After deciding to sync up my reading of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, letters, and essays, I’ve finally reached that point – and the last piece of reading to that end was a very long and unusual essay, titled “Reading.” Believed to have been written in 1919, an important year in Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s lives, it was only published some time after her death. It bears re-reading, as it is dense and woven out of both literary criticism and a form of reminiscince or memoir. At times a stream of consciousness bubbles up from beneath the surface, and by the end of it, one feels to have wandered or been led into “Monday or Tuesday” territory. In the beginning of 1920, VW started on the writing of Jacob’s Room. I had started this some time ago but set it aside in order to catch up the essays and other writing. This has turned out to be a profitable course, because everything up to 1920 has been preparation. And there comes a deep influence from Vanessa Bell’s painting, and the artistic side of Bloomsbury, that began with the post-impressionist exhibitions a decade earlier, that VW soaked in or perhaps marinated herself in, until Jacob’s Room began to gestate. For this observation we are indebted to Justyna Kostkowska. I have tried not to spoil my naive readership of each novel, but the temptation is great and the PDFs are so easy to reach (privilege check: I’m an academic librarian not subject to paywalls). This was not possible 20 years ago when I read Nabokov, when I was not a librarian, when JSTOR was only gestating, when I was really and in many ways naive.

Kostkowska, Julia. “Studland Beach and Jacob’s Room: Vannessa Bell’s and Virginia Woolf’s experiments in portrait making 1910-1922.” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas, 9 (1), 79-93. 2011.

The Lives

Lyndall Gordon writes in the acknowledgements section of her biography of Virginia Woolf, “A new life would be superfluous if, with undue modesty, [Quentin Bell] had not declined to assess her writing.” This is exactly what impelled me to find additional biographical reading, even though Bell’s portrait of his aunt is clearly drawn and satisfying. My reading of Nabokov twenty years ago was supported superbly by Brian Boyd’s critical biography, and I had assumed that there would be two if not three excellent equivalents in the case of Virginia Woolf. But it is not as simple – nothing in Bloomsbury, I now see, is at all simple. However, Nigel Nicolson’s biography is concise, and so far, is eminently readable. He writes from a distance only slightly greater than Bell’s, being the son of VW’s lover and friend Vita Sackville-West. I did expect it to be more of a tome, but it is very small. One little coincidence is worth noting, that Nicolson was the British publisher of Lolita.

Both Quentin Bell and Lyndall Gordon won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for their efforts. A too-quick glance reveals that only Queen Victoria is also the subject of two winning biographies, one of course written by Lytton Strachey. Virginia Woolf’s father Sir Leslie Stephen is also the subject of an award-winning life on the list. Other VW-connected prize winners are G.M. Trevelyan, Lord David Cecil, Geoffrey Keynes, and H.A.L. Fisher. Before this expedition, I wouldn’t have noticed them as a set, and while E.M. Forster would have stood out among the fiction prizewinners, Bunny Garnett would not. And speaking of the latter, there is a letter VW wrote in 1915 to Duncan Grant, shortly after she recovered from a serious bout of illness, that introduces him to the name David Garnett. Is there a name for when a reader sees a little seed of fate that the writer could not possibly imagine? It’s not serendipity – some form of irony? And then there is the panopticon that one wishes to create out of all their letters and memoirs.

Post script: I couldn’t resist adding The Bloomsbury Group by Frances Spalding to the mix. This is the danger of working in a well-stocked university library. I’m saving her work on Duncan Grant for some future time. His art, and that of Vanessa Bell, have begun to draw me in to what is, but should not be, the less visible legacy of Bloomsbury.

Right brain, left brain: Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes in 1913.


Categorizing Woolf (Leonard Woolf, that is)

That categorizing should even exist in a hypertext, online encyclopedia is worthy of more study (this proposition will make a lit review of wikipedia and knowledge organization inevitable, of course).

