In which I revisit the past

So, as previously mentioned, I went to this year’s Modern Language Association convention in Philadelphia, not because I’m on the market for English-professor jobs (which was the first question asked by every single old acquaintance I ran into). No, this was more by way of keeping up with some of my intellectual roots (not to mention the old acquaintances) and seeing whether and how I want to do the independent-scholar thing while also looking for library jobs and contemplating the ongoing question of further education.

It was odd, going back. I’m not sure I want to do it again next year. I started getting depressed by the omnipresent "So are you on the market?" question, to which my answer got shorter and shorter the more times I heard it until finally it was more like "No, I jumped ship. I’m just back for a visit." All the old friends and acquaintances who hadn’t already heard about my ship-jumping were very encouraging. But after a while I started to feel like an outsider, like the university affiliation on my badge concealed the real story and I was passing for someone I no longer am. (Though there was a lovely moment at the book exhibit when I overheard a publisher’s rep say "Not finishing my Ph.D was the best thing that ever happened to me.")

Most of the panels I went to were quite good; the kinds of panels that get ridiculed by the press (see below) never dominate the experience the way people think they do. I went to several digital-scholarship panels, several literature panels, and a panel on opera, just for fun. Hearing about the electronic New Variorum Shakespeare and sundry readings of non-electronic Shakespeare was great. Hearing poets and scholars talking about where the teaching and study of poetry might go in the 21st century was also fabulous.

But well before the end of it, I was thanking multiple deities that I will never again have to write in the machete mode of criticism. By this I mean the kind of literature scholarship that frames all its main points as a demolition of everyone else’s main points, like mowing down those around you by swinging a machete around. In graduate school it didn’t take me long to tire of academic writing in which the argument was preceded by hatchet-jobs on the prior work of Professors X, Y, and Z; I hated writing like that even more. Hearing it again from the lips of senior scholars, some of whom posed their entire talks as point-by-point refutations of someone else’s article, reminded me of everything that put me off the idea of writing the sorts of things one gets tenure for. At one point, I had the odd feeling that I was watching a large group of people standing on a tiny patch of ground, elbowing and jostling each other for more space, all trying to outshout each other.

No wonder I so often used to feel like no matter how hard I worked, I could never be good enough. Blargh. I don’t miss it one little bit.

But then there were the people I had lunch with, and the people I caught up with, and the mentors from many stages of my education who were there, and the friend with whom I shared a hotel room (hi, T!), and the former classmate who passed along a message from a professor who taught me years ago: "Keep writing." I want to. Just not with a machete.

For those of you who were (or weren’t) there at the convention: Michael Berube has a recap (he’s completely right about MLA convention attendees being oblivious escalator-riders) and Crooked Timber pokes fun at the New York Times’ annual MLA-bashing article, which is, indeed, a bit stale at this point.*

* And poorly edited to boot. <Strunk & White>Confidential to the Times: If you really want to make fun of English professors, it would behoove you to hire a copyeditor who can ensure that you spell "Chronicle" correctly, avoid punctuation bloopers, and don’t use the phrase "achingly ’90s" twice in as many paragraphs.</Strunk & White>

What the hell is wrong with people?

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

I’m too angry to add any further comment. But if you, like me, live in Virginia, perhaps you would consider sending the delegate who proposed this bill an e-mail explaining the sheer inhumanity of demanding that women who have just miscarried have to report the incident to the police or else face up to a year in jail?

Link from Rana.

(Edited to add: I’m with the commenter at Kos who suggests that women respond to this bill by calling the Miscarriage Police every time they menstruate. I also think the commenter at Bitch. Ph.D. who recommends the Lysistrata strategy has a rather good idea…)

Update, a day later: Delegate Cosgrove replies. Sounds like the language of the bill is going to be changed. Apparently he’s been flooded with e-mails from outraged women. Writing to your local politician actually works, after all!

