Is a Pile of Legal Pads the Same as a Book?

February 28, 2008 § 2 Comments

Before I actually get into The Confessions of Nat Turner, I wanted to briefly discuss the weirdness of reading a book while simultaneously digging through the personal papers of that book’s author to put together an exhibit on his life. I suppose I should state the obvious up front: my views are mine alone, and not my employers’. I don’t plan on impugning or libelling anyone, or revealing any “secrets,” but hey, you never know. And I suppose for those who don’t know (if there are any of you out there), I should explain that I’m a librarian at Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, which holds a large chunk of the William Styron Papers (meaning manuscripts of his works, correspondence, and lots of other things. Here’s a finding aid for the collection, if you wanna see what’s in it.)

It doesn’t sound that weird, I guess, but it is, at least for me. Scholars do it all the time, but in a very different way — typically they’ve already read through a text (most often more than once, if they’ve gotten to the stage of needing to consult its author’s manuscripts) and are consulting a well known source as they work in an archive. I’m reading Nat Turner for the first time, both as research and as personal reading. Duke doesn’t have the manuscripts for Nat Turner, although it has the galleys and a lot of other related material. And it has manuscripts for many of his other works, like Sophie’s Choice.

What’s weird about it is perhaps not what you’d think. Nat was an enormously controversial book when it came out, and there’s a lot of correspondence (mostly supportive; would you write someone whose work you didn’t approve of?) and other materials on the controversy, but that isn’t what’s causing the kind of dissonance I’m getting. It’s not a matter of knowing too much about the book beforehand to read the book on its own terms. No, it’s more the effect of the body of materials as a whole, and especially the drafts themselves of his works.

As you might imagine, working in an archive is an enormously personal, even intimate activity. It can also be extremely misleading: you’re seeing whatever survived, the remnants of a career and a life and not a life in its fullness. Nevertheless, you get a sense of a person when you work with their stuff.

Styron mostly wrote his early drafts on long, yellow, legal-pad-sized sheets of paper, in pencil, with extensive corrections, additions, notes to himself in the margins. He’s got a nice hand, easy to read for the most part, with idiosyncratic t‘s that look like s‘s. He’s said how much of a labor writing was for him, how painful it was; you can kind of feel that in the manuscripts: something about the slant of his hand conveys it, as does the worn, rubbed feel at the margins of some of the pages. That feeling of hard work being done, hard thinking delivered through all those leads of varying sharpness, and rethinking and rewriting being done, the writer handling the pages over and over.

I’m not a “death of the author” person, but I tend to maintain quite a bit of separation between an author and his work. Although I enjoy a good literary biography (and a good biography in general — something very appealing about capturing the arc of a lived life) I tend to care, personally (not professionally), about an author’s biography only insofar as it illuminates the work itself. (I also think that a work that requires biographical info to engage me is probably not something I’m interested in. Plus I am generally disinterested in memoirs, as a genre, although there are exceptions.) I don’t want to get too lit-critty here, but when I’m reading Nat Turner I’ll find myself thinking of how Styron’s hand looks on those long yellow sheets, and I’ll remember all the intermediate stages that come between a first draft like that, fresh from the author’s pencil, and the published work (in ugly library binding, no less!) I have in my hand: all the minds it passed through, all the work by early readers (family, friends), editors, fact checkers, publishers, designers, typesetters, critics, etc. before it reached the published form. The finished book, I guess, seems less like a work of art and more like a… well, a product, produced for practical, business reasons; but also a phenomenon, a thing reaching the world after great travail and continuing through great travail (all those reviews, criticisms, discussions; all its varying manifestations in the separate minds of separate readers!) in both its physical and intellectual forms. The author’s work, all those wild, scrawled yellow pages, domesticated between two covers.

There’s something pleasurable about all this, in one way. And, on the whole, I certainly feel that my working life has informed my reading in lots of interesting ways. To have a better sense of the processes both of publishing and of reception of texts is necessary to many kinds of literary thinking. Thinking about these issues has enriched my reading and has exposed in some works facets I would’ve otherwise overlooked. But in this particular instance of reading an author while exploring his archive, there seems to be something both nearsighted and farsighted about the experience. I feel, just a little, simultaneously estranged from and embarrassingly connected to the work. It’s like a relative you never talk to but with whom you shared a room for a summer. I’ve not quite captured exactly what I mean, but that’s close.

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§ 2 Responses to Is a Pile of Legal Pads the Same as a Book?

  • jeff says:

    I don’t know if this would make work and/or reading Styron more or less pleasurable/weird, but there was a fascinating piece by his daughter in the New Yorker in December – stub can be found here: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/12/10/071210fa_fact_styron

  • willhansen2 says:

    Thanks for the link to the Alexandra Styron article. I’ve read it and thought it quite interesting, and I believe she’s working on a book-length memoir (don’t quote me on that). My one objection: I do think there will come a day, and right soon, when the remainder of the country rises up and demands that people stop writing about the intricacies of the New York real estate market. Then again, since the mag’s called the New Yorker, I suppose it must be allowed.

    In any case, her father must have been an absolute BEAR when the Nat Turner controversy broke. You can really sense a constantly bubbling rage in his letters of the time, when he touches on the subject at all. But then he was still drinking at the time, so perhaps he simply medicated.

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