Friday, October 31, 2014


At the LRB, Colin Burrow reviews a new book about the history of philology. Of interest to me in a general sense as well, for obvious reasons, but I particularly enjoyed this bit at the end:
This layer of general interest in knowing about humanity – call it culture – can all sometimes go wrong when academic specialisms waltz into the room. My mother, who was the children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones (and whose eightieth birthday recently prompted what must be the ultimate public recognition in the form of a Google doodle: the techies in California clearly like reading fantasy), once said at a dinner with a group of American academics that she loved The Faerie Queene. ‘Oh, are you a Spenserian?’ came the eager reply. When my mother said, no, she just liked reading Spenser and liked his fantastical imagination, the light went out in her dining companions’ eyes. Yes, academic disciplines are a wet sock to the imagination, but not everything we do is contained within their soggy outlines.

"Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!"

Nicholas Dames on the literary history of the chapter.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Teaching edition

Posting around here has been sparse due to excessive other demands, so I thought I'd just give a glimpse into what I've been up to. Yesterday taught a favorite novel, Amelia Alderson Opie's Adeline Mowbray: or The Mother and Daughter. Today, another really wonderful and underrated novel, William Wells Brown's Clotel: Or, The President's Daughter. (Titling coincidence merely serendipitous - but see Franco Moretti's argument about direct and indirect articles in "Style, Inc."!)

Here's the critical reading assigned in addition to the novel for tonight's lecture (which I am still in the process of writing):

#Ann duCille, “Where in the World is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History,” American Literary History 12:3 (2000): 443-462
#Jonathan Senchyne, “Bottles of Ink and Reams of Paper: Clotel, Racialization, and the Material Culture of Print,” in Early African American Print Culture, ed. Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 140-158
#Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (2008): 1-14

And here's the assignment students will write for seminar this week. It is the last of four short assignments that they write as they build up to working on a final essay that will include both close reading and critical argument; it is designed to let students practice skills as well as coming to a deeper understanding of the novel itself.

Please write answers to the following questions.

1. One of the critical essays you read for this week offers this overview of critical assessments and interpretations of Clotel:

The runaway slave’s mastery of neoclassical diction, which some see as little more than a flaunting of his educational attainments, is for other readers a subversive deployment of the King’s English to tell the slave’s story. What one critic views as structural chaos, another sees as a creative appropriation of multiple forms – from the oral tradition of the slave narrative to the sentimental emplotments of women’s fiction. Where one sees only the bourgeois pretensions of the black middle class, another finds an “informed use of folklore” that offers an insider’s view of the plantation system[.] (Ann duCille, “Where in the World Is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History,” American Literary History 12:3 [2000]: 443-462; 456)

a. Make a list of three to five of the novel’s most conspicuous formal or stylistic traits (you can include the three that duCille isolates here, only I would like you to describe them in your own words and in as factual or descriptive a manner as possible).

b. Then offer at least two possible arguments concerning the way each particular trait works in the novel. Make sure that these arguments are formulated so as to satisfy the implicit expectations we have of interpretation: not just what the trait involves or how it works, but also what it’s for or why it matters.

2. Near the end of the essay, duCille writes: “When all is said, done, and disposed of—the borrowing, overplotting, preaching, and propagandizing—the real problem with Clotel lies in the particular slippery nature of Brown’s brand of realism, which both deploys and denies the documentary impulse that drives the reading, if not the writing, of African-American literature” (458).

a. Write a paragraph or two that first paraphrases and then amplifies or illuminates this critical assertion. What does duCille have in mind when she lists borrowing, overplotting, preaching, and propagandizing as crucial elements of Clotel? Give specific examples; you can refer back to your answer to question 1 if you feel you’ve already touched on some of the relevant details.

b. What does it mean to say that this novel’s “brand of realism . . . both deploys and denies the documentary impulse”? Pick that statement apart by explaining what duCille means by “the documentary impulse” and identifying where it can be seen in Brown’s novel – three or four examples will do. Then consider what it means to make a distinction between deployment and denial in this context.

