desk for awhile. And then, too, the pleasure is not only in having these curiosities at my finger-tips, but also in the hunt.
My hunting grounds are my own collection of books and the public libraries, starting with my local library system, and branching out into neighboring towns. There is a thrill to scanning the shelves in a library I’ve not visited before and finding the book that I’ve been searching and searching for. And as much as I love my own shelves of books and notebooks, I have to admit that libraries are the true cabinets of wonder, filled as they are with small books crammed with texts on customs, folklore, and superstitions; costumes, cosmetics, perfumes, and poisons; the progress of science and medicine; natural wonders, man-made wonders, and so much more. And books so large that the only way to look through them is to place them flat on a table, admiring the colored plates inside: pictures of distant lands (real and imaginary); art and artefacts; portraits of great men and women; stars, planets, seashells; exotic birds, beasts, and fishes . . . more than a single person could collect in a lifetime, in several lifetimes. It’s all there free of charge for us to wonder at and think about.
It’s surprising how many people, when they want to research something, rely on the internet (that trove of misinformation), and never think once about a trip to the library. I can’t count the number of times when people have asked me for research resources, and when I said, “Have you tried the library” it turned out they’ve never even thought about it. In fact, the idea is so foreign to them, I doubt that many of them will take my advice. But if you have a library card (and how easy it is to get one!) you can take the books home and study them at your leisure. And even without a card you can browse, select any book that captures your interest, find a seat, and spend a whole day examining such treasures, without anyone giving you that look you get in bookstores, the one that says, “pay for the book or go home.”
But increasingly, as local governments have less and less money to spend, public libraries become less and less of a priority. Where I live, they have plenty of money to spend when it comes to municipal sports fields and basketball courts, but they’ve cut the operating hours at our city library and closed it two days a week. To do them justice, our libraries are always buying new books, and they hold book sales to make ends meet — selling books, CDs, and DVDs donated by the public, materials that might have ended up in the libraries themselves if they had room to put them. It is our money the counties and cities are allocating, money we pay through sales tax, so we have a right to speak out.
Yet in Texas they are opening new libraries by buying up empty retail spaces —abandoned department stores and supermarkets — and converting them into libraries, thereby saving construction costs and acquiring spacious premises at the same time. After the economic down-turn, there are many of these empty retail spaces in my own area, left behind when chains like Mervyn’s and Border’s went bankrupt, but I have yet to hear that any of them are being used to expand our libraries. It is disheartening to think that here in the San Francisco area — where we pride ourselves on being a center for arts and culture — we’re not keeping up with those towns in in Texas. Who knew that Texans had more regard for books than we do (so much for stereotypes!)
It is time to stand up for our local libraries, our very own cabinets of wonder, not only for the pleasure they bring us, but so that we can share those pleasures with our children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and all the generations to come.