Your brain, listening

A fascinating article from Scientific American on what your brain does when you listen to music (quite a lot, and not just in any one location, apparently). Some of the findings:

Even a little training can quickly alter the brain’s reactions. … Just as some training increases the
number of cells that respond to a sound when it becomes important,
prolonged learning produces more marked responses and physical changes
in the brain. Musicians, who usually practice many hours a day for
years, show such effects–their responses to music differ from those of
nonmusicians; they also exhibit hyperdevelopment of certain areas in
their brains. …

In the same year, Blood and Zatorre added a further clue to how music
evokes pleasure. When they scanned the brains of musicians who had
chills of euphoria when listening to music, they found that music
activated some of the same reward systems that are stimulated by food,
sex and addictive drugs.

Overall, findings to date indicate that music has a biological basis and that the brain has a functional organization for music.

That does it. It’s time to start playing an instrument again.

Via objects intoned by text.

2004 in review

These questions have been making the rounds. I’m getting them from Liz Lawley at mamamusings, but I’ve seen them at plenty of other people’s blogs.

1. What did you do in 2004 that you’d never done before?
Not completely in order: Started a major career shift. Discovered that I really like fiddling with and thinking about electronic text markup. Applied for, was awarded, and began the fellowship I’m on (the big event of 2004). Learned how to wrangle SGML and XML. Conducted informational interviews. Moved to another state with enough stuff to warrant hiring movers. Attended the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. Oh, and I saw Cecilia Bartoli perform live!

2. Did you keep your New Years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Let’s see: asked for what I wanted (successfully in some cases, hoorah); managed not to brood too much and not to do the merely expected, most of the time; didn’t write enough; flossed slightly more, though not really enough to qualify as any great improvement.

Resolutions for 2005: make more time to write (the annual resolution); be less of a wallflower; make the effort to cook real food more often; figure out how to be more civically engaged; actually e-mail people instead of just saying I’m going to e-mail them.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

4. Did anyone close to you die?
No, thank goodness.

5. What countries did you visit?
Only this one. (I know, boring.)

6. What would you like to have in 2005 that you lacked in 2004?
More sleep, a good coffee table, a love life, longer-term employment.

7. What date from 2004 will remain etched upon your memory?
April 22.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
See #1.

9. What was your biggest failure?
I failed at becoming a better teacher during what turned out to be my last semester, but I see that as more a nudge from fate than anything else. More discouragingly, I failed to keep in touch with the people I promised to keep in touch with. I’m slowly remedying that.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
No, unless you count persistent seasonal allergies.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
My new couch, which looks exactly like this except it’s olive green.

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?
All the completely fabulous people in the library world who were willing to take me and my fellow postdocs under their collective wing. The legions of people who worked to get out the vote on election day. My friends and family generally.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?
The entire Bush administration; everyone who voted for anti-gay-marriage amendments to state constitutions; Gerald “Book Burier” Allen.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Moving. Gah.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
See #1. Also, the Google text-digitization initiative.

16. What song/album will always remind you of 2004?
William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. I was at the concert during which the recording was made, back in April, and I just got the recording as a Christmas present.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
happier or sadder? happier
thinner or fatter? a little bit fatter
richer or poorer? about the same, but I feel richer

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?
Socializing and writing.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?
Wasting time on the internets.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
I spent it in Baltimore with my family, opening presents, eating roast chicken with rice stuffing a la Nigella Lawson, and playing lots of Scrabble, including one extended round of team Super Scrabble in which my cousin and I roundly defeated the rest of the family.

21. Who did you spend the most time on the phone with?
My friend R.

22. Did you fall in love in 2004?
Sadly, no.

23. How many one night stands in this last year?
None. I’m not a one-night-stand sort of person, really.

24. What was your favourite TV programme?
Does Firefly on DVD count? No? Then I’d have to say The Amazing Race. [Edit: I’ve changed my mind. Between the outcome of the goulash-eating contest and Jonathan’s ongoing, unbelievable assholeishness, this week’s episode left me thinking “I don’t like this show anymore” and feeling distinctly ill.]

25. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year?
No. (Unless you count book-burying wingnuts.)

26. What was the best book(s) you read?
I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m thoroughly enjoying Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. In poetry, Cole Swensen’s Goest and Susan Stewart’s Columbarium rocked my socks.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Pink Martini.

