“Man,” she said, lapsing into silence for what my digital recorder tells me was six seconds.
Six seconds might not seem like a long time, but try it sometime. Sit in silence for six seconds at a peppy Streeterville coffee shop after work on a Friday while Fatboy Slim’s 1998 hit “The Rockafeller Skank” blasts about funk soul brothers overhead and you’re trying to explain to a virtual stranger with a digital recorder why you love something you love.
“Sometimes it’s the smell?” she said, laughing.
She fumbled for a few second, the first time she had been at a loss for words in a conversation that covered birds, insects, French librarian Suzanne Briet’s 1951 essay “What is Documentation?” and Chicago’s forgotten Wingfoot Air Express blimp crash that killed 13 people in 1919.
She talked about the 17 bookshelves at her house, about the joy of picking up a physical object, about the deeper way she processes information when reading a book. She said things, but couldn’t come up with any overarching theme.
It was like I had asked her to describe being in love, or the taste of a banana. Hard to come up with something encompassing in six seconds with Clinton-era funk remixes blasting overhead.
“The experience of reading a book, an actual book, over reading it on a screen — there’s no comparison,” she finally said.
That’s why, in 2017, Elisa Shoenberger is co-founding a literary magazine. Print, not online. Held in hand, not downloaded. With all the costs and frustrations that entails.
“About 90 percent of my friends were like, ‘Yep, that’s a terrible idea,’ including the ones in publishing,” Shoenberger said. “But I had a couple people say, ‘Y’know, why not?’”
She and co-founder Meghan McGrath have taken on the added cost, rare in modern publishing, of paying each and every contributor for their work rather than asking for volunteerism or offering to pay in “exposure.”
It’s called The Antelope.
The pair based the idea and the name on that 1951 documentation essay you’ve already forgotten about because I mentioned a blimp crash right after. In “What is Documentation?” Briet explored the notion of an antelope as a document.
Silly, right? Documents are books, papers, photographs, dental records. But an antelope can be put in a zoo and studied. Its sounds can be recorded. Artists can paint it. And when the critter dies, it can be dissected, stuffed, mounted and put in a natural history museum to tell people what it was like.
“It has all these different things that can generate information from something that is definitely not something we think of as a document,” Shoenberger said.
Similarly, The Antelope will be a literary magazine made of forms not traditionally thought of as magazine fodder.
“The idea is the magazine has a lot of different forms of documentation. There are traditional ones like oral histories of course, nonfiction, poetry, but then it also has photographs, lists, cartoons, photo essays, etc.,” Shoenberger said. “Granted it’s still printed, so there’s no antelope — physical antelope — in it. Photos, though.”
Each issue will have a theme. The first issue’s theme is flight and, if they get there, the second will be code.
Flight will talk about birds, beekeeping, drones, the blimp disaster, the connection between early bicycle advertising and the aviation industry, the researchers who collect the bodies of birds that bash into downtown skyscrapers to study migratory patterns, stories told in everything from photos and comics to foldable paper art “storigami.”
Magazines are costly, ones that pay contributors even moreso. Shoenberger and McGrath have an ongoing Kickstarter campaign to get the project moving. They’re about halfway there with 10 days left in the campaign. If the campaign doesn’t get there, The Antelope doesn’t happen.
Maybe it won’t happen, or maybe it will peter out after one issue, a single Antelope never forming a herd. Shoenberger and McGrath know this. They’re not naive.
But they can’t not do this. Something Elisa Shoenberger can’t explain given six seconds or even longer makes this endeavor an artistic risk they have to take.
She calls it their first stand.