Monday, July 31, 2006

Grumble, grumble

Am I being a grouch for wondering why, exactly, I have to attend an entire week of orientation meetings at Regional U--the week before classes start?

I know that it's important to learn all the policies and meet the right point people and visit the library and the technology center and blah blah blah. . . but couldn't this be done in, say, two or three full days rather than five partial days?

Yes, I'm looking forward to meeting all the other new faculty from other departments and getting generally acclimated--but this schedule is ridiculous. Little is actually getting done each day, but what with to-ing and fro-ing and my commute, I'll wind up losing at least 5 hours each day that could better be spent on my syllabi and lesson plans and a few last, precious days of research.

Here, for example, are the activities planned for Friday:

1. coffee (30 min)
2. campus tour (1.5 hours)
3. library orientation (1.5 hours).

I have no interest in these activities. I mean, I've got a damn campus map, and I've already walked or driven most of it anyway. I already know 75% of what I need to know about the library, since I've been using it for the past two weeks.

I wonder--would I be a bad institutional citizen if I just skipped that day?

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Painting, Part I

Bert was in town from very late Wednesday night until just a couple of hours ago, helping me to paint the two largest rooms of my apartment. It was a blast, and our leisurely schedule and the longish nature of his visit meant that we weren't hard at work for very much of that time, but instead had hours in which to lounge around, investigate local museums and bars, and reconnect with a pair of old college friends--who now live, as it happens, only some three miles away.

As sorry as I am to be separated from most of my friends in this new location, there's something so lovely about the long, one-on-one visit. There's just so much TIME: so many long walks, so many meals, and so many nights of staying up until 3 a.m. drinking and playing board games. In some ways, it's better than living in the same city with someone but only seeing him or her every couple of weeks, and only for a couple of hours at a time.

I'll be painting my study later in the summer, but for now, here are photos of my bedroom and living room:

The color in the bedroom is hard to describe and harder to capture on film. It's a pale mauve, but in some lights it looks very pink, in others lilac. I'm decidedly NOT a pink person--but I really like the blue undertones, and it goes well with the living room:

I've wanted to live in a blue-painted space for as long as I can remember, but I convinced myself that doing the entire apartment in that color would be overkill. I'm now a little surprised to find that I'm living in a pastel world, since I own, well, nothing in pastel. (However, I s'pose it makes a nice backdrop for all my black and grey clothes.)

And as Bert pointed out, these are very island-y colors, and as such may help to cheer me up during the long, grey winters.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Reading for Pleasure Wednesday: Evans/Agee

Dr. Crazy, who always has the best ideas, has instituted a new blog-world activity: Reading for Pleasure Wednesdays (her rules/suggestions here). I'm not sure whether it's totally fair for me to review a book that I'm only just starting, but given that I didn't expect to be reading it--and that I didn't really expect it to be pleasure reading if I did--it seems like fair game.

So. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which I picked up a few weeks ago in a nice, hardcover, 1960 copy for $16 on the theory that I really "ought" to own the book, and that the Walker Evans photos alone were probably worth it, and that I really liked this particular bookstore and its owner--and so shouldn't I show some goodwill by buying something other than that $5 paperback copy of God's Englishman?

I bought it, but I didn't, as I say, actually plan on starting to read it. But then I started looking at the photos, and then I read the preface, and now I'm hooked on Agee's language as much as the stories themselves. Goddamn! Why doesn't anyone write like this any more?

