Fun with network diagrams!

I’d been meaning to experiment with social network graphs ever since I read Miriam Posner’s post about visualizing movie industry networks using Cytoscape, a network analysis program designed for scientists but (as Miriam demonstrates) equally useful for humanists who want to visualize a network. I finally got around to it a couple of weeks ago, and the results were interesting enough that I thought “hey, I should probably blog about this.”

My first thought was that I could use it to visualize the connections between fictional characters. I wanted to try it with a big, sprawling novel with a big cast of characters, so I chose Bleak House. Putting together the spreadsheet of relationships was the time-consuming part; I suppose you could automate some of it by writing a script to find characters’ names in close proximity to each other, but not only do I not have the skills for that (yet), it probably wouldn’t work too well for the many, many instances where characters aren’t named. And while I got a very nice-looking graph out of it, I’m not sure I learned much: everyone in the novel is connected to everyone else by at least a few degrees, minor characters appear at the edges of the graph, and Esther Summerson is the central character. Not quite as surprising as I’d hoped, though certainly interesting as a test case.*

Then it occurred to me that I could use Cytoscape to produce some visualizations for my Potential Book Project. I’ve been slowly assembling a database of poets, poems, commonplace books, and their compilers, and I’d already written a query to tell me which poets were transcribed by which compilers. I pulled the results of that query into a spreadsheet with the compilers in one column and the poets whose work they transcribed in another, ran it through Cytoscape, and started playing with layouts:

Circle visualization of a compiler/poet network

This is a circular layout, with the poets in green around the edges and the compilers in the middle. The lines (edges, showing the relationship) radiate outward from compilers to the poets they copied into their books. You can see how some of the poet nodes have a lot of lines going to them and others have only one or two. I like it, but it’s a little confusing in terms of what I was trying to find out (who are the most popular poets? how closely do compilers’ tastes overlap?).

Then I tried a spring-embedded network layout, and suddenly things started making a more intuitive visual sense:

Entire compiler/poet network graphDetail of poet/compiler network graph

The first image is the whole network, and the second is a detail. Red triangles are compilers; blue circles are poets. You can see the “one-off” poets, the ones cited by only one compiler, clustered at the edges, and the poets cited more than once closer to the center.

Near the middle, in the detail, you can see some of the poets I’ve been finding in commonplace book after commonplace book: Thomas Moore, Byron, Felicia Hemans, Lydia Sigourney, James Montgomery, Sir Walter Scott. It’s still a little hard to see which poets are the most “connected,” but the graph also shows how far apart or close together the compilers are. The red triangle at the far right side of the diagram with the forest of blue nodes attached to it, for instance, is an unnamed compiler from the 1860s and 70s, later than most of the other compilers, who copied a lot of later poets. But she still had a number of poets in common with her earlier predecessors. Meanwhile, compilers who lived relatively close to each other in space and time shared more poets in common, and are visually nearer to each other on the graph.

I doubt if this is the only tool I’ll use to make visual sense out of this project, but it’s been very interesting to explore, and I’m going to keep trying it as the database grows and I have more nodes to add to the network. In the meantime, I think I want to learn more about network theory so I have more than a vague idea of what’s generating those nifty graphs.


* I think this approach could definitely reveal some insights if you tried it with lots and lots of novels and compared them. I have a hunch that 20th-century fiction would generate more social network graphs with isolated little clumps of characters than 19th-century fiction does. (I also suspect that there are lots of novels where you’d get a confusing graph with all the nodes practically in the same place because everyone knows everyone.) I don’t really have the time to pull together all the necessary data, but I bet someone who studies fiction more than I do could have a field day.

2012 in review

I ended 2011 on a not very happy note, feeling stuck in both my personal and my professional life, and fully expecting 2012 to bring more of the same. Well, 2012, you sure blew those expectations away, didn’t you? I’ve never in my whole life been happier to have been proved completely wrong.