3. One obvious oddity of Brown’s novel is that though it regularly invokes real historical incidents, the timeline/chronology is distorted: there are a number of internal contradictions as well as departures from real historical chronology. What are the effects of these contradictions and anomalies? What do they tell us about the novel’s mode of representation? Offer a thesis and support it with specific examples.

4. Jonathan Senchyne uses the phrase “strategically edits” to describe what one chapter in Clotel does to and with Lydia Maria Child’s story “The Quadroons” (“Bottles of Ink and Reams of Paper: Clotel, Racialization, and the Material Culture of Print,” in Early African American Print Culture, ed. Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, 140-158; 157). That phrase itself represents a kind of argument about Brown’s fictional practice. Use the phrase “strategically edits” as the jumping-off point for a fuller description of what it means and why it matters when Clotel borrows and adapts another literary text.

5. When I lecture on Clotel on Tuesday evening, I will consider some questions about the advantages and limitations of close reading as a method for getting a grasp on novels. In some ways, Clotel is very different from, say, Emma (it’s more like Paradise Lost in the sense that it would be perverse to read it without considering questions of history and politics). But it remains important, I would say, to attend closely to the novel’s narrative voice. Find a two- to four-sentence stretch that you think can fairly stand in for the novel’s narrative voice more generally. Then write a paragraph characterizing that narrative voice. What do we know about the narrator? What are the predominant traits of the narrative voice? Make sure to consider intellectual, affective (emotional) and political dimensions as well as more narrowly stylistic ones.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Closing tabs

Rather grumpy about ongoing minor respiratory ailment. Had hoped I might be able to run for a bit today, but really I'm still hawking up huge gobs of disgusting phlegm, it will not do lungs any good to strain them with exercise! Behind on various work stuff, generally feeling rather low. (About to dig in on clearing some of these overdue tasks, which with any luck will lead to a feeling of considerable relief .)

Nice writeup of last week's Swift symposium. I had a very funny conversation afterwards with an elderly Irishman who was peculiarly vivid of conversation. He was excited to tell me that I was "a BORN LECTURER: BORN TO THE PODIUM" - also I used two words he was unfamiliar with, paratactic and hypotactic, which let him tell me a wonderfully complex multi-part anecdote about an alcoholic friend of his, now deceased, who was a great lover of language and once told this gentleman, when he used the word "creature" to describe a lady, "to refer himself to the discipline of the dictionary"! This is now a good new phrase in my repertoire. Said friend died in hospital of complications due to alcoholism, but on his deathbed sung this gentleman two songs which I promised I would go and hear online: one I think was "The Parting Glass," if I am remembering correctly, and the other was a Gaelic song whose title loosely translated into "Nobody knows her name" (various versions here). Some reciting of Yeats was also involved....

Fun to see this profile of an old friend in my Digg feed!

Jane Goodall's jungle.

The link B. sent me yesterday really did bring a smile to my face: the Shetland Pony Grand National!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bringing home the bacon

Fou lard.

In other news, I have a slight cold - perhaps 3 out of 10 on Davidsonian ailment scale. It is making me feel as though I would benefit from a full head transplant!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hot zone update

Sitting at my desk in New York and trying to gear up to write a letter of recommendation that's due today - fortunately I don't need to be on campus until three, as I still have quite a bit of reading to finish before class as well.

Dublin was excellent but phenomenally tiring - any time I was not actually seeing people and doing conference things, I was essentially huddled in bed in my hotel room (fortunately it was quite a nice room - I put up the Do Not Disturb sign and just left it up!).

Interesting interview with Richard Preston at the New York Times about current plans to update his thriller-like account of Ebola as of the early 1990s, The Hot Zone. I vividly remember reading this during my first year of grad school - my roommate LeeAnn had the hardcover and I devoured it! I have been following Ebola developments closely and with interest: my two main fantasy alternate careers are neurologist and epidemiologist, and I am a little sorry that I am not involved in planning and organizing ways to contain the epidemic.

