Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Deaccessioned from... (?)

In the freshman honors seminar that I am giving in the fall, I am really looking forward to teaching about the Ottoman Hebrew translation of some of the Spanish-language New World chronicles as a way of demonstrating the continuing connections between the Judaeo-Islamic universe and Spain even as it moved forward from its increasing catholicization and oppression and expulsion of religious minorities. I ordered a copy of the Hebrew text from a British bookseller featured on ABE Books.

It arrived with the unaltered mark of it former owner:

I wish that either the library, when it sold off or donated surplus books, or the bookseller when he acquired it, had marked it as "deaccessioned" or in some other way defaced the owner's mark. This makes me just a teeny bit nervous that perhaps it was removed improperly from the library and somehow ended up illicitly in a secondhand bookshop.

Of course, given that I'm currently working on a question of owner's marks in late medieval and early modern books, I'm probably overthinking this.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Nabokov Genizah


That is what was supposed to happen to a thousand years of documents written in Hebrew characters and hidden away in a room, a genizah, until they were rediscovered by European scholars in the nineteenth century. They were never removed to the Basatin Cemetery for interment and survived in that room until they would become, in the nineteenth century, the single most important source for biblical and para-biblical study, and even moreso for the history and literature of Jews living in the Islamicate Mediterranean and, some argue, for that wider Muslim society as well.

Rub Out.
Wipe Out.

All those things were supposed to happen to the index cards, the hand-written fragments, containing the last novel written by Vladimir Nabokov and left unfinished at the time of his death. The list of instructions still exists in his own hand. Like their thousand-year-old counterparts, his cards did not meet their fate.

Instead, they appeared in print.

A book that appears between boards offers the promise of a completed work, if not a coherent narrative. The challenges that it may throw down before the reader usually do not include the very technical aspects of reading. The Original of Laura defies the promises of its outward form, though, and it becomes as much a contemplation of the shape of text and the value of fragments as much as anything else; certainly it is that more than a novel. That old aphorism about not judging a book by its cover is wholly in play here. The novel is unfinished, but the book is not just about the novel. Rather, it is about forms of writing.

The hardcover edition of the book yields one more way of experiencing the text: The index cards are perforated and punch out of the book, leaving a stack of reproduced handwritten cards next to a book whose pages have eight lines of printed text beneath an empty frame with a view all the way to the back cover. The book achieves a wide audience in a form that, usually, definitionally is limited to a single solitary reader at a time. It universalizes and popularizes manuscript reading.

About a third of the way through the reading The Original of Laura, I realized that I was thinking about reading a novel at eight lines to a page: about speed and about prose-poetry and about fonts. I was thinking about Nabokov's handwriting, about the subtle changes in script that dying brings about, a microcosm of the changes wrought over a person's life, from learning to write the letters to owning a consistent and reproducible signature: the paleographic equivalent of a man's life flashing before his eyes. What I was not thinking about, indeed, what I could not have told you about at all, was what the story was about. I had a vague sense of the characters but not of a plot, even the sketchiest outline or faintest sense of where it all was going.

I have a vague sense that the fragmentary nature of the work complements (coincidentally, by nature) the content of the work. A text that can write about "identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book..." But that mostly got lost in the technical aspects of reading it through the first and second times.

I will have to read the book again before being able to write about how the text relates to its context, but for now it is the form and the act of reading it are what interest me.

I found myself struggling, at first, to read the cards penciled-in in the hand of a dying man, but soon I found myself reading in stereo in a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has read a manuscript with an edition of the text close at hand: First reading the hand-written and casting the occasional eye down at the print, but soon reversing their positions, mostly reading the print and glancing up at the manuscript. The only way to really read is to take the edition away: to choose one or the other.

Fighting the physical form of the text and becoming so fixated upon the words and the shape of the words that the very existence of a bigger picture — well, there is no bigger picture. There is something that the reader absorbs by reading in this way and by pulling back in tiny increments until the reminder of that bigger picture hits her like a shockwave; the details are all there, impressed in her mind, and the result is simultaneously panoramic and high-definition.

And finally, there is the question of the disposition, the thing that both The Original of Laura and the Genizah cache are best remembered for.

