Tuesday, November 30, 2010


(Because ‘tis the season.)

A dear friend recently reminded me how important it is to be grateful. Now, I consider myself a fairly mindful person, and many events in my life have taught me not to take anything for granted. But it’s all too easy to remember to be grateful for the big things and forget the little things (or vice versa), or even to forget whom we’re being grateful to in the first place.

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving (both with a big T and a little one), here are a few of the many things I’m thankful for—and maybe a few things I should be thankful for but usually forget:

For music, the language of angels
For autumn, my favorite season
For winter, because it has to come before spring
For heat, because I know what it’s like to be cold
For hunger, which reminds us to be grateful to eat
For the twenty-first century, because as much as we fret over it, and as great an antiquarian as I am, I wouldn’t have wanted to live in the fifteenth
For my education, and all those who made sure I got it
For my family, about whom I can’t say enough (though my friends probably wish I could)
For all the people in my life, from the dearest of friends to the passing acquaintances, because they remind me how very big the world is and how very small I am
For the sky, for the same reason
For the sea, likewise
For the moments when something takes your breath away and makes you feel like flying, or makes you laugh like a child
For holidays
For literature
For horses
For cats
For chocolate

I don’t see any reason to divide sober thankfulness from the sheer pleasure of things in and of themselves; surely any pure and innocent sense of pleasure is already a half-articulated prayer of thanks to the one who provided it, or made us sensible to its charms? At least, I hope that the God who made sure Adam wasn’t lonely and who turned water into wine to keep the party going wouldn’t mind my putting chocolate on a par with the grandeur of his ocean. (Perhaps I should also mention at this point that when I hear atheists and agnostics express their “gratitude” for something no human gave to them, I always feel a secret hope that someday they’ll realize who it is they’re really thanking. I’m not an aggressive evangelist, but I’m always happy—no, grateful!—to gain a new brother or sister.)

Even as I sit here trying to wrap up this post, I keep thinking of dozens more items that I could add to my list. My health, my job, my freedom…I could go on almost ad infinitum. I won’t, just because the list is probably tedious enough as it is. But it’s uplifting to spend a moment thinking about the things we have that we have no right to expect from life—things others don’t have, or things we can appreciate that others might pass over as unimportant and unremarkable. I think if we spent a little more time in that kind of meditation, maybe we’d brood less on what we don’t have, and maybe we’d find ourselves just a little happier right here and right now, exactly as we are.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Apologia Pro Studio Suo

(Yes, I did have to use my Latin dictionary to get that right—Aquinas may have written Latin like a native, but I write it like a dunce.)

I love books. I love reading them, I love writing them, I love buying them, I love receiving them, I love giving them, I even love smelling them. But I don’t just love them for what’s inside: I am a definite judger of books by their covers. And their end-papers. And their margins. The book itself—not the text but the collection of pages between two boards—thrills and enthralls me. When I was an undergrad I used to go to the stacks of the library and delight in blowing the dust off of books that hadn’t been touched in a generation. (Here they’re too handy with the Swiffers to build up enough for a decent cloud.) I was thrilled to discover upon coming to graduate school that, even if they over-dusted their stacks, there were actually professors who thought these blockish things were a joy as well—and better than that, a legitimate subject of scholarly attention!

My very first year of grad school presented me with a course in scholarly editing that dramatically altered the trajectory of my studies (shifting from medieval language interactions to medieval manuscript culture may not seem like a sea change to anybody else, but to a grad student it’s practically a religious conversion). I followed it up with a course on bibliography (the description of physical books, not the writing of Works Cited pages) and had a ball measuring page thickness and counting quires in hundred-year-old printed vellum artist books. I then took paleography (the study of manuscripts) in Iceland, and let me tell you, you’ve never seen a room full of more excited people than our classroom on the day when we got to see the priceless manuscript of the Snorra Edda. I believe the instructor accused us of drooling.

Now that I’m working on my dissertation, I’m digging around in (mostly photocopies of) medieval books looking for marginalia—little comments and doodles made by scribes and readers wherever they found space in the manuscript. Nowadays they discourage us from writing in our library books, but it’s an age-old tradition. Even those naughty drawings that more prim-and-proper folks usually try to erase or scribble out have a long tradition; I remember seeing a medieval sketch of a nun picking unmentionable male body parts from a tree where they were growing. Truly, modern teenagers have not come up with anything that somebody didn’t already do more creatively 500 years ago. That’s not what I study myself, but you’d better bet that was the first thing that caught people’s eye when scholars started caring about marginalia a generation ago! I’m fascinated instead by the little complaints, the little notes-to-self, the verses of love poetry, and the random drawings of fish and flowers and creatures you might think the artist thought looked like a lion or an elephant only because he’d never seen a real one. They give us just a glimpse of what it was like to work in a medieval library. Turns out, it was a good deal like it is to work in a modern one now: it’s always too cold or too hot, your eyes get bleary, your hand cramps up, and pretty much anything you can think of seems abundantly more interesting than whatever it is you’re actually supposed to be doing.

Maybe that’s why we get so many mistakes in manuscripts. Interestingly enough, words like “not” tend to get skipped quite a bit. It makes a rather large difference whether “the king heard his prayer” or “heard not,” but half the time the mistake goes entirely unnoticed.