I am relieved to see that Preston admits that one bit of the book is especially in need of correction (I always wondered!):
In the original “Hot Zone,” I have a description of a nurse weeping tears of blood. That almost certainly didn’t happen. When a person has Ebola, the eyes can turn brilliant red from blood vessels leaking and blood oozing out of the eyelid. That’s horrifying, but it’s not someone with tears of blood running down their face. I want to fix that.
Here's his piece in this week's New Yorker.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Closing tabs

I have that uneasy pre-travel feeling that I am forgetting something extremely important, and indeed I have a ton of stuff to do tomorrow morning (including packing), but I seem to have survived the frenzy of talk-writing and lecture-writing and so forth....

Have been spoiled with some very good light reading. When I read the good stuff it makes me wonder why I waste my time with second- and third-tier nonsense! On the other hand, the hours must be whiled away some way or another - but I do think I will have a year sometime when I will only read novels I really really want to read, and that the rest of my reading should be narrative nonfiction etc.

Anyway, Deon Meyer's Cobra is superb - hard to imagine a better book in this sort of vein. Then I read a delightful trio of books on the recommendation of Charlie Stross: Max Gladstone's Craft books. I was slightly skeptical at first - it's purely personal preference, but I really always like it best when urban fantasy follows a single character as either first-person narration or third-person limited, it's part of my affinity for character- and voice-driven fiction - but was utterly won over. These books are great! Interestingly Deon Meyer is using a very similar form of narration, in terms of pacing and following a set of characters, though the books are in most other respects about as different as you could imagine.

Just now halfway through a book I have been awaiting for a long time, Garth Nix's new Abhorsen installment Clariel. The original trilogy of Old Kingdom books, along with Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, were the inspiration for The Explosionist and sequel: I kept haunting the shelves of the Bank Street Bookstore looking for something like and as good as those two sets of books, and when I couldn't find them, I thought I would just have to try and make something like that myself....

Closing tabs:

Nobody knows what running looks like.

Metadata scarf and cowl!

Medieval pet names (courtesy of Rivka).

Puggle production line? (Wishful thinking edition.)

Four years later, a lost African gray parrot is reunited with its former owner:
When Nigel vanished four years ago, he spoke with a cultivated British accent.

Little is known about where the African grey parrot went, what he did — or who he was with — in those missing years. But when he was reunited with his owner, Darren Chick, in Torrance last week, the British accent was gone and the bird was chattering in Spanish, often mentioning the name “Larry.”

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Marginalia redux

Strange to say, thinking about marginalia last week for class turns out to have been much more closely related to one of my current scholarly obsessions than I had quite imagined. I'm speaking on Saturday in Dublin (here's more information about the event) on Swift and commentary; been reading rather maniacally and now trying to put thoughts in order, but here is a funny bit from one of my favorite essays in a really excellent new collection.

One delightful but painful side effect of working on this talk has been that I am now absolutely consumed with the desire to spend some months sitting in rare book libraries with amazing tomes before me: I do have a sabbatical coming up, not next year but the following one (i.e. 2016-17), with the only problem being that I have two competing projects that I am equally excited about, The ten-week Clarissa and the new one for which I have just now created a folder on the hard drive titled "Ancients and moderns"!

So, Paddy Bullard, “What Swift did in libraries,” in Jonathan Swift and the Eighteenth-Century Book, ed. Bullard and James McLaverty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 65-84 (the quotation is on 72):
[I]t is clear that Swift was an unusually active reader. This activity often involved a kind of conversation with the text written upon the printed page. The tone of that conversation was often indignant or otherwise aggressive--the anti-Scottish invective of his notes on Clarendon ('Cursed hellish Scots!'--'Greedy Scotch rebellious dogs'--'Diabolical Scots forever', etc.) is not untypically virulent.
Also: "The regularity of Swift's anti-monarchical marginalia across several volumes gives it a ritual quality, as though he were leafing through his books looking for opportunities to perform it. . . . It seems that Swift found in the pages of his personal library a textual site just secure enough to bear anti-monarchical inscriptions that were too dangerous for him to make in any other kind of papers, either published or private" (74).

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Jam yesterday

From William Sherman, "Dirty Books? Attitudes Toward Readers' Marks":
According to his former lodger, the translator and playwright John Henry Jones, Empson was once forced to buy the London Library a new copy of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: when he returned it they found it covered not only with his marginal notes but with the jam from his morning toast. When I cited this anecdote in a Times Literary Supplement review, Jones himself wrote in to elaborate on the nature of Empson's marginalia: "The work in question was W. W. Greg's parallel-text edition of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, and the librarian . . . was hardly straining at a gnat in demanding a fresh copy--the book was virtually done to death in Empson's zeal to demolish Greg's argument in favour of the B-text, a process which . . . was maintained throughout all quotidian activities."

