The other night, I was re-reading Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid.” A provocative and funny title for a really thoughtful piece on how our thinking may be changing—really, profoundly changing—with our increasing reliance on computers. I really love that essay for the care with which it weighs the good and the bad of Google. Carr writes: “The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes.” I feel that profoundly, too. Much as I love the hours and hours that I’ve logged in the stacks and in the reading rooms of great libraries, it’s exciting and a lot easier to find the stuff so fast.
I turned from Carr to Woolf, to reread her essay “The Russian Point of View.” I’m rereading The Common Reader in its entirety for my talk in Uruguay and for the Dalloway edition. As I read, I come upon one of Andrew McNeillie’s footnotes from 1984: “This reference has resisted all efforts at discovery.”
It’s a wonderful footnote and one I’ve long admired. McNeillie is a fabulous editor and, in days before Google, he tracked down dozens and dozens of allusions, translated Greek, and generally showed the seams of Woolf’s work so that scholars like me could trace her sources and hear her allusions. And, this note, to a bland quote from one of Chekhov’s over 100 stories, seems fair: it’s the only time in the whole book when McNeillie just gives up.
So, of course, I typed the phrase “such conversation as this between us would have been unthinkable for our parents” into Google. First hit? “Anton Chekhov, A Doctor’s Visit, trans. Constance Garnett”—of course, the very translation Woolf used. Second hit? Virginia Woolf,