In January, I spotted a posting for a literature subject librarian job at NYU. “Wow,” I thought when I read the description. “That would be amazing. That’s completely up my alley. And it’s in New York, which would be awesome. And they’ll probably have 500 applicants beating down their doors, and at least 300 of them will be as qualified as me, or better.” (You have to understand, I’d been job-hunting for a year and a half at that point, and had been rejected without even an interview for some jobs I thought were perfect matches, so I was in a fairly deep pessimistic funk at the time.) But I went ahead and applied anyway, even though I was certain that they’d never consider me.

In March, to my utter shock, I had a phone interview for the NYU job. I couldn’t tell how it went (with phone interviews, it can be hard to tell), and I went right back to expecting rejection and wondering if maybe I shouldn’t just run away and join the circus.

In May I took off for a vacation in the UK, and right before I left, I got called for an in-person interview at NYU. A minor freakout ensued, but fortunately I had the trip to distract me.

In July the interview (delayed because I was out of the country during the initial round of interview dates) finally happened, and I left feeling optimistic and hopeful about my job prospects for the first time in months, and even more excited about the position at NYU and the people I’d be working with. Then I went off to Rare Book School, which effectively took my mind off the nail-biting. Plus I made a bunch of new friends there, some of whom I now get to hang out with because they also live in New York.

At the beginning of August, I got the job offer. And after that, everything happened at what felt like a breakneck pace. In September I moved to New York and started working at NYU a few days later, and the new job and the new location have both been so fantastic that I still can’t quite believe it’s all real.

2012 was also the year when I learned the basics of letterpress printing; the year when dear friends of mine had a baby, for whom I’m enjoying playing the role of Honorary Auntie Who Knits Baby Things; the year when I climbed my first proper mountain (the first of many, I’m hoping); and the year I started doing both database-building and actual writing for the Potential Book Project. And the year of Hurricane Sandy, of course. But I think I’m going to be thinking of 2012 as a personal annus mirabilis for a very long time to come. I hope I never stop being grateful for what this year has brought.

Happy 2013 to you and yours, Reader, and may it bring you wonders of all kinds, and peace, and joy.

AcWriMo: some reflections

So now it’s December, and AcWriMo has come and gone. How did it work out? Here are some thoughts:

  • I wrote just over 13,000 words in 30 days. Which is not bad at all, considering that I set a relatively modest goal (half an hour every day). I didn’t write quite every day in November — there were about five days I missed, most of which were because I was visiting family for Thanksgiving — but I got pretty close to that goal. I’m not sure yet if those 13,000 words are any good, but I think I’m going to wait a few weeks and look at the November writing file after I’ve gotten a bit of distance on it.
  • If I do a writing month again, I don’t think I’ll do it during a month when family visits and travel are in order. But it was nice to have a whole community of fellow writers all working on projects at the same time.
  • If any of you guys ever want to do a mini-AcWriMo (or any other kind of Writing Month) at another time of year, let me know! I think this approach would also work for a much smaller group of people.
  • Early in the morning, after my first cup of coffee but before I head off to work, is still the best time for me to write. (I discovered this while writing my dissertation, and it’s still true.) I’m still trying to figure out how best to reconcile the early-morning-writing thing with my night-owl tendencies, which have only been amplified by my move to the City That Never Sleeps.
  • This project isn’t really ready for the serious writing stage. There’s too much research I still need to do, and too much compiling of evidence for when I start to write it for real. But discovery writing certainly helps. And now I have a list of things to investigate next. So, even though I might not use a lot of what I wrote this month, I’m still counting it as a win.
  • I experimented with using a tablet, a wireless keyboard, and WriteRoom, and that combination really worked: I could carry my writing tools everywhere, sync the resulting files to Dropbox, and switch back and forth between WriteRoom and IAnnotate PDF, which is one of my new favorite things ever. (I think the paean to IAnnotate might warrant an entire separate post.) It seemed to help my concentration to have only one application open at a time; WriteRoom’s no-frills interface seemed to help with that, too.
  • It’s too early to tell, but the writing habits might even stick: yesterday I got up and drafted a post for The Desk Set, where I’ll be guest-blogging this month, and today I got up and wrote this. Maybe, even if I’m not actively working on the Book Project, I’ll make the time to work on some short stories.


