Sweetheart, I feel the same about you…

“I do not know that I am happiest when alone; but this I am sure of, what I am never long in the society of her I love without a yearning for the company of my lamp and my utterly confused and tumbled-over library.”—Lord Byron, from More’s Life, quoted in Leslie Stephen’s Hours in a Library

If, like me, you love quotations about books and libraries, you’ll find a treasure trove in Stephen’s ten-page album of quotations, which opens his collection of literary essays.

The Incomparable Max (Beerbohm) on the BL

Searching for a quote on tweeds, I re-read the wonderful “Enoch Soames” (1919) last week. It’s still a great story. Here’s a taste of the dialogue:
--The reading room?
--Of the British Museum. I go there every day.
--You do? I’ve only been there once. I’m afraid I found it rather a depressing place. It—it seemed to sap one’s vitality.
--It does. That’s why I go there.

Friends of the (New York Public) Library

I have written many times before of my debt to the New York Public Library. I have my seat at the Wertheim Study until the end of May and, believe me, I am making every use of it.

Librarian Jay Barksdale wrote earlier this week to say that budget woes have sharply curtailed the library’s book-buying budget. If you’re moved to help the library, this is the week to do it: every dollar you give will be matched by $2 from an NYPL Trustee (up to $100,000). This challenge has the potential to purchase 7,500 new books for the library. Click here to give.

These books are help scholars like me consult expensive monographs but they also help new immigrants learning to read, mothers reading to their children, students studying for the SAT, and readers across all five boroughs. If you are moved by the power of reading, please do consider giving a few dollars.

And if not to this challenge, you can always click here and, for $40/year, become a Friend. I just did. For all it’s done for me, it was the least I could do in return.

In Praise of Libraries

It's been a long time. There have been highs and lows. But that's for another day. For now, some Wyndham Lewis. This quotation, about a curmudgeon's private library, comes courtesy of John Whittier-Ferguson's paper at MSA12 (the Modernist Studies Association Conference) in Victoria, B.C.:
This was 1939, the last year, or as good as, in which such a life as this one was to be lived. Parkinson was the last of a species. Here he was in a large room, which was a private, a functional library. Such a literary workshop belonged to the ages of individualism. Its three or four thousand volumes were all book-plated Parkinson. It was really a fragment of paradise where one of our species lived embedded in books, decently fed, moderately taxed, snug and unmolested.--Self Condemned (79)
Wonderful. I love the Lewisian misanthropic soupcon of paranoia added on to the praise of the library: the library in 1939 as a tiny little paradise, under siege from all sides. Wonderful.

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?

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.)

Dreary May Day in the Wertheim

Usually, I have to head home by 4:30, but once I week I work a bit later.

As luck would have it, today is that day and it’s a dreary one. My work on Mrs. Dalloway is inching forward, but I feel uninspired. And the same must be true of my fellow scholars here in my study room at the New York Public Library: several have left earlier than usual and a few are taking longer lunches than they typically do. One scholar sat amidst books and four gum wrappers. Anything to stay alert. After a crowded few days, it’s quiet here.

So we were all surprised by a knock on the door. One young woman answered and there was Jay Barksdale, our librarian, carrying a tray with a pot of tea and a dozen cups: “Tea time!”

We all laughed nervously in this silent, silent place, Jay left, I poured, and we’re back to work.

Into the Well

I was on the phone with a colleague the other day and he asked how my leave is going.

I groaned. He laughed. He told me that when he’d seen our colleague for the first time, back at work after a year’s research leave, he looked like he was still at the bottom of a deep well. We both laughed and then we talked about the well for a while.

I like that metaphor because that is what it feels like when I spend the day in the library. It doesn’t take more than three or four hours for me to turn into a disoriented, blinking mole, shocked at the clamor and noise of the world around. When I get deep enough into my work to actually break ground—which is rare—it can be hard to return to family life. Most days, however, I have to be so conscious that I need to leave at 4:30 in order to fetch the girls that all I do is peer down into the well, imagining what I might find in the distant darkness.

Peering down isn’t enough, however. If you want to find the treasure that lies beneath the surface, you have to dive down into the well.

Merry little magpies like me find many reasons to peck around at the ground instead. The sky is blue. The children are charming. Smart friends and acquaintances are tweeting away, updating statuses with wit and energy. Why leave this happy conflagration for the mysteries of the deep?

Because the treasure is at the bottom of the well.


This stretch of research leave marks the first time since my children were born (more than 7 years ago) that I have had hours to spend in the library poking around. I thought I’d left it behind—worried, even, that I wouldn’t want to be a scholar anymore--but, though the muscles have atrophied, I am gaining strength again and returning to that delicious sense of pleasure in going deep, deep, deep into a bit of reading to see if there’s anything there. I like almost every bit of it: the silence, the mental effort of reading a theoretical essay, the pleasure of skimming something that, in the end, doesn’t fit, and, to my point today, ferreting out little bits of historical research.

