Saturday, March 7, 2015



Somewhere in the depths of the piles of papers I have accumulated over the years -- to talk of one's "personal" or "private papers" sounds so scholarly and sophisticated, doesn't it? -- somewhere I am sure I jotted down at least one list of ideas for future writing projects. Self-assignments, if you will. Ten years ago for example, when I returned to college to finish my degree, and thought thereby I would concentrate on the History of Education in the West, I drew up a pretty thorough outline of a book about just that. Introduction, ancient Egypt. Then, Babylon and astronomy -- then the training of Greek youth -- Plato's search for truth, which exists -- Aristotle seeming to know everything -- Roman rhetoric, and Pliny (weren't there two Plinys?) studying the whole natural world -- the Bible and the Church fathers -- the seven liberal arts -- the peasantry learning faith from stone and stained glass -- the Renaissance -- science erupts in the modern world -- young gentleman make the Grand Tour, young ladies learn deportment and drawing -- everybody plays a musical instrument -- the McGuffey Readers expect American prairie kids to get something out of the trial of Warren Hastings, plus memorize The Wreck of the Hesperus. Finally John Dewey comes along and commences the destruction, on the theory that it's all too boring and children should have self-esteem.


So there you have at least one book, among my old self-assignments, that will never "get itself written," as John Galsworthy modestly said of his own Forsyte Saga. I have a day job and can't travel all over the world doing original research, as is required now. On that note, many years ago a contributor to Commentary wrote an article about the death of the "secondary-source intellectual," that is, the absence from cultural life and bestseller lists of persons who write good books based on their own general knowledge plus happy research, done at home, into other people's books. (That would be me.) Alas, it's original research, only, that with a bit of luck now leads to Ph.D.s, publication, and general taken-seriously-ness. It's why you see people writing dissertations on intensely specific research into new matter, say, "empowering interior designers" -- I know a lady who did this, and then smiled in her cap and gown all over Facebook -- and why huge rambling multivolume sets like Will Durant's Story of Civilization don't roll off today's presses. Then again, he was kind of dotty. I never have been able to find the collected letters of Beatrice and Isabella d'Este that he claims was so amusing.

Over the years I'm sure I jotted down more than two notions. But jotting them down also seems to purge them from the memory in a quite appalling way. One can shuffle through old papers and marvel "My! Was I really interested in that?" Was I interested in writing a biography of Mary Leiter, 1890s Vicereine of India? She was born in Chicago so perhaps the possibilities of primary source research beckoned. Or, was I interested in McGuffey Reader-style peeks into American education, evidenced in the place- and street-names of yesteryear? and did I intend to chronicle what I fiercely regarded as its debasement? Cincinnati -- Pella (Iowa) -- Kenilworth, Illinois; Goethe Street, Cicero Avenue, Mozart Street. Not that there weren't always bland Elm Streets and New Towns everywhere across the continent, nor that unimaginative people haven't always named things sloppy in ages past ("hey, let's call it New Carthage!"). Still I don't think anyone will ever again name streets and parks for Schiller, and erect a statue too. If you have ever visited Lincoln Park Zoo and the conservatory there, and seen these pretty fishponds and flowers, you have been near Schiller Park.

Even if you find old lists of things you wanted to write about, and even if you decide to have at it via secondary sources and the hell with all Ph.D.s and acceptability, blogging does change the way you write about the world. Blogging makes you productive, but is reactive. You are essentially keeping a diary; you are not poking your nose out into the world, armed first with an original idea, and investigating why anything is so. Perhaps that's why women love blogging. It's cozy, passive, and emotional. Sometimes when I surf about among the shoes, recipes, wedding gowns, and photos of children, all of it "amazing," I wonder if there are any men in the world at all. Here's another book title for you: Do Men Blog?

All of this is just to let you into my little world, such a thrill for you, and to set down, to challenge you with, a new writing idea. I hope I don't now forget it, having purged it. I suggest we secondary source intellectuals go out and buy ourselves a fat thick notebook (remember how Diary of a Mad Housewife begins with the woman spotting a pile of notebooks in the five & dime store? Immediately her eye stops twitching, and she knows what she must do). Take it home, and begin writing, longhand, some project you had in mind. In other words give yourself an assignment beyond reactive wooziness. If the sight of all that blank paper unnerves you, consider this. Don't your words flow without scratchings-out or hesitation when you are scribbling privately? Come, half of us are diary keepers anyway. Is it only because you find your own inner life so fascinating -- or could it be that the technique is important? Austen and Dickens and Victor Hugo produced mammothly using it. Sit down and write, and the hell with Ph.D.s and acceptability.

Of course lively interests and an advanced vocabulary still help, so I think we must all also leave off the time wasting activities that blogging encourages. Reading comment streams under fiery political articles, for example. And beware the women's blogs, some of them. Shoes are great but you've got to learn other adjectives besides "amazing." 


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