Know What You Know

Don't be Casaubon. Check your facts and finish the book.

I’ve reached the enough-research-already stage with my current project. Oh, I could keep going, and going, and going. Once you start diving into the history of material culture and humanity’s vexatious relationship with stuff, you never reach the bottom. Time to swim for the surface and hope to bring up a few treasures from the deep.

Helping me to let go of the compulsion to drown in more research is the specter of the Rev. Edward Casaubon, probably the most loathed character in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. (N.B. Not everybody dislikes him.) I first read the book in graduate school, when I was in my mid-20s, with all the time in the world (or so I thought) to read big novels and think big thoughts about them. I made it through Middlemarch, underwhelmed if duly impressed by Eliot’s stamina in pulling together the threads of so many lives.

Books reread their readers. Middlemarch turns out to be a more compelling read when you have a few decades of life behind you. I picked it again a few years ago out of a sense that I hadn’t been fair to it the first time, and found it an altogether different book. (Rebecca Mead wrote a whole book about re- and rereading Eliot’s blockbuster at different stages of her own life.)

Both of my encounters with Eliot’s study of provincial hopes, thwarted dreams, and hard-won contentment left me shuddering over the dismal Casaubon. His doomed attempt to compile the “Key to All Mythologies” withers him and nearly destroys his passionate and intellectually lively wife, Dorothea Brooke. (Thank goodness for the brooding but animated Will Ladislaw.)

Casaubon endures as a cautionary tale for any writer or scholar who doesn’t know when to say enough is enough. A thing is worth only so much time, as a colleague of mine at the Washington Post Book World used to say. Know when you have enough material to finish the dang book.

As I work toward my January book deadline, though, I’m keeping in mind a different sort of cautionary tale: Dr. Naomi Wolf’s travails with her most recent book, Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love. As was widely reported at the time, her U.S. publisher, Houghton Mifflin, cancelled its edition after a BBC interviewer, Dr. Matthew Sweet, called Wolf out on a major historical misinterpretation, the kind that makes writers of research-based nonfiction grow cold and tremble. What if I get it badly wrong?

That fear can be useful. Somewhere between Rev. Casaubon and Dr. Wolf lies a sweet spot of solid, confident research—enough to build a strong argument without stifling writer or reader. Do the work, check it, check it again (fact-checking’s on us, fellow authors, not our publishers), and get it done.

Thanks for reading!



Image credit: Portrait of George Eliot from "The complete poetical works of George Eliot. Family edition. Fully illustrated with new wood-engravings. With border by J. D. Woodward,” 1888. Found in the British Library’s wonderful Flickr collection of public-domain images.

Links worth your time:

1) Somebody’s hiding the books they don’t want people to read at an Idaho public library, and an author has a plan to strike back.

2) Three cheers for student journalists who are stepping up to fill the void in local news coverage. (H/t Lee Gardner)

3) The student journalists at The Daily Northwestern got heat for how they covered campus protests—then got heat for apologizing for it. (Note to professional journos and media commentators: Be kind to student journalists. They’re the future of the profession, and a lot of the time they do it as well as or better than we do.)

4) The smell(s) of old books might help conservators preserve them.

5) This (actually pretty interesting) review-essay about Dorothy L. Sayers’ “overlooked” novel Gaudy Night provoked a lot of commentary about how, uh, the book is anything but overlooked.

6) Shake up your Thanksgiving routine with a 17th-century recipe for “Pumpion Pie.”

P.S. Please enjoy this picture of my rain garden, which is looking lovely and autumnal this week.

Autumnal rain garden textures and colors.
November 15, 2019

Join the (Book) Club

You don't even have to read the book, precious

I belong to a book club. Founded by one of my oldest and dearest friends, the club is made up of female journalists and writers, all more or less in the middle of our lives and careers. It’s been meeting for many years now.

A confession: I often do not read the book of the month. There are various predictable excuses for this: deadlines, family stuff, too much else to read, not enough days in the week, not enough hours in the day. Sometimes the book just doesn’t float my boat. Sometimes, contrarian that I am, I would rather curl up with a book that nobody else I know is reading. My preciousss.

I was going to post a GIF of Gollum here but they were all creepy. Please enjoy instead this look at some talismans I keep in my writing space, including

—an essential clutter-related William Morris quote—“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”

—a Secular Saints candle featuring Nikola Tesla (to catch the spark of inspiration, natch)

—a figurine that’s not Gollum but Todoroki from my favorite anime, “My Hero Academia.” (Especially precious because my anime-loving son gave it to me.) Plus a brass pot full of sharpened pencils, tools without which I would be lost.

August 16, 2019

Why do I still treasure my book club when I so rarely read the book? Because it’s a sisterhood of readers. It’s not what we read so much as it is that we keep reading. That’s what brings us together—plus a shared love of the craft of journalism, not to mention the chance to share a glass of wine and some real-life talk with other women about the ups and downs of jobs, partners, children, pets, aging, the media industry, and whatever else is on our minds.

