To the list of pleasures we have lost to the digital age, I reflect nostalgically on the college catalog.
As a high school junior trying to decide where to attend college, I awaited the mail eagerly. After SAT and Achievement scores were released, our mailbox – P.O. Box 75, Shannock, R.I., one of the smallest post offices in the U.S. – became a treasure trove each week of promotional materials from colleges all over the Eastern Seaboard.
In manila envelopes came large format, glossy brochures full of photos – of students earnestly buried in library books, hanging out on college lawns, lounging on twin beds in brick dormitories. But it was the college catalog, that official listing of courses, that held me in thrall. For hours I would leaf through History, English, and Sociology departments, reading the one-paragraph descriptions of survey and upper-level classes like a child scanning ice cream treats in the frozen foods case. Europe Since 1945. Transcendentalist Literature. Shakespeare’s Tragedies. I was ready, nay starving, for all this and more.
The catalogs came mostly from women’s colleges – Goucher in Towson, Md., Spelman in Atlanta, Wheaton in Norton, Mass. In the catalog for Randolph-Macon Women’s College, of Lynchburg, Va., three girls peered out of a dormitory window, on the sill a wooden box with Coca-Cola emblazoned on the side. But my aunt, who taught Botany there, said it was not a place where I would “fit in.” I’d heard something similar from one of my high school teachers, when I expressed interest in Smith. I knew what they meant: the young women who attended these schools were not of my ilk. Or put more accurately, I was not of theirs.
But I could dream. I could thumb through the course descriptions, the books required, and the faculty profiles, imagining myself in an ivy-covered building somewhere. Sitting at one of those one-piece wooden lecture desks, notebook open, pen at the ready. Or maybe in a carrel at a high-ceilinged library, reading: Everything! The Russians: Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. The great philosophers: Hume, Kant, Descartes. The master playwrights – Pirandello, O’Neill, Ibsen.
I did eventually make it to an ivy-covered campus – a co-ed state school, not a private Seven Sisters college. I did attend lectures on Shakespeare, literary criticism, Faulkner, and the causes of World War I, among many other topics. And I did get many a headache huddled in Mason Library studying for my Introduction to Philosophy class. If I did not sample every course that made my mouth water back in high school, I can only blame time and the decision to switch my major from English to journalism.
But today, although the course catalog is conveniently online (and “searchable”!), I have to wonder how many high school students peruse it with the same hunger I had. You can’t curl up with your computer (unless you have a tablet) and rifle through pages, dreaming. You can’t feel the weight of all that potential knowledge, as I did when I carried the catalogs with me, imagining I was already in college, headed to registration. (The fact that you can no longer “head to registration” – ours was held in the Gymnasium – is yet another digital “improvement” that has turned a shared experience of college into a solitary one.)
Now, when I face a new crop of English and writing students each semester, I know they’ve picked my class from a list, registered and paid for it, all online, often without ever interacting with another human being. (Unless you count the email they send me trying to cajole me into adding a seat in the class, with the hastiest of “Dear Professor”s, explaining that they HAVE to take this class, implying I HAVE to let them in.) I know for most of them, the class is yet another requirement to be ticked off on the way to that elusive goal, the degree, which in itself is yet another chore to be crossed off on the way to Life. Occasionally, I meet a student with that hunger in his or her eyes. But too often, learning for learning’s sake is a concept foreign to them.
Because in this digital age, when the world is available at the click of the mouse, signing up for a class is not dissimilar to ordering a pair of jeans or downloading a movie. Make your selection, pay your money, sit back and receive.
But oh, when the curriculum was published in a book, perfect bound, carefully proofread, black type on thick paper, you knew its value. You longed to live up to the requirements (“rigorous reading,” “in-depth examination,” “interdisciplinary approach”) – read the texts (written in challenging prose, not breakout boxes or lists), participate in the discussion, do the work. Studying each professor’s academic qualifications (alphabetically by last name, in the back), you were in awe. College was serious business; classes difficult; professors erudite and respected. You would not have the opportunity, at semester’s end, to post complaints about them at sites like ratemyprofessors.com, which have turned academia into a commodity, like buying a book from Amazon or renting a movie from Netflix. You also would not be able to cheat your way through class by cutting and pasting essays from sites like 123helpme.com or gradesaver.com. (Those inclined to plagiarize had only Cliffs Notes, which most professors could spot a mile away.)
Yes, we know that colleges can no longer afford to bind their courses in a book. They can, of course, find money to put Wifi in dormitories, build multi-million-dollar stadiums and fitness centers, pay their presidents exorbitant salaries and turn libraries into coffee shops. But the course catalog is a relic from another age, one we shall not see again, when prospective students chose a college based on its curriculum, not the dining hall menu or the size of its dorm rooms.
