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On Summer Reading September 8, 2010

Posted by Laura Winnick in England, Individual Fellowship, Undergraduate.
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The past two months have been an experiment of thinking and reading. I think then I read, or I read then I think. Sometimes I do them both at the same time, but mostly keep them separate: pausing in the middle of a page to glance upwards, allow the wheels to rotate, then the pages to turn. For the past week I’ve been doing something different, something more difficult to wrap my mind around: thinking about the process and the experience of reading.

stack of books

First stack of library books taking over my desk.

There are terribly analytical theories about literature, about why we read and how we read. I’m beginning to engage with some of these theories in my own evaluation of the process of reading. The act itself may be simple—crack open the spine, find your place, read horizontally, words building into sentences, paragraphs, chapters. (Something crescendos in this process–assembling, growing.) But the ways in which we read and how our minds look at words and comprehend them is more complicated and comprehensive.

It’s important to understand that my research here is just that: reading, plain and simple. My list of books continues to grow every day as I am directed to other sources and moved to try new diarists. I am often overwhelmed at the sheer number of books I can find at the British Library (13,000, crikey). This feeling leads me to scurry back and forth between the issue desk and my seat, asking in my idle American accent, “I think I have eight books here now? Maybe nine?”

The librarians quip in clipped, polite British pitch: “You are only permitted six volumes at one time.” I know this; still I attempt to bring a wobbly tower of books back to my seat. (more…)


In Diaries There Are Days August 2, 2010

Posted by Laura Winnick in England, Undergraduate.
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“How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

It’s been almost one month since I first blogged, and those twenty days have been spent reading and exploring space—textual space, the space of the memory, and the city-space of London. I’ve read about four diaries from the eighteenth century thus far.  In my research I have travelled with Mary Berry through France and Germany, struggled to read Elizabeth Fry’s scratchy handwriting, joyfully followed the narratives of the famous Frances Burney, and have now settled into the easy pace of eleven year-old Elizabeth Wynne’s accounts.

My many notebooks with my many notes.

Luckily, three of the diaries I’ve read have already been published, which means that I can easily read their thin, printed pages.  The one diary on microfilm that remained in Fry’s original eighteenth-century handwriting was extremely difficult to read. I scrolled through some of it, but eventually abandoned the project as it took hours to read one roll of film. Although I originally intended to read most diaries recorded in handwriting, I’ve instead found many original publications of eighteenth-century texts here at the British Library. These publications have quickened my reading, and they are only available at this library. Published diaries are the best way for me to take advantage of my short time here: I can read quickly and orderly, without having to return to microfilms, where I scroll endlessly to find my place in the text.

In diaries there are days, but in those days, as Dillard asserts, there are lives: complete, honest, and personal. I’ve been trying to read these memoirs as accounts of self, the textual representation of identity. Take a day in the life of the young Elizabeth Wynne, for example:

November 4th 1790:  My sister rode on horseback.  She was pricked by a wasp.  I cannot fail to mention it because although it is a little thing because when there is nothing else to put in ones journal one must put in such little things.

After you chuckle over this account, think about this passage as a textual representation of voice and personality. Can’t you hear the whiny eleven-year old pining for adventure, desperate to record her journeys in her diary?

This voice becomes exceedingly important when thinking about the relationship between genre and author. At first a simple, candid account of her sister’s ailment becomes a personal, intimate moment of awareness of text and self. The writer reflects not only a knowledge of her form, but comments on the limits of her form, that is, the boring tediousness that manifests in the genre of autobiography. These moments are illuminating for an archivist like me. Upon finding them I am made aware of the relationship between writer and diary, memory and inscription. I better understand the duality of someone living each day and then later recording that day in a diary. It is an odd process–employing words to give shape to time, the daily ritual of it, the struggle, the real work of writing.

The eleven-year-old is right, though: such little things in these diaries, and, for my research, such important little things. In the past month I have had to adjust to archival research, to excavating these small matters from pages. This type of research works differently than undergraduate assignments. It has different hours, different proprieties, and employs a different system. My research involves reading very widely—as many diaries as I can—yet searching for narrow descriptions of very specific ideas. In most English classes, you aren’t given the assignment before you begin the reading. Rather, it is the other way around: you read first, and then return to the text for support for an argument. (more…)