Monday, February 21, 2011

In Praise of Graffiti (well, some of it)

I never understood the purpose of carving one’s initials on poor innocent trees. Perhaps I saw Fern Gully at a young enough age that I always sympathized more with the trees than with the lovers who immortalized their infatuation in a living plaque. Nor do I have a very great appreciation for the work of so-called “graffiti artists” whose garish and cartoony murals cover half the walls and subway stations in the major cities of the western world. (Maybe the eastern world too; I never thought to look when I was in

But I have to confess a fascination with graffiti in classrooms and libraries—even (forgive me, fellow bibliophiles) graffiti in library books. Most of it’s juvenile stuff, of course—people’s names and initials and, on college campuses, fraternity symbols. But every once in awhile you get something really clever, and then you feel rewarded for spending your valuable study time reading all the other fluff. In a classroom in the English Department, I once saw a note on a desk that read, “Who is John Gault?” which is, of course, the famous first line of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Even better, in another classroom I once found a medieval palindrome:


(It doesn’t mean very much, but it reads the same forward and backwards and up and down, and in addition it can be rearranged to read “PATERNOSTER” (the medieval name of the Lord’s prayer) in a cross shape, with two A’s and two O’s leftover (for Alpha and Omega, of course). The fact that some student knew the palindrome and took all the time necessary to carve its letters indelibly into the desktop impressed me, and I felt a sudden kinship with this unknown mind from an unknown time.

Probably my interest in graffiti is very much tied into my dissertation project, which studies medieval marginalia (I swear, more interesting than it sounds!). I’m fascinated by the way in which medieval, and even post-medieval, readers of manuscripts immortalized their names and comments and complaints on the leaves of the books themselves. Not only that, but later readers read and commented on THOSE comments, carrying on a conversation across who knows how much time and who knows how much distance, with people they likely never met, and who were likely dead by the time they read their notes. It is a form of very, very slow but immortal community, and I think it’s wonderful.

That’s why I spend as much time when I’m in the library carrels reading what’s written on the walls and shelves as I do reading what’s in my books. I’ve seen actual conversations (“Hi.” “Hi yourself.”), vigorous disagreements (“What are we here for?” “To learn to live to our potential.” “No, to get a degree and get a job.”), and even some kind if not particularly effective encouragement (“Orgo is eating my life.” “Don’t worry, Jesus loves you!”).

Here are some fun ones I found recently, all in one carrel:

“My spoon is too big”—a reference to a very, very strange series of parodic animated shorts by Don Hertzfeldt.

“It’s hotter than a toasted cheese in here,” which someone else glossed as “grilled cheese” and snarkily added, "FTFY"—"fixed that for you."

“Kill ‘em all,” which someone crossed out, then another person wrote, “Let God sort ‘em out,” to which someone else responded, “And I’m God’s intermediary,” to which, of course, yet another hand added the very clever riposte, “FU.” Disturbing enough but very dynamic.

But this is my favorite:

The symbol of the Deathly Hallows, which coincidentally started appearing chalked on walls all over campus shortly after the seventh Harry Potter film came out. Every time it rains, someone chalks them up anew.

College students have far too many ways to procrastinate.

I’ve often thought the experience of reading a medieval manuscript is very much like trying to study in a subway station, with all the voices in the margins calling for your attention and distracting you from what you might otherwise focus on. More recently, I’ve decided it’s much more like reading in a library carrel, where despite the silence, the walls themselves speak and speak loudly. But perhaps it would be more accurate to reverse the comparison say that studying in a library carrel is more like reading a medieval manuscript: they came up with it first, after all. We’ve just taken things off the page and stuck them on every other surface we could find.

So long live library graffiti—but please don’t take this as an encouragement to become vandals yourselves. I don’t even write in my own books, much less the library’s books. But when the crime’s already been committed, I see no reason to pretend it isn’t fascinating stuff.

PS: While we’re at it, sometimes the officials commit faux pas themselves. Remember the misspelled book binding I mentioned a few months ago? Well here’s an elevator button from a library that just tickles me pink:

If I hit it, do the doors open or close??

