Friday, April 30, 2010

To Do

Every morning when I get to work, I make a to-do list for the day. I have one for the week, and one for the semester/summer. I have a personal one on my iPod. I email myself things to do, write them down, and think about them on the bus and when I'm going to sleep. And Molly Peacock wrote a poem about this process that I wish I'd written. It captures both the anxiety and reassurance of having, and coming up with, things to do on both the smallest and largest of scales - a distinctly adult feeling, I think.

I got her book Raw Heaven last night, at the money pit that is Harvard Bookstore's extensive and wonderfully organized used section. I know the poetry section well enough to know that a lot of the books were new additions, and this was one of them. Anyway, on the last day of National Poetry Month, here's the poem for you.

Things to Do

Planning and worrying and waking up
in the morning with items on the list
clanking like quarters in the brain's tin cup,
this and that and what you might have missed
or who pissed you off, suspends you in a state
that wishes and hopes for its goal like some
little one wiggling in a chair who can't wait
for when her legs will reach the floor. The numb
knockings of anxiety are like the heels
of sturdy little shoes steadily beating
on upholstery. It's how anyone feels
having been put into a chair, meeting
responsibilities from a padded perch
too big for anyone's ass. As monarchs
we make ourselves small and govern in search
of what we'll grow into. Except we are
as big as we'll ever get and have gone as far.

From Raw Heaven by Molly Peacock. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. (p. 18)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Slapdash & vigour

Though I finished Volume One of Virginia Woolf's diary a long time ago, I still have flags sticking out of pages everywhere, marking passages I wanted to record. (And you'd better watch out, because not only are there several more diaries, but I also picked up all six volumes of her letters for a very reasonable price at a used bookstore a couple of weeks ago.)

Without further ado, here are some thoughts V.W. had on writing.

"L[eonard] and I argued...about the worthlessness of all human works except as a means of keeping the workers happy. My writing now delights me solely because I love writing and dont [sic], honestly, care a hang what anyone says. What seas of horror one dives through in order to pick up these pearls -- however they are worth it." (20)

"It is fatal not to write the thing one wants to write at the moment of wanting to write it. Never thwart a natural process." (198)

"Its [sic] the curse of a writers [sic] life to want praise so much, & be so cast down by blame, or indifference. The only sensible course is to remember that writing is after all what one does best; that any other work would seem to me a waste of life; that I make one hundred pounds a year; & that some people like what I write." (214)

(That last sentence one of the understatements of the century.)

And finally, on writing her diary:

"[I] read as one always does read one's own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough & random style of it, often so ungrammatical, & crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat....And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash & vigour, & sometimes hits an unexpected bulls eye....What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight, or beautiful that comes in to my mind." (267)

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Bitchy book review

When I first saw the pile of copies of Marilyn Johnson's book This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All at ALA Midwinter, I was naturally very excited. Not so excited that it didn't get in line behind a lot of other books, but still. Anyway, now that I've finished the book, I have very conflicted feelings about it. A librarian writing on her blog about a book that's about librarians and blogs and books is either very meta or very insular. I can't decide.

In any case. Around the halfway point of the book, I was feeling really irritated with the whole thing. I wasn't sure why Johnson was choosing to concentrate on things that I personally find sort of useless, like Second Life and book cart drill teams. Eventually I accepted that Johnson wasn't writing a comprehensive or focused book. She was following the random threads and paths that research often takes.

And she's narrating her personal experience the whole time. I think part of why I reacted to the book so personally was because her tone is so personal. (I also reacted personally because I'm a librarian, but I'll get to that later.) I just occasionally found her tone (well-meaning, enthusiastic) a little irritating. One manifestation of this is the generalizing about librarians as a group. She refers to cupcakes as the "official snack of young librarians" (211). "The silver-haired librarians who got their library degrees way back in the twentieth century came from backgrounds in history and literature" (26). The word visionary pops up about every five pages.

Of course, I am a member of the profession being written about here, so naturally I want to correct what I see as generalizations or inconsistencies. Johnson, for example, dismisses cataloging near the end of the book as one of the more "bloodless" parts of librarianship, but is impressed by how archivists and librarians organize and describe information, both online and in paper. Which IS cataloging. And most librarians I know thought this New York Times article about "hip librarians" (which makes an appearance in the book) was cringe-inducing. It's now become a stereotype to think of librarians as stereotypes (old, shushing, blah blah). And those librarians are hip(ster) because they live in Brooklyn.

Okay, I don't want this to become a total jeremiad, because I do appreciate where Johnson is coming from. I enjoyed many of the interviews she did, and I think librarians need all the positive publicity we can get. There were a couple of chapters that lived up to the book's subtitle, about Radical Reference, the librarians who challenged the Patriot Act, and librarian "missionaries" training students from developing countries. I wish the whole book had been like that. Johnson does get across, for the most part, that librarians are far from being obsolete, and that we want to help people escape "information sickness" and discover the best information for their needs. And she cites her sources, too.

Quotations from This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A room full of books of one's own

I promised to keep updating with things I liked from volume 1 of Virginia Woolf's diaries. So here are some things she had to say about books and libraries.

"L[eonard] found Desmond at the L.L. [London Library]: together they look up the word f--- in the slang dictionary, & were saddened & surprised to see how the thumb marks of members were thick on the page." (82)

On a London bookshop:

"He would not commit himself to name any probable price, from which I judge that he is calculating on the lust to possess it when I see it. And, after all, nothing gives back more for one's money than a beautiful book - obviously I'm slipping....These bookshops have an air of the 18th century. People drop in and gossip about literature with the shopkeeper who, in this case, knew as much about books as they did. I overheard a long conversation with a parson, who had discovered a shop in Paddington full of Elzevirs." (126)

Apparently the huge publisher Elsevier has been around for a long time, or else the name has been resurrected.

Then there's this slightly puzzling footnote by the editor, Anne Olivier Bell, about a librarian at the London Library who I want to know more about:

"Frederick James Cox (1865-1955) joined the staff of the London Library when he was sixteen and worked there until the year of his death. Installed near the entrance, he acted both as sentry and encyclopaedia." (177)

So there you go. As usual,

All quotations from The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume One 1915-1919, ed. Anne Olivier Bell. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977.

Paper and electronic books - energy smackdown

I thought this was an interesting comparison of the relative environmental friendliness of e-readers versus books. I'm not against e-readers (though I think I'll always personally prefer a book), and this comparison isn't quite fair, since one e-reader represents several books (though it would have to be replaced more often).

See the NY Times' "op-chart" here.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Accelerated consciousness

Just a quick post. I've been catching up on issues of Poetry, and have had a page in the February issue dogeared for a while now. I've often wondered why poetry - a generally compact form - isn't more popular in a low-attention-span world. Is it because it takes time to create, unlike a Twitter update? Anyway, Durs Grünbein touches on this in a much more articulate way in his essay "Why Live Without Writing." You can read the whole essay here, but I liked this paragraph in particular:

"A few clusters of words express what the lavish epic draws out over hundreds of pages. Or to put it another way: couldn’t it be that poems, as long as they are alert and open to impressions, are novels by other means—and therefore do sterling service to readers short of time and hungry for intensity? What they have to offer are lessons in accelerated consciousness, machete slashes through a tangled world. For aficionados of the concentrated and powerful, they are distilled experience, abbreviations of existence, shocks and pronouncements in droplet form."