AcWriMo: Throwing my hat into the ring.

I got wind of AcWriMo (the academic-writing answer to NaNoWriMo) just as I was starting to think “Okay, now that the Potential Book Project has a good chance of turning into my Tenure Book Project, I should start making time to work on it.” It’s high time I got back into the daily writing habit, and it’s also high time I started putting some words down for the manuscript that this project seems to be turning into.

For those of you just tuning in: I wrote my dissertation on 16th- and 17th-century English poetry and medieval and early modern theories of memory. Over the past few years I’ve gotten fascinated by another place where poetry and memory intersect (sort of). While I was living in Connecticut, I started periodically visiting Brown University’s John Hay Library, whose Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays includes a wonderful range of 19th-century American “commonplace books,” or homemade collections of quotations, many of which include large numbers of poems. Readers would transcribe extracts they wanted to reread or remember into notebooks or sheets of blank paper; the results tell any number of stories about how and why people were reading poetry.

I’ve now got notes on over thirty commonplace books in the John Hay Library. There are many more I still want to look at there, and several more collections both in New York and further afield. And I’ve been slowly building a database of poets, poems, and quotations that I’ve found in the commonplace books I’ve looked at so far, because I want to be able to say “Out of a sample of X readers, Y% quoted poet Z, and poet Z nearly always appears in conjunction with poets A, B, and C” and have actual data to back up that claim.

I can see this project going in a bunch of different directions, which may or may not become chapters: a couple of case studies of particular poems and/or particular families and their commonplacing practices; some explorations of the data I’ve compiled (what can I discover about people’s tastes and reading practices? About poets’ reputations? About which poems, and parts of poems, get quoted, and which ones don’t?); some discussion of the place of these poetry collections in the world of related print genres — anthologies, “beauties of literature,” annuals, gift books, quotation dictionaries, and so on — that also grouped bits of verse together. I also want to write about the place of commonplacing within practices of memory and commemoration (including the memorization of poems, but also the use of commonplace books — and their related genres, like scrapbooks and friendship albums — as a way of commemorating the people who compiled them).

So here’s where I set a writing goal for November. I’m not sure if a target word count would help as much as a commitment to a certain amount of writing time every day. I’m not trying to produce a finished chapter or a book proposal, just to move the project past the “thinking about it” phase and into the “writing” phase. (To generate part of a Shitty First Draft, to use Anne Lamott‘s unforgettable phrase.) And I’m fitting it around a full-time work schedule. So I’m just going to say: half an hour’s writing time per day, all through the month. Thanksgiving may complicate matters, but we’ll see.

Things I’m still debating: when to schedule writing time (super-early in the morning, before I leave my apartment? at the end of the day? after I finish work but before I head home?); whether 750words or Written? Kitten! would provide more motivation (achievement badges vs. cute kitten pictures: maybe not such a tough call…); and whether I can squeeze a conference paper proposal for SHARP 2013 out of this process.

Okay. I’m in. This’ll be fun, right?

A kitchen-sink post on failure

Yesterday was the International Day for Failure, which I heard about via the Library Loon and various others on Twitter. I’d been mulling this post for about a week, and I was going to actually write the thing yesterday so as to be timely, but, well, I kinda failed at that. It was prompted by several conversations at THATCamp New York 2012 last weekend, among other things. (Warning for epic length as well as references to epic fails.)