Yet ultimately, neither was meant to be destroyed. Transfer to the cemetery stopped by the twelfth century, if not earlier. And Nabokov's son, Dimitri, writes: "The lesser minds among the hordes of letter writers that were to descend upon me would affirm that if an artist wishes to destroy a work of his that he has deemed imperfect or incomplete, he should logically proceed to do so neatly and providently ahead of time. These sages forget, though, that Nabokov did not desire to burn the Original of Laura willy-nilly, but to live on for the last few card lengths needed to finish at least a complete draft."

And so we read them together. In this crossing of intention and memory, the secular approaches the sacred and the modern the medieval.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Open/Closed, Part II

Despite my best effort to relocate the conversation to a digital venue that is more conducive to longer-form discussion, it continues on Twitter:

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Open/Closed (Or, Dissertations in the Digital Age)

I've been having a conversation on Twitter with a colleague, and it's gotten to the point that I can no longer make my case in reasonable numbers of 140-character increments, so I've taken the liberty of moving the conversation over here to the blog. And hopefully, it will continue and draw in other participants in the comments feed. I'm curious to hear what others think about the question of making theses and dissertations more widely available than they are.

Let me start, then, with a bit of background for those who might be wandering into it over here for the first time.

About two weeks ago, I was more than a little dismayed to find this tweet in my Twitter feed:

After a panicked few minutes in which I made sure that the link did not actually lead to a PDF of my dissertation, per the terms of the embargo that I opted into when I filed, I replied with my dismay. I tried to keep the tone light, but I was really quite unhappy about this development:

Today, after finding that this colleague had tweeted someone else's thesis (an M.A.-level one in this case, I tweeted the following:

And this conversation ensued:

Friday, April 5, 2013

It Was Not Consumed (Prelude)

The current issue of the New York Review of Books contains an anecdote narrated by a well-known and respected journalist about taking a class at Cornell taught by Vladimir Nabokov.

He writes about not having read Anna Karenina in time for the first pop quiz and answering the question based upon the movie. A cardinal sin in a literature class. He writes with equal measures of glee and disbelief about his great good fortune that Nabokov didn't know the film and that, in the great writer's eternal optimism and belief that the human imagination can take what is on the page and run with it, he was not punished but rather hired as Nabokov's film-watcher.

I can't believe he thinks he got away with it. He was so obviously caught and this so literary a punishment.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

De Vulgari Eloquentia: The Board Game

I am teaching a freshman honors seminar in the fall on the events that transpired in 1492 in Spain. One of those events, probably the least well-known, is the publication of the first grammar of a Romance language, Antonio de Nebrija's Gramática de la lengua castellana. It is deeply tied to the other 1492 events because it sets itself out as being an explicit part of the imperial project. "Language," the introduction tells us in its most famous sentence, "has always been the companion of empire."

When I teach the Gramática, I like to introduce Dante's De vulgari eloquentia, his Latin-language defense of the romance vernaculars, as a sort of forerunner to the ideas set forth by Nebrija. I was Googling the ISBN number for the edition of the De vulgari that I want my students to buy so that I can finish putting together my syllabus and course packet, but it turns out that googling "de vulgari eloquentia" autocompletes to "de vulgari eloquentia: the board game." I abandoned my original search and clicked through to what Google suggested and found this:

And, clearly, I bought it, as there are the contents spread out on my office floor. It's a board game where the players' goal is, apparently, to prevail in disseminating their preferred Italian dialect as the lingua (erm) franca. I had thought I would play it with my freshman maybe for the second half of the class on the rise of romance vernaculars. It seemed to me like using a board game would be a good way of illustrating a high-culture/low-culture divide and posing the question of how do you communicate a message with people who might not have consistent or the highest level of education.

The game is played along three separate axes, has a variety of different types of tokes and there are twelve pages of mad-complicated directions that I suspect one has to consult frequently during gameplay...

...and that might be what ultimately puts the kibosh on my actually using it in class. I don't mind using class time to take alternative approaches to the material, but I don't know that I want the instructions to become another text that has to be deciphered. If it were a game I could explain quickly and drop them into more easily, it would be great; but, as a colleague aptly put it, the De Vulgari is hard enough itself.