This is Agee in the "preliminaries" to the work's first book, talking about the curiousness of the entire project that he and Evans set out on, initially at the behest of Fortune magazine, to live with a family of tenant farmers in the south for a month, and provide a straightforward journalistic account of their lives (it's a damned long quotation, I know, but so worth it. Read it out loud):
It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and change and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of "honest journalism" (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money, and for a reputation for crusading and for unbias which, when skillfully enough qualified, is exchangeable at any bank for money (and in politics, for votes, job patronage, abelincolnism, etc.); and that these people could be capable of meditating this prospect without the slightest doubt of their qualification to do an "honest" piece of work, and with a conscience better than clear, and in the virtual certitude of almost unanimous public approval. It seems curious, further, that the assignment of this work should have fallen to persons having so extremely different a form of respect for the subject, and responsibility toward it, that from the first and inevitably they counted their employers, and that Government likewise to which one of them was bonded, among their most dangerous enemies, acted as spies, guardians, and cheats, and trusted no judgement, however authoritative it claimed to be, save their own: which in many aspects of the task before them was untrained and uninformed. It seems further curious that realizing the extreme corruptness and difficulty of the circumstances, and the unlikelihood of achieving in any untainted form what they wished to achieve, they accepted the work in the first place. And it seems curious still further that, with all their suspicion of and contempt for every person and thing to do with the situation, save only for the tenants and for themselves, and their own intentions, and with all their realization of the seriousness and mystery of the subject, and of the human responsibility they undertook, they so little questioned or doubted their own qualifications for this work.
Some of you know that I'm a closet Modernist (I've only ever once taught modern lit, as a TA some years ago, but it remains one of my favorite periods to read for fun), and I think I've mentioned how in love I am with Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, and Agee reminds me all over again of one reason why that is: those sentences!

The book is a crazy mishmash, and it's easy to see why Fortune (then a more general-interest, features-y magazine than it is now) rejected the thing right quick, and why Evans and Agee had such a hard time getting it published as a book--and then a hard time getting an audience until the 1960s. But as the review on says, the book is "far more interesting. . . than the sort of guilty-liberal tract for which it is often mistaken"; it's not a part of a social crusade; indeed, it's hardly political in any conventional sense, although it's angry and anguished and eloquent. (Well, most of the time it's eloquent--I have to admit that Agee's infrequent forays into verse leave me cold; whatever he's doing there, it hasn't aged well, if indeed it was any good to begin with.)

One more taste:
There were three on the porch, watching me, and they must not have spoken twice in an hour while they watched beyond the rarely traveled road the changes of daylight along the recessions of the woods, and while, in the short field that sank behind their house, their two crops died silently in the sun: a young man, a young woman, and an older man; and the two younger, their chins drawn inward and their heads tall against the grained wall of the house, watched me steadily and sternly as if from beneath the brows of helmets, in the candor of young warriors or of children.

They were of a kind not safely to be described in an account claiming to be unimaginative or trustworthy, for they had too much and too outlandish beauty not to be legendary. Since, however, they existed quite irrelevant to myth, it will be necessary to tell a little of them.
Okay, how can you not love that? And if you don't, how can you not love Evans's photos? (poor-quality reproductions available here.)

[Don't worry. It's not all crusading journalism and epic-length sentences on the nightstand Chez Flavia. Next week I'll talk about some of my favorite etiquette and "girl's-guide-to" books.]

Monday, July 24, 2006

Don't Google if you don't want to know, or: what's the opposite of schadenfreude?

Whilst waiting for George Washington Boyfriend to return from a weekend trip to the family homestead, I found myself in front of the computer with nothing appealing to read. So I spent an hour Googling people I'd lost track of. Now, I keep somewhat regular Google tabs on the people I actually care about, envy, or fear, so these were people I'd really lost track of or, or whom I hadn't thought about in a long time.

There were pleasant surprises, puzzling surprises, and infuriating surprises.

Some people are doing very well, like the woman I was good friends with my first few years in grad school who dropped out after spiralling down into depression, and whom I'd lost touch with for complicated reasons. It turns out that she's been teaching and doing literacy work with immigrants and at-risk kids and is now working for an education nonprofit and working on a novel, all while living in a city she loves. And then there's the guy I went to high school with who's managing editor of a well-known progressive magazine and who runs a serious lefty blog.

Some people are doing unexpected or disappointing things, like my high school boyfriend. I'd known that he was married, with a son, and living in Hawaii, but the last time I'd Googled him I'd been unable to turn up any electronic trace. This time searching for him was complicated by the fact that he has the same name as a lobbyist tangled up in the Abramoff mess, but I still couldn't find anything that appeared to relate to him, specifically--until at last I came across a license from the state of Hawaii, valid as of 2003 and through the end of 2006, which suggests that he's now. . . an independent insurance salesman.

Then there's one of my former officemates from back when I was a paralegal. He was so bad at the job that it was a joke. He didn't like or understand corporate culture and was easily stressed out--to the point that my other officemates and I would occasionally take pity on him and just do his stupid mailings because he was so sad and helpless. He left the job to spend a year in China on a fellowship, and we were all convinced that he was going to wind up in academia since he was as smart as he was flakey and disorganized. Nope. He apparently returned from China and went straight to Goldman Sachs. He's been an investment banker for seven years now.