Bob Dylan: FAIL

Bob Dylan: progenitor of the “FAIL” meme? From “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

1. Failing in public

We’re all familiar with the dismissive use of “FAIL.” But what if we were to take it differently, not as a dismissal but as a place to start over in a different way? At THATCamp, one of the projects on exhibit was CUNY’s Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, which, to my vast delight, includes an entire section devoted to “Teaching Fails.” Similarly, a just-begun “academic failblog” with the glorious name of Fumblr aims to be a space for “sharing those moments of tripping on the cracks with a community, and opening up the conversation about process rather than simply focusing on product.” All of which is very much in the process-oriented, communal, learn-from-your-mistakes spirit of THATCamp, and of the digital humanities community more broadly.

There were also some very interesting conversations at THATCamp about opening up “middle-state” research, the kind of research that’s not yet in a publishable state but that might benefit from more openness than in-progress academic work usually gets. We got to see a nifty project, Archive Notebook (created by Jane Greenway Carr at NYU and Cecily Swanson at Cornell), which showcases unused “scraps” of archival research. As they put it, they’re interested in preserving

the digital presentation of scholarly errata, the unused detritus of our research that strays and swerves like the 21st century archive itself. … With this online forum, we ask: what happens if we refuse to let these artifacts and specimens slip from our fingers unnoticed? What if instead, we project them outward into a community wider and broader than ourselves?

I find all this immensely encouraging. In the old days of blogging, the Michael Gormans and Ivan Tribbles of the world would periodically wag a stern finger in academic and library bloggers’ faces: Stop putting half-baked ideas out there where anyone can see them! Stop expressing opinions! Stop being so informal! Stop, for God’s sake, revealing that you are an imperfect human being with (HORRORS!) a personality! Needless to say, the finger-wagging didn’t really stop anyone from using the open, informal, back-and-forth blog format to talk about either the library profession or the academic one. And one of the best things about that format is that it fosters spaces where not every thought is polished within an inch of its life, where messy early-stage thinking gets shared, where failure can be explored in the spirit of doing it better next time.

2. Shame, vulnerability, impostor syndrome

There was a time in my life when it would have done a lot for my mental health to hear some upfront discussion of “teaching fails.” From 1999 to 2004, I taught first-year college writing. By my own standards, and probably by objective standards as well, I was rubbish at it. It was years ago and I’ve since gotten a lot better at teaching, so I can say it now: I failed often, back then. I still feel bad for the students who didn’t learn as much about writing as they could have because their instructor was an awkward, inexperienced, desperately insecure, excruciatingly self-conscious ball of nerves. During the worst of the grad-school years, as I was floundering as a teacher, with the academic job market looming ahead and promising many new and exciting opportunities to screw up, I had a constant inner monologue of I’m a failure, I’m a failure, I’m a failure. (Until finally — I still don’t quite know how — I stopped accepting that inner voice as the Unquestioned Oracle of Truth and started to ask how accurate it was.)

I was desperate not to let the failure, any failure, show. My prose style in those early seminar papers had a weird, artificial, lacquered quality, like I was (unconvincingly) trying to channel the gravitas of someone much older and more learned. I was trying to do that in the classroom, too. The result was that some part of me was always standing aside, worrying about how I looked in other people’s eyes: whether my students were judging me,* whether the Invisible Committee of Academics in the Sky (or future hiring committees, or current mentors) thought I was good enough. In short, I was in danger of turning into Mr. Casaubon from Middlemarch:

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

– George Eliot, Middlemarch,** chapter 29

That small hungry shivering self: I wanted to get rid of it entirely. It embarrassed me. (Whenever I try to remember this passage verbatim, my memory insists on adding “naked” to that string of adjectives.) Couldn’t I just be someone else? Someone bulletproof, invulnerable? But, of course, trying so hard to hide that hungry shivering self made it impossible to be free of it, impossible to enjoy the great spectacle.