28. What did you want and get?
See #1 and #16.

29. What did you want and not get?
John Kerry for president.

30. What were your favourite films of this year?
Triplets of Belleville (swingin’ Belleville rendezVOUS! something something whoop-de-doo!); The Company; Before Sunset.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 29, and I went out for drinks with friends.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
I don’t know…I wish I’d gotten to New York to see the Met’s Rodelinda? 2004 was head and shoulders above its immediate predecessors in the personal satisfaction department, so it’s hard to say. (Though, on the larger-than-personal level, not having to face four more years of the Bush administration would have been quite satisfying.)

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2004?
Transitional: thrift-shop-couture-wearing ex-grad student to fledgling young professional. Sort of. Really, I just bought a few more nice shirts and trousers.

34. What kept you sane?
Determination and the support of people close to me.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
I still think Fiona Shaw is just dreamy.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Censorship, the erosion of reproductive rights, and those gay marriage amendments.

37. Who did you miss?
All the friends I left behind when I moved here.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
There’s an embarrassment of riches here, actually. Way too many to list.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2004.
I learned that (for me, at least) melancholy and inertia have a lot to do with the environment I’m in, and that positive effort to change my circumstances really does make a difference in my outlook on life. (Though sunlight also helps.)

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.

You grow up and experience this
A total metaporphosis
It’s all about change, it’s a metamorphosis
(The Pet Shop Boys, “Metamorphosis”)

Traveler’s return

I’m back from my holiday travels via a couple of miraculously on-time trains from Baltimore. There will be New Year’s bloggage about 2004 in review, the ’04 MLA (which I was at), et cetera. Later, because I need a shower.

But first, a (belated) public service announcement: If you’re looking for information on how to make a donation to the disaster relief efforts in southeast Asia, try the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog. Most of the people in my blogroll also offer links to aid organizations, for that matter. Just, please do something.

This ain’t the Met’s opera quiz.

I would like to assure everyone that I have never: cheated on a significant other the day they left town; egged anyone else on to do the same; impersonated an Albanian; faked a suicide attempt; or patched up an awkward situation by arranging a mass wedding. I don’t even drink hot chocolate for breakfast. My life is really nothing like Così fan Tutte, despite what Quizilla says.

Cosi Fan Tutte (All Women Do Thus). For a complete synopsis, see

Which Mozart Opera Does Your Life Most Resemble?
brought to you by Quizilla

However, when it comes to which composer I am, all the quizzes seem to agree that I’m Mozart, except for the one that says I’m Monteverdi:

Claudio Monteverdi
You are Claudio Monteverdi. You are emotionally expressive, and have much love for what you do. You have great talent and do good work, and are well rewarded for it. You love strongly, and if you lose a loved one you will experience deep grief. You are respected, and you raise standards of anyone whom you effect. You may even become a Priest later in life.

which baroque composer are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

Back to packing, which I’ve been avoiding thus far. Tomorrow I set off for family Christmas festivities and a bit of conference travel.

Happy holidays, everyone!

So, this big news from Google…

which, by now, has made the rounds of the library blogs, as well as some of the scholarly ones, so I feel redundant commenting on it, as well as still rather amateurish compared to lots of the other people who’ve done so already.

However, I will say that it’s not every morning that you start reading your e-mail and find multiple messages from multiple library mailing lists all saying variations on “Have you heard about the Google text-digitization project?”, and then you look at your other e-mail account and your friend who works in IT has also forwarded you a link, and then you bop over to the New York Times online and find that the story is front page news. (How often do e-text projects make the front page?) And then not long thereafter, your academic friends are talking about it as well, and you find yourself discussing markup languages and OCR with people who are not usually into that kind of thing.