Today, after a couple hours of responding to colleague’s writing, I rejected a tedious project (collating editions has still not risen to the place of pleasure. When it does, I think I will have achieved Boddhisathva-hood)—the one I really should do—in favor of opening the cardboard box on my shelf. What was inside?

A bound black volume with COMMERCE TLC p.v. 126 stamped on the inside masked an imperfectly bound collection of pamphlets. How these 12 documents came to live together, I don’t know—and I’m smart enough not to get distracted by the desire to find out. I called this out of its dusty home to consult No. 8: London Municipal Society and National Union of Ratepayers’ Association. The Greater London Traffic Problem: A Scheme for Its Solution. No. 18. London: London Municipal Society. n.d. stamped 1923.

There is some talk in Mrs. Dalloway, in several spots, about London traffic. Most germane for me, Richard Dalloway thinks that something should be done. It occurred to me that a committee on traffic reform is just the kind of thing Richard Dalloway, MP, might be on. Was there such a commission?

Well, it turns out that traffic lights were introduced in London between 1923—when the novel is set—and 1925—when it’s published. So I called up the pamphlet in case it said something about this innovation. It is silent on this score. Instead, for 11 pages, the authors describe all the competing interests and stakeholders in the problem and summarize the reports of other commissions and committees. Unlike other traffic-related documents which mention specific intersections or the problems with buses, say, or pedestrians crossing multi-lane roads, this one never stoops below the level of bureaucracy to describe the street.

How, then, did No. 8 come to be bound alongside No. 2 “Sorelle, R.P. and J. R. Greeg…Teacher’s manual to Secretarial studies (1923)” or “No. 6 “U.S. President, 1801-1809 (Jefferson)..Message transmitting a memorial of the merchants of Baltimore, January 29th 1806” or No. 12 “Review of the commerce of New Orleans. For 1875-76” which begins “The hopes of the trade, freely indulged in last September, have not been altogether fulfilled.”

Indeed. My hopes—for pamphlets on municipal traffic or otherwise—are seldom altogether fulfilled. I will say, however, that it is quietly thrilling to learn that I still really do like the scholar’s life. I just hope there will be more of it again some day.

The Wertheim Study

“I’ve made us a cup of tea.”

Can there be any nicer sentence in English? When you meet someone for the first time, how lovely to already have that person caring for you.

When I knew I had a research leave coming up, I applied for one of those very amazingly fancy New York Public Library Fellowships. I didn’t get one; I didn’t expect to. But I did root around the website and found that, much less competitive than a fellowship were the two study rooms, the Allen (for people with book contracts) and the Wertheim (for scholars). I asked if I could have a space and was put on the waitlist.

Then, in February, I got notice that a space would come open on March 1. Could I fill out a form and come in for a chat?

I was nervous, but Jay Barksdale, the wonderful librarian in charge, put me at ease immediately with the aforementioned cup of tea in a real china cup with saucer. Really, the point of the meeting was just to make sure that I knew the rules and the procedures, but how many times nicer to learn about all of that with a cup of tea in hand.

What are the rules? I have a special electronic key card, but the room is open whenever the library is. There are special call slips for the Wertheim, too. Many, many people have access to the room—and, more to the point, the shelf where I can keep—yes, keep—any books that I need to use for my project, though the room really only comfortably seats about 15 at a time at its 3 wonderful long tables. And, to my immense narcissistic pleasure, I was asked if I would be willing to speak to, say, the New York Times, should they have an urgent need for a specialist. (Urgent needs for Mrs. Dalloway specialists being rare, I am not expecting a call.)

The Wertheim and Allen rooms run a series of lectures by the scholars at work there at the Mid-Manhattan Library (catty-corner from the big NYPL) many evenings at 6:30. Here is one upcoming event. And you can become a fan of the rooms  on facebook, which is a good way to learn about upcoming and recently past lectures.

I cannot describe to you how much of a difference this space, full of silent scholars (when people sneeze, no one even says bless you!) hard at work on projects. But the light posting here since March 1 is perhaps the best indicator of the fact that I’m not just “writing” in quotes, I’m writing.

One more cool thing: the room was established by author and scholar Barbara Tuchman. Isn’t that awesome?

Here is the official description:
To assist researchers making intensive use of the general research collections for a prescribed period of time, The New York Public Library has made available the Wertheim Study.  Established in 1963 by author and scholar Barbara Tuchman in honor of her father, Maurice Wertheim, publisher of “The Nation” and a founder of The Theatre Guild, the Study serves individuals engaged in research projects requiring extensive consultation of research materials related to the humanities and social sciences, preliminary to the preparation of a publication, report, or other research project. 

