Thursday, April 22, 2010


The publishing industry has its collective skivvies in a twist over this Alice in Wonderland app for the iPad. I'd explain it, but...a YouTube's worth a thousand words.

Just like that, these developers have challenged our idea of what it means to read. They've challenged the value of the static printed word. They've poised the question: What's so special about the way we've been reading for umpteen years?

Perhaps this is the moment when a Good Publishing House Employee would begin to wax poetic about the weight of a book in their hands and the rustle of the newspaper as they fold it and refold it over their coffee every morning and all that stuff that lovers of the printed word love to trot out when the subject of ebooks comes up.

It will come as no surprise to my readers who know that I am the Princess and I like Everything that I am a big fan of ebooks and Kindles and new media and all the possibilities that come with it. Perhaps it is because I am a student of the ancient world--ΠΑΝΤΑ ΡΕΙ and all--that I am not particularly attached to this or that form of expression so much as I am constantly dazzled by the possibility of the Next New Thing.

That being said, I am far from paying my last respects to our notion of the traditional printed book. Although I am willing to divest myself of a significant amount of my physical book collection (which, as you might remember, is organized by color) in favor of their digital equivalents, there are some books that will always be precious to me--that will always be more than just the sum of their pages.

Like my Juvenal books. The better part of my undergraduate career (and a significant portion of my graduate career) was dedicated to my obsession with this Roman invective poet. Since I was a little girl, I've always enjoyed reading the dirty parts of books. When it comes to Juvenal, it's all dirty parts. (If you've never read Juvenal, check out Peter Green's classic translation . I mean, if you're also a person who enjoys the dirty parts.)

Just a Bryn Mawr commentary, a Cambridge companion, a Penguin translation, and a Loeb. Fairly standard slacker Classics grad student fare. But when you take a look inside...

It's a whole world of ablatives absolute and chiasmus and satire. You can hardly read the Latin text for all my scribblings. I like to notate my Latin to facilitate reading--verbs underlined, relative clauses in parens, adverbs in boxes. This is not exactly the most scholarly practice, but neither is carrying around Loebs, so I've already damned myself.

Writing in books is sacrilege to many, but it is a holy act to me. It is living, breathing intertextuality, created by you and happening before your eyes. The scribbles all over my Juvenal books aren't just cheats by a lazy Classicist--they're a physical manifestation of my love affair with Juvenal. They're my little votive offerings for him.

I started this practice of annotating my books long before college. I've always itched to scrawl question marks in margins and underline memorable passages with wobbly, exuberant lines. In high school, when I fancied myself very much to be a serious scholar, I used to sit all day at Waffle House with a book, a cup of coffee, and usually a pack of cigarettes one of the older kids had gotten me from the Shell station next door, losing myself in whatever I had brought to read.

It was at the Waffle House that my love affair with Doug Parker began. In 10th grade, our young history teacher Ms. Doochin (who, in retrospect, was significantly younger than I am now when she taught our class) gave us a photocopied packet of Doug Parker's translation of Lysistrata to read for class. The text was saucy and raw and fascinating, but I was intrigued most of all by the lengthy passages that had been bowdlerized by Ms. Doochin's thick black marker lines. Knowing my affinity for the dirty parts of books, it will not surprise my readers in the least to know that I went straight from school to Barnes and Noble to pick up a copy of the translation in its unedited format and from there to Waffle House to make astute observations such as:

in case you can't read this, the lines are as follows:
STUDENT: Those are graduate students doing research on Hades.
STREPSIADES: Hades? Then why are their asses scanning the skies?
STUDENT: Taking a minor in Astronomy.
and in the margin, my notes: "har har har"
This is actually from
The Clouds, which I also read that night

I fell so head-over-heels crazy for this book that I even wrote the following ridiculous inscription on the Table of Contents:

"watching the masterful translation of complex wordplay makes me want to give these translators the Nobel Prize." yes, I actually wrote that

Why, then, are there two precious copies of this book on my shelf?

I learned some years later that Doug Parker was my academic great-grandfather; that is, he was my Greek teacher's Greek teacher's Greek teacher. When I got the opportunity to meet Dr. Parker at my first ALA meeting in New Orleans, I exclaimed YOU'RE MY ACADEMIC GREAT-GRANDFATHER! before either of us had said our names. He grinned.

Fate brought me to the University of Texas for graduate school, where I had the opportunity to take a few classes with Doug and even, dare I say it, had the opportunity to become his friend.

Doug Parker with Mary Jane and Katie Jane
still haven't given him that Nobel Prize yet

It's hard to put my relationship with Doug Parker into words. There's a spark--a crackle. We have the familiarity of friends or lovers from another lifetime. The afternoons I've spent with him, munching on muffulettas or smoking in the sunshine, always talking poetry, always--translating Juvenal or talking hip-hop--those are moments I will keep forever in these books.

the other copy, with Doug's signature

* * *

So all of this is to say that I have a new love in my life.

A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press Reference Library)

I have had a crush on this book for ages--ever since I heard an epic NPR piece about it a couple of months ago when I was making the 4+ hour drive home from Franklin. Here's a very concise little blurb from Elle that sums it up nicely:

"Ambitious, thought-provoking, and comprehensive, A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, features more than 200 essays on poems, letters, novels, memoirs, speeches, movies, and theater, by writers ranging from Bharati Mukherjee to John Edgar Wideman, reinterpreting the American experience form the 1500s forward."

It's basically 1100+ pages of 200+ incredible modern writers analayzing 200+ of the most interesting textual moments in American history. For example, the first chapter deals with the first time the word "America" appeared on a map. Such an ambitious and intriguing premise, right? And it's gorgeous.

Look at that cover.

Look at that little red America and the rainbow sprinkling of stars on the spine.

