It is Saturday, 1 November 2014. I am book-browsing at Barnes and Noble on Fifth Avenue in New York City when my attention is caught by a collection of beautifully produced volumes. I look closer and realise that these books are part of what’s called the Leatherbound Classic series. An assistant informs me that these fine specimens help to ‘embellish your book collection’. Since this exchange, I am reminded time and again that, as symbols of cultural refinement, books really matter. And, though we are meant to be living in a digital age, the symbolic significance of the book continues to enjoy cultural valuation. That is why, often when I do a television interview at home or in my university office, I am asked to stand in front of my bookshelf and pretend to be reading one of the texts.
Since the invention of the cuneiform system of writing in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE and of hieroglyphics in Egypt around 3150 BCE, the serious reader of texts has enjoyed cultural acclamation. The clay tablets on which marks and signs were inscribed were regarded as precious and sometimes sacred artefacts. The ability to decipher and interpret the symbols and signs was seen as an extraordinary accomplishment. Egyptian hieroglyphics were thought to possess magical powers and, to this day, many readers regard books as a medium for gaining a spiritual experience. Since text possesses so much symbolic significance, how people read and what they read is widely perceived as an important feature of their identity. Reading has always been a marker of character, which is why people throughout history have invested considerable cultural and emotional resources in cultivating identities as lovers of books.
Sitting there, holding A Rather Haunted Life in my hands, I re-read the Gaiman blurb over and over. I don’t make it a habit of parsing blurbs, but the oblique reference to Russ confused me. It wasn’t quite the right title (and thus couldn’t be looked up), and it didn’t have a citation (and thus couldn’t be referenced), and it wasn’t a self-aware riff (like the title of this essay). I kept returning to it, annoyance growing, trying to figure out how no one had caught this simultaneously subtle and weirdly flagrant error. [...]
So what does it mean that a high-profile male writer, in praising an oft-overlooked female writer, used an unsourced, unsearchable reference to another oft-overlooked female writer’s seminal work in the process? For women artists, it is nothing new, though there is something oddly on-the-nose about it — a quote illustrating the very thing it condemns.
In the course of his life, Vincent van Gogh wrote hundreds of letters to his beloved brother Theo. “I have the grounds pretty well in my mind, and will choose a fine potato field at my ease,” he wrote in the early 1880s, when he was 30 and just beginning to think of himself as an artist. Vincent’s letters often sounded more like private speech than outward exchange; he didn’t seem to expect or require a reply. The act of writing, the expression of his internal, inchoate jumble of thoughts, was a crucial part of his creative process, helping him orient himself within his own vision and plan its execution. In “The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves,” Charles Fernyhough, a professor of psychology at Durham University in England, points to van Gogh’s letters as showing how these voices in our heads are connected to larger questions of thought, decision making, creativity — even consciousness itself.