Thursday, December 18, 2014

The uncomfortable desire to be writing books

I am having a very nice quiet week in Cayman: not completely off from work, but there wasn't any single obvious thing that I needed to motor ahead on, so I'm just taking care of bits and bobs as they come up.

It is always sort of awful to have to write a title and description for a future talk that is as yet not even begun, and this one has the typical flaws of vagueness and grandiosity, but I did enjoy contemplating it this morning and getting some sentences down on paper for the draft program:
“Talking Pages: The Eighteenth-Century Variorum Page”

Jenny Davidson will consider the form and function of the variorum page in Johnson’s Shakespeare editions in the context not just of eighteenth-century scholarly editing but of Scriblerian takes on the edited page. She will look closely at the workings of several specific pages of Johnson’s Shakespeare, but her larger concern is to consider Johnson’s literary career in the light of a late-stage revisiting of the quarrel of ancients and moderns. After telling a sort of prequel story about Swift, Bentley, Theobald and Pope, she will turn to Johnson’s editorial work as an effort of reconciliation and resolution in response to still unresolved tensions between the Scriblerian critical project and the reading techniques of a triumphalist modernity. Johnson’s reclamation of a “conversational” and relatively civil variorum page for what is in some ways a conservative literary project seems to represent a critical turning point in eighteenth-century literary history, and Davidson will conclude by considering analogies between Johnson’s use of the variorum page and the theme of generosity in present-day relationships with the past elsewhere in his writing, with brief excursions to Gibbon and Burke as points of comparison.
This made me think about how there are now three projects I am urgently desiring to work on (four if you count the "Gibbon's Rome" offshoot of the ancients-and-moderns project as a separate book), and how that feeling of desire is so satisfying and yet also so uncomfortable, almost so much so as to make me feel out of breath with anxiety and dissatisfaction that I am not doing anything towards any of 'em RIGHT NOW! I think getting new books started is my single highest priority for 2015, though calm and freedom from anxiety are always the highest thing on the list (time spent on my own work is good for this, so the two goals are not inherently incompatible).

I am still really excited about the Clarissa book, and as I'm teaching that seminar in the spring (and no other course - course release for the Tenure Review Advisory Committee, which keeps me very busy, but it's nice to imagine having the mental space free for doing some bits of actual work on this), it seems not implausible to think I might get some actual pages drafted. But higher priorities for January are to put in some of the groundwork for the Johnson's Shakespeare talk and to draft a proposal for a book that would be something like this only titled "Reading Jane Austen"!

If I'm not miscalculating, I have a full year of sabbatical coming up for 2016-2017: I've been considering taking it as two separate semesters (teach fall and take spring off for two years in a row), as in certain respects you get more bang for the buck that way (two very decent stretches of writing time rather than just one long one, and the fall-semester load of letters of recommendation and job market candidates is heavy enough that it doesn't always feel like leave if you're not teaching), but really if I have all these different books on the go, I should just take both at once, make as much progress as I can and then perhaps apply for a year of fellowship somewhere in the couple years following to finish up what remains undone. A project has to be pretty far forward before I can write a really good fellowship application for it, I think; this is not true for everyone, but seems to be for me....

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