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Pickle Me This

October 19, 2010

Notables: Street Haunting by Virginia Woolf

May/June 2005 was certainly an exciting time in the history of the universe– Penguin Books had just turned 70, and I was about to get married. These two occasions colliding one day on Oxford Street in London where I happened to be shopping for a wedding dress, and had stopped into a Waterstones where Priscilla Presley was scheduled to be appearing. Though I was devastated to discover that we’d shown up for Priscilla precisely one day late, so I never got to see her promoting her new book. Instead, I bought a copy of Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, a gorgeous little volume (for 1 pound fifty!) that had been published as part of Penguin’s birthday celebration.

So it’s not an especially rare book, or an old one, but it’s notable to me. It contains six examples of Woolf’s essays and short fiction, which blur the lines between the two particularly. And to be honest, I would have had an impossible time ever cracking this book and getting through its 56 page had I a month later not happened to sign up for a course in Woolf’s essays and short fiction at UofT where I was to begin graduate studies in September. Woolf’s essays and short fiction meaning nothing to me previously– I’d bought the book because I liked the idea of Woolf more than I really understood her work, and I’d signed up for the course because it was the only Woolf-course available.

My performance in the course was positively dismal, and if you never see me in graduate school again (which, I assure you, you won’t!), the challenges I faced in that course are all the reasons why. If by challenges, of course, you mean the brick wall I kept banging my head against in an attempt to understand academic theory, which, oddly enough, no one had ever mentioned to me during my undergraduate career, or just my efforts to get along in grad school life in general, which met with very poor results. Grad school taught me that I’m really not cut out for grad school, BUT, I learned so very much along the way. Like how to read Virginia Woolf, and that changed everything.

Because I found that her essays and short fiction really are the key to understanding her larger projects, and the foundations behind them. From reading her book reviews, and her Common Reader essays, and her short stories, I found myself positively immersed in her work, and my general academic stupidity aside, I became fluent in Woolf. I understand Woolfian arguments now, and how they turn and wobble, and the straight path was never her intention, so if you get confused reading Virginia Woolf, it’s because you’re supposed to.

And I couldn’t have learned any of this all on my own– if I’d taken a break from wedding planning during that day to read Street Haunting as I was swept along with the Oxford Street tide, I would have found myself baffled and disappointed. I would have read all that weirdness and thought the problem was me. I was sorely in need of a little guidance to illuminate just what was going on, and never mind that that guidance was just showing me the door out of academia, but en route, oh what I learned as I shuffled to the exit.

I learned to read Virginia Woolf— because there’s a knack to it, of course. It’s hard and weird, but infinitely rewarding, and the universe is a more mesmerizing place for it. I could pick up a copy of Street Haunting now and follow its meanderings for hours.

So I like this book because it’s a souvenir, and also because I learned to read Virginia Woolf is another way of saying I have lived.

August 25, 2010

Notables: The Little Mother Goose

Though I collect books, I am by no means a Book Collector, because most of my books are battered paperbacks that Penguin put out in the ’70s. I do, however, have some notable exceptions in my library, which are by no means valuable or rare, but they still possess a certain kind of charm. And so these books will be the subject of a new Pickle Me This feature, which I have just entitled Notables.

The first notable is The Little Mother Goose by Jessie Wilcox Smith, and the first cool thing about this book is that it’s available in its entirety as a Project Gutenbergy eBook, whose pictures are sharper than those in my book, which is points for digitization. My book doesn’t have hyperlinks either.

My book, however, unlike the digital version, is almost ninety years old, and is inscribed (in ink that hasn’t even faded), “To Helen on her fifth birthday. from Mama.” Helen is my late-grandmother, and her mother died when she was eight years old. My mother, who is Helen’s daughter, had the book rebound, and gave it to me for Christmas two years ago when I was pregnant with Harriet.

(The power of book as object [or I suppose the power of object in general, of relic] is underlined by what I find in my great-grandmother’s letters, which I have a collection of. On a whim, I just opened it to April 16, 1923, and found this: “My dear Susie, This is Helen’s birthday and she had quite a glorious time. She started kindergarten last week but I didn’t let her go today as she had quite a cold and I thoguht maybe she was developing measles…/ Your brass jardinier came long ago. She is very fond of it and spent about a half hour polishing it today. Other gifts she received were- A pair of gloves from Daddy/ A Child’s Garden of Verses by Stevenson from Clara…/ Skipping rope from James/ The Little Mother Goose illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith from Mama and a hankie from little Hazel Keenan who was here for tea. I made a lovely angel cake and of course it had candles, Mother brought ice cream for a treat too. So the child had quite an exciting day altogether.”

Indeed, as Tom Stoppard wrote in Arcadia, “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind…” Though I wonder what happened to the hankie or the jardinier. I imagine the cake was devoured…)

Anyway, I’m way off track. In addition to its beautiful illustrations, this book is full of nursery rhymes you’ve never ever heard of, and the proportional few that you have.

Like, “Pickeleem, pickleem, pummis-stone! What is the news, my beautiful one? My pet doll-baby, Frances Maria, Suddenly fainted and fell in the fire; The clock on the mantle gave the alarm,/ But all we could save was one china arm.” And that little-known second verse to Jack and Jill: “Up Jack got and home did trot, As fast as he could caper; Dame Jill had the job to plaster his knob, With vinegar and brown paper.” Um, yes.

A few rhymes referencing something called “Chop a nose day.”

And many riddles, including “A riddle, a riddle, I suppose. A hundred eyes and never a nose.” (Answer: a cinder-sifter). I probably wouldn’t have got that one.

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