And then there's the infuriating one, a dude I knew my first year of grad school, and who Done Me Wrong. He's someone I hadn't thought of in years, but who once represented to me everything that was horrible and hideous about men (when I was in those moods, as I once was, rather often). He was also a total fuckup: had been in grad school for some five years but kept taking time off to do random shit, had failed his orals, and after finally passing them wound up dropping out. The last time I'd bothered to Google him I'd taken great satisfaction in discovering that he was back in his hometown, adjuncting at his undergraduate university, and teaching what appeared to be dreadful, 100-level classes.

Well, that was a few years ago. THIS time, I stumbled upon his gorgeous, professionally designed website--and I mean, it's gorgeous; it could win design awards--which indicates that after adjuncting he spent two years managing the medium-sized company that he "owns" (actually, it's Daddy's) and living in four different countries on three different continents, where he received certificates in various languages and subjects. He's now a professor at a university in a Far Eastern capital, teaching a subject in which he has no apparent training. His website, which is actually for his new "enterprise," touts his services as a teacher, consultant, and. . . actor. Oh yes: he lists himself as an actor, although his vita shows no evidence that he actually has, you know, acted. Anywhere. In anything.

(And yes: I know that this is all supported by family money--from the website to the expat life to the delusions of acting grandeur--but wouldn't it be nice to be able to have those delusions? And to never have to get particularly serious about anything?)

The lamest part: the email address that he lists is his alumni address at Instant Name Recognition U. The school he dropped out of five years ago.

* * * * *

The exercise of Googling these dozen or more folks was satisfying in a variety of ways (if unsatisfying in others), but tracking down so many people, all at once, has also got me thinking about my reaction to my search results--and particularly about what I apparently view as success or failure.

Which of those people seem "successful" to me (and admit it: probably to you, too)? The ones who are doing socially meaningful things that also draw upon those individuals' talents--and that seem, additionally, likely to give each a sense of personal satisfaction. They're also, moreover, in fields that are relatively creative and that have some cultural cachet. The people who surprised or disappointed me were those who had talents that they didn't seem to be using (High School Ex is well-travelled in Asia, has an M.A. in international relations, and is or was virtually fluent in Mandarin)--but they're also doing relatively boring, suit-y jobs, even if one is presumably making a ton of money and the other probably isn't.

But of course, who's to say who's actually happy, or who considers him or herself a success? High School Ex is in HAWAII, for God's sake, apparently still married to the (considerably older) woman he married when he was 23, and he may have a perfectly blissful life, for all I know--working 35 hours a week, volunteering, windsurfing, whatever. There's a snobbery, surely, to thinking that only Meaningful Work counts as success (and especially in thinking that one knows what that meaningful work actually might be).

There's also a willful disregard of the reality of work: for most people--really, probably for all of us--what's satisfying about a job isn't the big-picture stuff (I teach impressionable young minds to think deep thoughts! I contribute original scholarship to my field!), but rather the day-to-day elements: Nice colleagues. Reasonable hours. Control over one's work. Regular feedback. The ability to work alone, if one likes to work alone, or to work in groups, if one likes that.

Nevertheless, even my friends with suit-y jobs seem to subscribe at least partly to the Meaningfulness doctrine, to the point that some of them get positively (if briefly) rhapsodic about the people we know who are actors and writers and musicians, and who are "pursuing their dreams" and who "didn't sell out"--making them bear, unfairly, the weight of the dreams of those who do sometimes suspect that they themselves did sell out.*

Which brings us back to cultural capital, and to the way that those of us who have it sometimes cling to it and insist that only what is Meaningful is, well, meaningful. The wise Oso Raro wrote an eloquent essay last week about the material envy that academics often feel for those friends and ex-friends who, while nominally still of the same class (insofar as class is determined by education and a variety of cultural markers), nevertheless have beautiful, well-insulated lives: nice, understated clothes; airy houses filled with books; season tickets to the opera and the symphony. They've got the things that we at least half-believe that we deserve, since we're the ones creating or contributing to the culture that they consume.