Reading Rooms in Jeopardy

An old friend who writes in a rather urgent, heated style, emailed me last week with news and a request for action. I skimmed the email, saw that she and her family seemed to be in good health, and, moved on.

My hesitation comes partly out of the exigencies of my own life but also the dilemma her email posed: the European Reading Room at the Library of Congress is slated to close to make way for an Abraham Lincoln Exhibit. Would I speak out about this outrage?

Well, I wasn’t sure it was an outrage.

Besides, it’s not just any exhibit. It’s a Lincoln exhibit.

Nonetheless, I was haunted by her plea.

Looking into it further, it does seem that my friend and her friends’ suspicions are justified: the Library of Congress seems indeed to be planning to close a beloved Reading Room temporarily, likely as a ruse to transform it into exhibition space in the longer term. I’m not generally a conspiracy theorist, yet fear that the Lincoln exhibition is a convenient ruse for few Americans will speak out against a large celebration of this great American, a secular saint.

Nonetheless, these public spaces where scholars can work, research, and, occasionally talk with each other about discoveries and challenges are essential to intellectual progress.

Young scholars, urban scholars, isolated scholars all benefit from such spaces. We do not all have adequate rooms of our own: my apartment has no separate study; my office has no window; the grand reading room of the New York Public Library is my great intellectual refuge and inspiration.

It would be a terrible shame if the Library of Congress closed this room, beloved of scholars of Europe and European scholars. And it would be a sad footnote to this parochial administration if we closed one welcoming spot for those working on international issues under the guise of honoring Lincoln.

You can learn more about the reading room here and you can learn how to register your pleas to save it here.

N.B. I've opened up a "diary" over at the DailyKos because I was tiring myself out with all my political talk here. This, both literary and political, is cross posted but if you want more Obama-talk, you can look for the Fernham diary over at the DailyKos.


As I sit in the handsomely appointed reading room of UCLA’s Special Collections Department in the Research Library, it is comforting (if perhaps too flattering to myself) to know that Woolf found the process of correcting proofs tedious. As my eyes glaze over, I do little calculations in the margins: I have ten more hours in the archive and 238 pages to check, nine hours and 222 pages. With each passing hour, I fall a little further behind.

Then, suddenly, I see something I haven’t seen before--another instance in which her revision falls into a pattern. I hear a resonance and now have a phrase to check--is it an allusion to something?

Today it was birds. What about all the birds? I figured I could do something with the flowers in the books--roses and carnations, hyacinths and lilies--but, until today, I hadn’t thought about the symbolic weight of the birds. Swallows and nightingales I can do (going back to Ovid and the story of Procne and Philomel), but what about sparrows and thrushes?

The Raverat Proofs

This is for Ana Maria who seems to enjoy this stuff as much as I do: I’m in L.A. on the second of three trips (I’ll go to London in August) to look at material surrounding the writing and publication of Mrs. Dalloway. This time, as at the Lilly in Bloomington, I’m looking at proofs. But these proofs were Woolf’s personal set. She sent them to her friend, the French artist Jacques Raverat, who was dying of an m.s.-like disease. (He did, in fact, die, before the novel was published but his wife, who was a Darwin, read the proofs to him.)

Woolf bound the proofs herself in Japanese block-printed paper with a stylized gingko-leaf motif. She pasted this paper on a thin cardboard, slightly sturdier than a manila folder. Sewed the pages together with red thread. The paper is a pale tan, the leaves are olive brown with eye-shaped cutouts in them that are filled, imperfectly and artistically, with red “eyes.” Woolf put the paper on sideways, to my eye, so the bulbous tops of the leaves point East, the stems, West. There is a small rectangle of the same paper, from the marking, pasted on the front cover (with the leaves running the opposite direction). Woolf has used the ¾ inch of margin to write “Mrs Dalloway” in her usual purple ink.

The title page is inscribed “Jacques/with love/from Virginia/6th Feb 1925.”

More from the Lilly

It’s very exciting to work with these proofs to Mrs. Dalloway. The only marks on them are a few pencil marks by Harcourt--and these are mostly notations of where each new galley begins--, stamps from R. & R. Clark (date stamps scattered throughout the proofs, from 13-19 Jan., presumably the number of days it took from them to create the proofs), and Woolf’s many corrections.

So there is something incredibly intimate in poring over these pages with care. It feels very, very lucky.

And wonderful that anyone with a picture i-d who comes to Bloomington can do the same.

