Enquire Within Upon Everything by Richard Powers

Like a house, every paragraph in “Enquire Within” has its number, and the Index is the Directory which will explain what Facts, Hints, and Instructions inhabit that number.

For, if it be not a misnomer, we are prompted to say that “Enquire Within” is peopled with hundreds of ladies and gentlemen, who have approved of the plan of the work, and contributed something to its store of useful information. There they are, waiting to be questioned, and ready to reply. Within each page some one lives to answer for the correctness of the information imparted, just as certainly as where, in the window of a dwelling, you see a paper directing you to “Enquire Within,” some one is there to answer you.

– Editor’s Preface of Enquire Within Upon Everything.

Two years ago I bought this copy of a copy of the Paris Review. I didn’t really have a reason except to be distracted from the monotony of law school. I was half inspired by the opportunity to read an interview with the classic LA writer James Ellroy, and hopefully find a transcendental moment in Rainer Maria Rilke’s unpublished work as was 22 year old. I was stoked. The quarterly always has been a source of inspiration. While not quite religion for me, I cherish it like an appreciating asset. To me, it defines the art of the interview, it stretches an archetype of the short story. And the photography is always rad. I want to be published in the review, someday. It’s on my bucket list.

With all the recent hullabaloo over the Facebook redesign and the new timeline, I was instantly brought back to a story at the end of the Fall 2009 issue. This particular story is by Richard Powers and it is entitled Enquire Within Upon Everything. To give a vague, non-cliff hanger ending, it is a story about about the generation of kids who are turning 21 this year. The kids who never used a microfiche, text better than they can hand write, and never bought music from a store. It follows one boy who makes money in college categorizing other people’s travel photos and then develops a form of advertising, using browser history, that predicts items that people are going to buy in the next six months. He marries by crossreferencing his bride across hundreds of dating sites to ensure compatability. And years later, after a completely digital life, comes to a conclusion that all of the net is about fifty five percent accurate. Especially the parts about your life.

Kyle expertly noticed this trend of memory reproduction and commodification several months ago. And Bobby’s great post about quantifying your memories focuses on Facebook’s new Timeline, which attempts to chronicle your life. Every time I log in, look at a photo, “like” something, comment on a friend, de-friend somebody (I have only de-friended maybe five people total in my entire Facebook history, no joke), or send a message, the code automatically logs this for future usage. Even your previous marriages, engagements, girlfriends… My taste in books, music, film and art is now information to be sold and used. My memories are being quantified regardless of my wishes.

Then again, all memories are quantified by our brain. Sometimes against our own wishes.

Outside of a horrifying / exuberant moment, what memory from over a year ago do you remember completely? Chances are your memory isn’t accurate in the first place. Even the most notorious type of memory in humans – photographic memory – is based primarily on one sense. The most vivid memories I have are smatterings of time, smell, and feeling that I can never accurately replicate. Not even the movie that is my imagination can tell the story well. I remember falling in love with a girl in college and I hardly remember her face. I remember her smell. None of my memories are accurate. I would be lucky if it’s fifty five percent accurate.

Which leads us to the original Enquire Within Upon Everything. This British almanac from over one hundred years ago has been gloriously digitally reproduced for us by Project Gutenburg, allowing us to examine archaic linguistics and Victorian era thought. It’s quite a remarkable achievement as the book attempts to give advice on… well, everything from that era. One copy of this book could provide knowledge for a whole family, really. But how could it be accurate in modern terms? It was written in 1890 and could not anticipate its own irrelevancy. They didn’t even have airplanes back then. I mean, they wrote in “archaic linguistics,” I can’t get more disparaging. They’d be LUCKY to be fifty five percent accurate. How can I talk to them about aircraft moving twenty times the speed of sound or techno music? We got NOTHING in common on paper. The writers probably have more in common talking to this guy than me:

This still from The Manchurian Candidate provides a great illustration of the change between fifty years ago and right now. Sinatra is drinking straight booze (ok, bad example). He is smoking indoors with the windows closed. He has to find information in books. His primary resource. All this is so… irrelevant in light of today. I count at least forty books in the shot. All that information, might be held in a generous two or three megabytes (an already obsolete unit of measurement if there ever was one). 90% of the tension of this scene would be gone if all of it was replaced by a eco-friendly light bulb and a laptop. These almanacs are useless in the face of contemporary knowledge.

But what is similar between Sinatra and I? That distrust of the government? Fear of a world moving out of control? Frozen out by the country you love? In that regard, as this era escalates faster and faster towards singularity, it is important to understand what about us is human. Bobby is right – uploading myself into the Facebook matrix is no way to define who I am. But what else do I have besides my own senses that both define and restrict my experience? I am like Sinatra that way – I touch, imbibe, breathe, smell just like him. We may live in different worlds but we are still human. It’s the human existence that we both have in common, more flawed and priceless than any code.

While companies try to reduce your taste into a form of currency, realize it’s all just a sales pitch. A corporation such as Facebook can try to label what I encountered in my life. So I dare them to suggest to me to buy a copy of the Paris Review. Preferably issue 190, so I can ignore the story until I need to read it again and realize how dated it is to even hold a magazine.

So make real memories with a sense of the human experience. Make them unforgettably forgettable. Our species has been doing this for thousands of years now. Make a memory without a facebook upload, a twitter shout, or a photo. None of that can replicate the inhalation of cold air in the redwood forests. Or the dinge of the Green Mill before they banned smoking and manhattans were the best thing to order. Go and lose that memory as fast as you made it. Be something like 37% accurate.

What do you remember imperfectly? I remember the first car accident I had. But I mostly remember the smell of the chili burgers that I was taking home that day, I don’t remember the impact at all.

You can buy the Issue 190 of the Paris Review here.


October 4, 2011 / By