Whether it can be pulled off on the scale and at the speed they’re proposing — and whether the participating libraries will feel pressured to reduce their print holdings as a result, which some people are worrying about (though my guess would be that the participating libraries have already thought about this, a lot) — remains to be seen. But you know what’s gotten me excited? Besides the thought of all the things you could do with the resulting massive sets of text and images, that is? It’s the way these conversations about technology and access to information are spilling over into the mainstream. Imagine how interesting it’ll get with librarians and scholars and tech people all talking with each other about what’s at stake in migrating vast stores of information from one format into another, and what we might be able to do after that. And, because I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary approaches, I can’t help but think this is to the benefit of all concerned.

So. 1) End of print as a technology? No, and I think it’s kind of baffling to claim, as ALA president-elect Michael Gorman does, that the project is based on “the staggering notion that, for the first time in history, one form of
communication (electronic) will supplant and obliterate all previous
forms.” Come again? I don’t think Google is presupposing that, nor do I see it happening. New technologies don’t automatically obliterate older ones, especially when each has its own set of uses that aren’t identical to the others. Count me as format-agnostic: I like my read-long-stretches-at-a-time print books and I like my searchable, intelligently marked-up e-text, for different practical reasons, and in an ideal world there’d be plenty of both. And I really don’t think I’m alone on this, either. 2) End of libraries? Also no. In fact, I think I’m constitutionally skeptical of all reports of the demise of reading and/or institutions devoted to helping people find things to read (and listen to and look at). 3) Beginning of something potentially very interesting? Yes, I rather think it is.

Notebook travels and leather-clad dancing boys

The Wandering Moleskine Project weblog. What an absolutely brilliant idea. I may sign myself up to contribute. Via Space and Culture, which in turn is via Caterina.

Also, vilaine fille has rapidly become one of my favorite new blogs. Look at what she has to say on the subject of why opera isn’t just for stodgy diamond-encrusted people:

[I]sn’t it astonishing that opera is so powerfully associated with social preening, dramatic blankness, and blue-haired irrelevance that it scares people away? Opera is big and bad and dangerous. It tells pulse-quickening tales of incest (Die Walküre), whoring (La traviata), and wanton libido (Don Giovanni, Le Comte Ory); of insanity (Orlando, Lucia), adultery (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, L’incoronazione di Poppea), and sedition (Ernani, Don Carlos); of the deformed (Rigoletto), the despised (La Juive), and the marginalized (Carmen, Otello). It depicts orgies (Samson et Dalila, Moses und Aron, The Fiery Angel); and when we’re very, very lucky, it features dancing boys in leather butt-thongs (NYCO’s Platée and the Met’s 1973 staging of Les Troyens).

Word! As they say, read the whole thing.

Part 2: Getting into other people’s heads

(This is part two of an occasional series on reading. Part one is here. I’m writing about two kinds of reading: one that acts as a window into other people’s minds and motivations, and one that acts as a mirror for the reader. For those of you keeping track, this is the “window” part of the series. I’m already starting to suspect that three parts won’t quite be enough. And now, on with the show.)

There’s a scene in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse that’s copied into my current reading notebook. Lily Briscoe, looking at Mrs. Ramsay, is thinking about how and whether we can know other people:

Sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs Ramsay’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs Ramsay would never know the reason of that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public. What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? …

Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! as she leant her head against Mrs Ramsay’s knee. And yet, she knew knowledge and wisdom were stored up in Mrs Ramsay’s heart. How, then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people. (To the Lighthouse, Part 1, chapter 11)

It was the “tablets” part in the first of these paragraphs that prompted me to copy the passage out. I was working on my dissertation at the time, and one of the things I was writing about was the ways seventeenth-century poets used inscription as a metaphor for a person’s subjectivity. Here the inscriptions in the chambers of the mind and heart are an emblem of the “sealed” quality of people’s minds to each other. Lily wants to read Mrs. Ramsay’s mind, then to merge with her “like waters poured into one jar.”* But she realizes this is impossible, and that the best we have to go on by way of knowing others are the hints and signs and signals they give: “the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people” — still unknowable, but not utterly.

And in some ways this is part of my model for what fiction does. Poetry as well, but in a different way, which I’ll get to later. There is no literally reading into other people’s minds, not the way Lily Briscoe wants. It’s just as well, because who would really want to live in a world where everyone could do that?** But to read about what a character is thinking and feeling is to know, in some way, what it is to be that character, which is perhaps as close as we get to mind-reading. This fact still startles me even though I’ve been greedily absorbing stories ever since I was old enough to demand them.

