Monthly Archives: January 2007

Johnson and writing

I’ve gotten to the part in Boswell’s Life of Johnson where Johnson is writing twice-weekly essays published as The Rambler.  This is what Boswell says about it:

The first paper of the Rambler was published on Tuesday, the 20th of March, 1749-50; and its author was enabled to continue it, without interruption, every Tuesday and Saturday, till Saturday the 17th of march, 1752, on which day it closed. This is a strong confirmation of the truth of a remark of his, which I have had occasion to quote elsewhere, that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it;” for, notwithstanding his constitutional indolence, his depression of spirits, and his labour in carrying on his Dictionary, he answered the stated calls of the press twice a week from the stores of his mind, during all that time…

I like the idea that you can write at any time, if only you really set your mind to it. Although I’ve never done much creative writing (defined narrowly as fiction or drama or poetry) and don’t know if I’d get writer’s block trying to do it, I’ve done a good bit of other kinds of writing — letter writing, course-paper writing, dissertation writing, blog writing, email writing, administrative report writing — and tend to agree with Johnson that the words will come if I just “set myself doggedly to it.” I’m not a writer’s block sufferer. In fact, for me, there’s nothing so pleasurable about writing as sitting down with pen and paper or a computer having little idea of what I will write and watching ideas come to me as I start to work. Which is not to say that Johnson’s feat of writing essays twice weekly for so long isn’t remarkable, but that I can see why he would want to do it and why, with that attitude, he’d do a good job of it. Well, being a genius had something to do with it too, of course.

The Boswell passage makes me think that blogging is a little like writing periodical essays — perhaps not always with Johnson’s brilliance (in my case, never with Johnson’s brilliance): it’s about producing a public piece of writing on a regular or semi-regular schedule, which means, if you do follow a schedule, even a loose one, you are privileging regularity over inspiration. One of the reasons I’m attracted to blogging and why I’ve come to love it so much is the regular productivity it requires, inspiration or no.

And, as a blog-reader, there’s nothing I love more than a regular feature on someone’s blog, poetry Friday, say, or Stefanie’s Saturday Emerson post, or Danielle’s daily book chat. There’s something very reassuring about knowing writers are out there who will produce words regularly. I would have eaten up Johnson’s twice-weekly essays if I’d lived then.

However, this passage about Johnson’s writing habits does not strike a chord with me:

Posterity will be astonished when they are told, upon the authority of Johnson himself, that many of these discourses, which we should suppose had been laboured with all the slow attention of literary leisure, were written in haste as the moment pressed, without even being read over by him before they were printed. It can be accounted for only in this way; that by reading and meditation and a very close inspection of life, he had accumulated a great fund of miscellaneous knowledge, which, by a peculiar promptitude of mind, was ever ready at his call, and which he had constantly accustomed himself to clothe in the most apt and energetic expression.

Oh, for some of that “promptitude of mind”!


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Writing

So Long a Letter and other things

1248728.gifI began classes today, and while I won’t be really busy for a couple weeks when the first sets of papers come in, I’m still feeling a bit in shock — there’s a lot of new stuff to take in, new colleagues, new students, a new campus, a new daily and weekly pattern to life. It’s hard for me to settle down and read in these circumstances. And the thing is, I remember clearly writing this exact same stuff last fall, when I started my last new job. I’m ready for some quiet, some peace, some regularity — I’m ready for my life to be boring!

Anyway, I finished Mariama Ba’s novel So Long a Letter last weekend. I don’t feel like I gave this book a fair reading; in other circumstances I might have liked it more, but as it was, I never quite settled into a groove with it. You know how that is, when you orient yourself to a book and get absorbed and find yourself thinking about it throughout the day when you’re doing other things? My reading wasn’t like that — it was halting and distracted, and impatient at times.

But about the book itself — it’s about a woman in Senegal whose husband has just died, and she tells the story of their marriage, including the pain she experienced when her husband took a second wife. It’s a novel about how harsh marriage can be toward women in a polygamous culture, but also about how women are beginning to find independence and freedom and to assert their own desires, difficult and painful as the process may be.