Closing tabs

A weird crystal.

The notorious difficulty of breeding hyenas.

The Sasquatch of Minecraft.

An interview with James Ellroy.


Impending closure of one of my very favorite New York restaurants, La Lunchonette.

Bad electronic health record software and the handling of the Dallas Ebola patient.

Stephen Fry on the battle for gay rights in Estonia. (Courtesy of Tarvo.)

Finally, something amazing: most epic bike ride ever? I would NEVER do this, but it is lovely to watch....

Book Traces!

I'm really excited about this event! Here is librarian Karla Nielsen's description of why this library-marginalia crowdsourcing project really matters:
Andrew Stauffer describes the importance of the project very eloquently on the Book Traces website but I want to underscore his description of these books as constituting a massive, distributed archive of the history of reading, hidden in plain sight in the circulating collection. Viewed that way, they are a treasure. Historians of reading constantly face an evidence problem because it is difficult to find or follow past readers’ traces. However, not all post-industrial nineteenth century books look like treasure from the outside. They can be crumbly and fragile, riddled with what librarians call inherent vice. Faced with these volumes, some readers, and some library circulation managers, are happy for a rationale that justifies moving them offsite or online. There are many discoveries to made if you think to look, but we need to start looking before the evidence is moved out of sight or obliterated.
More information on the project here (and the lovely Tumblr showcase. Andy will come to class this evening to explain and inspire: I like the show-and-tell aspect to this whole thing!

The readings I've given my students to complement and contextualize the project (must now write lecture!):

#William Sherman, “Dirty Books? Attitudes Toward Readers’ Marks,” from Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 153-178
#H. J. Jackson, “‘Marginal Frivolities’: readers’ notes as evidence for the history of reading,” in Owners, Annotators and the Signs of Reading, ed. Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote (New Castle, DE and London: Oak Knoll Press and the British Library, 2005), 137-151
#Andrew Stauffer, “Hemans by the Book,” European Romantic Review 22:3 (2001): 373-380
#Nicholson Baker, “Discards,” The New Yorker (April 4, 1994): 64-86

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The originals

Richard Price's history of the NYC Housing Authority:
In most housing projects these days, a hard-times hidden economy thrives, what Mark Jacobson and others call the gray market, consisting of improvised and in some cases ingenious ways of making ends meet—apartments doubling as daycare centers, some licensed, some not; takeaway lunches sold out the door or lowered from the window; a legion of bootleg car mechanics whose garage is the street; come-to-your-house handymen, plumbers, carpenters, computer programmers, and repairmen; just-text-me drivers for hire; CD and DVD duplicators leaving for the commercial strips of Fordham Road, Harlem, and elsewhere; wholesale candy hustlers, kids mostly, heading out to Grand Central Station, Penn Station, and tourist-centric Times Square, introducing themselves as grassroots fundraisers in order to sell ten-cent chocolate bars for two dollars a pop, a 2,000 percent markup.

Dead right!

Several weeks old now, but I meant to link to it much sooner as it is excellent: Diana Athill on why it's silly to be afraid of being dead.

Reading like Nabokov

Janine Barchas on Nabokov's annotations of Mansfield Park.

Rage, grief

Colm Tóibín on the literature of grief (I am eager to read his new novel):
A few years later, in her introduction to her translation of Sophocles' Elektra, one of the great plays about grief, Carson's tone seemed less certain as she wrote about the scene in which Orestes returns and hands his sister an urn with ashes which he says are of her dead brother Orestes. Orestes listens to Elektra mourn at some length before he announces that he was just fooling and that he has, in fact, been alive all the time and is now in front of her. Carson quotes the actor Fiona Shaw saying that she found the "deception/recognition scene between Elektra and Orestes 'unspeakably impossible to play'."

