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Reading for Ralph (#993)

Topics/tags: Writing

Tomorrow is the first day of Ralph Savarese’s English 207, Craft of Creative Nonfiction. Ralph has generously allowed me to sit in on the class, even though my schedule likely means that I will miss some classes, provided I do the assignment and try to reign myself in. Or something like that. He didn’t say that I couldn’t muse about the class, and I know he reads my musings, so I’m likely to write something from time to time. Today, for example.

We have an assignment for the first day of class. That’s not surprising. Many classes have an assignment for the first day. Here’s what Ralph wrote.

On that day, we will go over the syllabus and discuss a piece by Annie Dillard called The Wreck of Time; the link appears below. Please be sure to read the essay closely. Skimming doesn’t work in this sort of class [1].

I’ll admit that I’m not quite sure what close reading entails for a class in creative nonfiction. Are we to consider content? Language? Style? All of the above? Things I don’t know about? I assume that the real students know better than I, given that the Craft of Fiction is a prerequisite for the course. In any case, I thought it would be fun to attempt to record my close reading in a musing [4].

But first, a typical SamR detour. I see that Ralph provided a link to a copy of Dillard’s essay. I’m not sure why, but I am inclined to consider where and how things were published and to look for original versions [5]. The copy he linked appears on [the Web site for the Midway Independent School District in Texas. Given what I’ve read recently about what happens to textbooks in Texas, I definitely feel the need to look for another copy. Fortunately, this copy notes that the article

First appeared in Harper’s Magazine, January 1998. Later a part of a larger collection of reflections titled, as a book, as For the Time Being, First Vintage Books Edition (Publisher), 2000

That’s a strange way to phrase it. And I’m pretty sure that For the Time Being was first published by Knopf in 1999, rather than Vintage in 2000. In any case, I went looking for the version from Harper’s Magazine. I was surprised to find that Harper’s had what I’d considered a mediocre scan, showing the ragged edges of ripped pages and all, and, strangely enough, was taken from the library at Bennington College [6]. Nonetheless, I was able to read it in something like the original form. It was the main article in the issue, or at least the first one on the cover, the only one with an associated illustration [7]. I’ll need to think about the relation of the words on the boat, Llevame Contigo or, as Google translates it, take me with you to the content of the piece.

The front cover of the January 1998 issue of 'Harper's Magazine'.  There's an image of a lifeboat or rowboat, with the words 'Llevame Contigo' and a group of people.  Immediately below that is the title 'The Wreck of Time', the subtitle 'Taking Our Century's Measure', and 'By Annie Dillard'. Next to that text is a bit of stamped text that reads 'Burlington College Library'.  The cover contains other material, but it is not pertinent to our discussion.

How else does the original version differ from the one on the Texas ASD? The original has a subtitle, Taking Our Century’s Measure, which appears both on the cover and in the head of the article. I wonder if Dillard wrote that subtitle. It certainly affects the way one reads the piece, setting it as a reflection about the century, rather than simply about how we understand death [8].

The original tells us a bit about Dillard, at the bottom of the first page.

Annie Dillard’s writings include Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood, and The Living, a novel. Her next book will appear in March 1999.

The original is better formatted, something I appreciate as a reader. The original groups paragraphs differently. I don’t know about you, but I find that the grouping of paragraphs affects how I read and understand a piece [9].

The original also has some illustrations. There’s a two-page sequence of images: A lot full of cars [10], which reflect a question in the third paragraph [11]. A tray full of teeth [12]. A bunch of penguins [14]. What looks like one person on a street [15], at least in this mediocre scan. A huge crowd, possibly in an event I should know about [16]. A whole bunch of shoes [17].

Later on, there’s what looks like a collection of life masks, or whatever they call those casts you take [18]. A lot of umbrellas, from above [19]. Way too many skulls, in yet another poor scan [20].

Do authors get to choose the images that accompany their articles? Do they get to approve them? I have no idea. You’d think that because photos have such an effect on how we read articles [21], authors would have some input. But I also know that publishing doesn’t always work the way we expect.

The original also has a few excerpts that appear in large text on the side. Here they are.

  • A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic, noted that connoisseur, Joseph Stalin.
  • What were you doing on April 30, 1991, when a series of waves drowned 138,000 people?
  • Anyone’s family and friends compose a group invisible, at whose loss the world will not blink.
  • Who were the 30 million Mao starved or the 11 million children under five who die each year now?
  • The atom bomb is nothing to be afraid of, Mao told Nehru. China has many people…

Once again, I wonder whether the selection of excerpts is an editorial or authorial choice [23].

Okay, that’s enough for the detour. The experience of the original is much different than the experience of the ASD version. I wonder what it’s like in For the Time Being.