When added to the articles on individuals, the Wikipedia categories, found at the very bottom of the foot of the page, begin to act as tokens of culturally constructed classification that may or may not be warranted by the life or personality of the person in question. Even more, they may not be warranted by the way most people hope to find new information. Some of them may even be said to be marks of ownership. Below are the categories to which Leonard Woolf’s article has been assigned by (presumably) various wikipedians. It is interesting that not only is “Bloomsbury Group” a category, so is “Virginia Woolf.” These are categories that both arise from the subects themselves, and provide more insight into their place in culture and history, if applied well to all relevant articles. But there there are things like birth year and death year, categories so large that the discovery of meaningful connections is not the point – making the list, I think, must be the point. And I really don’t know what to make of the Sri Lankan categories, and I am too tired and timid at the moment to peek into the talk pages.  [Note – I have since learned enough to guess that LW made a good impression as a colonial officer, and is being honored by this inclusion].

Categories that could be applied, if they exist, would include British / English / Jewish printers, British / English / Jewish publishers, Cambridge Apostles, Members of the 1917 Club, People Who Lived in Sussex, People Who Lived in London, and so on. This line of thought highlights the category of Jewish Socialists, with its disturbing suggestion of a lurking anti-semitism, and indeed, if other categories of socialist are left out (Fabians notwithstanding), it seems to me to give the list an accidental and unnecessary anti-semitic tinge. I suspect as well that members of some groups and clubs get lists in Wikipedia, which is where you’d put Apostles and the 1917 Club, while a less formal movement like the BG becomes a category. Just to experiment with a potential career as a categorizer, I have since added “English publishers (people).” It seemed too big an omission to leave unfilled. And where does it stop? If Virginia Woolf is herself a category, why not the Hogarth Press? It feels like a struggle to define correctly more than to inform, to insist that Leonard Woolf means this as well as that, and to continue the work of biography that belongs properly to the (hyper)text of the article per se.

Categories (as of April 2, 2017):
1880 births
1969 deaths
Bloomsbury Group
English Jews
English memoirists
English writers
Stephen-Bell family
British Jewish writers
People educated at St Paul’s School, London
Alumni of Trinity College, Cambridge
Members of the Fabian Society
British Jews
Jewish socialists
British civil servants in Ceylon
Sri Lankan Jews
Sri Lankan people of English descent
20th-century English novelists
Virginia Woolf

Postscript: I have since found a quotation from Edmund Gosse, cited in Anne Olivier Bell’s introduction to VW’s diairies (Bell is overdue for a wikipedia article of her own, category: English centegenarian art historians and editors). Gosse categorizes Leonard Woolf in 1924 from a very non-neutral point of view: “…a perverse, partially educated alien German, who has thrown in his lot violently with Bolshevism and Mr. Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’…” It is quoted to indicate the difficulty that VW’s father’s literary friends had with the new, post-impressionist world being built up by her and her circle. Post-impressionist, oddly, was never picked up (beyond art) to cover Bloomsbury and other movements. Indeed, Bloomsbury could be meant to signify the combination of letters and art that was modernist on paper and post-impressionist on canvas, with cross-pollination, as VW’s recorded thoughts on Cézanne’s influence testify.

Woolf on Wednesday

Because I’m reading Virginia Woolf this year. And probably next year.

If I wish to add some cooking and eating to the reading, the Guardian provides plenty of help. (The Manchester Guardian, as Woolf would have written; I have learned that she wrote a number of her earliest articles and essays for a Church of England paper also called the Guardian). There are also suggestions and analyses available in the literature, for example, the following from an article discussing Woolf’s repurposing of Mansfield: “In each of these stories, in a scene whose details reveal how patriarchy secures women’s cooperation in their own disempowerment, female characters devour a tasty roast fowl whose fate symbolizes their own.” (Nardin, Jane. “Poultry for Dinner in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Shooting Party’.” The Midwest Quarterly, no. 3, 2011, p. 293.)

Some librarians still get to answer wonderful reference questions like “What brand of typewriter did Virginia Woolf use?” Yes, I’m honestly jealous.

Finally, Ursula K. Le Guin, in Steering the Craft, quotes Woolf on “the mystery at the very center of what a writer does,” and also notes that “there is going to be more Virginia Woolf in this book than any other author.”

“Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it…”

Rare books in detective fiction

About to recommend Hans Tuzzi to yet another librarian, I realized that I was more than half way to a llist of detective stories featuring rare books. So, time to make a list.

Sayers, Dorothy. Whose Body? The very first Lord Peter mystery begins with the interruption of a shopping trip to snap up some incunabula…as one does. The only Lord Peter mystery to be out of copyright in the US.

Tuzzi, Hans. Il Principe dei Gigli. Technically, this story features rare book librarians, not rare books.

Leon, Donna. By Its Cover. Nothing worse can happen to a special collection or rare book library than to have a successful thief on the inside. Set in today’s Venice but with nods to Aldus and Venice’s rich book and printing history.

From the intrepid @marccold on Twitter:

Dewey Decimated by Charles A. Goodrum;  Murders in Volume 2 by Elizabeth Daly;  Nun Plussed by Ralph McInerny; much of the Lord Peter Wimsey short fiction; and The Name of the Rose. This last makes me ambivalent, because it’s been so long since I’ve read it that I can’t remember if there was an idea of rare books within the narrative. Lost or missing texts are similar, but I had in mind rare books as collectibles after the advent of printing. That said, on the grounds of the Baskerville connection (Birmingham or Baker Street, either will do), to say nothing of fondness for the young Christian Slater, Eco’s work fits.

60 Beans of Genius

It is Anton Schindler who attributed Beethoven’s counting of 60 beans to an “Oriental” fastidiousness (meaning Turkish or Arabic). But what if the instructions for the newfangled brewing device said “use 60 beans.” Then it’s nothing to do with Beethoven at all, not a quirk, not a mark of personality. And Schindler says nothing about the amount of water used, or how the coffee was actually brewed, or how many cups Beethoven drank. Moreover, we know that Beethoven worried perpetually over money. Maybe he was trying to be frugal.

Fortunately, there is another source that states “glass bowl,” which is just enough information to tell us that Beethoven probably used a vacuum pot. Although worried about money, he was not poor, and this is another example, along with metronomes and the latest pianos, of his openness to new things, or at least to improvements in things. Dr. Karl von Bursy visited Beethoven in 1816, at 7 a.m., and reported, “I found Beethoven at this writing-desk with a piece of music paper in front of him and, beyond it, a glass bowl in which he was making his coffee.” (Beethoven, Letters, Journals, and Conversations, ed. Michael Hamburger).

Fastidiousness is not a quality that appears in most of first-hand accounts of Beethoven, and Schindler’s reputation as a memoirist has long been a poor one. But other sources indicate a variety of rules that Beethoven had in regard to food and household affairs, including the one that no dish of food be brought out to the table once a meal with guests had begun. Beethoven’s tendency not to trust others to do things right also supports the notion that he would count the beans out himself.

We have made coffee with 60 fastidiously counted beans, and it’s not a lot of coffee at all, nowhere near a Starbucks venti. For an excellent and detailed account of the history of coffee making, we direct the reader to Kathryn McGowan’s blog, Comestibles, and to the posts on Coffee Preparation Through the Ages.

The elegantly bound book

“1762   O. Goldsmith Citizen of World I. 49   Nothing is truly elegant but what unites use with beauty.” — Oxford English Dictionary

The idea of elegance was fixed in the vocabulary of the 18th century, but the precise form it took in the decorative arts would have changed much more frequently. A survey of the use of elegant and elegantly in various descriptive phrases and captions in the 1700s leads to the conclusion that it means “artfully decorated,” especially as opposed to plain. Equally it might intend to say “attractively decorated,” granted that what was attractive one season could be embarrassingly out of fashion the next. Handbooks were published to help people write form letters “with elegance,” and half of what is called elegant is speech or writing, but again with the intention of adding attractive decoration, then as now producing an effect called “refined.”