But if we are (or if I, anyway, am) snobbish about what's Meaningful, we're also generally snobbish about our own powers of observation, and I'm sure that's where some of my judgments about the people I Googled come from. Grad School Friend and High School Acquaintance are doing the kinds of things that I'd expect them to be doing, and so they allow me to be pleased with my knowledge of their personalities and my incredible powers of prediction. High School Ex and Officemate aren't doing remotely what I'd have expected, and so they are, in a way, a blow to my self-assurance--my confidence in my own judgment.

And damned if that isn't worse, really, than getting to swan around S.E. Asia pretending to be an actor-slash-professor-slash-whatever.


*Let me make clear that I don't, myself, believe that anyone sells out except the person who believes that he or she has sold out. If the only real intellectual or artistic betrayal is to oneself, it seems unlikely that an outsider can judge whether that's happened.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Cats and allergies

Sorry for the radio silence, folks, but I've been busy fixing the hut, taking the car out for a short spin or two a day, and buying all kinds of crazy stuff online (Victorian glass doorknobs, hotel silver, beaded shoes, and books books books). I've also been getting back on a regular research schedule, which has helped to lessen my academic anxiety--even if I'm still having dreams about running into my advisor.

But now I need some advice from the internets:

I've wanted a cat for years, and I'm strongly considering getting one (although perhaps not until after my first paycheque, which I'll receive in, oh, let's see. . . two months). However, I'm mildly to moderately allergic to cats--my usual symptoms are watery eyes and head congestion, although occasionally I'll get hive-like blotches when I wash my face. It seems to depend on the cat: my parents now have a cat (which isn't allowed in the room that I sleep in), and as long as I wash my hands regularly I have virtually no allergic reaction to her. With other cats, though, I'll sometimes start sneezing after just an hour or two in their presence.

So what I'm wondering is, is it true that actually living with a cat builds up one's resistance to allergens? And does it seem likely that my symptoms would be kept sufficiently in check by over-the-counter decongestants/antihistamines and a thorough weekly vaccuming? Are there other strategies or products I could investigate? Or is it just not worth the hassle?

Thoughts from the cat fanciers appreciated. . .

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Just when I'm trying to convince myself that my new project is going somewhere. . .

The fabulous panel for which I'd proposed a (necessarily) fabulous paper just got rejected for next year's RSA, which I was so looking forward to attending. And I'd been so delighted to have been accepted as part of the initial proposal! I guess having a well-known scholar as the panel's organizer really doesn't ensure acceptance.

Well. Time to shop this material around somewhere else.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Public Service Announcement

Something not to do if you're feeling a bit anxious about all the work you're not getting done this summer:

Read anything written by your dissertation advisor. You will then hear her voice asking you questions about all the work you're not doing, and will start imagining the next time you're likely to meet her and all the amazing things that you'll really need to have accomplished before then so that you can hold a conversation with her. Meanwhile, as you're conjuring up better and worse versions of this scenario, you still won't be getting any work done.

And if you must read something written by your former advisor, because it's essential to whatever you're currently not-working on, at least don't let that something be really, really great, and so much better than your own attempts to grapple with similar material.

(Needless to say, no one gave me this advice, but you should feel free to learn from my mistakes.)

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Mid-summer update

(Because we now are, in fact, exactly halfway through the summer--if you don't count May, which I see absolutely no reason to do.)

The Home: Generally in good shape after entirely too many days of errands and projects and phone calls to my landlord, the local utility companies, and every creditor on earth who now needs my new address. The only major project that remains is painting, which Bert will be in town in a week or two to help me with. After that, the place just has to sit tight until I have an income with which to finish the furnishing to my satisfaction.

The Car: I have one! Or rather, I almost have one. Despite the fact that I've never owned a car, that I have no interest in owning a car, and that I possess almost zero knowledge about cars, I've just put down a deposit for a brand-new, very-sporty-for-the-price little number that will be arriving next week. And thank God for that: what a waste of time and brain cells the process has been.

The Office: Not much to report here, except that I have an email account and an office assignment (currently inhabited by lecturers, who will no doubt hate me for displacing them), and as of next week I'll also have an ID and library privileges. Even more importantly: my Regional U ID also gives me privileges at the local R1, which is both bigger (duh) and closer to home than my own campus.