When I read Patrick O’Brian, for instance, part of what I’m after is the total immersion in a very different time, place, and idiom. Fellow Aubrey/Maturin fans will know what I’m talking about: the feeling that O’Brian somehow managed to absorb an entire historical period into his consciousness and channel it with perfect and invisible ease. And the characters, who are so temporally distant and yet so wonderfully and at times painfully near, because we’re right there with them. Their thoughts are ours, their speech patterns resonate in our heads, their emotions call up ghost-emotions of our own. We would not ordinarily resonate to the thoughts and words and feelings of an early nineteenth-century naturalist performing surgery belowdecks on a frigate.** But we do, which when you think about it is both expected and astonishing.

In a sense, what I’m talking about is the fantasy that Being John Malkovich explored, that of crawling into someone’s head and seeing what the view is like and then getting dropped back out into the world, though not necessarily onto the New Jersey turnpike. Being Jack Aubrey, or Stephen Maturin, or Emma Woodhouse, or Emma Bovary, or Leopold Bloom, or Clarissa Dalloway (to name the first examples to pop into my head), means temporarily becoming someone unlike you, someone who has been shaped by a different set of experiences. Not as much as an actual other person — I’m not saying fictional characters are the same as real people — but as nearly as one can get.

I mentioned in part 1 that I’d taught students who wanted their reading to reflect them and their own experience, but that’s not the only way they thought of reading; there was also a tendency to see all books, even pleasure reading, as a source of instruction. Or at least that was what they’d say in class from time to time when I asked them what they liked to read and why: “I liked this because it’s about the importance of not judging by appearances” [or whatever abstract concept they’d learned in a previous English class was the “theme” of the work in question]. As you can probably guess, this isn’t my take on the question. I do think that one learns from literature, but not in such a literal way; for me, it’s not a matter of excerpting an edifying lesson from the text, as if every work of literature were some kind of neatly encoded allegory. It isn’t so much about imitating the characters as understanding what it’s like to be them.

So “empathy” is the word I’m looking for, but not exactly, because empathy is something we usually feel for people rather than for figments of someone’s imagination. And yet I think attentive reading is a kind of training ground for empathy, and the more unfamiliar fictional sets of eyes you get used to looking through, the more practice you get at empathizing with non-fictional people. If you are the sort of person who draws firm lines between your group and scary outsiders whose thoughts you have no interest in knowing (and don’t all of us do this, at least some of the time?), this can be a disconcerting and upsetting experience, but it’s also why imaginative literature matters. One of the reasons, anyway. At maybe an even more basic level, there’s the need to get away from oneself from time to time, to not be in one’s ordinary headspace, to be somewhere and someone else instead.

And, poetry. The more I think about it, the more I think it deserves a separate post. But before I get to it, the next part of the series will address the “mirror” view of reading, consider the value of identification, and perhaps take back some of what I said earlier. But I make no promises.

Also, I think there will be further footnotes to this, eventually. Counter-examples and discussions welcome. Have at it!

* There’s something interesting going on there with intimacy as a kind of precondition for knowledge, and boundaries between people and the lack thereof; also with the larger context of the chapter this passage is from. No time to think through it right now, though.

** Science-fiction-literate readers of this blog will be better prepared than I am to address what’s been done with “what if we lived in a world where mind-reading was possible?” as a premise. The only example I can think of is the “mindspeech” in Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (well, and an assortment of Star Trek episodes), but I admit to a lack of literacy in the genre.

Can you tell who’s my favorite O’Brian character?

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Check out this illustrated version of Dante’s Inferno set in a nightmarish Los Angeles. I’m coveting those lithographs, especially the one illustrating the gates of Hell as the entrance to an underpass, complete with signs that read "Abandon All Hope On Entry Here." (Reminds me rather of Martin Rowson’s fantastically inventive noir comic book version of The Waste Land.)

Via scribblingwoman.