Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How important is a detail?

I finally finished collating all the editions of Mrs. Dalloway that were produced in Woolf’s lifetime and I have charts to show you where each of the over 300 differences between the first British and first American edition lie.

Now, I’m going through that list and writing the textual notes. The finished edition will have a complete list, but it will also have a more discursive section of textual notes, where I will take the time to explain and clarify some of the differences among editions. Not every change needs an explanation: if a comma gets added or goes missing, the textual apparatus notes that. But if that comma change creates a problematic reading or if there a phrase moves from the beginning to the end of a paragraph, the textual notes will explain what I know about how that came to happen.

These notes are not meant to be an interpretation, mind you, but to present the facts as I know them. The edition is for everyone; my personality will come through, but it’s meant to be subtle.

When I was working with the American proofs of Mrs. Dalloway at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, I tried to note as much as I possibly could. That leaves me, today, looking at a note from 2007. If I make it a textual note, the phrase “in fact,” added to the first American edition, but not the first British, would be annotated as follows: “Her handwriting on AP is a bit difficult to decipher here: the dot that would seem to need to be over the “i” is over the “n.””

Really? Could the phrase “in fact” wherever that dot occurs, be anything other than “in fact”? Do I need to record that for posterity? Will anyone every be able to make anything of that?

And yet, trivial as it seems, when I deleted it a moment ago, I immediately hit “undo.” For now, it stands. A silly, unneeded note that may not make the cut and yet, also, somehow a momentarily interesting human touch: Woolf’s handwriting was sloppy while she was correcting proofs.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How I miss Gourmet

We are up on the St. Lawrence River for our annual month, catching Canadian cell phone lines and French radio, looking out on the rainy water and recharging from a year in the big city.

As ever, I have brought a couple food magazines with me, but oh, the loss of Gourmet is tough. Bon Appetit is just so ordinary and safe. Its whole attitude to its audience is vaguely condescending, like a mama trying to coax a child to just give the broccoli a taste. The July letter from the editor reassures us that “while you may notice that a few recipes call for some spicier notes, don’t be put off: The heat is often tempered with sweet.”

Ruth Reichl would never have written that. She dives right in to the calves brains and is so full of luxe enthusiasm that you consider following her.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How a novelist finds her subject

As I work on the edition of Mrs. Dalloway, I have been trying to read all (or many 0f) the books that she read while writing. Today’s reading has been in Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction, a critical work on the novel on which Woolf took copious notes. I particularly love this gem, in which Lubbock limits his scope, turning away from a study of inspiration and toward a study of form:
How a novelist finds his subject, in a human being or in a situation or a turn of thought, this indeed is beyond us; we might look long at the very world that Tolstoy saw, we should never detect the unwritten book he found there; and he can seldom (he and the rest of them) give any account of the process of discovery. (23)
It’s a lovely and wise sentiment: even if we could reconstruct a novelist's whole world, we will not have solved the mystery of creativity and discovery. I believe it.

Except that, it must be that I also don’t believe it. After all, am I not combing through diaries and letters, history books, reviews, reading notes, and the books she read themselves in an attempt to pin down the source of every little thing I can in Mrs. Dalloway? It’s like creating a relief map of 1925 in which the only raised layers would be the ones that contributed to this one particular masterpiece of a novel.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Problem with The Big Short

I had been wanting to read The Big Short since it was published. I finished it a while back and Michael Lewis’ account of the very few investors who bet against the real estate bubble and won—big—did not disappoint. As you probably know, he follows the stories of a few men, highlighting their quirks and the elements of their personalities that enabled them to take a contrarian view in the midst of a mad market, and, through those stories, tells the story of the subprime mortgage crisis.

I think Michael Lewis means it when he expresses a kind of impotent frustration at the number of readers of his first big book, Liar’s Poker, who read it not as a warning, but as a guide to getting rich. I think he’s sincere, too, when on occasion he laments that all of these contrarian investors used their insight for personal gain; none of them became advocates for regulatory reform.

