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Several months ago I responded to a call for submissions on “Books that changed myawritersdiary_woolf-1 life” at an eclectic site called The Drunken Odyssey – a podcast about the writing life. I asked the editor, John King, if he’d be interested in my story about A Writer’s Diary.  He responded with enthusiasm—turns out he’d studied with Woolf scholar Anne Fernald.

The segment was published this week in Episode 189 of The Drunken Odyssey. It starts with a lengthy discussion about Lawrence Ferlinghetti. If you want to skip ahead, I’m at the end, starting at about 51:50. My husband is a musician with a home studio, so he recorded my piece and added the accompaniment.

It’s not an overstatement that A Writer’s Diary changed my life, and I enjoyed having this opportunity to tell my tale outside of the usual Woolfian circles—to preach beyond the choir.

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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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Princeton t-shirtOne of the big hits at Woolf and the City was the performance by the West Coast band Princeton, who rocked out on stage Friday evening with all four tunes from their “Bloomsbury” album.

Another big hit was the Virginia Woolf t-shirt the band sold. It featured Virginia looking trés cool behind a pair of metallic-gold-trimmed Ray-Bans.

You, too, can be trés cool. Order a shirt from the band’s MySpace page. Scroll way down. Choose your size — men’s or women’s from small to large — and click on the “Pay Now” link to pay through PayPal.

Tip: The shirts are 100 percent cotton, and the women’s sizes run small. Bump your order up a size.

While you are on their site, you can check out their music.

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princeton bandIs Virginia Woolf fun? Most people don’t think of her that way, but she definitely had a fun, playful side.

That side will be center stage when the band Princeton and the Stephen Pelton Dance Theater combine to present “it was this: it was this:”, songs and dance inspired by the life and work of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, at this year’s 19th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf.

The performance, June 5 at 8 p.m., is being billed as “Southern California frolic meets Northern California serious in a one-night-only collaboration of song and dance.”

It will be held at Pope Auditorium, 113 W 60th St. on the Fordham University campus in New York City, and tickets are still available.

Princeton will perform all of the songs from their recent album titled “Bloomsbury.” Each song presents a musical portrait of a member of the Bloomsbury group, including Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes.

The band, comprised of twin brothers Jesse and Matt Kivel and Ben Usen, will be joined by eight additional musicians in recreating their frolicsome, exuberant take on the cast of Bloomsbury characters.

The Stephen Pelton Dance Theater, known for known its intimate theatricality and emotional intensity, may be familiar to audiences from previous Woolf conferences.

This year the company will perform several new works, including the premiere of “it was this: it was this:”, a choreographic study of Woolf’s punctuation. Using a single paragraph from To the Lighthouse, the company dances its way from the first word to the last, pausing briefly for every comma, parentheses and semicolon in between. The company also performs a revised version of “The Death of the Moth,” first seen at the Plymouth State Conference in 1997.

The artists will combine forces for the premiere of Lytton/Carrington, a portrait-in-miniature of this original love story.

“What is most interesting to me in this collaboration with Princeton, is how remarkably different our approaches to Woolf are,” Pelton writes.” I suspect that some of this may be attributable to the fact that we are from completely different generations—I am in my mid-forties, they in their early twenties. Their sweet, light-hearted and, at times, irreverent response to the material would have been unthinkable to me twenty years ago when I started to read Woolf and make dances inspired by her.

“Though they are always respectful, their songs embrace the playful spirit in Woolf’s work and in the lives of her colleagues; whereas I have tended to focus my response on the gravity of Woolf’s concerns. This contrast should make for a very fascinating evening in the theater.”

The performance will be part of Woolf and the City, the 19th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, held June 4 to 7 at Fordham.

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dinnerInterested in having Dinner with Virginia and friends? Order the chapbook-CD combination by the same name.

The new book and CD premiered at a one-night event April 18 in San Francisco. Together, they use poetry and music to posit a formal party hosted by Virginia Woolf for 16 eccentric historical figures.

Guests include the unlikely mix of Billie Holiday, Salvador Dalí, and Thelonious Monk, all of whom act out and think out loud — and silently.

Poet Jesse Nathan is the chapbook author, and Chris Jantzen is the composer and performer of the music on the CD and the designer of the collages included in the book.

Read a review of Dinner on BeyondChron: San Francisco’s alternative online daily, and find out how to order it.

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spoken-wordsLet’s all thank our lucky stars for the enlightened souls at the BBC who saved eight minutes of Virginia Woolf’s recorded voice. It is the only recording of her voice that has survived from the three broadcasts she did for the BBC in the 1930s.

Now Woolf’s voice, along with those of other great writers of the 20th century, can be heard in its entirety for the first time on a three-disc set of CDs produced by the British Library called “The Spoken Word: British Writers.”

The set features the voices of 30 British writers and includes many previously unpublished recordings. Another set, “The Spoken Word: American Writers,” features 27 authors from the U.S.

When Woolf’s recordings were made, people simply didn’t keep radio broadcasts, according to Richard Fairman of the British Library. “They went out on the air and that was it; they were lost forever,” Fairman told NPR‘s Melissa Block.

“The recording of Woolf is nothing like the interviews common on the radio today,” he said.

Hearing the voices of famous authors on CD is “not quite as good as having them walk up to you, but it’s not bad,” he told the Telegraph.

You can listen to Woolf talk about “Craftsmanship” in the series “Words Fail Me,” which was broadcast on the BBC April 29, 1937, here.

On You Tube, you can watch a video featuring a record spinning on a turntable that gives us eight minutes of Vita Sackville-West reading from her prize-winning poem “The Land.” The recording was made by Columbia in 1931 for the International Education Society.

You can also search the British Library’s online archive of more than 1,500 sound recordings that it has made here.

Read more in brief about the British Library CD sets of famous authors in the London Review of Books, Time and the Telegraph.

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