The Research: Well. The best I can say here is that I'm finally getting back into the swing of things after a hiatus of fully two weeks. Still, the progress hasn't been bad, and I ought still to have a full month to draft my new chapter, write that book review, and knock out two or three conference abstracts before classes start. (I was also ecstatic to learn that RU has The Longest Winter Break EVER, which means that, hopefully, the work I set aside in late August won't sit around gathering dust until May.)

How's it with you-all?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Oh, let us weep for the sad state of literary studies

I often enjoy the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton's columns for The Chronicle even when I don't agree with them, but his latest strikes me as deeply and profoundly wrong--and I don't think it's because I had an atypical graduate school experience.

Benton's column discusses the things that inspire students to major in English and then to go to graduate school, and he contrasts those early motivators with the "reality" of graduate school. Now, no one would disagree that the undergraduate experience is very different from that of the graduate student, and many of us might admit to a certain feeling of loss: after all, as an undergraduate, one's reading and writing are enfolded (at least for many students) into the idyllic and leisurely life that is college. And as Benton rightly notes, students rarely become English majors due to parental pressure or because they have a set career path in mind; generally, they do it because they like to read, and they take the classes they take because they seem fun. As an undergraduate, then, almost everything is exploratory and almost everything is new, and any anxieties about the Real World exist in a category separate from one's classes.

In graduate school, however, career anxieties and personal anxieties are almost entirely entwined with one's work: do I actually know how to write? Do I have anything interesting to say? Am I ever going to get a job? Am I any good at this stuff (which is to say, in the graduate student mind, am I any good, period). That to me is the chief and most meaningful difference between the undergraduate and graduate study of English. Yes, it's quite true that the graduate student has to learn a number of new skills and master a larger body of knowledge, but the real difference is that what had once been essentially a pleasant and low-stakes pastime becomes a career, with all the pressures and expectations--and, let's face it, bullshit--that any career entails.

But this is not what Benton talks about. For Benton there's a more important difference between college and graduate school, and it's one he that he illustrates by listing the answers he received when he asked his English majors why they study literature. He got the usual responses: an early love of reading; the pleasure of getting lost in alternate worlds; a "love for the free play of ideas"; a quasi-spiritual sense of meaningfulness; attraction to the "cultural aura" of the bohemian artist; a "desire for wisdom."

"It surprised me," Benton reports, "that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive. Nearly all of them would have skewed to the left on most of the usual subjects." In fact, Benton is so surprised that he even asks his students why they didn't identify political or social reasons as motivators: "[O]ne said, 'If I wanted to be a politician, I'd major in political science. If I wanted to be a social worker, I'd major in sociology.'"

Huh, I thought when I read this. Why is Benton surprised that his students aren't majoring in English because of their political commitments? Why is he even asking this question? It seems awfully leading. . . . Oh, right. It's supposed to be a leading question, because only by asking it is Benton able to comment with due sorrow on the sad, sad state of graduate education, which sucks all the truth and beauty out of the simple, pure study of lit-rah-chure that his students enjoy in their prelapsarian groves of academe.

Sorrowfully, then, he continues:

It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school.

They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that's why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.

[. . . . ]

The problem is you can't get to where I am now without going through a decade or more of immersion in a highly politicized and anti-literary academic culture. You have to spend so many years conforming that, by the time freedom presents itself, you don't know why you became an English major in the first place.

This may reflect Benton's experience, and if so, I'm sorry to hear it, but it bears no relation to my own reality. (FWIW, I know where Benton went to graduate school, and although I don't know a great deal about the specific culture of that program--either now or when Benton went through it--his grad program and my grad program are major competitors, so it's probably safe to assume that there are some broad similarities between the two.)

Yes, academics in the humanities tend to be liberal, but while some of them are radically so, most are not--and relatively few, in any case, bring their political commitments to bear on their scholarship. And yes, there are idiots in the academy, and careerists, and people who rely upon incomprehensible jargon and other scholars' theories and who have never had an independent idea in their lives.

But most the people I know who profess English love it. LOVE IT, in the geekiest and most sincere of ways, and have never really lost whatever it was that made them the kind of kids who stayed up under the covers all night with a book and a flashlight. They're savvy and professional and hard-hitting scholars, but they still have that childish feeling of delight and wonder at the things they read and teach.

