Monday 28 February 2011

Culture Gabfest

It only takes me 20 minutes to walk to work. I count myself blessed. But because it is human nature to want what we don't have, I occasionally envy people who come in from Featherston or Masterton on the train their lovely, long, passive commute (also, I acknowledge, nasty, crowded, limited and controlled).

I envy them because the world is filled with awesome podcasts and I have no place in my life in which to listen to them. I can't listen and work, I can't listen and run, I can't listen and read. I fit in one podcast a week while I iron, and my podcast of choice is Slate's Culture Gabfest (although occasionally I will be diverted by Melvyn Bragge's 'In Our Time', NPR's 'This American Life', the Guardian's science podcast, or the New Yorker's 'The Political Scene').

Just after I talked on Nine to Noon about the Google Art Project, I listened to the Gabfest's three hosts - Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner - cover the topic. It made me realise that I had approached the project with too many insider assumptions. I know how hard it is for large organisations (and small ones) to collaborate, I know copyright can be a bitch, I know the resources required for a project like this. But to hear the Gabfest call out museum's websites as generally a bit shit (user research everyone - read it and weep) and ask why Google Art can't simply perform the same role as Google Books - every artwork in every museum able to be found easily online - reminded me that sometimes you have to put your knowledge to one side in order to really assess the potential of a new thing.

This week, among other topics, the Gabfest covered a recent New York Times article about ebooks signalling the death of marginalia. As the three hosts noted, these stories about ebooks removing the romance of paper books are regular features in the arts sections of newspapers.

As a dog-earer rather than a marginalist, I'm not too worried about the fact that typing in a note in a Kindle edition of a book is different from scrawling your BULLSHIT!!! in a soft pencil. I can understand though that marginalia can give fascinating insights into what authors think when they read others' work, or, as one of the scholars rather quaintly puts it:
examining marginalia reveals a pattern of emotional reactions among everyday readers that might otherwise be missed, even by literary professionals.

“It might be a shepherd writing in the margins about what a book means to him as he’s out tending his flock,” Professor Jackson said. “It might be a schoolgirl telling us how she feels. Or maybe it’s lovers who are exchanging their thoughts about what a book means to them.”

As a result of using Goodreads, I have come to realise that there are only a small number of people whose opinions I am really interested in sharing when it comes to books, and that I usually find the opinions of strangers are bemusing, or simply uninteresting (and, occasionally, unintentionally hilarious). I've obviously yet to have my egg-salad moment.

Marginalia - Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

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