Thursday, April 25, 2013

Literature wormholes and serendipity

This morning I snatched a little parcel of time to do some reading. I was reading this book.

I've recently become a bit of a fan of Lucy Worsley. I love the domestic details of history and she blogs about dresses and coats too (she also gives rather wonderful interviews about being 'childless,' which is an interesting quirk in feminist and social discourse at the moment, I think).

I was reading about Tudor beds and how they were sprung and how, as a result, people were sort of sitting up in bed. She reflected that the portraits of people sitting up in bed may have had less to do with the symbolism of their status and rather more to do with the give in the ropes. Just a minute, I thought, I remember that. A few years ago, I read an article about that. I can't find the original article (here's where she does write about it, though), but I remember it, because I was mulling over the subject matter of the book I'm working on and when I read about her discovery, it clicked my own ideas into place. There really was worth in thinking about how the practical day to day lives of people throughout history shape fairy tales.

Of course, I'd totally forgotten who had made this observation and I was travelling, so I didn't keep a copy of the article, but I've just now, by chance, rediscovered the author who helped me realise I was on to something.

It's serendipity sometimes. Just the other day, I was reading a post on The Thesis Whisperer about wormhole literature. The idea is that you can read and read and read and think you know everything about your particular field of scholarship. And then you find the one paper or article that opens up an entire universe of literature that you knew nothing about, but is exactly what you need. The fantastic Stargate analogies in the post aside, this is how it is. You can read and read and read, but it just takes one article, book, paper or even quote and you find 'your' universe: the universe of scholars who are thinking what you're thinking, who will provide support to your arguments, consolation when others disagree with you. It's a scary idea. What if you miss that one article, book, paper or quote? It's not inconceivable and the terrifying thing is - it does happen. Sometimes we never know. Sometimes the article/book/paper/quote does eventually find us, leaving us red-faced and a little excited all the same. However, scholarship is often about serendipity.

It's informed much of my career. I look back and I realise...

When I was nine or ten, I read These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. I've mentioned it before. It was the book that made me realise people can write stories about sinister dukes, girls with secret pasts, carriage chases and so forth. It's probably why I find so much 'serious literature' seriously disappointing.

In retrospect, it also echoes the French fairy tales of d'Aulnoy and her peers. There are detailed descriptions of the court and the lively salon culture, fashion is important and adventures include cross-dressing and being switched at birth.

When I was doing my Honours, I wrote a small essay about "Beauty and the Beast" after discovering Marina Warner quite by accident.

I thought if academics could really write books like that, I'd like to be an academic. And so I am. And so I'm working on my book. I wonder what I would be doing if I hadn't happened across From the Beast to the Blonde?

There's nothing we can really do to avoiding missing the significant (to us) article/book/paper/quote. We can't read all the things. We can't always be alert to what is important. But I do think we can listen for that little bell when we do read something and think 'Hmmmm?' Bottom line, it isn't always the reading we systematically do that is important. Serendipity has a big role to play.

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