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


When I turned twenty-six, I had to get over the strange sensation of knowing that I was closer to thirty than I was to twenty. Thirty is the age when people are grown-ups and have things like careers and mortgages and spouses. Twenty has much less weighty associations, and by those standards, that’s still pretty solidly where I am.

But now that I’m even CLOSER to thirty (not quite there yet!), I have to marvel at how fast the time has gone. I still think of scholarly articles that were written in 1999 as being fairly recent—according to the five-year expiration date on scholarship, they are not. Not by a long shot. I still think of high school as not all that long ago, and it staggers me to think it’s been fully half of my life since I was a freshman!

And it’s not just things in relation to me that seem to have flown by either. My college first-year students are now upwards of an entire decade younger than I am. They call me by my last name like I’m some kind of authority figure (though I still have to dress up on the first day of class or they look at me like they can’t figure out what I’m doing behind the Teacher’s Desk). They were eight years old when 9-11 happened; they don’t really remember what it was like when you could accompany your loved one all the way to the very gate at the airport even if you weren’t flying. They don’t remember NOT being at war with Terror. (I don’t dwell at length on this sort of thing in my daily life; I just had it brought home to me when I gave my students a reading on post-9-11 political rhetoric and realized they’d never really heard anything but.) Heath Ledger stands in about the same relation to them—a Hollywood leading man who died too young, a long time ago—as James Dean does to me. They’re starting to look at CDs with the same wary mistrust as most of my generation looks at LPs. “Why don’t you just get it on iTunes?”

It all gives me a very odd sympathy for folks who have been around a heck of a lot longer than I have. If 20-some-odd years have gone by in the blink of an eye, I really can imagine waking up one day and realizing I’m 85 years old and I won’t know where the time has gone.

This is starting to sound rather negative, but I don’t mean it to. I feel blessed to have experienced every one of my 20-some-odd years, and I look forward, I hope, to experiencing many more, however fast they fly. I have ambitions to be one of those crazy cat ladies who wears purple dresses (make that trousers) and red hats—someone who loves her crow’s feet and her gray hair. (“Yeah,” my older friends smirk, “wait until your metabolism slows down to a crawl and you have arthritic knees and you turn into that person at the movies who keeps going, ‘What’d he say?’ to your neighbor: see how much you like getting old then.” Well, I’ve been warned that getting old ain’t for sissies. I hope I’ll prove not to be a sissy. I’m sure I’ll complain bitterly, but I hope I’ll like my wrinkles anyway.)

Birthdays have never been a particularly big deal in my household, any more than New Years. The last time I remember being particularly excited about a birthday was when I turned seven, and that was only because seven was (and, illogically, remains) my favorite number. Ever since I turned nineteen or so, the numbers don’t seem to have mattered much (except for these odd occasions when I have a reason to stop and marvel at how many years I’m wracking up without even trying).

Of course, I have had some memorable birthday parties, for good and bad. The best was probably my surprise birthday party when I turned ten. You wouldn’t believe the scheming and the cleverness that went into making that one happen! The worst may have been my twenty-first, when I spent all evening desperately studying for a test and writing a paper, all the while trying to keep the blood flowing through my legs in an inhuman New Hampshire January “cold snap.” My nineteenth birthday I got a fire-truck as a gift—unintentionally, of course (it involved trick candles and a dorm-wide fire alarm system: don’t ask). This birthday that just passed, I had a dessert party, which involved some lovely friends and probably about three weeks' worth of chocolate, licorice, and cheesecake. Three weeks' worth apiece, mind you. I probably won’t be able to handle something like that when I’m forty; I figured I should do it now while I can enjoy it.

This birthday has given me occasion to stop and notice how much things keep on changing in the world. But it doesn’t take a birthday to notice that; in fact, I noticed it long before my birthday, but this seemed like an appropriate post in which to bring it up. Birthdays, in my opinion, are really best celebrated not by serious reflection but, as I celebrated mine this year, with some good friends and as much chocolate as you can possibly handle in one sitting. Count the candles on the cake if you want to, but don’t count the calories until tomorrow.