I suppose this is inevitable in a culture where status is based on knowledge but there’s also so much more to know than any one person can possibly manage to learn in a lifetime. Impostor syndrome runs rampant. People adopt a steely outer shell. As Scicurious put it in this brilliant post about impostor syndrome and underdog narratives:***

running, and sports in general, LOVE underdogs. We love to hear heroic tales of people who overcame great odds, who suffered staggering defeat, and then who worked hard, pushed themselves, and made it. … We love to hear about underdogs in sports, in media, in literature. But one place you’ll never hear about them? Science. Academia. No one ever introduces a great speaker with “I’ve known so and so for a really long time, and they’ve always been a great scientist. Even in the dark days when the grants kept getting rejected and we had to play poker in the lab because we were out of money, they never lost their love of science!”. … Academia makes you project confidence, in the face of all odds. Of COURSE you got it funded. Of COURSE you knew you were going to get a position. Of COURSE. To show lack of confidence is to be weak, to be unprofessional, even to be…unsuccessful.

3. Modeling failure

A couple of summers ago I went to ACRL Immersion, a week-long workshop for librarians who teach. On one of the first days, we talked about the “authentic teacher” concept from Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, and this passage from the first chapter leaped out at me:

We lose heart, in part, because teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability. … To reduce our vulnerability, we disconnect from students, from subjects, even from ourselves. We build a wall between inner truth and outer performance, and we play-act the teacher’s part.

– Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), chapter 1

It seems obvious in retrospect — of course it’s hard to teach well when all one’s energy is going into projecting a made-up persona to keep from feeling vulnerable — but, at the time, it was like the proverbial lightbulb going on. I didn’t have to perform Invulnerable All-Knowing Sage on the Stage! I didn’t have to repress every sign of personality! I didn’t have to freak out if something went wrong!

So one of the things I now try to do when I teach is to model productive failure. When I’m in front of a group of students talking about research strategies, I don’t always have everything planned; I do live searches, which sometimes lead nowhere; I demonstrate what doesn’t work and explain why it doesn’t work; I try to roll with it when there are technical difficulties. I’m trying to show them that some degree of failure is part of every research project. There will always be sources they can’t get to, promising ideas that turn out to be blind alleys, approaches that have to be scrapped. There will always be moments when they feel stymied and frustrated, and it’s better for all concerned if they can move past the paralyzing fear that all failures are terrible, life-ending, and impossible to recover from.

(One of my pedagogical role models is Ginger Rogers teaching Fred Astaire to dance. Complete with the pratfall at the end, although not with the line about how nobody could teach him to dance in a million years.)

I have no grand conclusion to this, really, except to say that most of life takes place in the space between the extreme poles of “EPIC WIN” and “EPIC FAIL,” but it’s entirely too easy to see all failures, or even anything short of EPIC WIN, as occupying the EPIC FAIL side of the scale. Even when the failures are not at all epic. (Lyric fail?) And with that I’ll leave you, as is only appropriate, with a lolcat.

I can see no way in which this carefully laid plan could ever fail.

* This was a frequent theme of my recurring teaching anxiety dreams. I still remember the dream where I was trying to reassure a student that the class wouldn’t always be so boring, and then I looked down and realized I’d forgotten to put on a shirt before coming to class.

** I came late to Middlemarch, but I think it’s going to be in my Top Five Favorite Novels of All Time Ever list for a long time. Not least because every time the narrator gets into Casaubon’s head, I think “There but for the grace of God go I.”

*** Seriously, read the whole thing.

Random bullets of “I’m in New York!”