The novel is made up of letters the main character Ramatoulaye writes to a friend, and it’s her voice that is the most memorable. She writes to try to make sense of her life, and as she does so her voice is alternately angry and at peace, accusatory and accepting, uncertain and full of conviction. It’s when I realized that Ramatoulaye is struggling to make sense of rapid cultural changes — that she doesn’t always know how to respond to women’s new-found sexual freedom, for example — that the novel began to come together a bit more for me. She’s not meant to be an infallible guide, an authoritative voice to tell people what to think; rather, she’s bewildered at times. Alongside her powerful voice speaking to the pain of being a forsaken wife is another voice that wonders what all the changes mean.

Here is Ramatoulaye thinking about ways she may have, in her own estimation, failed her husband:

I am trying to pinpoint any weakness in the way I conducted myself. My social life may have been stormy and perhaps injured Modou’s trade union career. Can a man, deceived and flouted by his family, impose himself on others? Can a man whose wife does not do her job well honestly demand a fair reward for labour? Aggression and condescension in a woman arouse contempt and hatred for her husband. If she is gracious, even without appealing to any ideology, she can summon support for any action. In a word, a man’s success depends on feminine support.

This sounds very old-fashioned and traditional — a wife’s role is to further her husband’s career and be his support. But two pages later, recounting a conversation with an unwanted suitor who shows up after her husband’s death, she says this:

“…You forget that I have a heart, a mind, that I am not an object to be passed from hand to hand. You don’t know what marriage means to me: it is an act of faith of love, the total surrender of oneself to the person one has chose and who has chosen you.” ( I emphasized the word “chosen”.)

“What of your wives, Tamsir? Your income can meet neither their needs nor those of your numerous children. To help you out with your financial obligations, one of your wives dyes, another sells fruit, the third untiringly turns the hand of her sewing machine. You, the revered lord, you take it easy, obeyed at the crook of a finger. I shall never be the one to complete your collection. My house shall never be for you the coveted oasis; no extra burden; my “turn” every day, clealiness and luxury, abundance and calm! No, Tamsir!”

I wish I could have done this novel more justice, but I am glad I read it (my first book in the Reading Across Borders challenge), and it’s the contradictions and struggles shown in those two quotations that I most liked about this book.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Life

Yay me!

All those years of church-attending and Bible-studying were good for something … Thanks to Bardiac for the link.

You know the Bible 100%!



Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses – you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
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Filed under Books

Reading time

There’s a post up at Metaxu Cafe (originally posted here) asking people how much time they spend reading — and asking for hard numbers, and numbers not including time spent on newspapers or the internet, but time spent with books (although I suppose one can read a book on the internet and newspaper reading can sometimes be intense — and what about magazines? — but I think you get the idea — this is about time spent on intense, substantive reading). How many hours per day? Per week?

I think this is an interesting question; I find myself curious about people’s responses and wanting to hear more. I’m particularly interested in how much time those people who manage to read a lot of books a year (for me, “a lot of books” means something closer to 100 books or more rather than the 50 or so I’m capable of) spend reading each day. Those of you who can read that much, do you read super fast, or do you read a lot of hours a day?

For me, I manage about a 1-2 hours a day during the week in the middle of the semester (sometimes less, sometimes more), maybe 2 or 3 hours on the weekends, and then when school isn’t in session, probably 2-5 hours a day. What limits my reading time, besides work (which for me includes grading and prepping classes on the weekends), are the hours I spend riding my bike and the hours I spend on the internet (dare I even ask how much time people spend on the internet? I’m not going to admit my number …). Also, I find that I can’t read for too many hours in a day (over 5, say) before I find my brain is fatigued and I’m getting restless. I sometimes have trouble sitting still for long periods of time, so if a book isn’t super-high interest, I may jump up a lot and run an errand or check something online. I’m enjoying my book, but I also feel the need to take a lot of breaks. Writing blog posts cuts into reading time too. But I can’t imagine what those of you with children do to find reading time, and having more of a social life would cut down on the reading too.

