So Lawrence Weschler was minding his own business, as all his stories begin, when he got a call from Gravity Goldberg (her real name!) who introduced herself as the Director of Public Programs and Visitor Experience at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. She was calling, she told him, to apprise him of an upcoming show—an inaugural exhibition, that is, of a recently uncovered trove of work by Shimmel Zohar, a mid-19th-century Lithuanian immigrant photographer (contemporary of Mathew Brady), who had chronicled the Jewish immigrant community of the Lower East Side of 1860s–1870s Manhattan in unparalleled detail, compiling a complete inventory of professions and types. Or not. There was, she suggested, some slippage in the whole story, and they were trying to find someone who might be willing to investigate things, and they were wondering, might he be interested?
Thus begins an antic tale of investigative perplex and vertiginous inquiry, as Weschler tracks down Stephen Berkman, the wet-collodion devotee who claims to have discovered the trove in question, but it’s a long and loopy story. And indeed, Weschler’s account evolves into the fourth volume of his ongoing “Chronicles of Slippage” series, doing for the early history of photography and the long heritance of Judaism what the series’ first volume, the Pulitzer-shortlisted Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, once did for the history of museums and the phenomenology of marvel.
And that’s just the half of it, for the main text sprouts a veritable delirium of digressive footnotes (taking up more than half the book), constituting what may be the closest we are going to ever get by way of memoir from this confounding and beloved writer.
Lawrence Weschler (born 1952, Van Nuys, California), a graduate of Cowell College of the University of California at Santa Cruz (1974), was for over 20 years (1981-2002) a staff writer at The New Yorker, where his work shuttled between political tragedies and cultural comedies. From 2001 through 2014 he was the director, now emeritus, of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, where he also taught a graduate course in “The Fiction of Nonfiction.” He has also been the artistic director, also now emeritus, of the Chicago Humanities Festival and was a sometime curator of Bill T Jones’ New York Live Ideas annual festival. Over the years he has been a contributing editor at McSweeney’s, The Threepenny Review, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, and has contributed regularly to the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, The Believer, Harper’s and NPR. He is the author of coming on 20 books, including Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (his life of artist Robert Irwin); Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences; Vermeer in Bosnia, and most recently, his memoir of his 35-year friendship with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, And How Are You, Doctor Sacks? Meanwhile, for over a year now, he has been producing Wondercabinet: A Compendium of the Miscellaneous Diverse, his fortnightly substack. For more, see his website at www.lawrenceweschler.com.