However, upon reading The Big Short, I wanted nothing more than to figure out how to get rich, too. I didn’t feel moved to write to Senator Menendez to demand stronger regulations on predatory lending; I wondered if I should buy that investment book that one of the guys used to start his own fund. On the one hand, this makes sense. This is America, after all, where, as James Baldwin said, there will never be a strong worker’s movement because there are no workers, only candidates for the hand of the boss’s daughter. That is, we all see ourselves—far too easily—as potential rich people. Furthermore, I’m writing this from Jersey City where Goldman Sachs dominates my skyline and my culture: they buy the trees that beautify the park by our house and their employees use their multi-million-dollar bonuses to scoop up and renovate the brownstones on my block. I, too, would like to own a house one day, and my husband and I, more than once, have thought that, fiscally conservative and middle class as we are, we might be able to benefit somehow from some poor sucker’s inability to make their mortgage payment. Such a sad chance, in fact, might be our best hope to buy a place in this artificially inflated environment.

But what is it about The Big Short that fuels my interest in making money while increasing my sense of impotent despair about the possibility of real financial reform?

I think it’s endemic to the topic and the structure of the book. Lewis tells a story about outlaw heroes, but these men—they are all men, though a few interesting women play bit parts as whistleblowers—are all disaffected insiders. When we do hear about a victim, the story is abbreviated and stereotyped: there is a Mexican strawberry picker with an $800K mortgage, a Vegas stripper who’s flipping multiple homes, and the Jamaican night nurse of one of the bankers who owns multiple houses in Queens. The class, race, and sex-snobbery is not subtle: Lewis makes clear that he feels for these people, but that they are not fit to play with the big boys.

Can’t you just hear the condescension at the Princeton Club?
“Whitley, have you read Mike’s new book? It’s really too much! Do you know that those brokers actually wrote an $800K mortgage for a Mexican strawberry picker?”
“But Sterling, the one that was really over the top was the stripper who was flipping houses on the side!”
“The flipping stripper!”
“I liked the Chinese guy—the one who went to Babson—who thought he was making a killing--”
“Hilarious! That was a great scene—with the Brooklyn guy double-dipping his edamame. Hey, where is Babson again, anyway?”
“Isn’t it in Wellesley?”
“I dated a girl from Wellesley sophomore year. She got to be VP at AIG. Wonder what happened to her….”

A better book, I think, would tell the story at every level: showcasing the stupidity, gullibility, corruption, unmerited optimism all up and down the chain: of the immigrant, the branch officer, that officer’s manager, all the way on up to Tim Geithner and Alan Greenspan. That book might get us storming the barricades. 

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Megan Kelso’s Artichoke Tales

The Kelso girls were my good friends in high school. They had a great big house and the best parties in Seattle. I remember going over there on a Saturday night, dancing to the Psychedelic Furs, The Police and Grandmaster Flash while helping Jenny stir up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. These were the parties you dream of: really fun, really wholesome, where sometimes one of the cute boys actually asks you to dance (which, in the 80s meant jumping up and down like a pogo stick in his vicinity).

Megan was younger and smart and mysterious, with a very cool bulletin board covered with gnomic Dylan quotations.

Now, she’s all grown up and coming back out to New York (there were some Brooklyn years in there) from Seattle to celebrate her new graphic novel, Artichoke Tales. I loved her girlhero comic books so much! The ‘zines were sized just like comics and came with paperdolls to cut out on the back. They were masterpieces of 90s girlpower. Then, I gave them to a newly out dyke friend of mine and never saw them again: they are just the kind of books that a feminist covets and wants to keep. Megan writes about strong, independent women, gay and straight, navigating the landmines of war and family strife. It’s deep, powerful, political, and beautiful. Don’t look away. Run toward it.