How much time do you spend reading?


Filed under Reading

The Groves of Academe

11476363.gifA couple days ago I finished Mary McCarthy’s novel The Groves of Academe, and found it just the thing I needed back when I needed something fun to read. I must say that I’m fonder of her essays than I am of her fiction; her fiction is good but her essays are great. That said, I recommend this book, especially if you like academic satire. This book didn’t make me laugh out loud in quite the same way Richard Russo’s Straight Man did and it’s not as comprehensive a picture of college life as Jane Smiley’s Moo, but the writing is smarter than in either of those two novels, and more wicked. McCarthy is someone that, if I knew her when she was alive, I’d make sure I stayed on the good side of. She’s got one of the sharpest wits of any writer I know.

The story is about English professor Henry Mulcahy, who, we learn on the novel’s first page, has just been fired. He immediately jumps into action to get his job back, dragging his department into a controversy that soon engulfs the whole school. At issue here is Henry’s communist past (was he a member of the party earlier in his life and might he still be today? The novel was published in 1951 to give you some idea of why this is such a big deal) and his sick wife whose health might be irreparably harmed if she found out about the firing — a fact Henry claims the college President was fully aware of when he wrote the letter of dismissal. But most of all it is Henry’s personality that becomes the focus of the novel’s controversy.

For Henry truly is an awful human being. One of the chief pleasures of this book is the way McCarthy presents Henry to us; she recounts his thoughts with little editorializing, so that we get Henry’s self-justifications directly and can see the extent of his selfishness by watching his mind at work. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a character as self-absorbed as this one. Other faculty members make great sacrifices for him to try to save his job, and rather than being grateful, he gets angry because they did not make the sacrifices in precisely the way he wanted them to, and he pouts because by making great sacrifices in their own particular ways these people are shifting the attention away from him, where it should properly be. He is incapable of recognizing that he has ever done something wrong or that he has flaws and has responsibilities to people that he often fails to meet; everything he does it right, or at least it deserves justification and defense.

But he doesn’t come across solely as an awful human being; he also comes across as someone with great energy and great intelligence — admittedly, the sole use of which is to make life more comfortable for himself. But what makes the book so enjoyable is watching the characters respond to these positive things in Henry — the energy, the life, the color — and then watching them recover as they realize that he hasn’t told them the complete truth about his life. Henry is the riddle the book offers to the other characters and to readers: How come he has succeeded as much as he has in academia and what does it say about academia that he has done so? Is he worth defending? Should he stay at their school? Just when, if ever, is he telling the truth?

McCarthy’s portrait of college life is delicious, complete with academic in-fighting, competition, gossip, lying, and betrayal, and also intelligence, loyalty, great conversations, and, sometimes, the sincere desire to educate young people.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Blogging and the body follow-up

The author of the article on blogging and the body I posted about a few days ago, danah boyd, has found my blog and left a couple comments. As they are interesting ones, and ones that clarify what she was getting at in the article, I thought I’d link to them and encourage you to read them, but then I thought I could just copy them here to make it easier on you. I’m encouraging you to read them because she said she’s interested in the comments people left on my post and would like to hear more. So here’s our exchange; first, danah’s comment (she blogs under the name zephoria):

I want to clarify what i meant when i talk about blogs as bodies. It’s not that i think that people see their blogs as bodies per say. It’s that the properties that we take for granted as embodied creatures are lacking when we go online, namely presence. For example, i walk into the room and my body signals my presence to others around. Had i not posted a comment here, you wouldn’t know that i was lurking. You may get an IP address, but what’s that mean? Part of my presence though is not just my comment on your post – it’s the link back to my own blog where my identity resides in many ways. In this way, i reference my blog in my comments on your blog to create a culture of presence. I do think that the spatial metaphor is a lot easier for thinking of your own blog directly. You can think of decorating your blog like decorating your house. Yet, when people visit your blog, it’s a mixed view. They don’t just see the space you’ve created – they see a facet of you. In this way, the decorations serve as fashion accessories to a body as well as decorations on a room. I do think it’s complicated and sticky but it’s presence that connects things deeply to bodies. And the fact that you have to write yourself into being online… you don’t just exist by appearing and reading… your presence goes unnoticed.