  • I’m here! Safe and sound! Moved a couple of weeks ago, started my new job in mid-September, only just got the internets in my new apartment. Yes, the new job is fantastic so far. I continue to feel like I won the lottery and got whisked off to a ball in a transformed pumpkin carriage.
  • I just went to a reading by Zadie Smith, who’s on the NYU creative writing faculty and who told us how she wrote most of her new novel NW while sitting in Bobst Library, where I now work. I’m reading NW now, and I hope to spot her in the library one of these days whenever she starts writing her next novel.
  • So many interesting literature classes to introduce to the library! Already! And so many great people to collaborate with!
  • It’s not the big pleasures, like going to see the Met’s opening night broadcast at Lincoln Center, that are currently giving me that “OMG OMG I live in New York now OMG” feeling. It’s the smaller ones, like returning from Lincoln Center and waiting for the subway train at 66th Street with a bunch of other dressed-up operaphiles. Or not having to travel to the next town if I want to browse in a bookstore, or go see a movie in a movie theater, or eat Korean food, or do anything at all on Sunday.
  • The first difference I noticed when I moved here: in Connecticut, I didn’t know my next-door neighbors’ names, even after four years of living in the same place. In my new apartment building, I met all of my immediate next-door and across-the-hall neighbors within the first 24 hours or so of moving in.
  • Things that are immensely encouraging to hear from new coworkers: “You may have noticed this already, but people here are just really, really nice.” Also “You know, you could write an article about that.”
  • It’s such a relief a) not to be the only person walking fast on the sidewalk, and b) not to be the only person on the sidewalk, period. I have found my tribe of militant pedestrians, and I may never leave.
  • I sometimes get kind of overwhelmed, like when I went to the Union Square Greenmarket for the first time this weekend and wound up staggering around in a daze, trying to remember which stall had the most promising tomatoes, and how long will the Concord grapes be there, and whoa, people sell yarn here, and look at those beautiful eggplants! — and did I really just spend that much on produce and flowers? Eek. (OTOH, they had quinces. And there are now gorgeous red and orange dahlias in a vase on my coffee table, and they only cost $6, so I can’t feel too regretful.) The big challenge this year, as I see it, will be to negotiate that overwhelmedness.
  • However, I’m chalking everything (subway miscalculations, getting lost in the West Village, feeling like a total n00b when I get things delivered) up to “learning experience” for the first few months. So that’s all right.
  • Oh, hey, speaking of the new apartment: this is part of the view from my balcony. Not bad, eh? Those of you who garden: if I grow lavender and rosemary out there, should I bring them inside when it starts to get cold out?

Sunset over lower Manhattan

A big announcement.

I’ve been sitting on this news until I had a formal offer letter in hand, but now I do, and now I can say it: I have a new job! In mid-September, I’m going to be the new Librarian for English and Comparative Literature at New York University‘s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. I’m in the midst of a very rapid move (as moves go) to the big city while wrapping up various projects here before I go.

I’m still a little dazed by the sudden good news. The multi-year job search had ground my morale down to a nub, and I’d managed to convince myself that I’d never get anything I wanted ever again. I’m also superstitiously afraid that talking about any of this will jinx it, and I’ll get flattened by a falling grand piano because the gods are fickle like that. But I’m trying not to borrow trouble.

I’m going to miss my colleagues here a lot, and all the students and faculty I’ve worked with during my time at Connecticut College. But I was ready for a major change, both professionally and geographically. The day I interviewed at NYU, there was just a palpable sense of fit. (On both sides, evidently!) I’m thrilled about the prospect of building literature collections on a large scale, doing a lot more specialized outreach and instruction, and potentially getting more actively involved with the digital humanities. And, since this is a tenure-track position, turning the Potential Book Project into an actual book project.

And being back in the city after too long an absence, even just sitting on a park bench in Washington Square gathering my thoughts? Magic. So was getting to see various New York friends again, and imagining actually living in the same city with them instead of a three-hour train ride away. I feel like I’m returning to my natural habitat. And I’m already jumping up and down at the thought of all the operagoing I can do.

In the meantime, this is my new favorite photo blog: The Underground New York Public Library, a visual record of what people are reading on the subways of New York. It’s mesmerizing, and it fills me with joy. I especially love this lady and her copy of Augustus John: Drawings and her turquoise glasses. And this guy, balancing his collected Borges on a box of Raisin Bran as he reads.

I still can’t believe I’m actually going to live there. Those of you in the greater NYC area, look for me reading on the subway come fall! And those of you outside New York: now you have to come visit!

