As a preteen and adolescent, I spent portions of my summers and holidays
helping my father rummage through and catalogue his deceased clients’ be-
longings. An attorney who handles estates, wills, and probate, he is frequently
left with the task of organizing and obtaining an accurate value assessment of
his clients’ assets. Years ago, this often meant using my slim and tall frame to
squeeze through doorway openings crammed partially shut by boxes, climb
through windows, or crawl through the dark passageways of attics, garages,
and basements. Nine times out of ten the client was a hoarder, one of those
people who you might see on television who has accumulated a treasure trove
of random artifacts and goodies. I laugh now recalling my shock when on one
occasion I found three extremely old pistols. The next day one of my father’s
colleagues confirmed that they were pre Civil War weapons and were worth a
serious chunk of change.
Leafing through someone else’s belongings, usually in dingy, badly lit, dust-
filled, cramped spaces “the dungeons and tombs of the dead” is how I de-
scribed them to my friends gave me an intimate introduction to the archive as
both immaterial and material. In these people’s records, books, photographs,
art, newspaper clippings, magazines, letters of correspondence, diaries, coins,
plates, and other weird and interesting items were some aspects of the lives
they lived, the communities and individuals with whom they identified and
loved, and meanings through which they came to make sense of their existence
and the periods through which they lived and struggled. Amid the age, decay,
and chaos of their homes and the articles they valued, I was interacting with
the past, present, and future all at once. Coincidentally, around this same
time of my life, my mother enrolled me in a Mandarin Chinese language class.
This book in its embryonic form and, moreover, my passion for writing,
research, and teaching are influenced by many people. For one, this book is
a product of instruction by numerous educators and mentors: Julian Pyles,
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