What is a Book? Notes from the Symposium on 4/17


This is a reblog of a post written in collaboration with my classmates and Prof. Marissa Nicosia at Scripps College in our class ENGL 197: What is a Book?

Originally posted on marginal notes:

This post was written in collaboration with the students in my course, ENGL 197: What is a Book? 

IMG_3035This course began with a desire to think about the place of the book in humanist inquiry. When we study literature we read books, but we do not always pause to consider what they are or why they are the way they are. What is a book anyway? A dense wood-pulp rectangle? A performance? A scrolling screen? This semester we have asked these questions of an array of materials in special collections at the Denison and Honnold-Mudd libraries, and at the Scripps College Press. We considered the roles of authors, publishers, readers, annotators, illustrators, book artists, and booksellers. We pursued detailed research about three case studies: the multiple texts of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the media explosion that accompanied the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and the perpetually revised editions of…

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5 Writing Habits I Can’t Wait to Get Rid Of


At the end and beginning of every semester, I like to think about what I could have done better in terms of my writing habits, studying schedule, and just LIVING as a graduate student in general. When I finished my first semester in my PhD program last December, I took note of my writing habits and decided that the following need to be jettisoned ASAP.

  1. Hunching and/or tense shoulders: I noticed this when I started going to Barre classes that my shoulders are almost always raised or hunched over something. (No wonder backaches have been more bothersome last year.) In an effort to correct my posture and ease some of the strain, I bought myself a book stand so I can avoid the temptation to hunch over my books. Who knew grad school was so physically taxing? Bad posture isn’t sexy. On anyone.
  2. Writing alone: I started writing papers with a grad school buddy late last semester and I realize how refreshing it is to turn to someone and ask, “Hey, does this make sense?” and get immediate feedback. Writing can be solitary and there are times when you have to be alone with your writing (to do all the thinking, the self-doubting, weeping, screaming, etc.), but it shouldn’t always be so isolating. I’m hoping to do this more often.
  3. Comparing my progress to others: This one is less about writing habits but more of the mental and psychological space I inhabit when I’m writing. I’ve learned that I tend to stew on ideas for a while and that, comparatively, I’m not a fast writer (about 2-3 pages an hour, if I’m lucky). The one pitfall of writing with a buddy is that the “check-ins” you do with each other can be discouraging, especially if you feel like you’re stuck. The good thing is that, if your writing buddy is compassionate, he or she will give you some encouragement to keep going and work through the impasse.
  4. Rewarding myself with social media every 25 minutes: This one is difficult. I have Strict Workflow installed on my browser to block websites for 25 minutes at a time while I write. It’s supposed to encourage me to work steadily and focus on my writing for short bursts of time, followed by a 5-minute break. It has been quite successful, but I find that my “reward” isn’t to get up or stretch, it’s usually to see what’s the latest on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. This speaks more to my own social media habits than my writing, but the intersection of both, I realize, is quite unexplored and can be improved.
  5. Grunting: This feels like a new discovery, but I probably have been doing this for some time. I found that I grunt whenever I hit a wall–writer’s block or just out of steam–and it rarely leads me to a productive place. I tend to grunt when I write sentences I don’t quite find right, but for the sake of moving forward, I keep (after highlighting, underlining, and changing font colors so I don’t forget to return to them). Grunting has to go, especially because I like writing in public places like the Student Success Center on campus where the free coffee attracts many students and staff. The sooner I get rid of it, the sooner I look less like a grunting weirdo writer and more like a hardworking weirdo writer. Plus, I believe that if I think positively and spin my negative responses (like grunting) to my frustrations, I will actually be able to move past them and try to be productive.

How to have a productive summer


This is what trying to be productive in the summer can sometimes feel (see photo above). Sure, the semester is over and you’ve got a few books to read until school resumes in the fall, but that’s for later, right? Why work when there’s sunshine and beaches and picnics and trips and friends? If you’re anything like me, however, the guilt will sink in days (if not weeks!) after you’ve absconded with your sunscreen and summer playlists. The dread settles in and you are now officially behind with your work. What to do? From my experience, I found that planning, discipline, and, believe it or not, lots of breaks will help you stay sane and productive throughout the blissful summer days.

  1. Organize your time well. For me, this is a skill I’m always working on. It’s easy to get derailed by binge-watching Arrested Development episodes, hikes with friends, and dinners and lunches with pals you’ve lost contact with over a semester (or five…). I have learned to use my Google Calendar more effectively by creating different calendars: work, school, and social. It allows me to categorize and organize my time by helping me keep track of everything I am doing/would want to do/have planned to do. It also allows me to see if I’m doing a poor job of balancing my time between work and play. It can get especially maddening during the semester, but with a little patience and some practice over the summer (when things are less hectic), these calendars can be very helpful.
  2. Make yourself accountable (or get a friend to answer to). When I was an undergrad, I had a professor give me the following advice: Say what you do and do what you say. Doing so is an exercise in accountability. You’d hate to renege on something you said you would do, particularly if that someone is a professor, an employer/supervisor, or a colleague. I can be terrible at this, especially in the summer, so it’s helpful to stay connected with your network of friends and colleagues to keep you motivated. Join a writing group that meets regularly if you need to write something over the summer (or if there isn’t one, start one!). Communicate with your faculty adviser or mentor and let them know your progress so that a) they’re in the loop and b) you have someone to answer to. Sometimes all we need is a little push to not look like slackers to get us to do something.
  3. Take breaks (and lots of it). It’s hard to feel like you’re missing out on summer when you’re shut inside a room or the library reading, writing, researching, or whathaveyou. Work efficiently—set up a writing or reading time for an hour and a half, and when time is up, leave/go out/stand up/walk around/etc. for a good 10 to 15 minutes. Sit on a bench outside, take a quick walk in the park, have a snack. Whatever it is, take a break. Working through the summer will feel less painful if you stop for a few minutes, look around, and enjoy the moment.

