Friday, April 16, 2010

From the Mixed-Up Files to the Midnight Library

My favorite children’s book led me to break the law. Well, not a real law. A college law. The law that when the library closes, you need to leave the premises, not hide away in the basement with a sleeping bag and a stash of food, so you can spend the night wandering the wood-paneled reference room with is club chairs and balconies. The children’s book that sent me onto this crooked path? From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, of course.

E.L. Konigsberg’s 1968 Newberry Award-winner about a brother and sister who solve a mystery while hiding out in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art captivated me right away. As a child whose upbringing was often confusing and usually chaotic, I loved Claudia and Jamie’s ability to read meaning into the clues they discovered. Their world was a mystery they could solve. And their world was a world of their own making, a home fashioned out of a public place; a public place turned private, safe, and even cozy. Of course I’m sure I didn’t realize all of this at the time. Reading and re-reading the book in childhood, I only knew that I loved the way the children wandered among the artworks at night, how they fished coins out of the museum fountains to spend in the vending machines, how they outsmarted not just the forger of the mystery plot but all the other adults who ran the museum or came and went in its exhibits during the day.

As a young adult, I knew that I wanted to experience that midnight ownership of a public place. I could have spent the night in the science center. The performing arts building would have been an even better choice, since it was the closest thing my small, liberal-arts college offered as a museum at the time. But, no. It had to be the library. The college library offered a perfect combination of 1. Opportunity for mischief and 2. Books. The library, and especially the reference room with its coveted windowed alcoves, was my favorite place on campus.

On the planned night, my college boyfriend and I carried fuller-than-usual knapsacks through the main doors, pulled homework out from beneath our overnight stuff, and settled in to work until the closing warning sounded. We moved to the basement stacks known as the Tombs until the staff had finished its sweep, and then, once the lights went out and the Exit signs provided the only glow throughout the building, we emerged.

The library was a lovely place for me during the day, but at night, in a flashlight’s beam, it became magical: the books at rest, their stories and information seeming almost to breathe deeply in the silence of the space, the shadows gliding over the shelves, the chairs, the balconies as time passed.

I realize how thoroughly geeky this sounds, and I make no apologies. I was engaged in a purely meta moment of the adoration of books. Inspired by a book, I recreated its adventure. Among books. It was perfect.

Have you ever recreated a scene or event from a favorite book?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sample, Mix, Allude: How to Handle Originality

I’ve been thinking about plagiarism lately. Not that I’m planning to commit it. It’s not like I’m hoarding quotations in some rooftop bunker and planning to unleash them in a spree of improper citations. It’s just that, as I listen to songs with bass lines borrowed from older hits, or watch movies with scenes structured to allude to classic films, or think about David Shields’ recent manifesto, I wonder about the limits of originality in our creative culture.

I’m a fuddy-duddy about this, I know. In fact, one of my last jobs in academia was informally titled Plagiarism Czar; certain students charged with academic dishonesty were sent to me for re-education. I would show them how to cite and how to achieve the combination of deference and individual assertion that defines the American approach to intellectual sources. Whether my students were bumblers or connivers, I always tried to convey the fact that citing your source properly actually makes you sound smarter than if you simply borrow without telling. You get to drop the name and sound like the intelligent guest at the cocktail party—while still touting your own idea. Originality with the sheen of tradition.