Not that the printing press has saved us from the plague of error, of course: for the clumsy phrase “slip of the pen” we simply now have the peppy little word “typo.” I make a habit of keeping an eye out for interesting typographical errors in books, especially in antique stores that sell books printed before the advent of the all-knowing Microsoft Word spell-check. I remember one old book that caught my eye by the title on the spine, which read, “John Donne’s Fright From Medievalism.” What was it about the medieval that so frightened Dr. Donne? I wondered, pulling the book off the shelf and opening it. The title page read—I assume correctly—“John Donne’s FLIGHT from Medievalism.” Eminently more comprehensible, but somehow sadly less intriguing.

You would think that at least modern typography would have saved us from the typical medieval problem of not being able to read the handwriting in the book you’re trying to copy, but it’s not so. Just recently, I had occasion to poke my nose into the French section of our library and encountered another mistake that amused me greatly. Here is what the book was actually titled:

(“Parler vulgairement” or “speaking vulgarly,” though it’s a pun because the book is about medieval French language, which was called “vulgar” that is, vernacular—like the Vulgate Bible, which just means that it’s translated from Hebrew and Greek.)

But the cover designer clearly thought, “Hey, it’s a book about medieval things. Let’s use a font on the cover that looks like a medieval manuscript hand.” Hence the cover and flyleaf:

And the poor book binder hired to add an institutional hard cover to protect the paperback one inside clearly looked at the title and thought, “Hmm, that’s not English. Oh well, guess I can figure it out.” Hence the title on the hardback spine:

Which all adds up to a very confused graduate student staring at the shelf saying, “Well, that’s the call number, but "Darler Gulgairement" is NOT the title I’m looking for!”

Typo-hunting is the great pastime of grammar geeks. This version of the game might well be considered the next level, both because examples are rarer and because they’re usually so amusing when you find them. It’s like Where’s Waldo in the library.

You know, for when you need a study break.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tricker Treat

Was I the only kid who grew up thinking that the phrase we shouted at the kind folks who opened their doors to us costumed vagabonds on Halloween night was “Tricker treat”? I don’t think I realized it was the ultimatum “Trick OR treat” until I was past the tricker-treating age. I always assumed that a tricker treat was a particular kind of treat that had to do with Halloween, which (like sugar plums or figgy pudding) was probably not as good as it sounded and hence had been replaced by Snickers and Dum Dums and Sugar Babies.

Halloween, I must say, was never my favorite holiday—nothing could compare with Christmas when I was a kid. Or now, for that matter. But like any kid who was allowed to, I had great fun dressing up and going door to door in our neighborhood gathering candy in a plastic pumpkin-shaped basket. The basket was small, so when it filled up I would dump it in a plastic bag my father obligingly carried around as he escorted us from house to house. I remember dressing as Zorro several times (who cares if he was a guy? He had a cool horse and he got to play with swords!), a butterfly, an Indian (I believe that’s what the package called it—Halloween is not a PC holiday), a clown, and only once a princess (my best friend was going to be one—I bowed to peer pressure).

We lived in Utah for several formative tricker-treating years, and I remember bundling up like an Eskimo underneath my costumes; it still strikes me as odd to see kids in Virginia running around in costumes that bare their arms and legs at the very end of October. I feel they’re missing part of the experience somehow. If you’ve never tricker-treated in the snow, you’ve never worked hard enough for your candy.

Which, by the way, is always slightly less fun to eat than it is to collect. I hated (and still hate) hard candies, and hard candies that come with a cardboard stick inside them that you have to chew around still strike me as particularly unappealing. And if you got anything with mint or peanut butter in it, everything else in the bag started to taste like mint or peanut butter very quickly. I often still had candy from Halloween left over in July (only the least tasty things, of course), at which point I think my parents were justified in quietly disposing of it.

I was always thrilled to get candy you could play with—candy cigarettes were a favorite of mine even though the flavor wasn’t very exciting. They don’t sell those anymore (or rather, they do, but they call them “candy sticks” as if we don’t figure it out from the imitation cigarette-carton packaging): apparently it’s bad to let children use their imagination if it entails pretending to do something we don’t want them to do in real life. Perhaps it’s a legitimate concern, but never once as a kid did I (or for that matter any of my friends) lose sight of the divide between play and reality. Just because I pretended to smoke my candy cigarettes did not in any way mean that I thought it was a good idea to smoke real ones. For one thing, you can’t eat real cigarettes when you’re done with them and that takes all the fun out of it. I pretended I was a runaway quite a lot, but never once did I actually run away. I pretended I was a pony too. It didn’t mean I thought I was one. That’s why it’s called pretend.

But soap boxes aside, I’m beginning to think Halloween is even more fun when you’re not a kid. This occurred to me the first year I dressed up to hand out treats instead of tricker-treating myself. It was such a laugh to see all the kids parading around as superheroes (Power Rangers were big that year) and Sesame Street characters and inanimate objects—much more fun than just getting to dress up as one thing yourself. It was fascinating to see which kids would push to the front demanding their treats (Power Rangers) and which ones hung at the back waiting for the crowd to disperse (princesses who didn’t want their tiaras knocked off)—and which ones refused to come up to the door at all (toddlers clinging to their parents). Well, I WAS dressed as a clown, which I suppose counts as frightening to some people. And besides, we spend so much time telling our kids not to talk to strangers—especially ones offering candy—that the whole idea of Halloween must seem rather baffling to the smart ones.

They say that there’s nothing better than being a kid at Christmas unless it’s being a parent at Christmas. Not having kids myself, I can’t weigh in on that, but having wandered through Charlottesville’s traditional Trick-or-Treating on the Lawn of UVA, I can say that I appreciate the spectacle (and the costumes) much more from behind a camera than I ever did from behind Zorro’s mask.