My book The Invention of Monolingualism has been out for a few months now, and I’ve enjoyed seeing it in the hands of friends, strangers, colleagues, teachers, and researchers. One particular aspect of the process I’ve been pleased about is the cover photo by Matt Thorsen. I’ve met Matt a few times through friends in Burlington, Vermont, and I’ve enjoyed my conversations with him immensely. The night we first met, back around 2001, Matt was projecting his photographs from the second-floor window of a house on Saint Louis Street in Burlington’s Old North End. His artwork was landing on the clapboard side of the house across the street; the materials of the house and of the images were scraping curiously at each other.
The image on the cover of The Invention of Monolingualism is Matt’s photo “The Family Organ.” It was given to me as a gift by a mutual friend, Don Eggert, Associate Publisher of the Vermont alternative news-weekly Seven Days. The photo came to me in 5×7 format, glued onto a stiff brown tackboard, with some cut-out print letters glued to it below in yellow. I don’t remember what the letters spelled out, and I’ve never quite felt entitled to ask Matt or Don to tell me what they think about the photo themselves.
The photo itself has always warmed me with its quizzical, cozy, haunting haphazardness—something along the lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Filling Station.” The focus is a bit off, which is something I hardly notice when looking at it, because of my congenital ocular albinism. (Images that appear passably clear to me are often jarring to others.) I was surprised and delighted to learn that Bloomsbury were allowing me to use it as is—without sharpening or otherwise adulterating the blur, and even without a negative available.
Generally, the delivery of a “family organ” in mid-2oth century America signaled a household’s arrival into affluence and leisure. Like monolingualism, the household organ was a hard-won prize, after centuries of industrialization. Also, like monolingualism, the technology of the electronic organ itself relied on the hyperrationalization of meaning-making materials and their division into manageable, transposable parts. The organ was a particular oddity of political economy—evocative and performative at once.
In Matt Thorsen’s image, the organ is unplugged and is covered up. Perhaps it is about to be moved somewhere else, having ceded its once celebrated functionality and social prestige to more advanced technologies? Maybe, though, the placement of the cord (for easy reach) and the inviting distance between bench and organ signal that it is actually in quite frequent use, despite appearances. What kind of room is this anyway—with so little else on the walls, and no particular floor covering? Maybe the glowing throw-blanket atop it is more talismanic than disattentive? Maybe the family loves this organ more than it thinks it does—more than its other, more conspicuous possessions?
One strong personal motivation for sharing Matt’s photo on the cover of the book was the simple likelihood that, if copies of The Invention of Monolingualism were to be floating around bookstores, offices, and libraries, I’d never face the prospect of losing—in a fire, a move, or an overeager decluttering—this beautiful gift that was given to me decades ago. So I suppose I’ve just hidden one of my most treasured images in plain sight.