Anyhow, i hope that helps in some way.

Here’s what I said:

Hi Zephoria — thanks so much for stopping by and commenting; this is the first time an author I’ve written about has commented back, and I’m pleased to hear your explanation (and also to hear another aspect of your voice, outside of the academic article — I was wishing to discuss this stuff as bloggers rather than in an academic context, after all). Thinking of the blog as a way to create presence when the body is absent makes sense to me. It’s interesting to me the way other commenters felt uncomfortable thinking of the blog as a body or as the thing that creates presence — as though that metaphor is too revealing and intimate. And I wonder what image people have of me from reading the blog — I guess we’re all sorting out this new way of presenting ourselves that’s very different from the usual way of being physically present, and so things like posting pictures and revealing names and choosing blog templates can sometimes be anxiety-inducing.

And her response:

No doubt there’s a lot of anxiety-producing effects. This is why a lot of folks try to play ostrich. If you pretend like you don’t have an audience, you can just keep writing. Or if you imagine that you have an audience of people exactly like you want, you can keep writing. If you are told that everyone who has ever met you is reading your blog, it’s paralyzing. This is the problem with unknown audiences – we have to envision who our audience is to write… it’s an imagined community rather than a defined or bounded one like a room. (I still want an invisibility potion though for meatspace.)

I read your commenters and i’m curious to know more. I wonder if the concern about it being too intimate has to do with the assumption that we are revealing everything. It’s not a naked body unless you choose it to be. My digital body is cloaked in professional wear with the occasional goofy accessory. Why? Because i have to face that audience. It’s not that this is not me but there’s another “me” on LiveJournal that is far different because that’s the me wimpering about life with my friends while my blog is me musing about things that the professionals who read my blog want to see.

Further thoughts anyone?


Filed under Blogging

Currently Reading

I have begun reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson (which you may have noticed over in the “currently reading” section of the sidebar — I feel conflicted over those book lists, the “Currently Reading” one and the “Books Read” one because they feel so pooterish, but I like looking at other people’s lists and figured you might like to look at mine; they do give a quick way of judging if one’s reading tastes match those of the blogger). I tried to read this book a few years ago and got to page 340 out of the 1243 pages in my edition. I don’t remember what made me stop, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t enjoying it; it must have been that I got caught up in a busy semester or something and never returned to it.

Now that I think about it, this could possibly happen again, as I’m heading into what will probably be a busy semester, but I’m planning to finish this time — and I do enjoy the experience of reading it, don’t get me wrong. I want to know more about Johnson and also about Boswell; he’s got such a lively, energetic voice and his London journal, which I read a few years ago, was quite entertaining. I’m expecting to take a few months to make it through the entire Life of Johnson, but that’s okay; it’ll be a long-term project like Proust is. And I have another long book I want to read, Don Quixote, which I hope to get to this summer, so we’ll see if I can finish the Boswell by the beginning of summer or so. We’ll see.

Here are a couple passages about Johnson and reading; this first one is about his schooling:

He might, perhaps, have studied more assiduously; but it may be doubted, whether such a mind as his was not more enriched by roaming at large in the fields of literature, than if it had been confined to any single spot. The analogy between body and mind is very general, and the parallel will hold as to their food, as well as any other particular. The flesh of animals who feed excursively, is allowed to have a higher flavour than that of those who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts, and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks?

And another on his reading habits:

… we may be absolutely certain, both from his writings and his conversation, that his reading was very extensive. Dr. Adam Smith, than whom few were better judges on this subject once observed to me, that “Johnson knew more books than any man alive.” He had a peculiar facility in seizing at once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end. He had, from the irritability of his constitution, at all times, an impatience and hurry when he either read or wrote. A certain apprehension arising from novelty, made him write his first exercise at College twice over; but he never took that trouble with any other composition; and we shall see that his most excellent works were struck off at a heat, with rapid exertion.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction, Reading