This is true whether or not they have political commitments to their research, although Benton appears to assume that merely having these commitments--or indeed a specific theoretical orientation--is what prevents one from loving literature. Now, I myself am completely unchurched when it comes to theory (never been taught it, never been expected to know it), and it would be pretty hard for my political beliefs to have much bearing on my scholarship even if I wanted them to, but I can't imagine objecting to the simple fact that some people have political commitments that are entwined with their scholarship.

Certainly, there are people who are more interested in the politics than in the literature and who let their agendas ride their textual analyses--but most of the people I know who have definite theoretical orientations are superb thinkers who came to their particular framework because they found it to be illuminating and liberating. I blogged last summer about reading Judith Butler for the first time (as I then was) and about how astonished I was (coming to her, perhaps, with some of THB's prejudices) to find her work so moving and so obviously passionately felt. But then, that's what good scholars do: they translate their passions and their enthusiasms into commentary, criticism, and teaching. They love what they do, and they take literature seriously and they take literature personally.

That being said, not everyone who loves reading in a rapturous and full-throated way makes a good scholar, and there are scores of undergraduate English majors who should be steered away from grad school for this very reason. But to claim that the love itself is unfashionable or in some way a liability is simply absurd.

So I suggest this: since all Benton's evidence is anecdotal, and all mine is likewise anecdotal, let's do this officially: THB's peeps and my peeps. Right after school. By the swingsets. We'll settle this once and for all.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Settling in

Three lovely discoveries:

1. The art-house theatre across the street from my apartment, which shows a different movie (classics, foreign, independent) every night of the week. I knew that I was going to love it and so went ahead and sprang for a membership when I was in town to sign my lease--and I haven't been disappointed. Last week I saw a Jean Renoir film (which I won't name, to discourage Googling) and then last night George Washington Boyfriend and I saw Lemming, which was fantastic; it's a bit like Caché, in that both deal with happy suburban French families whose lives are suddenly disturbed by an apparently malevolent individual--but I thought Lemming was much better and more satisfying.

2. The nearest Catholic church, which I'm hoping turns out to be the one I want to join. So far, so good: a lovely old structure, well-tended but a bit worn; an engaging priest who gave a good homily today; altar girls; the use of inclusive language at points in the Mass when it often isn't used; a location that draws from both the largely gentrified arts district that I live in and the grittier, much poorer neighborhood to the south. Also, the weekly bulletin and the website highlight the parish's social justice and community outreach initiatives (rather than, say, a weekly "Rosary for Life"--which was just about the only thing that came up under the "activities" section of the websites for some of the other churches I investigated).

3. Lots of used bookstores! GWB and I went into one today and I wound up buying a book on Donne, a copy of Empire Falls, and two huge Miss Manners books of etiquette. I've been lounging around reading one of the latter for the last few hours and chuckling continually.

(Them that knows me knows that I LOVE etiquette books, and I own several, dating back to the 1930s and including ones focused specifically on such subjects as dining, letter-writing, and the like. I've certainly used these books to look things up and ascertain the "right" way to do them, but really, I like to browse through etiquette books in much the way that some people like to read cookbooks: as escapist fantasy. The possibility of a world in which there is a proper--elegant, courteous, considerate--way to do everything is highly appealing to me, as is the belief that that proper way can be easily identified. . . if only one has the right book!)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

John Updike is no Renaissance Man

Speaking of books, I just came across John Updike's essay in the Sunday New York Times Book Review of two weeks ago, which the Review credits as an adaptation of an address Updike gave at last month's Book Expo in D.C. Appropriately enough for his venue, Updike celebrates the glories of the material book and expresses concern for its future--as well as for the future of booksellers. Although this isn't a novel subject, it's also not, you'd think, one that a bibliophile could find much to quarrel with.

Except. Except that much of Updike's essay is devoted to fretting over an article in last month's Times Magazine, written by Wired magazine writer Kevin Kelly, which enthuses about "Google's plan. . . to scan the contents of five major research libraries and make them searchable," thus making all the books in those libraries freely and openly accessible on the web.