Monthly Archives: July 2015
To the list of pleasures we have lost to the digital age, I reflect nostalgically on the college catalog.
Let us now celebrate the little notebook. Not to be confused with the journal, which for me means the mandatory three-page writing exercise heralded by the likes of Julia Cameron and Heather Sellers. My journal is an Apica notebook, 8.5 by 6 inches, with finely lined pages. Its content is sacred, specific, and therapeutic.
In contrast, the little notebook is writing on the fly. Random, unfiltered, truncated, the content is better described as jottings than entries. The notebook of choice varies as well. I have a Moleskine (a gift from a former writing teacher; I’m too cheap to buy them myself), a tiny Apica (5 by 3 inches), and a wonderful flower-covered pad that was a gift from my friend Laura.
I have a few of these around my desk, and usually keep one in my purse. They tend to last a long time, because I don’t write in them every day or even every week. Sometimes months go by without much more than a phone message scribbled hastily on a page. Here’s a partial inventory from the old green Apica notebook, whose entries date to 2005:
Accounts of dreams, including one about a white bear.
Notes from Watchaug Pond: “Smell of barbecue smoke. Colors: yellow, blue and white. Sail pink blue teal blue & white sail. Striped beach chairs. Tangerine sail in the distance. Striped umbrellas. Pails coolers bathing suits.”
Notes from a trip to Vermont: an ad for a roommate posted on a bulletin board (“mature, spiritual … musician, artist, healer, house painter, owner of 15-year-old dog must have electricity and wood stove”); woman in a T-shirt that says “Slavery still exists”; a man we spot walking backwards on Route 30.
Notes from a conversation with my father about dousing, boiling springs, and outhouses: “Was a man who used to go round & clean ’em out, that was his job. He would dig a hole & bury the stuff. That’s how they did it in them days.”
You get the idea. These are impressions, quotes, observations, or visuals that I don’t want to lose. It doesn’t mean I’ll do anything with them (although the conversation about dousing, sans the Outhouse Man, was useful in my third novel). The beauty of it is that, even 10 years later, there they are, little snippets waiting to grow into something bigger.
Standard writing advice is to keep a notebook by your bed. I say, keep a notebook handy not at night but during the day. In your purse or pocket, your glove compartment, your backpack, anywhere you can grab it quickly when you see or hear something interesting. Don’t worry about filling every page or writing neatly or often. Let its use, like inspiration, be serendipitous.
And now that I think of it, Outhouse Man has been waiting a long time for his story to be told.
If I were to imitate his style, I might write this brief look at Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (Book Four) by starting out in the near present, no particular concern for the comma splice, I type at my keyboard, the letters of which have partially or completely faded (gone are the B, V, S, D, C, O, R, T and I). This requires my fingers to take over from my eyes but, occasionally when passwords must be entered exactly, I peek at the gold-on-black letters of my mother’s 1946 Royal sitting on the table next to me.
After this scene had been painted fully, my interior state of mind plumbed, I would retreat to the near past. The transition might be jarring, a few years, even decades. It would be told so directly, however, that my reader would follow along. In 2014 I sat in a beach chair at Misquamicut, My Struggle, Book One, heavy in my lap. I held my cell phone camera at elbow’s length. In the viewfinder, the ocean rolled in green underneath a white sky. I might stay in 2014 for the rest of this blog and only return to the present year near the end, with a sudden but swift bit of summary.
I cannot write like Knausgaard, I can barely imitate him, yet my thoughts are consumed with self-awareness (how to write about consciousness? how much should be revealed? How presumptuous am I?). Because Book Four (translated by Dan Bartlett, Archipelago Books, 2015), like the previous volumes of My Struggle, can be dissected but not imitated. I can tell that he violates rules; the bulk of each memoir is one long flashback; yet the narrative unfolds with intense immediacy. I know there is a novel arc in here somewhere, that is, we have plot questions: tension builds around his quest to lose his virginity, his inept first-year teaching, and his excessive drinking. But to think of My Struggle as having a conventional plot arc – rising tension, climax, falling action, denouement – is to miss the underlying structure of the six-volume series, which has yet to be fully realized.
Rather than an arc – a roller-coaster – the essential questions of this novel can be likened to concentric circles. His relationship with his alcoholic, abusive father and his quest to become an artist (that is, a writer) do not unfold in a neat three-act structure. What you get instead is a whirlpool that draws the reader in and threatens to annihilate the narrator. These circles, like ripples in a pond, tighten with each volume, bringing the narrator – and the reader – closer to the abyss. Yet, just when you think you have learned everything – the young Karl Ove humiliated, beaten, mentally tortured; the adult Karl Ove cleaning up after the dead father and his trail of broken relationships – you realize you are remain on the brink of the vortex, doomed to spin around, waiting for the next book, the deeper revelations.
