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Nothing Seems to Matter

You might think shadows, dust, holes or the absence of everything would add up to a big fat zero as topics for books. Think again.

September 22, 2003|James Elkins

There's a new trend in nonfiction writing: books about things people used to think were worthless. First there were Henry Petroski's best-selling studies of zippers, buttons and pencils. Then came a book on holes, followed by two books on dust and lint and a book on salt. At the moment there are no less than three books on shadows, and three books on nothing.

Why look so hard at such unrewarding subjects? Well, there is something fascinating about looking at nothing. The best book on the subject, Brian Rotman's "Signifying Nothing," finds zeros in philosophy, semiotics and even paintings (where streets recede to the invisible point on the horizon). Rotman's book reminds us that nothing means nothing but nothing, yet everything, no matter how empty, is full.

Although the trend toward the overlooked is new, it has a venerable history. First to feel the attraction were the German Romantics. (Do you love forsaken deserts? Do you prefer moonlit fields to city parks? Then you're still a Romantic.) In the 19th century, the study of the unstudied world became a common pastime: Victorians went out with gauze nets, hand lenses and tweezers in search of rare beetles and butterflies.

Sherlock Holmes is in the same tradition. He was especially good on the subject of ordinary dirt. He must have spent time considering dirt; otherwise how could he have known that the man who walked into his office had just come in from the moors?

Yet there's a difference between Arthur Conan Doyle and the new authors of the overlooked. Doyle never shows us the long, rainy weekends Holmes must have spent studying that which adheres to shoes. We never see Holmes going through his flashcards on British mosses, or labeling his unique collection of clothes-moths. The point of the stories is the chase: It's nice that he knows so much about dirt, but we're glad he has spared us the work.

The same thing happens on the television series "CSI." We're shown a suspicious piece of lint, or a fly that fed on a corpse, but the camera never lingers too long on the evidence. A few shallow-focus pictures of test tubes and we're back to the murder mystery.

The new books go in the opposite direction. They give us every kind of dirt, speck and stain, and they don't bother with the murder mystery at all. It's as if Holmes said, "My good sir: I see you've just come in from the moors, and I shall prove it to you in excruciating detail." The story would go on for a couple hundred pages about things that stick to shoes. The visitor would sneak out, leaving Holmes pontificating to poor Watson. No murder would be solved, but we'd all become experts on the typology of acidic English soils.

The new kind of writing gives me an eerie feeling. It's lonely, reading these new books: People no longer matter; there are no quarrels, no murders, no love.

Recently I tried my hand at the new genre -- I wrote an essay about sand, another explaining the cracks in pavement, and a third on culverts. I spent hours standing on sidewalks studying wrinkles in the asphalt. I memorized the vocabulary of distressed pavement: raveling, shoving, rutting, corrugation, spider cracks. Eventually I could read roads the way some sailors read waves or fortune tellers read palms.

It was wonderful, but it was also like a vacation from the human race.

The three books on shadows have a lot to say about empty spaces in Old Master paintings. The shadow detectives aren't concerned at all about what the art means: They only have eyes for what no one else notices. It's an odd thing to walk through a museum looking only at painted shadows. When I tried it, I felt as if I was searching for ghosts. The paintings were no longer fine art but meaningless objects with gorgeous dark stains.

The revival of dust started when a scientist named Walter McCrone wrote an atlas of the stuff. It's as beautiful as a field guide to orchids, and you don't have to travel to exotic places to find unusual kinds of dust -- they're probably lurking under your sofa.

In 2002, McCrone wrote a short essay on dust that had been collected around ground zero in Manhattan. That essay has lovely, disturbing photographs of glassy particles seen under the microscope. Most of the ground zero dust, McCrone writes, is insulation and cement, but there are also many unidentified particles, some of organic origin.

It is fascinating, looking at those photographs. Yet at the same time they don't lead anywhere. Nothing can be identified; there is no story. Dust is an entire universe of its own.

After you spend some time with dust, shadows, pencils and holes, you might lose your taste for the more noticeable things of life. Looking closely at overlooked objects can make the rest of the world, the world everyone knows, uninteresting and empty, as if it had been ruined by being looked at too much. Overlooked things are like an undiscovered country, where everything revealed has never been seen before.

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