What does Updike object to about this project? It's not the threat to booksellers, really, or even precisely the threat to authors, but rather the "anarchic nature" of the universal library that Google would create. Updike quotes Kelly to demonstrate how ghastly this future would be:
"Once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. . . . These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or 'playlists,' as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual 'bookshelves' — a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf's worth of specialized information. And as with music playlists, once created, these 'bookshelves' will be published and swapped in the public commons. Indeed, some authors will begin to write books to be read as snippets or to be remixed as pages."
Huh, I thought. That sounds rather familiar. Rather Renaissance, even--commonplace books weren't searchable, of course, but they were full of random bibs and bobs of sentences and paragraphs, poems and passages, culled from a wide variety of sources: a clever epigram here; a dirty poem there; and bits of wisdom on all kinds of topics throughout. They were considered an important part of one's education and crucial to developing into a knowledgeable and well-spoken individual. (And of course, many writers today follow a similar practice of notebook-keeping.)

However, Updike doesn't see it that way. He continues:
This is, as I read it, a pretty grisly scenario. "Performances, access to the creator, personalization," whatever that is — does this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value? Have not writers, since the onset of the Gutenberg revolution, imagined that they already were, in their written and printed texts, giving an "access to the creator" more pointed, more shapely, more loaded with aesthetic and informational value than an unmediated, unpolished personal conversation?
Uh, no. This does not "throw us back to the pre-literate societies," John. Like I said: consider the commonplace book. Or the miscellany. Or the personalized bound volumes that many early modern readers created, where they'd take a bunch of pamphlets or even entire books and have them bound together into one "personalized" volume. Some of these volumes, when we look at them today, make thematic sense--all their items are on one topic or in one genre (they may all be sermons, for example, or all pamphlets on ecclesiastical government)--but many of them reflect their authors' idiosyncratic, magpie tendencies in the same way that commonplace books do.

(I'm not even going to comment on the "since the onset of the Gutenberg revolution" part of that passage, which seems to suggest that authors only came to care about their works once they could be printed--because, you know, it's not like there were books before then, or anything--while at the same time showing no real understanding of how vexed the idea of "authorship" remained for quite a long while AFTER the advent of print.)

But the final paragraphs are the best part:
"When books are digitized," Kelly ominously promises, "reading becomes a community activity. . . . The universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book."

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.

Wasn't the Renaissance man, in fact, a man of snippets? And as long as you choose the right snippets (and cite your sources, dammit, for all the students out there), aren't you demonstrating your exquisite taste--and, in fact, the very personal identity that Updike is so het up over?

Yeah. In sum: shut up, John Updike.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Where do the books go?

I've just started upacking my books, which has me confronting anew the question that Terminaldegree posed some weeks ago: what remains at home, and what goes to the office?

Some things are easy: every text that I teach goes to the office, as do all my journal issues; all those books that are out of my field and that I don't teach, on the other hand, stay at home. But what happens to all those other Early Modern books? Do I try to take in everything remotely related to what I teach and research--including secondary sources and critical editions? Will I really need, say, my multi-volume Complete Prose Works of John Milton at the office? (And if not, is the fact that the set looks impressive reason enough to house it there?)

Part of the question, I suppose, is where I'll actually be getting work done. I've never had a departmental office of my own, so I never got in the habit of using such office space as I did have for anything other than holding office hours, grading, and answering email. From here on in, however, I'll be on campus for many hours in which I'm not teaching: I'm only teaching two days a week, both semesters, so I'll have large chunks of time that might well (that SHOULD bloody well) be devoted to my scholarship.

On the other hand, I work well at home and I now have a wonderful study in which to do so. I'm also living a few towns away from Regional U, and I foresee weekends when I'll suddenly realize that I absolutely need a book that's at my office--and then will have to schlep out to campus to get it.

I suppose there's no foolproof way to do this. . . but I'm curious: what strategies do you use, or which philosophies do you follow, in divvying up your own books between home and work?

Monday, July 03, 2006

. . . In with the new

I love my new apartment--so big, so bright, so airy. I've also met my next-door neighbor, an awesome 60-something (and his handsome, dramatically younger "friend").

My neighborhood smells beautiful. I don't know what's in bloom, but it's heady, heavenly, and intoxicating.

I really need a car. Walking half an hour to the supermarket (which I'd misremembered as being much closer), and then back, with groceries, in the heat, was not a good idea. On the other hand, my neighborhood IS generally quite walkable for one's daily errands and activities, so I won't have to drive most places. This is a relief, as a) I don't particularly like driving or being dependent on a car, and b) I really DO like walking. . . and I'd also prefer not to suddenly gain 10 pounds because I no longer do it!

