busy few days

Friday and Saturday were awesome research days at the British Library. I found some really juicy stuff that’s going to be very useful. I was there yesterday from 9:30 until closing at 5:00 yesterday, and I was so excited by what I was finding that I didn’t want to leave.

My time has not been filled only with work, however. Friday night I saw a very good production of Henry IV Part 1 with Laurie and her friend Jessica at the National Theatre. Tuesday night we’ll catch the second part. Jessica totally kicks ass for landing tickets to supposedly sold-out shows.

Last night my friend Nancy and I headed out to the hip joint of the moment, which goes by the name of the Boogaloo. It’s supposed to be the place to see and be seen, but it seemed just like any other pub I’ve been to in London. Well, there was one difference: the beer was about twice as expensive. Still, it was fun to hang out there, and the way the juke box works is pretty cool. The rumor is that Coldplay went there once to take in (or contribute to) the vibe and got angry when no one recognized them.

Today was an eighteenth-century geek’s idea of paradise. Nancy and I shared a delicious lunch at a Thai restaurant, then visited Dennis Severs’ House (see photo below), which is one part living history site and two parts happening.

Subsequently, we walked up City Road to John Wesley’s chapel, built in the 1760s, and to Bunhill Fields, the Nonconformists’ cemetery right across the street.

The Museum of London was our next stop, and coincidentally enough, there is a sculpture next to the entrance that marks the site of John Wesley’s conversion experience; Wesley described feeling a “strange warming of the heart” while walking along Aldersgate Street. Not exactly the most dramatic of descriptions given that some of Wesley’s evangelical peers were passing out and speaking in tongues.

The Museum of London is a well-done presentation of the history of the city, with artifacts from the last several hundred years. We each bought a reproduction of a 1745 London map, and then headed straight for the Restoration and eighteenth-century sections, which has an exhibit on the Great Fire of 1666, and then several other exhibits organized thematically around themes like “printing” or “prison.” Perhaps I’m making it sound too dry, but it really is well done. I especially like this “sermon glass”.

Next on the agenda: more walking! We ended up at a pub for a couple of pints of John Courage (produced by a brewery founded in 1787), and capped off the day with dinner at an Indian restaurant of my favorite kind.

Now I’m going to bed…

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on scholarship

ESTRAGON: That’s the idea, let’s abuse each other.
    [They turn, move apart, turn again and face each other.]
VLADIMIR: Abortion!
ESTRAGON: Morpion!
VLADIMIR: Sewer-rat!
ESTRAGON: (with finality). Crritic!
    [He wilts, vanquished, and turns away.]

–Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Back in the day, two of my college professors, who happened to be married, were old-school, medievalist, analytical bibliographers. That is, their work concerned the physical analysis and description of books. I took a research methods course from one of them, and although I am not an analytical bibliographer, my approach to language and literature is still heavily influenced by something they used to say, “You can be a critic, or you can be a scholar. It’s better to be a scholar.”

I realize the distinction could be called arbitrary, but it’s a quote that comes to mind when I read someone using the phrase “test of time” to describe how the modern literary canon came to be. “Time” is not an historical agent that conducts “tests” upon things to see what will survive and what will not. Writing exists in a world inhabited by people who make choices about what will be commissioned, copied, published, purchased, stolen, pirated, revised, taught in school, taught in church, read for pleasure, read for enlightenment, read for salvation, banned, smuggled, translated, adapated, bowdlerized, grangerized, set to music, given as gifts, and any number of other acts that take place among literate human beings.

These choices differ from one region to another and from one time period to another. We know these choices differ because we have a great deal of historical material from which we construct (and reconstruct) the complicated picture of literary history. Existing alongside these literate practices is the fact that texts themselves have physical properties that make them more or less suited to survival, and what we can and cannot recover from the past changes as new technologies are developed.

To believe that the canon is an example of literary justice is to believe that all of these things, across time and space, somehow conspired to present to you, the precious modern reader, only the best of what has ever been written. Man, you’ve gotta have some kind of big head to believe that, don’t you?

In his influential 1957 work, The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt argues that we must consider the importance of cultural context if we are to understand how this now prevalent genre first appeared:

Defoe, Richardson and Fielding do not in the usual sense constitute a literary school. Indeed their works show so little sign of mutual influence and are so different in nature that at first sight it appears that our curiosity about the rise of the novel is unlikely to find any satisfaction other than the meagre one afforded by the terms ‘genius’ and ‘accident,’ the twin faces on the Janus of the dead ends of literary history.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: having an opinion is fine. Having an informed opinion is even better.

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