Things I did on my summer vacation: a photo post

I’m once again overdue for a blog post. But this time I have the excuse that it’s been an unexpectedly fabulous and eventful summer. So here’s a quick recap:

In late May and early June, I went back to the UK. Highlights included: going on a walking tour in North Wales and climbing Snowdon* with a terrific group of women**:

Snowdon Watkin Path: heading toward Bwlch Ciliau Snowdon summit: looking down from the trig point

… hanging out in London with Rachel, who was a lovely and generous host, and running around trying to see ALL THE MUSEUMS (including a really brilliant exhibition at the British Library, which deserves a separate post all its own). And a ritual opera-fan pilgrimage to Handel’s house!

Handel's blue plaque, 25 Brook Street, London

… Oh, and the glorious fabric heaven that is Liberty’s:

The yarn and fabric floor at Liberty's

… and, finally, spending a day in Chester (home of medieval city walls and charming half-timbered buildings and Roman ruins), where I watched the world’s most surreal parade***:

Chester Giants parade, 1

Chester Giants parade, 6

Then, spurred on by plenty of time to work on it while traveling, I finished this shawl not long after getting back (after something like four years of working on it on and off):

Sci-fi shawl, finished! (1)

… and then in July I went to Rare Book School, in my old stomping grounds in Charlottesville, where I was initiated into the mysteries of descriptive bibliography, met up with lots of old friends, made a bunch of new ones, and generally was in biblio-nerd ecstasy the whole time:

Printer's fist, in my fist

And there’s still more awesomeness in store. But that’s going to have to wait for another post later.

* I think mountain walking may be my new favorite thing ever. I would do it every weekend if I had mountains nearby. Now that I’ve climbed the highest mountain in England and Wales, I think Ben Nevis might be fun to tackle next. Or maybe I’ll stick closer to home and hike in Vermont or New Hampshire next summer. And someday I want to do the Tour de Mont Blanc.

** If you are female and like walking in the countryside in the UK (and elsewhere in Europe), I highly recommend WalkingWomen. I’m already fantasizing about going on more of their holidays in the future.

*** The Chester Giants Parade. Which I hadn’t planned on seeing, but it was completely worth it. Bonus surrealism: because this year was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, half the giants were twice-life-size effigies of HRH in a motley variety of outfits.

Introducing Goldengrove Unleaving

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Spring and Fall: to a young child”

I’ve just cast on the first major knitted thing I’ve ever designed myself: the Goldengrove Unleaving stole. Looking back at my blog archives, I can see I’ve had the idea for this project since at least December 2010, and I know I was thinking that “Goldengrove Unleaving” would make a good name for something before that. I knew from the outset that Goldengrove would be a rectangular stole, featuring leaf lace motifs, and that it would be in a color suggesting yellow and orange autumn leaves. Last summer I found the yarn for it: the unbelievably soft Malabrigo Lace (“Is this cashmere?” a friend asked, when I showed her a test swatch I’d knitted; it’s not, actually, just super-soft merino wool), in a golden-orange colorway called “Sunset”:

Malabrigo lace yarn in "Sunset"

I never used to think of orange as one of my favorite colors, but I’ve been increasingly drawn to it in recent years, and this particular shade just makes me happy. Especially when I’m handling the dreamily soft yarn.

Fall is one of my favorite seasons, but there’s always a lurking sadness about it. You’re aware of the inevitable end of the riot of color.* Which is why the Hopkins poem has always haunted me, because it’s about the early intensity of that feeling, and the additional sadness of knowing how years of experience diminish that intensity. (And also the impossibility of representing it: “nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed…”) So when I started thinking about designing a project around this poem, I thought about how to visually represent both the leaves and their decay, the “leafmeal” that marks the end of fall. For the latter, I had an early idea involving eyelets scattered to look like leaves drifting downward and covering the forest floor; I’ve drawn inspiration from the Hanami Stole by Melanie Gibbons and from Kalinumba’s Antarctic Stole, and the design now features two panels of drifting eyelets.