Book clubs mean a lot to authors, too, not only because they drive sales but because they offer a way to engage directly with readers almost anywhere. Some writers, including my friend Katherine Marsh (author, most recently, of Nowhere Boy), will even Skype into book clubs.

The good indie bookstores around here (we are lucky to have so many in the DMV) use book clubs as a way to build F2F literary communities for and with their customers. My lovely local, East City Bookshop, offers 14 different book clubs—for middle-grader readers, young professionals, romance lovers, social-justice seekers, and more. I keep meaning to check out W(hine) and Angst, for readers 21+ who love YA.

Not far away in Anacostia, Mahogany Books features a MahoganyBooks and Very Smart Bruthas Book Club (tagline: “One book club to rule them all”). Down on H Street, Solid State Books hosts several, including one that focuses on books by women of color. Loyalty Books in Petworth serves sherry and tea at a monthly book club devoted to Agatha Christie’s detective novels.

No matter what you like to read or write, there is a community of like-minded readers out there somewhere. Or you could just commune at home with a book that speaks to you.

Perfect day to curl up with a good book. #catsofinstagram #amreading #Darcyreads #Proust
October 27, 2019

Some links worth your times this week:

1) Ten skills to cultivate if you want to be a bookseller, by ECB’s own Claire Handscombe.

2) The Nationals’ Sean Doolittle visits indie bookstores when the team’s on the road. He posted a lovely little thread about it earlier this year. (H/t Laurie Muchnick)

3) “Participation and co-creation”: a case study in how libraries engage the public. (Take that, museums.)

4) “Why the heck would we spend money on something like that?” County commissioners in Citrus County, Fla., deny their library’s request for a New York Times subscription for patrons. (Bad call.)

5) An announcement that feels big and that I hope to dig into soon: The essential Internet Archive and Better World Books (the outfit many libraries send de-accessioned books to) have joined forces: “The Internet Archive will acquire, digitize, lend, store and digitally preserve millions of books from BWB’s inventory over the next few years.”

Thanks for reading! If you have a book club, cherish it. (It’s okay if you don’t always read the book.) And if you enjoy this newsletter, please share it with a friend.



Postcards from the Edge

A World Series, a one-eyed shih-tzu, and a giveaway

They did it. The Nats really did it. As you might have heard, DC’s underdog baseball team won the 2019 World Series. I couldn’t take the anxiety of watching all 9 innings, so I tuned in for the last crucial three.

Hollering at the TV while my team wins is not a familiar feeling for me. I liked it. I could get used to that feeling. Right now I am just grateful my beleaguered hometown has something to cheer about.

Here’s Irene the one-eyed shih tzu with the Washington Post’s banner headline:

Irene looks like a hot mess in that photo. She’s pretty much a hot mess all the time: can’t climb stairs (a mental block, the vet thinks, not a physical issue), barks at every opportunity (in a noisy city neighborhood, she finds a lot of opportunities), chases the cats, bites our toes. Some people—even me, once in a while—still think she’s cute. At least she’s a Nats fan.

Today, All Hallows’ Day, marks the fifth anniversary of the day Irene came to live with us. She’s not the dog we would have chosen; we’re more a soulful-eyed-hound family. But Irene belonged to my mother, and had nowhere else to go when Mom could no longer live on her own.

I write more about that in my book—about how my mother’s descent into extreme clutter drove me to try to understand the phenomenon better. It’s been painful, and eye-opening, and ultimately healing to write about. A lot of people have shared with me stories of their own families’ struggles, and I’m grateful for those conversations. I’m not writing a how-to book (I can suggest some good ones if you want recs), but I hope what I’ve learned will help ease the collective generational struggle a bit.

Want a personalized postcard? I cleaned up my desk recently (research!), and found a stash of postcards from various trips. If you’d like one, drop me a note with a mailing address (I will not share it), and I’ll send you a card with one of my favorite sayings about clutter.

This week’s links, below the picture, all have a reading/writing theme. (Wise words for writers, Epictetus.)

1) From Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: When it comes to writing “the other,” what questions are we not asking? (H/t Mark Trainer)

2) It’s NaNoWriMo! Plot being pesky? Mystery writer Charles Finch reveals how to write a great mystery plot. (H/t Francine Mathews a k a Stephanie Barron, author of a successful Jane Austen mystery series)

3) Once you finish that novel, ace literary agent and YA author Eric Smith has tips on how to pitch to agents.

4) How not to handle a successful media property and its writers.

5) What words were first recorded in the dictionary the year you were born? (Dibs on “space walk.”)

If you enjoy this newsletter, please share it with a friend. And if you feel like it, you can now buy me a coffee and help keep the caffeinated writing train going.

Thanks for reading!




"Baby Shark," my latest library story, a book debut, and some ghostly good links

I had “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” stuck in my head this morning as I biked to the coffee shop. I should have been humming “Baby Shark,” the Nationals’ unofficial fight song this season (Do-do-do-do-do-do!). The Washington Post has a great video explainer up on YouTube that explains how this cartoon-TV earworm hooked the team and its fans. If you’ll be handing out candy in the DMV this Halloween, expect to see a lot of Baby Shark costumes.

