Friday, November 28, 2008

The archival imperative

For my freshman and sophomore years of college, my work-study job was in the university's rare books library. The actual tasks I was assigned weren't challenging--I paged materials, reshelved them, and worked on photoduplication orders--but it was entertainment enough for a nosey and bookish 19-year-old. I'd wander among the stacks and pull out illuminated books of hours or slivers of papyri just to gape at them, and I'd do my photocopying very slowly indeed, reading as much as I could of Ezra Pound or Edith Wharton's letters and trying not to drop the boxes in shock when I came across another American writer's hokey but very nude photographs of teenaged boys.

In the long run, this job turned out to be a useful introduction to archives and archival work. In the short run, it made me an object of mirth among my friends as I started adopting some of the library's organizational systems for my dorm room.

Take my correspondence files. I was once a serious letter writer, and up through my late 20s I still routinely wrote and received longhand missives. (These days it's dwindled mostly to cards--albeit sometimes with substantial notes inside--and at best a few letters a year.) Inspired by the manuscript collections I worked with, I started filing my correspondence the way they did in the archive, and I continue to do so today: I slit the envelopes along three sides, unfold the pages or splay open the cards so that they lie flat, and use the envelope as a loose jacket or clip around the relevant pages. Then I order them chronologically within file folders labeled by correspondent and alphabetized by last name.

I suppose it's a little eccentric to treat these letters--some of them going back to when my correspondents and I were 16--as if they deserved the care accorded to Pound's or Eliot's. However, not only is this the maximally efficient way for me to organize and refer to my correspondence, but it also encourages as healthy and non-sentimental an attitude as it is possible for the kind of person who hangs onto all her letters to have. Sure, it's lovely to take out the missives of an old friend and see her handwriting and familiar stationery. But keeping her letters in a file cabinet implies that they are, ultimately, historical and biographical records rather than objects to fetishize.

When it became clear that my ex and I weren't getting back together, I printed out all the emails I'd saved for one reason or another over the years, deleted the electronic copies, and interleaved the printed versions chronologically with the cards and notes I'd already filed. Then I wrote a terminal date (2001-2007) next to his name on the folder tab, slipped it back among the 30 or 40 other folders in the drawer, and rolled it shut. It felt like an agreeable bit of housekeeping: I wouldn't be stumbling upon shoeboxes of letters under the bed or stay email messages when I wasn't expecting them, but neither would I live to regret shredding or burning or deleting those items in a misguided attempt at "closure." If I needed them, they'd be there--along with hundreds and hundreds of letters from the more important and more enduring people in my life.

I'm pretty certain that none of my correspondence will be sought after by scholars of the future, but I have a mania for organizing and historicizing my own life: hence that box of old journals I lug with me every time I move, those files and files of letters--and, I suppose, this blog. Perhaps it's a disease peculiar to academics.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

GEMCS: Day Three

I've compared conferences to sleep-away camp before, but this one felt more like being back in college: some of the papers were great; others I survived by doodling and passing notes with friends. All our meals were noisy, joyous affairs--full of argument and gossip and drink. And every night Ally and I stayed up late, talking into the dark from the warmth of our beds.

As in college, though, this had its downside. One morning we had to get up early for a friend's panel, and when Ally's alarm went off we'd had only a few hours of sleep and were still half drunk.

"Oh, God," I moaned, realizing that I had my own panel that day.

"Why did I set my alarm for 7.35?" she asked. "Seven-thirty-FIVE? What the hell?"

We lay there for a few minutes, thinking.

"Do I owe you money?" I asked. "I must. Goddamn hotel bars."

"You gave me loads of money." Then she laughed. "[That thing] was pretty funny."

I looked at her blankly. "What?"

She repeated herself.

"That did not happen. You're making that up."

"We need coffee."

"Shit. Shitshitshitshitshit."

"Starbucks. Across the street."

"Is my brain broken?"

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was not, in fact, broken, and the day turned out to be lovely--because, just as if we were still 22, we rallied with astonishing speed, attended every session, and went out again that night.

I'm grateful that I'm not 22 and this isn't habitual. Still, I have renewed respect for my students.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

GEMCS: Day One

I've just arrived in Philly for the sometimes-annual, always-chaotic conference of the Group for Early Modern Cultural Studies--an organization that Augie's former department chair refers to as "the Unitarians of the conference world." Although I've been holed up in my room for the past two hours, responding to student emails, I'm settling into the conference experience nicely.

A few bulletins from the front:

    On the train into the city, I accurately IDed all of my fellow conference goers. The dudes with beards and glasses were easy, the younger folk a bit harder. Still: carrying a garment bag and reading Harpers? A bit too self-conscious in one's hipster-dom (as if determined to recreate Williamsburg in Omaha)? Them's academics.