Fortunately, Amazon has a version that you can search. The section that comes from this essay is not titled The Wreck of Time and does not have the subtitle Taking Our Century’s Measure. Instead, it begins with the word Numbers. It also adds a new opening sentence. Let me share the first three paragraphs with you.

NUMBERS • I find the following three approaches to the mystery of human numbers hilarious. Ted Bundy, the serial killer, after his arrest, could not comprehend the fuss. What was the big deal? David von Drehle quotes an exasperated Bundy in Among the Lowest of the Dead: I mean, there are so many people.

One R. Houwink, of Amsterdam, discovered this unnerving fact: The human population of earth, arranged, perfectly tidily, would just fit into Lake Windermere, in England’s Lake District.

Recently, in the Peruvian Amazon region, a man asked the writer Alex Shoumatoff, Isn’t it true that the whole population of the United States can be fitted into their cars?

The Harper’s version lacks the first sentence, which changes the tone of the piece. It also italicizes the so in I mean, there are so many people. I’d been wondering about that. I wonder what the original looks like.

Beyond that, the original essay is integrated throughout the book, rather than appearing in a single place. There’s also a lot about Judaism. I think I want to read it in that context, too.

I suppose it’s time to return from the detour. But I’ve already written a lot. That happens from time to time [24]. So I’m not going to share my close reading of the piece with you. It’s probably better that way.

But I should go beyond the detour. I must admit that part of me feels like this piece bears some resemblance to what I think of as the standard undergraduate desire to include every little thing that they have found about the topic; you gotta use all of the note cards, after all. I know that’s not the case, and that Dillard has woven the anecdotes and quotations together. I’m also interested to see that she includes what I think of as colloquialisms: slice of life, nickel and dime, bless their hearts. Perhaps I should not be so concerned with my own use of such colloquialisms. Or, once again, I should reflect on how Dillard uses them intentionally.

I must also admit that the way I read articles reflects my experience as an academic. In particular, I want citations! What’s the broader context of the Alex Shoumatoff episode? What did Stalin say in the original Russian, and who is responsible for this particular translation [26]? When did Mao meet with Nehru? As my adventure looking for the original suggests, I like context. Oh well.

One more thing, I’m happy to report that Dillard uses seriatim, one of the words in this year’s Wayne State list

What were you doing on April 30, 1991, when a series of waves drowned 138,000 people? Where were you when you first heard the astounding, heart-breaking news? Who told you? What, seriatim, were your sensations? Who did you tell? Did you weep? Did your anguish last days or weeks?

Uplifting, isn’t it?

In any case, I look forward to tomorrow’s discussion and to hearing what my fellow students say. I’m glad that I’m supposed to stay comparatively quiet.

[1] Savarese, Ralph. (2020). Email message entitled ENG 207: Craft of Creative Nonfiction. Dated 2 January 2020. [2]

[2] I hadn’t looked at the recipient list for Ralph’s message until today. It appears that I know four of the ten students [3] enrolled in the course and they are students who I appreciate knowing. I look forward to working with them. I also look forward to working with the other faculty member who is sitting in on the course.

[3] Hmmm. The email went to ten students and two faculty members. However, our schedule lists twelve students enrolled. I didn’t think students could add after January 1. I wonder what happened.

[4] Fun for me, that is. I’m not sure how it will be for you.

[5] One reason is my experience with the population genetics paper by G.H. Hardy. I’ll explain the details in a future musing.

[6] It even has Bennington College Library stamped on the front and a mailing label to Bennington that manages to obscure the title of an article by David Foster Wallace.

[7] Untitled By Julio Larraz.

[8] Or whatever the article is about.

[9] I don’t think nearly enough about how I group my paragraphs. At times, I use horizontal rules to do a form of grouping. Dillard’s formatting is a bit more sensible.

[10] Photograph by Superstock.

[11] You’ll have the opportunity to read that paragraph later in this musing.

[12] Photograph by Rosamond Purcell.

[14] Photograph by Joseph Van Os/The Image Bank.

[15] Photograph by Michael Ackerman.

[16] Photograph by Superstock, again.

[17] Photograph by Jason Fulford.

[18] Another photograph by Rosamond Purcell. I wonder who she was. There’s a Web page that I should probably look at when I have time.

[19] Photograph by Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos.

[20] Photography by Paul Almasy/AKG London.

[21] I like the word read for understand the context of, even though it can also mean to process the words sequentially [22].

[22] Or perhaps seriatim.

[23] I suppose that it could also be a design choice.

[24] Okay, it happens surprisingly often [25].

[25] Or perhaps not so surprisingly.

[26] Whoops, Wikipedia tells me that this quotation may be misattributed [27] to Stalin [28].

[27] I am surprised to see that my spell checker does not like misattributed and that it presents masturbated as an option.

[28] And, of course, Wikipedia is authoritative [29].

[29] Does sarcasm come through in my writing?

Version 1.0 of 2020-01-20.