As for the leaves themselves, I struggled a bit over that. There’s a lot of “leaf lace” that’s basically variations on a diamond shape with some eyelet holes running down it. It’s pretty, but to my eye it’s too abstract, and I wanted something a bit more unusual for this project. I chose Drooping Elm lace for the side panels, because it actually does look like leaves; but I wanted something more, preferably something to suggest oak leaves.** I trawled around the web and through pattern books for some time, looking for oak patterns, and eventually I came across some I liked. The central panel of Goldengrove uses the Oak Leaves 2 cable pattern available from Knittingfool. You can see the Oak Leaves and Drooping Elm patterns in my test swatch:

Swatching "Goldengrove Unleaving" (daily photo, 4/21/12)

So now the task is to actually finish the thing, writing up the pattern and charting it as I go. This will be an adventure, as the Oak Leaf cable has a different number of stitches in practically every row, and involves some complicated crossovers and bobbly bits. You can follow my progress at Ravelry; I intend to share the pattern, once I’m satisfied with it.

Perhaps when I’ve finished this stole I’ll continue on my leaf kick and make something inspired by medieval Green Man carvings. But I think I’ll stick with Hopkins for a while, because I’ve got a very clear idea in my head for what the Inversnaid pullover is going to look like. Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet!


* I also considered calling this stole “Lothlórien,” because Tolkien’s gold-leaved forest is another place that’s haunted my imagination for years with the same blend of beauty and melancholy.

** No one knows whether Hopkins was thinking of a real place when he wrote this poem. Critics have suggested an actual Golden Grove in Carmarthenshire in Wales, and a country estate in Flintshire with a Golden Grove on it. So no one knows what kinds of trees he was imagining. I particularly wanted to include an oak-leaf motif because Hopkins writes about them so vividly elsewhere, as in this journal entry from July 1866: “I have now found the law of the oak leaves. It is of platter-shaped stars altogether; the leaves lie close like pages, packed, and as if drawn tightly together.”


Committing to a few projects

It seems to help me move new projects from the “maybe” stage in my head (a.k.a. the “brain crack” stage, to borrow Ze Frank’s unforgettable terminology) to the “out into the world” stage if I say, in public, that I’m going to do them. This doesn’t always work — my NoNaShoStoWriMo project fizzled out, for example — but it’s a pretty good way to hold myself accountable. And what better place to say things in public than here?

So here are three projects to which I want to make a commitment. The first two are underway already, in fits and starts, and the third is still mostly at the brain crack stage. I don’t guarantee that any of them are going to be done anytime soon, seeing as they’re all going to have to happen in my non-working hours; but I’m putting them up here as a pledge to myself to at least try to make them happen. Even if it takes me years to get there. Even if none of them work out in the end.

  1. The commonplace book project is, I think, going to be a book someday: a book about 19th-century poetry reading practices, about memorization, about the idea of the canon, about poems as (and on) physical objects, about probably a dozen other things as well. I’ve accumulated a ton of notes from my forays into special collections libraries, and I’ve been building a database of the poems I’ve found in the commonplace books I’ve looked at. And every time I think about this project, it grows in scope. I remember this feeling from when I wrote my dissertation: the “whoa, this baggy monster might actually be a book” feeling, both daunting and exhilarating.
  2. I keep having ideas for short stories, mostly in a genre that’s not quite fantasy, not quite ghost story, not quite horror, not quite science fiction; I think of them as weird fiction set in the digital age. And, what’s more, I’ve actually started writing them down. And lately they’ve been starting to seem like they could be a collection, though if I were to try to publish them I’d send them out separately first.
  3. Remember my knitting with Gerard Manley Hopkins idea? I’ve been working on a couple of those pattern ideas. (I’m pretty excited about this one in particular.) And I thought, why stop there? Why not a whole series of knitted things named after and inspired by favorite poems? Thanks to Ravelry, it’s become easier and easier to get help with the mechanics of charting and editing patterns, and find test knitters, and distribute patterns online, and really, why not? Why not?

I’ll try to blog about these projects as they happen, too. Otherwise there’s too much risk of getting hooked on my own brain crack.