Monday, January 28, 2019

The desire to read

This is an interesting example of mid-career serendipity (also - ask the smart young people you know to do things, they almost certainly have more freedom to make writing commitments than the weary self-protective middle-aged! I was the same when I was twenty-five as I am now, I would have jumped at the chance to write for almost anywhere, but nobody asks you until you start being too busy to say yes!).

There's a very good Facebook group called Eighteenth-Century Questions with about 800 members, including many of the most active scholars in my age cohort and the years below. I am an introvert and can't socialize too much without crashing - and I have been remiss and not attended my big field conference either last year or this year, will have to fix that next year but I still always dread it, human overload - but I am naturally collegial and the internet is a magical thing for someone like me, evils of Facebook notwithstanding.

I had the idea in the summer of throwing "virtual book parties" for three people who are good presences in that group and who'd written books clustering around topics of women and science. Part of that included doing "five questions" interviews with each one in turn; I just put them up at Medium (here's Laura Miller on popular Newtonianism, Tita Chico on literature and science in the age of Enlightenment and Lucinda Cole on vermin, literature and the sciences of life).

I am too lazy to write academic book reviews (or really many other book reviews either), I like the part where I read the book and note what's interesting but I hate the feeling of constriction that comes when you have to actually obey the conventions of book review form (that's part of why I've always liked blogging more than reviewing - if there was one interesting thing, I say it and I'm done!). But either live or written interview format is perfect, I don't have to strain myself to write the questions as I would to write a review, and I think the result is usually more interesting than a review (this is partly of course because the author has to do almost all the work). These "five questions" pieces turned out so well that I thought I should pursue a more formal venue. And The Rambling is the perfect host for it! It's a new web publication founded by two smart young eighteenth-century scholars with the goal of opening up topics in our field for a wider audience....

Here Tina Lupton answers my questions about her excellent book on the history of reading and not reading in eighteenth-century Britain. Lots of good stuff there, but here's a bit I found especially satisfying:
JMD: Your book interweaves brief personal reflections with its theoretical and scholarly accounts of reading as it takes place over time: in the introduction, you talk about how the year in which you “thought most intensely about time” was one in which you were working very long hours as a university administrator: “’I have no time,’ I thought, ‘no time at all.’ And yet it was at that very ebb of intellectual life, that very point where my days felt more scheduled and more tightly packed than they ever had before, that I began to think about what reading books was to me.” Did you always know that these short personal interludes would be a part of the book, or did the fact creep up on you as a solution to some of the puzzles a book in progress inevitably poses around composition, revelation and argument?

TL: Those bits appeared mostly as an accident. I put them without thinking too much but I kept offering to Matt McAdam at JHU to take them out, thinking that they were really only there as place holders. Part of the reason they stayed, as you suggest, was to do with efficiency. It takes a lot to explain in abstract terms why working so hard that you can’t read correlates positively to the desire to read. But just saying that I was caught up in that cycle makes the point quickly. Also, you’ll know from your own work how discouraging it can be to look for clues about reading in the past. There are so few of them. So I was also thinking that by having those anecdotes about my reading in the book, I was leaving some record of it for the future.

But it also took a lot of good friends reading those chapters to convince me that the personal stuff had a place in an academic book. In that process I came to see those anecdotes were part of the way I wanted to tilt the book. They became notes to my friends, many of whom do enormous amounts of casual labor, administrative work and childcare and elder care. I knew that many of the people I wanted to read this book most were the very people who would have the least time to get it—so these snippets are there in part as solidarity with them.

The solace and the grief

Not sure how I missed this one when it came out, but saw something about it in advance of the publication of Yiyun Li's new novel in coming weeks and thought I'd better read this small collection of essays to catch up. It is a haunting book, it resonates strongly with me: it has the amazing title Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Four bits I especially liked (it is a bleak book about a year of suicidal ideation and multiple hospitalizations):
To articulate it demands honesty that I am almost unwilling to offer. Though evasion rarely leads to joy; there is, one must admit, a sense of joy if one can dissect something, oneself included, with precision. (In college and as a young scientist the tasks I had most enjoyed were the peripheral activities: to peel everything away and leave only the neural system intact in an insect; to harvest the bone marrow from a mouse’s femur until the bone became nearly transparent; to carefully flush out a mouse’s lungs. Perhaps my deficiency as a scientist, a lack of ultimate purpose, is why I love writing. Precision gives me more pleasure than the end result.) (117)

In an ideal world I would prefer to have my mind reserved for thinking, and thinking alone. I dread the moment when a thought trails off and a feeling starts, when one faces the eternal challenge of eluding the void for which one does not have words. To speak when one cannot is to blunder. I have spoken by having written—this book or any book; for myself and against myself. The solace is with the language I chose. The grief, to have spoken at all. (152)

Only by fully preparing oneself for people’s absence can one be at ease with their presence. A recluse, I have begun to understand, is not a person for whom a connection with another person is unattainable or meaningless, but one who feels she must abstain from people because a connection is an affliction, or worse, an addiction. (183)

Many drafts were written when things began to feel unbearable. Composing a sentence is better than composing none; an hour taken away from treacherous rumination is an hour gained; following the thread of a thought to the end is better than having many thoughts entangled. In a sense, writing becomes the effort of detecting a warning sign before it appears. There are moments when it must sound as though I am arguing against hope and happiness, against others and myself, but any attachment, even to the most fallacious idea, is an anchor when solidness cannot be felt. (200)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

"I am not interested in how it thinks"

At the Guardian, Deborah Levy considers the pros and cons of culling one's book collection:
It is true that in the current phase of my life, I have emptied my shelves of many books I have carried around with me for decades. I finally realised that I was not attached to them. Like a relationship that has neared its end, I lived in hope they might reach out to me. To put it more animistically, if these books were speaking to me, I no longer wanted to listen to them. I threw away books I had started, never finished, and I finally owned up to never wanting to get involved with them in the first place. Fiction, in particular, can be boring for the same reasons that make people boring. Its mind is closed, it cannot tolerate doubt, it has no interest in the subjectivities of others, it cannot access the apparently unknowing part of its mind (sometimes described as the unconscious), it is relentlessly cheerful or relentlessly despairing, and most importantly, I am not interested in how it thinks.
(NB I haven't emphasized the Marie Kondo aspect of how the piece is framed because I read Margaret Dilloway's interesting piece on Kondo this morning and do not want to reinforce the patterns of thinking she deplores!