The Portable Desk of Cortez

I didn’t much like listening to The Log from the Sea of Cortez. I thought I would find Stenbeck’s narrative of his six-week marine specimen collecting trip interesting on a couple of levels. But I didn’t.

However, there was one passage early on that delighted me. (In fact, I found many of the opening pages fascinating because they were laden with trip preparation details. And you know I love minutiae.) The particular passage that caught my ear:

In a small boat, the library should be compact and available. We had constructed a strong steel-reinforced wooden case, the front of which hinged down to form a desk. This case holds about twenty large volumes and has two filing cases, one for separates (scientific reprints) and one for letters; a small metal box holds pens, pencils, erasers, clips, steel tape, scissors, labels, pins, rubber bands and so forth. Another compartment contains a three-by-five-inch card file. There are cubby-holes for envelopes, large separates, small separates typewriter paper, carbon, a box for India ink and glue. The construction of the front makes room for a portable typewriter, drawing board, and T-­square. There is a narrow space for rolled charts and maps.

I could read a whole book with similar descriptions. Especially given that the office supplies would have been 1940s vintage. Fitting squarely in with my officephilia, I settled in or more.

Closed, this compact and complete box is forty-four inches long by eighteen by eighteen; loaded, it weighs between three and four hundred pounds. It was designed to rest on a low table or in an unused bunk. Its main value is compactness, completeness, and accessibility.

But, alas the tale of the Utopian desk was not be. That very same paragraph goes on to talk about how they never had any place to put it on the boat and so had to lash it to the top of the deckhouse and cover with a complicated, time-consuming, configuration of tarps and ropes.

You can click here to see the actual desk. It’s not quite as romantic as the image in my head, probably because it lacks all the contents.

A phone case with a picture of the purse seiner Western Flyer that Steinbeck chartered for the exhibition.


2 thoughts on “The Portable Desk of Cortez

  1. Ruthiella November 12, 2018 / 8:13 pm

    Hey Thomas! Speaking of loving minutiae, would you update your readers on the final books you were sent from Heywood in the UK? I want to know how closely they were able to match you with books you enjoyed. Thanks! :)


  2. Chris Wolak December 8, 2018 / 10:04 am

    How sad they didn’t have space to put the desk someplace where it was easily accessible. Pretty boat. Whenever I come across a Steinbeck post I think I want to read more Steinbeck, but somehow never do. Travels with Charlie comes to mind.


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