Look at the capital Qs in the index.

Maybe it's just because I saved up all my Swagbucks for a month to buy this, but I have not been so excited about a book in ages. I am delighted in the extreme. Another reviewer called it "a DIY college course unto itself" and frankly I'm a little miffed that they stole my idea. As soon as I heard about it, I imagined it as a syllabus--my companion to a self-taught course on America's literary history. I have long, lazy plans to read every text discussed in the book, maybe in order, probably not.

I drew a bath last night and spent a little while reading a couple of the essays that caught my eye. The article on Little Women recast my four beloved girls in a new light for me, and for the first time I considered Domestic Space and Women as Other and all that academic stuff in Little Women. Usually I am too busy weeping over Beth or swooning over Professor Bhaer's dramatic return to notice such things.

The piece on Lolita is even better, if you can believe it. It really places Lolita in context in a way that I've never understood it before. One phrase from the essay stood out as an almost perfect love song for my fatherland:

the vulgarity of American beauty and, equally, the beauty of American vulgarity

I cannot WAIT to write all over this thing.

In case you need one of your own:

Discussion Question:
What are your most precious books?


  1. The God of Small Things- Arundhati Roy, and Pride & Prejudice. I could read and re-read both of those (and have) and can find some new line to love. Both my copies are falling apart and are covered in multi-colored ink and pencil.

    They are my comfort in times of sadness, my refuge in times of boredom. When I have to ride an airplane to get somewhere, I bury my consciousness in Pride & Prejudice so I don't have An Episode.

    I'm really glad you asked this question, actually, because I just found an Arthur C. Clarke on my shelf that I've never read, so that's pretty exciting.

  2. I'm going to have fun building a reading list from everyone's comments. I am so pitifully read in modern literature--thanks a lot Classics degrees

  3. This post was just as beautiful as the books you want to write in. Where's my pen?

  4. That's most poetic comment I've ever gotten on this blog. You make your wife very happy. :)

  5. Pssst also thanks for sharing me with Doug Parker and all my books--I have so many loves in my life! :P

  6. This might be the most embarrassing book I ever admit that I love to death. Teens Cook by Megan and Jill Carle.

    It was published in 2004, past my formative teenage years, but while I was still quite adolescent, especially when it came to domestics. I'd be moving in with Ryan and wanted something to learn how to cook real food. Even though I worked at a bookstore and even managed the cookbook section, I couldn't afford nice ingredients, and frankly, never really felt like whipping up blancmange after work anyway. This book, which was shelved in the teen section of the store, was exactly what I needed. The title says it all - How to Cook What You Want to Eat. The book is full of how-to, food history and chemistry. You can even make cinnamon rolls from scratch and not screw it up! Mine is full of notes that say things like, "tastes good with a teaspoon of cumin instead," for when I needed to make substitutions. I've made every single recipe in it and I even wrote the authors a thank you note. Since then, they've written Teens Cook Dessert, College Cooking and College Cooking Vegetarian. I recommend all of them! If you're too embarrassed to buy it, which you shouldn't be, tell the clerk, librarian, etc that it's for your niece. Ryan requests the vegetable lasagna and the tomato crostini all the time.

  7. Meghan, that is such a sweet story. :)

    I'd love to check that book out some time!

  8. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Old copy, unmarked, found in my playroom, sea-green cover; now held together by a rubber band. Split at the page of Stephen's ecstatic awakening: "a hawk-like man flying sunward above the sea..." Oops. I guess that's a spoiler. Wonderful post, K.

  9. Apologize, pull out his eyes!

    Thanks for reading, Julia.

  10. Katie - great post. You have a gift for expressing your inner thoughts. Love how a discussion of the iPad becomes autobiographical! I had to think about it for a couple of days and here is my response:

    I, too, am excited by the possibilities presented by new forms of media. It will be awhile before the products I want will be produced for Kindles and iPads, though. I pack a LOT of books with me when I travel abroad to work on archaeological projects. I need books on pottery styles &c, foreign language dictionaries, and of course a few fat novels for the plane and for evenings at home. Sometimes I have enough books to fill a carry-on sized suitcase. I would lovelovelove to have those in digital format!

    That said, this commercial for the iPad struck me as...dumb. Yeah, I bet it would be fun to shake my book and watch heads bob and clocks go flying...for about 20 minutes. After that, it's like playing with your food. The quality of Alice in Wonderland lies not in its illustrations (which are of course very good); it lies in the words themselves. Reading is a strange experience for me. I open up a book, and begin to read each word, from left to right, and then slowly I gain speed and suddenly the words blur away and I inhabit a completely difference world of the mind. I could probably inhabit that world while reading my book in a digital format, too. But I don't need my book to squeak, boing, TING, rattle boom.

    The digital effects advertised in the iPad commercial do have interesting implications for the genre of the graphic novel - but graphic novels are not about the words, they're about pictures, so that's just a different topic altogether.

    You are not alone in your love for marking up books. As you know I strongly object to the marking of one's Latin text for reading facility, though I'm totally guilty of having done it myself and now am the sad owner of several overly-underlined, benoted texts. But creating marginalia, creating scholia? This is the stuff of history and philology.

    It's also what makes stuff "ours". Writing in it, interacting with it, changing it in some way, dog-earing it, spilling wine on it, whatever. Somehow in the process of using it a book becomes truly our own - recognizable extensions of ourselves. This is something that no Kindle or iPad can achieve for us. I imagine that soon enough they will develop an application which will allow for you to scribble on the screen with an iPen and your notes will be saved on the "page" you wrote them on. Which, until the hard drive crashes and you lose everything, will be a close approximation to marking up your text. (And all the techies will argue that you could lose a book, too, but let's face it: we so rarely lose books!)

    And...what about a book's scent?

    -Mary Jane