The Lilly Library & Mrs. Dalloway

Last Friday while working at the Lilly Library, I had a moment.

It has become commonplace for me to handle books that are from 100, 200, 300+ years ago. I go to work and get paid to do so. Although I am sometimes slack-jawed at the treasures that emerge from the vault and the stacks, as a Reference Attendant my job is to transport materials to and from the patron’s desk; I can’t linger with the materials because my eyes need to be on the desks spanning the Reading Room. Often when I’m working I have to consciously downplay the fact that the Lilly stores items that will make me weak in the knees.

Last Friday afternoon, I was scheduled to work at the Lilly. I had one hour left when I switched from sitting at the front desk to the Reading Room at 3 PM. This is standard; generally we will switch spots once an hour or once every two hours. The Reading Room wasn’t terribly busy: two German researchers who were by now regulars, a professor who teaches a manuscripts practicum in the Lilly, and a student looking at materials for a class. Certainly nothing like the zoo the previous Friday had been! The Germans were looking at thumb Bibles, the student was looking for watermarks on the pages of several books on hold for her course. Standard fare–or at least what I was used to. But what the professor was looking at piqued my interest. The orange and beige casing sat next to me and my Gish Jen novel, gold lettering on the spine reading: Mrs. Dalloway – Author’s Proof with Corrections.

Virginia Woolf’s corrections.

When I was in high school, I was assigned my first serious literary essay. My classmates and I were told to pick a book from a list of classics, then write a 20+ page essay. We had to cite sources, and use real scholarly databases–as you can imagine, it was all very overwhelming. Guess what book I chose?

Yes. Mrs. Dalloway.

I have memories of being in high school and staying up so late that my eyes strained, trying to finish yet another draft. Of reading bloodless scholarly essays on the role of time and whatever else wannabe-tenured folks blathered on about, contributing maybe one sizable idea in thirty-some pages of indulgent pontificating. Of getting lost in a web of boredom while doing research for my essay but loving Clarissa Dalloway nonetheless. My first introduction to Virginia Woolf happened due to that assignment, so juxtaposing the memory of curling up on the couch and reading my own bent-up paperback to the new knowledge that a proof filled with Woolf’s scribblings, her real handwriting, was within mere feet of me made me giddy. How strange the world is, and how magical.

So when the manuscripts professor left to take a break, leaving his things on the table, I knew that I needed to take a peek, ever so quickly. Granted, I could have come in at any time and looked at it myself, but the need to just see a few markings overcame me. Unprofessional yearnings.

The scene: loose pages, sitting in two stacks on the thick blue cardstock that manuscripts are laid upon. The professor’s small netbook sitting open next to them, screen black. A lone pencil. Gray light filtering weakly through the towering windows. I glanced at a few arbitrarily chosen sections of the novel, careful not to lose the pages the professor had been studying. Semi-colons inserted with jerky lines of blue-purple ink. In pencil, on the title page, the word “by” inserted between Mrs. Dalloway and Virginia Woolf.

I have no practical use for the proof; I’m not a researcher. I’m not studying the manuscript either for its physical form or for its content. But still, it’s funny the things that run through your mind. You feel all stirred up by the fact that this woman’s actual handwriting is so close. As though you can read her thoughts and perspective through her corrections. As though you somehow know her better than someone who hasn’t seen it. As though, I don’t know, you’ll become a better writer by dint of soaking up her talent, more than 75 years after her hands shuffled through the pages of the proof.

There are many wondrous things at the Lilly. The diaries of Vita Sackville-West. Select correspondence by Anais Nin. Sylvia Plath’s locks of hair, drafts of her writings. Theodore Dreiser’s typescript of Dawn. Edith Wharton’s diaries, correspondence and typescripts. Drafts of William Carlos Williams’ and Robert Creeley’s poems. A bunch of stuff that makes my bookworm heart go all aflutter in a way that has little to do with librarianship, per se, and everything to do with cultural history and memories of how these literary greats have shaped me at different parts of my life.

I am still trying to ponder how I can make the most of the Lilly’s treasures while I am a student here at IU. I’m not sure how to appreciate them yet. Is being awestruck and taking time to have quiet, personal, and fruitless communion with the past enough?

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