With each volume last summer, the closer I felt to the secret of Knausgaard’s genius, the further it seemed to slip from my grasp. So this is where we leave off, in 2015, to puzzle out a memoir sequence with our own limited range of tools: Q, W, A, Z, X, Y, P and U and shards of J, K and M.
I’m trying to decide if I should buy Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. The book will be released to much fanfare on July 14. HarperCollins, her publisher, has printed a first run of 2 million copies, and pre-orders already have pushed it to the Amazon best-seller list.
Why are people buying it?
Do they hope it will be as good as To Kill A Mockingbird? The novel, about a white Southern girl confronting racism and hard truths in a small Alabama town of the 1930s, is a classic, was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, and can still be found on many high school reading lists. Whether you read it as a child or adult, it’s the sort of book you don’t forget, mostly because of the naïve, riveting voice of Scout Finch.
Or do they suspect it might not be as good? It is a unique characteristic of human beings, especially writers, to want to bear witness to the failings of their peers. Would it make us all feel a little better to discover that To Kill a Mockingbird did not emerge fully formed out of a genius mind? Maybe reading Lee’s earlier effort would give us some shred of hope that we, too, might someday beat the odds and produce something timeless.
If our motives lie in the latter category – and come on, writers, you know who you are – let’s take a moment to consider the editor at J.B. Lippincott who advised Lee to rewrite the manuscript from the point of view of Scout as a child. Apparently this was Theresa “Tay” von Hohoff, who worked closely with Lee on the revisions. According to the most recent telling of this story, Hohoff read Go Set a Watchman, suggested Lee set the novel in Scout’s childhood, and Lee returned with the finished product. The actual process was a lot more complicated, according to the account given by Lee’s biographer, Charles J. Shields, in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. When it first arrived, the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was no more than a series of vignettes. The publisher hated the title, which was briefly changed to Atticus, after Scout’s father. Hohoff worked closely with Lee to add dramatic tension to the novel, particularly focusing on a trial that occurred in her hometown in the 1930s, of a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Go Set a Watchman is, then, an earlier and quite probably inferior version of the classic novel. As such, you would think that Nelle Harper Lee would not be crazy about its publication, particularly if she remembers the revision process that Shields called “excruciating.” Some have questioned whether she freely consented to its publication, but even if she did, we might question her judgment. Would Lee have agreed to it 20 years ago? That’s a question that we can’t answer, but the state of Alabama, conducting an investigation into the matter, concluded she was competent to sign the contract.
By throwing in our own money ($14.77, if preordered on Amazon), are we enabling the publisher to profit from exploitation of an elderly author? Are we part of this feeding frenzy, in which the celebrity of the writer takes precedence over the quality of her work? And, most importantly, are we supporting a system in which publishers put millions behind a few choice books while they let the other writers on their list fend for themselves?
The details of Lee’s contract have not been made public, but you can be sure she will see substantial royalties from Go Set a Watchman. Now imagine if HarperCollins invested even a quarter of that money in its stable of lesser-known writers, or, better yet, published 10 first-time novelists instead. With even a small percentage of its profits from the Lee novel, HarperCollins could start a fellowship program for unknowns.
I’m not talking about just handing an advance to 10 debut novelists and letting them sink or swim in the marketplace, which is publishers’ typical M.O. I mean a program in which the writers would be guaranteed three books – time to find an audience, develop a voice, and perfect their craft.
Unlike Lee, most novelists aren’t overnight sensations. Consider Anthony Doerr, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, published last year by Scribner and still No. 8 on the New York Times Best Seller List (where it has hung in for 40 weeks). All the Light is his second novel and fifth published book, and while he had won many prestigious awards prior, this novel was a breakout success. Publishers, though, still waste far too much time looking for overnight sensations instead of nurturing talented writers. This all-or-nothing philosophy leads predictably to low sales for most newcomers, who rarely get a second chance at the same publishing house.
So as writers, how do we stop this cycle? If you are published, you know that, after the initial euphoria, reality sets in – a low advance, hours doing your own publicity, self-funded book tours, and a scramble for a second contract. When publishers like HarperCollins invest resources in “found” manuscripts that perhaps have little merit beyond the academic – or, like Simon & Schuster’s $8 million advance to Hillary Clinton, put their eggs in the celebrity basket – they are committing a provocative act: taking money away from their stable of writers and turning their backs on potential future classics.
Go Set a Watchman will make millions for HarperCollins regardless of its merit. But let’s challenge the publisher to invest some of that money in long-term relationships with new writers who deserve the editorial care and nurturing that made Harper Lee a star.