She is giving a slideshow & booktalk at the Strand this Thursday, June 24, at 7:00 with Kim Deitch. She will also be speaking at Desert Island on Friday at 7:00. I so wish I could go. You should!!!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Library Error

I don’t mind when people make small errors with numbers. It makes me feel less bad about the many such errors I make. Still, it was with some shock that I put in a call slip for JFD 83-5083, The Complete Poems of Andrew Marvell and found, awaiting me upon my return from lunch, JFD 83-5053, The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus.

Is someone trying to tell me something?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Partner's Compensation: A Theory of Salaries

"Senior managment's job is to pay people," he'd say, "If they fuck a hundred guys out of a hundred grand each, that's ten million more for them. They have four categories: happy, satisfied, dissatisfied, disgusted. If they hit happy, they've screwed up. They never want you happy. On the other hand, they don't want you so disgusted you quit. The sweet spot is somewhere between dissatisfied and disgusted."--Michael Lewis, The Big Short

An Open Letter to Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn

As one of millions of users of the New York Public Library, I urge you to restore the $37 million cut that has been proposed to NYPL’s budget.

This harsh cut would force neighborhood branches to close just when New Yorkers need them most.

I am writing to you from the Wertheim Room on the second floor of the NYPL’s 42nd Street building. I have spent most of the spring in this beautiful sanctuary for scholars. Here, free of charge, scholars and graduate students work in silence. Each of us is allotted a shelf on which we may keep, for use over days or months, books from the library’s collection. The right to consult a book over multiple days without the trouble of continually requesting it, the silence, the air of concentration and seriousness in this space beat what is offered by any space I have worked in, be it my office at Fordham, my apartment across the river in Jersey City, or the libraries of Oxford, Yale, and Harvard.

I am an Associate Professor of English at Fordham University and the facilities of the New York Public Library have made my sabbatical work on an edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway for Cambridge University Press into a great pleasure and intellectual adventure. The generosity of the librarians, archivists, security guards, and janitors in this building only enhances my sense of the value of intellectual labor.

I wrote to Speaker Quinn years ago to support the plan to keep the main library open seven days. I am deeply saddened to think that we are now faced with the threat of stepping forward, not back.

I love this library for how it serves each and every one of us: I could not do my research without access to Woolf’s manuscripts in the Berg Collection, I could not write without the silent sanctuary of this room, but I gain inspiration daily from the tourists who come to see how we value reading here, the students earnestly working through their MCAT exam books, the learners and readers in the main reading room, the mentally ill who sit and read as an escape from the storms in their minds, and the parents who daily bring their children to the lovely new children’s center on the ground floor.

This main library is dear to me, but I worry equally about the branches. How can this city nurture thinkers and readers—the people who will grow up to be my students at Fordham and my colleagues, too, if we don’t have places within an easy walk throughout all the boroughs where children can come learn to love books, where immigrants can practice English, where the poor can read and use the computer, where everyone can be part of a community?

I urge you to rethink your decision and thank you in advance for your support for the city’s libraries and all they represent.

(I sent this letter in the mail, too, but thought posting it here might spur a few of you one to write letters of your own to the libraries in your communities. It is not too late to add your voice to this plea, but PLEASE write before the June 30th end of the fiscal year.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Happy Bloomsday!

I spent Bloomsday Eve, somewhat perversely, in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, reading Woolf’s notes on Ulysses from 1919, when the opening seven episodes were published serially. I was on the hunt for Dalloway footnotes, so reading with a particular purpose, and, though it’s always thrilling to read Woolf’s handwriting, I didn’t find anything that changed the prevailing—and accurate—sense that Woolf knew his work, but it wasn’t really for her.

Though I love and admire Ulysses, it struck me as funny to wake up on Bloomsday and realize how I’d spent the previous night.

For a treat, however, I direct you over to Lauren Elkin’s blog where you can read an interview with my friend, the effervescent Keri Walsh, who’s just edited Sylvia Beach’s letters. Beach was, of course, the owner of Shakespeare & Co. books in Paris and the first publisher of Joyce’s masterpiece. Keri’s book is at the top of my pile & I plan to invite her to contribute here, too. So, click on over for a foretaste of Beach wisdom.