As I’ve confessed here before, this textual editing--the painstaking combing and comparing of one edition, one version, against another--is new to me. Now, I have a notebook full of dozens of annotations like this:
  • 147.11 to Septimus; ] to Om.
  • 147.12 mankind, ] ~;
This means that on page 147 in the eleventh line, the proofs read “to Septimus;” and Woolf crossed out “Septimus;” and that, in the next line, Woolf replaced a comma with a semicolon. That first change seems really weird, but a little more context clears it up: “So they returned to Septimus; the most exalted of mankind” became “So they returned to the most exalted of mankind.” I’m not sure which I prefer, but I can see appeal of the sleeker revision.

Madness, right?

Except that, like lots of things when you do them intensely, it grows riveting and meaningful, so, by 4:00 in the afternoon, I’m like a crazy person, muttering “Oh! that’s interesting!” upon finding an em-dash changed to a parentheses.

Well, it is interesting. I’ll try to explain some other time.

Notes from the Archive, Lilly Library Edition

I’ve been at I.U. in Bloomington all week, looking at the American proofs of Mrs. Dalloway. On my first day here, Tuesday, I sailed through the first forty pages in an hour, but then I needed a break, so I looked around to get my bearings. There are all these nice looking graduate students walking around, feeling happy and proud to be working here. The two men who are working the desk were English grad students, I think. One was reading Shakespeare in a big one-volume edition and the other was studying for his Old Irish exam.

The proofs came out of the vault magnificently wrapped, in a gold or bright orange slipcase--fabric covering hard boards--with a red spine. From this, the archivist extracted a folder of the same golden cardboard. Within that folder, a cream-colored box made of thin paper, like a file folder. Finally, within that, the proofs themselves.

They are modest. Small. They are on yellowing but sturdy book-quality paper and look just like unbound pages of a book--which is, of course, what proofs are. But in this computer-driven age, proofs don’t look this way.

On the first page, stamped in purple is FIRST PROOF. At the bottom of the page, also in purple ink, is a stamp reading R. & R. CLARK at the top, EDIN---(it fades out to the bottom & right) within the double lines of the oval. In the middle, it reads 13 JAN 1925.

Special Collections

Every time I go to the New York Public Library, I think--or wonder--if it’s a good job, a well-paying job. The workers there seem unusually friendly, helpful, and competent for people whose job it is to match a call slip with a book, to stamp a call slip with a time, to check a bag for contraband. ''

The friendliness of the regular librarians is matched by the diversity of the public. It is also matched by my terror of special collections.

And the public is truly the general public. On Ash Wednesday, a black man with two huge, flat dreadlocks, one on each side of his head, hanging like the rectangular locks of some barristers’ wigs, approach a beautiful librarian, a black Carribbean woman, asking for the phone book. As I sharpened my pencil, the dreadlocked man returned and, pointing at the ash on her forehead, said, “I noticed that you have the mark of the beast on your forehead. The Catholic Church is the devil…”

As we went on, she smiled, and sweetly said, “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. The phone books are over there.” When he left, she turned to her co-worker, sotto voce, “Get a haircut.”

This good, warm, and human behavior (polite to the crazies but still enough of a person to let off steam), held, too, when I went to apply for a reader’s card at the special collection within the library, where Woolf’s manuscripts are housed. The librarian was generous, welcoming, and assuaged my nerves. He asked if I intended to consult the manuscripts that day. No, I said, I had too many books with me. Best to return when I didn’t need to leave so much at the coat check.

“Yes. It’s best if you can just bring in a pencil. They’re quite particular there.”

My fear of special collections mounts.

The reference librarian was helpful, too, when I went to see if it could be right that the first American edition of Mrs. Dalloway was available in the general collection and that I need not go to special collections to consult it.

“Yes, that looks right. And if you can avoid looking at their copy, do. They’ll much prefer it.”

My heart is now pounding in my chest.

Still, I rang the bell to enter the special room and was ushered in by a kindly man. This was not, perhaps, going to be so bad. He asked me to sign in, “we live and die by numbers here,” and helped me discover what was becoming clear: for all the great manuscript material they have, they don’t have the books I need.

Well, I told him, once I get the books consulted, I will need to come back to look at the manuscript material. Thank you so much, I said, and I’ll be back in a few weeks.

“Have you spoken to --- ?”

No, do I need to?

“Oh yes. He’s not in today. Let me give you one of his cards. He is the one who authorizes anyone looking at actual manuscripts, not just the cd rom or microfilm. And, when it comes to publication, you’ll need a letter from the Society of Authors. He follows the letter of the law on that. Let me stress that. The Letter. Of. The. Law.”

I am officially terrified to return.

In telling this story to a friend, she informed me that there is, in fact, a whole chapter of a recent novel, Round-Heeled Woman is the book, I think, about how hard it is to get into special collections...I'm relieved and amused to know I'm not alone...