As you have probably heard, it’s Game 3 of the Fall Classic tonight, the Nats are back in town to take on the Astros, and everybody’s breaking out the curly-W gear to root root root for the home team. DC baseball fans have waited a looooong time to have a baseball team in the World Series again. Photographic evidence:

Another thing to cheer about, no matter where you live in the United States: public libraries. Here’s an excerpt from the feature story I did for the fall NEH Humanities magazine on how libraries’ public-service role has become ever more complicated—not to mention essential—as the public sphere shrinks:

“One place, though, remains open to everybody. The public library requires nothing of its visitors: no purchases, no membership fees, no dress code. You can stay all day, and you don’t have to buy anything. You don’t need money or a library card to access a multitude of on-site resources that includes books, e-books and magazines, job-hunting assistance, computer stations, free Wi-Fi, and much more. And the library will never share or sell your personal data. In a country riven by racial, ethnic, political, and socioeconomic divides, libraries still welcome everyone.”

You can find the whole story online.

Another thing I’m looking forward to: the publication next week of David M. Rubenstein’s The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians, out Oct. 29 from Simon & Schuster. The book’s official launch will be at stalwart DC indie bookstore Politics & Prose on Tuesday.

I was lucky enough to spend the last year helping the author prepare the book for publication. I’ve spend most of my life/work around books; this was the first time I got to see all the steps a book project moves through, from early drafts through edits and copyediting to finished product you can hold in your hands. (This should come in handy as I move my own book closer to done.)

The American Story features conversations with marquee-name historians and historically minded journalists, plus a foreword by Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress—not to mention some awesome illustrations from the Library’s manuscript and photo collections. Rubenstein based the book on a nonpartisan series of interviews, the Congressional Dialogues, which he holds at the Library for members of Congress.

As he explains in the introduction, he created the series with the idea that policymakers, of all people, would benefit from hearing more about the complicated history of the country and the debates and crises that have shaped it. Given the current state of political discourse, it’s a good time to be reminded of how much we have weathered in the last 243 years.

As Nats fans like to say these days, #stayinthefight.

Halloween, my favorite holiday, is less than a week away. Some ghostly-good links worth your time this week:

1) “Terrified of ghosts as a child, alone at night in his bedroom he would become convinced ghosts were reaching out for him in the dark”: Read the excellent Colin Dickey on Lafcadio Hearn’s retellings of Japanese ghost stories.

2) Speaking of Japan, Shirley “Haunting of Hill House” Jackson is big there, reports Jackson biographer and literary critic Ruth Franklin in her newsletter, Ghost Stories. This observation of Franklin’s will stay with me: “Every biography is a kind of ghost story, told by a person who strives for communion with an inaccessible other.” 

3) An urban ghost story of sorts, about the vanished community of business owners DC ousted to make room for the Nationals’ new stadium in 2005.

4) The mating scream of the white bellbird will make your blood run cold.

5) Capitol Hill-based portrait photographer Elizabeth Dranitzke of Photopia shares tips on how not to be afraid of a headshot if you’re a woman who’s hit the mid-century mark.

Thanks for reading!



Love Your Library

Free co-working, bird-safe glass, and an intimidating book club.

Hello from DC, which has a World Series-bound baseball team! The last time that happened was 1933, and we are pretty excited here. Nice to see red baseball hats with curly Ws on them all over town for a change. We really needed a win, folks. #GoNats #stayinthefight

Beyond baseball, DC’s been investing in its public library buildings, which means DCPL patrons get more: more light, more work/study spaces, more outlets. This makes me happy, because I write about libraries, and work in them, every chance I get. These days I’m not tethered to an office, but I still need to get out of the house to focus on getting this clutter book in shape (that January manuscript deadline is headed my way fast), and the public library is the original (free!) co-working space.

This morning, I’m tapping away in the revamped West End Library, which features a busy cafe at one end (so much for library quiet) and some neat LEED-certified features like bird-safe fritted glass.

Some library/archives linkage worth your time this week:

1) At least one library has installed custom playpen workstations for caregivers with tots in tow. (More thoughtful designs like this, please.)

2) The son of Superman comic-book editor Mort Weisinger wants the University of Wyoming to return his father’s archives. (Blame Rep. Liz Cheney.)

3) A scandal in academia: An Oxford prof allegedly stole fragments of ancient Bible manuscripts and sold them to Hobby Lobby. Yes, you read that right.

4) Library professionals at MIT Libraries want to unionize.

5) This Chrome browser extension serves up a public-domain image from the LC’s collex when you open a new tab. Using it is like being haunted by friendly ghosts as you go about your daily rounds online.

6) Romance scholars/enthusiasts: You have until Nov. 1 to submit proposals for the bi-annual “Researching the Romance” conference, which will be held at Bowling Green State U.’s Jerome Library April 24-25, 2020. The 2020 theme is “Romance Across Boundaries,” and the keynote speaker is Alyssa Cole.

7) The Twitter feed we all need now: Soviet soldiers dancing. (This counts as quasi-archival, maybe.)

Thanks for reading!



P.S. Afraid of War and Peace? DCPL has a book club for that.

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