I think I'm going to like it here.

[Regular, academic-style blogging to resume soon. Soon, I tell you!]

Out with the old . . .

Friday night HK and I said our goodbyes to the city (formerly, This City) with what turned out to be the perfect gathering at a tiny, fabulous, but nevertheless nearly empty Latin bar featuring good happy hour specials and a great DJ. I know most of HK's friends and she knows most of mine, but not well, and they certainly didn't know each other--but we all got on famously, stayed for hours, and downed untold quantities of sangria, margaritas, beer, and (thanks to Lulu, who always knows just the right time for everything) a round of shots. Afterwards, we happy few went back to Julio's for a nightcap--and after THAT I went on home to continue packing.

By coincidence, HK's Saturday flight to HK (which is to say, Hong Kong) was at nearly the same time as mine to New City, and both were out of the area's most inconveniently-located airport. Since she had a car-service car ferrying her out there, courtesy of one of those soul-sucking corporate firms that treat one so well that one doesn't realize that one's soul has gone missing, she had the driver swing by my place en route. Thus we passed the 45-minute ride lounging in the back of that shiny black sedan and rehashing the party and reflecting on our pasts and our futures.

* * * *

One part of my past that I'm going to miss is Historically Black Neighborhood. The place is gentrifying so rapidly, though--when I first moved there, I could go ten minutes without seeing another white person (although prosperous African-Americans not native to the area had long since started moving in). Back then, the stock clerks in the local supermarket would address me in Spanish, apparently assuming that, if I wasn't Black, I must be Latina--for otherwise, what on earth would I be doing in that neighborhood?

It saddens me to consider that it's entirely possible that parts of HBN won't be black any more--except historically--in ten or fifteen years' time. The place is such a friendly and close-knit community, with residents from three or four different generations all living in the same place (unlike some parts of the city, where everyone appears to be between ages 23 and 38). I met so many interesting people and learned so much there.

I learned, for instance, that poor-ish, minority neighborhoods really DO get routinely screwed over. In my first year in HBN, there was a massive phone service failure affecting an area of about ten blocks by three (long, crosstown) blocks, which included my building. Although there were repairmen on the street apparently working on the problem from day one, our service was not restored for SEVEN FULL DAYS. Thirty blocks--that's thousands of people and hundreds of businesses. That affects not only telephones, but also dial-up internet service and credit card machines. And I'm sorry--but I can't imagine that the outage would have lasted an entire week in one of the wealthy communities 30 or 40 blocks south.

That wasn't the only time something like that happened. And when it happens to you just a few times, you start to expect it. This is why the poor of all races are prone to conspiracy theories, and I heard a whole lot of them in my three years there--but you know what? I came to believe or half-believe most of them. (One exception was that woman on the city bus who was complaining at length about the torrential rains we'd been having, before concluding that it was, clearly, Bush's fault, because he's "the devil.")

I overheard so many interesting stories on the subway. The young men talking about trying to go to college, having the bills mount up, and dropping out--but hoping they'd be able to go back. The people having earnest religious conversations with people they'd apparently just met. And especially--especially--the Black and Latino kids negotiating their sexuality. I saw flamboyantly gay boys of fifteen, with their shrieking female friends, talking loudly about sex while the older people on the subway closed their faces tight (whether at the loudness or the sex would be hard to say). I saw big, thugged-out guys discreetly cruising each other.

But what I remember most is this conversation:

A group of four girls perhaps 14-15 years old and apparently on their way home from school are standing on the subway just near my seat. Two are Black, one is Latina, and the other appears to be white or biracial. They're discussing their classmates and some recent parties they'd been to, when one says, laughingly, "Seriously! There were more GAY couples than straight ones there."

There follows a brief back and forth about various classmates and who's gay and who's dating whom and all in good spirits, until one of the girls, who has grown extremely quiet, suddenly says, "I just don't see why people gotta go and be gay."

The other girls kid with her for a few moments, but when she keeps shaking her head and repeating her position, one of the others stops swinging around, looks her right in the face, and says, quite earnestly, "Look. It's not that they WANNA be gay, okay? It's like, you're Black, right? You didn't choose it, right? It how you are. It's like that with being gay."

And, mirabile dictu! There it was. A lesson in tolerance on the subway.

* * * *

It's been a good run. Thanks for everything, HBN.