*Photo of a greeting card I received from my best friend when I graduated from college.

The house of fi…

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbors are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; …

Henry James from “The Preface to the New York Edition” of The Portrait of a Lady (1908).

“Rats live on no evil star”

Photo by Francesca

I was reading casually through Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (New  York: Delacorte Press, 2012) edited by Dan Wakefield to take a break from some assigned reading and I found myself looking for Kurt Vonnegut’s letters to his daughter Nanny. His letters to her are funny, snarky at times, but always heartfelt. His letters carry this sense of conversation—like the recipient had just left speaking with him and he’s written a note to continue it with his own stories and thoughts. I think the best letters tend to have this quality. Here’s one from November 14, 1977.

November 14, 1977
[New York City]


Dearest of all possible Nans—

Two superb presents and a funny-sad letter from you—on my fifty-fifth birthday. Much obliged. A couple of other family birthdays this month: Allie’s is on the 18th, Father’s on the 23rd. I miss them. Father was a failed artist, but not an envious one. The beautiful work you and Edie are doing now would have given him exactly as much joy as doing it himself. Anybody’s doing good things in the arts made him bubble and croon.

I was looking through the published Letters of Anne Sexton, a Boston poet, a friend of mine who knocked herself off a couple of years ago. In one of the letters she tells of a palindrome she saw written on the side of a barn in Ireland. A palindrome, as you probably know, is a sentence that reads the same backwards as forwards—like “Madam, I’m Adam,” and “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” Here’s the one Anne saw, and it’s the best one I ever heard: “Rats live on no evil star.”

As always—love—


From Dan Wakefield, ed., Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (New York: Delacorte Press, 2012), p. 256. Copyright 2012 by The Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Trust

On Grad School


When I started my master’s program in fall 2011, I wanted to work hard and write well. I devoted my first year to doing just that. I read as much as I can, thought well and hard about my critical essays, and gave my brain the workout of its life (while trying to juggle 2 part-time jobs). And it nearly drove me insane.

By the end of my first year, I was beset with doubts, fatigue, and reader remorse (the feeling you get when you know you would love what you are reading had circumstances been different). In retrospect, it’s easy to find the culprit for this: I was out of balance. I was working hard and nothing else. I was on a harsh graduate school motto of “All work and no play makes Francesca a successful graduate student.” Clearly, “success” meant being nearly driven to pull my hair out. I felt like I was drowning in reading. I was working hard, but not smart. (This made it hard to even recall what I did last summer and if I did, in fact, enjoy it. I probably did not enjoy it as much as I could have.)

After two semesters of insomnia-inducing terror of failure (I wanted to see if it was just the adjustment to grad school or not), I’ve decided to start over—in both my philosophy and outlook—to achieve (better) balance. It’s not perfect, but I’m making progress.

For my second year of graduate school (it’s taking me three to finish–that’s a related entry on time-management and going at your own pace), I wanted to bridge the gap between “joy” and “work.”* I think this is pretty self-explanatory, but difficult to apply. It is in this liminal space that I try to do my work. This means working effectively (read: no distractions) to make sure that I read, synthesize, and critically think about my work. It doesn’t always happen all at once—it’s a recursive process (much like writing) that takes revisiting, rereading, and rethinking.

This also means that I stop to enjoy what I’m doing. If you’re anything like me (most Capricorns and results-oriented folks), I see things in terms of process, puzzles, and goals to reach. There’s not much space or time for enjoyment—and if there is enjoyment, it’s somewhere along the way, a minute (if not fleeting) moment.

And so I added another reminder (thanks to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who said the best things about most things):

I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’

I try to remind myself my reason for going back to school and for choosing a school that is rigorous and challenging: I love literature and I love to learn it. Sometimes it takes time to reflect to realize this. Other times, it takes a simple change of scene from studying in a library to an outdoor patio. Sometimes it comes from talking to friends or just sitting around with a book on literary censorship in Caroline England and finding yourself enthralled. (That one is harder for some people.)

But it does happen and I try to take notice. And I’m sure that these methods and routines will change along the way. I am, after all, going for a PhD in a few years and will definitely need to rethink some of these habits and outlook. For now, I want to live in that “middle-space” and hopefully, this will give me a more meaningful, instructive (academically and otherwise), and enjoyable journey through academia. The bridge between “work” and “joy” is one worth building. For my sanity’s sake.**


*I remembered this idea from an interview of Stephen Colbert in Rolling Stone. I’m sure other “literary” people have said similarly illuminating and wise advice, but hey, it’s Colbert that did it for me. I know. The man is a genius.

**I switched one part-time job for a less hectic one. It made a world of difference.