    As I was rolling self and suitcase into the hotel, an older dude somewhere behind me cried out in annoyance. I looked over my shoulder, and it appeared that he had stumbled, but it wasn't clear how. Whatever had happened seemed minor, so I kept walking--down a hall and around a couple of corners to the reception desk. Suddenly the man (bearded and bespectacled, natch) was at my side and shouting, "YOU COULD HAVE APOLOGIZED!" "Excuse me?" I said. "I tripped on your suitcase! You could have apologized!" "Well," I said. "I'm sorry that you didn't see my suitcase."


    Being simultaneously lazy and mesmerized by repetitive, time-sucking tasks, I scorn the iron and the ironing board provided in hotel rooms. Instead, I hang my suits up on the shower curtain rod and flick water all over them, smoothing out the wrinkles as I go. Would turning on a hot shower, closing the door, and letting the garments steam out be equally effective? Yes. Do I do this? No.


    I was shattered to learn that the promised panel on "gin culture" didn't materialize. I'll have to assemble an ad hoc committee to investigate.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

My finely-tuned annoyingness radar

I get irritated more easily than most people--and "irritation" is exactly the word for what I feel: an itchy inability to bear whatever it is for another moment.

Anyone who is at all intimate with me knows this--and knows, equally well, to ignore me when I leap up, flapping my arms in agitation and crying, "I hate it! I hate it!"

"Yes, Flavia," my friends say. "I know you do."

Victoria calls this my "finely-tuned annoyingness radar," which may be a more charitable description than it deserves. I don't react strongly to obvious tics or nervous habits--perhaps on the understanding that those aren't fully under a person's control--but other, seemingly more innocuous behaviors send me into fits. "WHY," I ask, "does so-and-so DO THAT? It's awful. It's annoying. It's counterproductive and socially hostile."

(Rarely are these things that bother other people. When I begin a sentence with, "don't you hate it when. . . ?", the answer, usually, is "no.")

I've recently rediscovered that one of the things that sets off my radar is a certain kind of academic writing. I'm not talking about the kind of academic writing that we all hate and all make fun of; I mean writing that is self-consciously not that kind of writing: writing that is almost quite good, but that cherishes its goodness a little too much, massaging an extended metaphor here and an exotic phrasing there--and altogether filling my nostrils with the sickly-sweet smell of self-love.

I hate that shit. And me being me, I have to respond. "Yuck," I write in the margins of one page, and "Are you fucking kidding me??" at the top of another. I corner my colleagues in the office, shaking an open book at them. "Will you LISTEN to this?" I say. "It's so awful. I have to read it to you!"

The itch must be scratched. But I fear I'm already a terrible, terrible crank.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day--

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

--Philip Larkin

Friday, November 07, 2008

Morning, again

What a week! 95 Theses Day, soon followed by Guy Fawkes Day--and, oh yeah: there was an election in there, too.

I'd been thinking about the 2000 and 2004 elections a lot as this particular cycle wound down. The former happened in my second year of graduate school, and one of my classmates held a big party where we all huddled around her t.v., drinking bourbon and laughing and waiting for our home states to pop up on the map. Needless to say, it turned into a long night (and an even longer four years).

In 2004 I was back in the big city--though still in grad school--and I didn't have a t.v. The election hadn't been definitively called by the time I went to bed, but by the time I got up early the next morning to fly to a conference it was clear that Bush had been reelected. I sat in the airport talking to my then-partner on the phone. He was a libertarian Republican who'd cast his first Democratic vote for any person, for any office, for Kerry. I was arguing that maybe it would be okay--that at least Bush would get stuck with the fucking war he started--but he was almost in tears. "You don't know these people," he said. "I grew up with these people! They're gay-baiting creationists and there's nothing to stop them now."

We hung up, and soon one of my grad school friends arrived at the airport: we were rooming together at the conference. We stared at each other, unable to muster up much conversation. Our conference was at a college in a deeply red state, and I don't remember very much of it--just that everyone looked as if their father had just died.

I've been thinking about those elections, and about those people. The woman who held the election night party in 2000 finished her Ph.D., but is no longer in the profession. One of my classmates, who kept declaring that he was going to D.C. to protest Bush's inauguration (which he did) by throwing feces at his motorcade (which he did not) has disappeared. He fell into a dissertation worm-hole, and I've heard nothing about him for years. The friend I shared a room with at that conference in November 2004 is the same friend I'm sharing a room with at a conference in November 2008.

Just before Election Day I spent some time with another person I was friends with in grad school, but who (for various reasons or for no reason) I've barely seen or been in touch with for the part five years. We spent some hours catching up one-on-one, and after we parted I felt strangely transformed: it was as if I'd both recovered access to my grad school life--but in a new and better way--and realized, definitively, that that era was behind me.

I started grad school nine years ago last August. Eight years ago Bush was elected. Next month, my Ph.D. will be three years old. And the month after that, President Obama will take office.

Here's to fresh starts.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Happy (belated) 95 Theses Day!

It was Friday. But really: isn't every day 95 Theses Day?

I've watched this at least a dozen times. It just keeps getting better. (Via IvyGate.)