Therefore, we find a range of terminology for states of elegance in booksellers’ catalogues, of which binding is only one, but a very explicit one. The others were understood – finer paper, larger paper (and therefore larger margins), fine or colored illustrations, or specific presses such as the Foulis brothers’ in Glasgow, or Baskerville’s in Birmingham. One might argue that the use of elegant in this context adhered closely to the narrower, literal definition. All of this description also served to explain the prices of certain items in the catalogue. The default binding for any book was plain, and never noted. A note was given if a book was less than bound, that is, still in sheets or boards. Anything more than a plain binding also received a note, and some booksellers offered specific editions in several binding states – even when the least expensive state was well beyond the reach of most of the population. Elegantly bound could mean ordinary calfskin but with gilt tooling, or luxurious goatskin in the gemlike hues of ruby, sapphire, or emerald, or russia calfskin with gold tooling. Additional attractive features such as marbled endpapers, or marbled or gilt page edges, were encompassed in “elegantly bound,” but only the latter would be noted. The majority of uses of this marker received no elaboration, and prospective buyers must have known that elegant implied both decoration and a finer class of leather, as well as a restrained decorative style, in keeping with Dr. Johnson’s definition of elegance, “…beauty of art, rather soothing than striking.” A more thorough analysis of the descriptive terminology in these catalogues is needed not just to grasp what their readers understood by elegant, but also to shed light on what was ordinary, plain, and unstated.

elegantly bound defined by bookseller

It may be worth noting that buying books in 18th century London does not compare to buying books today. It compares more closely to what we experience when buying cars, both in terms of expense, and selection, and the range between affordable and luxury. If we can imagine not being able to pay for a car over a three year period. An elegantly bound book might be said to be comparable to a BMW or Mercedes. Anything more (goatskin, all edges gilt) would be a Bentley or a Jaguar. A Baskerville might be a Tesla.


write, then

write write write
right right right

California is weird. For example, Democrats are by far the majority of voters in California, but a majority of California counties have a Republican majority of voters.

The question of party affiliation is complicated by the large number who state “no party preference” when they register. Other sources are needed to know how these registered voters actually line up politically. Republican presidential candidates especially will need this kind of information. What type of Republican candidate could take California? A maverick, or a centrist? Establishment or libertarian? It all depends on those mysterious, unaffiliated Californians.

Women’s Equality Writ in the Stars

Shortly after Caroline Herschel’s discovery of Comet C/1786 P1, her brother William Herschel went to Windsor Castle to provide a viewing to King George III and the royal family. Novelist Frances Burney, who had just begun several years’ service as a companion to Queen Charlotte, noted the event in her diary.

The way in which she chose to mark the event is moving. “We found him at his telescope, and I mounted some steps to look through it. The comet was very small, and had nothing grand or striking in its appearance; but it is the first lady’s comet, and I was very desirous to see it. Mr. Herschel then showed me some of his new-discovered universes, with all the good humour with which he would have taken the same trouble for a brother or sister astronomer…”



A depiction of Caroline Herschel.

The BBC radio and podcast series In Our Time recently devoted an episode to Frances Burney.

Xenokin and Haplotribes

“Dear Customer! 56 new relatives have joined 23andMe in the last 58 days!”

I still wonder if we don’t need a new vocabulary to better talk about DNA relationships. For a variety of reasons. In Winnie the Pooh we learned the category “friends and relations” which I always thought summed things up rather well. It was based on personal acquaintance, but varying degrees were implied, and it helped one realize that not all relations were necessarily friends, and that that’s OK.

In some places, the old Gaelic communities in Scotland and Ireland for example, you might very well know some 4th or 5th cousins, and how you are related to them.

Now that we have technology to reunite co-descendants, we should think about expanding the language a little bit. I have a hard time thinking of people I’ve never even met as cousins, and to call them relatives suggests that I grew up knowing them. Even “distant cousins” has that effect on me. On the other hand, I didn’t really meet one second cousin until he was almost grown up, but we are now both friends and relations.

I think there are now regular reunions for descendants of my 4x great grandparents (on my maternal-maternal-maternal side). This is a celebration of heritage, I suspect, more than family, but I won’t really know without attending one. Are there reunions for genetically confirmed, but genealogically undocumented, distant cousins? “Sniplings” comes to mind. Then there are tribe, kin, words out of which new words could be coined. Xenokin, for instance. The genes relate us, but we are strangers in every other way, foreign to each other even as we exchange surname lists and puzzle over pedigree charts.