"Critics and scholars (and translators)," Carson goes on, "agree, this scene is a hard nut to crack. Why does Orestes decide to trick his sister into thinking he is dead? Why does he give it up in the middle? What does Sophocles want to achieve here? The alternation of lies and truth, high emotions and low, is bewildering and cruel, the tug of war over an empty urn almost bizarre." So, too, Philip Vellacott, who translated Euripides's version of the play, wonders about this scene and identifies the point "where Orestes should reveal himself … He does not reveal himself. Why?"

Surely the solution is simple. Surely Orestes' trickery is the very currency of grief. Orestes, having lost his father, is unable to come clean. The issues of life and death have entered his spirit and poisoned him so that his approach to re-meeting his sister will be all gnarled. He cannot deal simply with emotion. As Carson writes about Euripides's version of him: "All in all, Orestes is a peculiar customer – not exactly insane but strange and unknowable. His consciousness is entirely his own." Thus his response will be filled with doublespeak and trickery about the very things – the difference between being dead and being alive – that he cannot manage to come to terms with. Becoming "bewildering and cruel", as Carson puts it, and "bizarre", are what has happened to his personality under pressure. While his sister has been doing all the shouting, Orestes has let the pain seep silently into the very core of his being so that nothing he does will ever be easy to explain. While people are busy avoiding his sister because of what she says, they have been perhaps even busier avoiding Orestes because of his silence.

Closing tabs

It can't really be a week since I last posted here, can it?

Hmmm, yes, it can: because I foreswore any voluntary/frivolous forms of writing until I had cleared the desk of letters of recommendation (big round of due dates on Monday and Wednesday) and most of all this now-overdue tenure letter that was supposed to be finished by mid-September. Have just had a very nice quiet Saturday evening at home working on it, and have emailed the PDF to the relevant department chair with a sense of TRIUMPH!

Will now segue to the couch for a glass of wine and the rest of the Wollstonecraft I'm teaching Monday: have finished all the reading for Tuesday's lecture already (had to do SOME work yesterday but was too tired to deal with this letter, even though it was more important), which means that my tomorrow is now clear for (a) a longish run and (b) a lovely day of reading and note-taking for the other (more enjoyable) thing on which I'm currently delinquent, the short paper on Swift and commentary that I am due to deliver in Dublin on October 18! We were supposed to send them to the respondent a long time ago, but this is one of those things that is difficult to feel as a hard deadline in such a flurry of other more concrete and consequential ones (sorry, Frank - if you are reading this, I promise I will get it to you at least a few days before the conference, and hopefully a full week in advance!).

Closing tabs:

Book historian Erik Kwakkel on some of the world's oldest doodles (utterly enchanting).

A must-read piece by my friend Marco Roth on the language of secrecy, a contribution to Alysia Abbott's new collaborative project recording the memories of the adult children of parents who died of AIDS.

Heard a great talk Thursday on Soay sheep - it put me in a good mood! (I went to another very good one on Tuesday, my friend and colleague Joey Slaughter talking about the literature of counter-insurgency. I find great academic talks absolutely exhilarating, while boring or bad ones make me want to stick a fork in my eye: I have never found the knack of tranquilly zoning out, I am more squirming in my seat in distress!)

Some good links at this Paris Review post, including a really fantastic poem called "Treacle" by Paul Farley that I urge you to go and read in its entirety. (Should be paired with the sugar section in The Rings of Saturn!)

Among other features of a very busy week, a fun meeting with rare-book curator Karla about what we will show students in the forthcoming library sessions: lots of great stuff there that I am too lazy to link to, but I cannot resist sharing my enthusiasm about this!

Finally, Lindsay Gibson makes me curious to read Joseph O'Neill's new novel.

Light reading around the edges: Seanan McGuire's latest October Daye book, The Winter Long (this kind of urban fantasy is not for everyone, but she is a writer of immense gifts!); Arnaldur Indridason, Strange Shores (a weak contribution by a strong writer, full of ridiculous things - I kept on saying to myself as I was reading discoveries just don't happen like this!, but on the other hand it passed an evening when I was too tired to do anything more productive!); and Sarah Waters' latest novel, The Paying Guests, which I absolutely loved.

Wollstonecraft calls: I need to get offline!