Monthly Archives: March 2013

Who Owns Our Words?

Growing up, I was always fascinated by the idea that Otto Frank took it upon himself to publish his daughter’s diary. Of course, I was enough of a teenage narcissist to imagine any number of my relatives marching to a publishing house, loosely-bound denim notebook in hand, if something were to happen to me. But would I have honestly wanted that? Unfortunately (or fortunately), there’s no check box on the back of my driver’s license for this kind of thing like there is for organ donation—despite that my four volumes of childhood self-correspondence are sometimes akin to emotional arms and legs.

So how much of a say do we have over the public release of our letters and reflections after we die? For some people, the only writings at risk are Facebook messages, emails, and other online documents. But dealing with a deceased person’s digital records seems like a nebulous affair; my good friend Kate Tummarello at Communications Daily wrote a fascinating story on the subject. It’s a sticky business, and that’s why the recent release of Willa Cather’s letters (NPR) is something we should all be thinking about, especially now that post-mortem vulnerability isn’t limited to famous or affluent people.

I’m really torn on this issue—on the one hand, Cather was vehemently opposed (Jezebel) to her letters ever being available to the public eye; she wanted her readers to know her solely through her work. On the other hand, this article from The Guardian raises some interesting points:

Acknowledging in their preface that the publication “flagrantly” violates Cather’s intentions, [Cather scholars Andrew] Jewell and [Janis] Stout assert that “these lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation”, instead showing the author as “a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being”. Cather, Stout told the New York Times, “no longer belongs entirely to herself. She belongs to everyone.”to herself. She belongs to everyone.”

It leads me to wonder what our values are when it comes to understanding people better—should we poke and prod until we understand how thoroughly complicated someone once was? Or should we respect her innermost wishes, and limit ourselves to the persona she exuded merely through her life’s work and actions? Both approaches have different intentions and they yield different results. But it’s worth thinking about, and it’s worth considering why we (myself very much included) have such strong desires to read these people’s letters in the first place.

Addendum: In a follow-up blog post, I’ll relate this issue to that of privacy and the human genome, specifically with regard to the Henrietta Lacks case (The Scientist), which is making headlines in many publications including NOVA Next—a project I’m heavily involved in now at work. I think there’s a fair amount of crosstalk between these two situations, and of course I love an excuse to merge science and literature! Stay tuned.

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Different People, Same Concept

Forbes Magazine‘s fifth most powerful woman in the world, Sheryl Sandburg, has been the subject of stormy op-eds lately due to the publication of her new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Here’s her interview with NPR, in which she mentions that one of her favorite motivational posters reads: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

I’ll write about what I think of the discussion surrounding Sandburg another time, but for now I just want to point out a similar passage in an essay written by Henry Miller and cited in the anthology, Creators on Creating: Awakening and Cultivating the Imaginative Mind. I want to reference this collection in future blog posts because there’s a ton of great ideas stored in its leaves. Miller’s essay stands at the beginning of the text—an appropriate choice on the part of the editor, in my opinion. “Every day we slaughter our finest impulses,” Miller writes in the short piece. Every day we refrain from saying things that, it turns out, other people want to hear or have already thought about, too. If only we weren’t so afraid to say them.

For some reason, when I read both of these comments, I had an overwhelming desire to talk about this one moment in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. It’s a solo oboe entrance, and for years it’s captivated me. I don’t know what it is about this moment, but I’m just going to put it out there—listen for it at 1:15 in this recording:

It’s almost like five or ten or twenty different kinds and shades of oboe are playing in those few seconds, because the changing tapestry guides it through a process. I heard someone in an NPR interview recently describe classical music as a “growth” or a “change.” That’s how I see this oboe passage. I don’t know why I desperately wanted to discuss this upon reading Sheryl Sandburg’s and Henry Miller’s words, but it’s been something I’ve thought about since my sophomore year of college. Maybe things like that are worth sharing.

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Autobiography of a Body

Today was the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony, held in the New School’s Tishman Auditorium in New York. The NBCC’s website highlights some of the winners’ works, including two nonfiction honorees, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon and  Swimming Studies (The New York Times Book Review) by Leanne Shapton, which, according to publishing editor Barbara Hoffert,

“… also broke a mold, rethinking the autobiography category as it presented the life of a body, reflecting on Shapton’s experience as a champion swimmer and subsequent experiences as an artist.”

The idea that an autobiography could unveil the story of the body reminded me of a headline I read in The New Yorker several weeks ago; it had to do with Richard III’s newly-excavated (from beneath a social services parking lot) bones. The Shape of a Life details the interplay of Thomas More’s, Shakespeare’s, and history’s characterizations of the 15th century King of England. In doing so, author Stephen Greenblatt pays particular attention to the awkward, vaguely grotesque figuring of Richard’s spine: “But the most interesting piece of evidence,” he writes, “is the spine, weirdly curved in a ghastly S.” At the end of the piece, Greenblatt notes that in Shakespeare’s play, despite the hunchback’s strange appearance, he still

“… seduces Lady Anne, whose husband and father-in-law he has murdered, and more important, perhaps, in his jaunty wickedness and perverse humor, he has seduced more than four centuries of audiences. That seduction accounts for the excitement that the unearthing of the skeleton occasioned, and that skeleton in turn seems to confirm Shakespeare’s intuition that there is a relationship between the shape of a spine and the shape of a life.”

What a marvelous closing sentence. And it makes me wonder whether maybe telling the story of a life through the mind and the heart is too head-on, too intentional. What if we did the rhetorical equivalent of what so many people do to get a good night’s sleep: start with the toes and migrate upward, focusing on each body part until the person is transformed—into slumber, or into some other state. It seems that we’d potentially learn a lot more, or at least we’d be able to see the patterns of history and sociology and science (and ourselves) from a different perspective. Not to get too philosophical here, but while we’re at it: The person and the body are connected—they’re not separate things. Maybe Shapton is onto something with her new approach to the autobiography. Anyway, I’m curious to read both hers and Solomon’s books.

And by the way, check out this cool news—researchers are looking into 3D-printing Richard III’s skull.

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