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Archive for December, 2010

Last year, when I was writing “Virginia Woolf in the Cyber City: Connecting in the Virtual Public Square,” I read Melba Cuddy-Keane’s book, Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere (2004). In it, she discusses Woolf’s idea that most books should turn to dust after about six months unless they are deemed worthy of a second printing.

Shortly thereafter I read a New Yorker piece about the same subject, except that author Julia Felsenthal reframed the argument as a possible justification for e-books. Such books would be, she argues, “a cost-effective, eco-friendly, and disposable alternative to cloth-bound volumes.”

Felsenthal, too, quoted Cuddy-Keane. She also described a 1927 radio discussion between Leonard and Virginia Woolf concerning the question “Are Too Many Books Written and Published?” The scripted discussion, Virginia’s first of three on the BBC, was broadcast on 15 July 1927. In it, Leonard argues in favor of hand-made books, criticizes the mass appetite for popular fiction and laments the death of quality.

Virginia Woolf, publishing and democracy

Free Woolf e-texts

Virginia took a more democratic approach to book publishing. In her diary entry of 2 October 1932, she wishes for “a system that did not shut out.” If one must have a system, Woolf believes that system should be inclusive of all individuals and all ideas (Cuddy-Keane 57).

Cuddy-Keane also describes Woolf’s visit to the Lewes library in October 1940, which Woolf notes in her diary by saying she “was glad to see [her book] Common Reader all spotted with readers at the Free Library” (108). Woolf wanted readers to use her books and engage with her writing. The idea that her book of essays was dotted with spots pleased her, as they indicated that people felt comfortable with the physical book—and perhaps with her ideas as well.

In Radio Modernism: Literature, Ethics, and the BBC, 1922-1938 (2006), Todd Avery points out that Virginia counters Leonard’s argument that publishing has become “shoddy” by maintaining that such shoddiness was a necessary result of increased literacy, which actually resulted in a more egalitarian world (53).

Avery discusses the way Virginia Woolf’s participation in mass media broadcasts made it possible for her to cross the boundary between high and mass culture. For Woolf, mass media created common ground, just as public libraries did. Both are places of freedom where readers and thinkers of all classes and all interests could find the resources they needed to expand their thinking, then engage in active intelligent literary discourse.

Democratic readership delivered in paperback and wireless versions

Woolf thought books should be as cheap and as easy to purchase as a pack of cigarettes, according to Avery (54). Ten years later, in 1935, Penguin had the same idea — and began selling quality paperbacks at sixpence apiece, the price of a pack of smokes.

Two years ago, in response to the recession and the company’s 75th anniversary, Penguin launched its “Popular Penguins” classic titles series in Australia, New Zealand and India. Priced at AU$9.95 per hard copy, the series includes Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) and To the Lighthouse (1927).

Cigarette prices in NYC

I think Woolf’s philosophy of democratic inclusiveness can be applied to the world of e-books today. The $9.99 standard price for a digital best-seller on Amazon.com is nearly identical to the price of a Popular Penguin, and both are less than the $11 price of a pack of cigarettes in New York City, for example.

In some cases — in some of the best cases — e-books are free. From Amazon, iTunesBarnes and Noble and other sources, Woolf classics such as The Voyage Out, Night and Day and Jacob’s Room can be downloaded at no cost. Other volumes of Woolf’s work are priced low — from 99 cents for Monday or Tuesday to $9.99 for A Writer’s Diary.

You don’t necessarily need a dedicated electronic reading device to read digital books either. You can download free apps to read e-books on your laptop, desktop, and/or smart phone. These include iBooks, the Kindle app, the NOOK app and others.

News for gadget geeks and book lovers

Virginia Woolf screensaver on the Kindle

I have a Kindle, which I love, so I am tuned in to e-book and e-reader discussion. So is the New York Times, which reported this week that e-readers were under many Christmas trees this season. The Times postulated that “possibly hundreds of thousands of people are expected to download books on the e-readers that they receive as Christmas gifts.”

The popularity of e-books has grown this year. They now make up 9 to 10 percent of trade-book sales, and publishers are predicting that digital sales may be 50 to 100 percent higher in 2011.

However, please don’t despair if you are not a person who loves the look of sleek high-tech gadgets. The Times also reported that some companies are specializing in making high-tech goods look retro-charming. A manual typewriter is reconfigured for use as a U.S.B. keyboard. A landline handset is connected wirelessly to a cell phone using bluetooth technology. A slim new MacBook is zipped inside a case that looks like a vintage leather-bound book.

And do be encouraged by the fact that many high quality books are available digitally. The Cuddy-Keane book I mentioned above is available electronically in at least four languages. What’s more, an e-book will never be out of stock.

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VW Diary Vol. 5Once again, Virginia Woolf has said it for me – her words expressing my mind far better than I can do it myself. Thinking about the new year and what it might mean for me, I thought I would see what Woolf had to say. I found two witty and wonderful examples in her diary.

January 2, 1931:
Here are my resolutions for the next 3 months; the next lap of the year.
To have none. Not to be tied.
To be free & kindly with myself, not goading it to parties: to sit rather privately reading in the studio.
To make a good job of The Waves.
To stop irritation by the assurance that nothing is worth irritation [referring to Nelly].
Sometimes to read, sometimes not to read.
To go out yes—but stay at home in spite of being asked.
As for clothes, to buy good ones.

January 4, 1936:
To read as few weekly papers…as possible [until The Years is finished];
to fill my brain with remote books & habits;
altogether to be as fundamental & as little superficial, to be as physical & as little apprehensive, as possible.

Five years apart, these entries have a common theme – reminders of what’s important: her work and well-being, an appreciation of simplicity. And that works for me too. Happy New Year!

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Alexandra Harris. Her name is on my lips for good reason.

Romantic Moderns, which just won the Guardian First Book Award, arrived on my doorstep last week. I am itching to read it, but things keep getting in the way. Things like grading fall semester essays. The holidays. Prepping for spring semester. And the overwhelming desire to read something light that won’t strain my incredibly tired brain.

And now I read that Harris has been signed by Thames and Hudson to produce two more books. The first, a short biography of Woolf titled Brief Lives: Virginia Woolf, will be published in spring 2011. Yeah for that.

The second, titled The Weather Glass, will discuss the British preoccupation with weather. That made me gasp right out loud. And I am not exaggerating.

Reading of her plan to write about the British interest in weather made me realize that Verita Sriratana and I are not the only ones  interested in reading the skies — as they relate to Woolf and other writers.

For her doctoral thesis, Verita is writing about weather in The Years. In Reading the Skies, I discuss Woolf’s use of weather in Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando. And Harris plans to begin her study with Beowulf and work her way up — hopefully to Woolf. 

Meanwhile, here’s another fun weather read — especially at this time of year in places where snow is likely. It’s called The Wrong Kind of Snow: The Complete Daily Companion to the British Weather.

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Editor’s Note: Susan Dick died on the evening of Dec. 10. She was professor emerita at Queen’s University, where she was also instrumental in bringing a Special Field Concentration in Women’s Studies to the university. Flags were lowered today in her memory. A memorial service is being planned for a later date. Pat Rosenbaum prepared the obituary below for the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain. It was also distributed to the VWoolf Listserv.

Susan Dick has died at the age of 70 in Kingston, Ontario, where she taught for many years at Queen’s University.

One of the most distinguished Virginia Woolf scholars of the twentieth-century, Susan studied with Richard Ellmann at Northwestern University, where with his encouragement she edited an annotated, critical, variorum edition of George Moore’s autobiographical novel Confessions of a Young Man (1972) before directing her considerable editorial abilities to Virginia Woolf. Her edited transcription of the holograph of To the Lighthouse (University of Toronto Press, 1982) set a high scholarly standard for editions of Woolf manuscripts.

She then turned her abilities to the editing of Woolf’s short stories. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf was published by the Hogarth Press in 1985 and four years later in an expanded and revised edition. Its introduction, notes, and appendices have made it the standard text for Woolf’s short fiction. Susan then wrote for the Modern Fiction series published by Edward Arnold (1989) a short account of Virginia Woolf that is still the best introduction to her work.

In 1988 Susan fell and was hospitalized for nearly a year with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which was complicated by the birth defect of a deformed spine. She wrote a memorable account, with allusions to Virginia Woolf, of her ordeal in “Being Ill/Being Well: Reflections on an Illness” for the Queen’s Quarterly in 1992. Susan never completely recovered from her illness, but she was able nevertheless to edit an invaluable scholarly edition of To the Lighthouse (1992) for Blackwell’s Shakespeare Head Press Edition of Virginia Woolf, on the editorial committee of which she also served. Later with Mary S. Millar she edited Between the Acts (2002) with the same care and rigour.

Meeting with this small, quiet, unassuming woman, one was unprepared for a tough-mindedness that never lost its sense of humour. She will be much missed.

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Romantic Moderns in the money

An academically focused text has won this year’s Guardian First Book award and £10,000.

Alexandra Harris’s Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper beat four other works. It covers English writers of the 1930s and ’40s.

You can read the first chapter on the Guardian website. You can also read the review roundup.

The book is now available in the U.S.

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