The Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
September 27, 2009I think that’s where I’ve been for the past (Yikes!) four months. As you probably know, that’s Douglas Adams’s (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) clever play on the term “dark night of the soul.” It’s not as hopeless as the Slough of Despond, but more like the Bog of Blah, that overwhelming inertia that results when copy editing, proofreading and cataloging all come together in one short summer of “Huh?!? What was that? You mean that was it?”
And yet all sorts of really good things happened. The first of which was: I got a great cover design for my new novel, Pride/Prejudice. Check it out on my website home page. Next, HarperCollins produced an ARC, an advance reading copy. Even as the final copy-editing-proofreading-correction process is still going on, this early version is sent out to other authors who will, ideally, read it and give me blurbs. And yes, I got blurbs! Check them out on the “Books and Reviews” page of my website.
So why the Bog of Blah? I think it really was that deadly combination of copy editing, proofreading and cataloging. Even at the best of times, cataloging is 90% anal-retentive, passive-aggressive, rule-bound, nitpicking tedium, and 10% interesting classification questions. Most of the time it’s 99.9% nits. Being published also has its unavoidable and necessary lousy moments.
Cataloging is what I do to pay the rent. Writing is what I do for pleasure. It’s when the Day Job and the Creative Escape both involve fine-combing bloodsucking creepy-crawlies out of one’s hair that Despond appears on the horizon. If I were one of those two or three fortunate people who can earn a living writing fiction I’d probably welcome this once-a-novel louse-feast of the publishing process. As one of the editors at the recent Brooklyn Book Festival panel on “Authors as Editors” said, editing is a chance to use your “math brain” for a change. But when you already spend a significant part of your time every week grooming the other chimps, you really wish that, on your days off, you’d get to lie back and let someone else run their fingers through your fur.
At any rate, it’s over. Pride/Prejudice is moving inexorably toward its apotheosis as a published work. Meanwhile, the lice of cataloging are busy laying their eggs for tomorrow’s nitpicking. And I thought I’d share with you a selection of the pleasurable 10%, from the sublime to the ridiculous to the sophomoric.
First the genuine pleasures. Once in a great while I get to catalog something new. Not a book that’s so new (and usually, stupefyingly dull) that it hasn’t been cataloged before, but a subject that has only just been discovered. In other words, I catalog the printed work that discusses a discovery in the classification of zoology—taxonomy. Here’s a recent example: Anomaloglossus confusus, a new Ecuadorian frog formerly masquerading as ‘Colostethus’ chocoensis (Dendrobatoidea, Aromobatidae). OK, I admit that sounds pretty stupefying. But the point of it, what made it so much fun for me to work on, was that the authors had found this frog and decided that it was not, in fact a member of the known family of Dendrobatidae (poison dart frogs) but one of a whole new family, Aromobatidae. The authors got to name it, because they discovered it. When I was cataloging this monograph, looking up the new family name online, I was proud to see that the second author, Taran Grant, a scientist at the museum where I work, is now formally associated with this new taxonomic name.
Natural history is full of fascinating terms, and new species are being discovered all the time: there are side-necked turtles, whip scorpions and goblin spiders. There are dinosaurs who died in infancy (perinatal), leaving their little baby fossils to be unearthed eons later and analyzed for clues about their evolution: The perinate skull of Byronosaurus (Troodontidae) with observations on the cranial ontogeny of paravian theropods. There are “troglobitic” beetles and “troglomorphic” scorpions and even human “troglodytes”—cave dwellers all. (Cave fishes are referred to as “hypogean.”) Even this reluctant nitpicker has a certain soft spot for lice: the very first item I cataloged was: Sucking lice (Insecta, Anoplura) from indigenous Sulawesi rodents. And yes, if you’re wondering, there are lice that don’t suck. They’re called “chewing lice:” scientific term, Mallophaga.
Well, that’s about as cerebral as it gets. Most of the other pleasures are silly stuff, the kind of things that four-year-olds find hilarious, as do catalogers who’ve spent eight hours checking for missing semicolons and puzzling over whether a book is the proceedings of a named conference and is therefore entered under the name of the conference, or whether it’s just selected papers from an unnamed conference and requires a title main entry instead, or is perhaps simply a work of primary authorship and should have the main entry under the author, whose name is, naturally, John Smith…. Or, to quote from the 1958 version of The Fly: “Help me!”
For an example of a silly thing that’s also scientific, there’s the hemipenis, the generative organ of male squamates (lizards and snakes). Biologists find the hemipenis very useful in classification, as is evident in one of the all-time greatest titles in our library’s collection: The hemipenis of Philodryas Günther : a correction (Serpentes, Colubridae). Hemepenes (plural) come in pairs, and, according to Wikipedia, “Only one is used at a time, and some evidence indicates males alternate use between copulations … Often the hemipenis bears spines or hooks, in order to anchor the male within the female. Some species even have forked hemipenes (each hemipenis has two tips).” Oh, crikey!
But finally, at the end of the day, it just comes down to puerile, jackass-level humor. Like people’s interesting names. As someone with a weird last name of my own, I assure you I’m laughing with these people, not at them:
One group of names would make a terrific Regency romance:
Cyprian Broodbank is our tall, dark and … brooding hero, with a secret sorrow. I think he ought to be at least a baronet—Sir Cyprian Broodbank;
Antony J. Puddephatt and Richard J. Puddephatt. Hmm. Perhaps comic characters, like the Bates mother and daughter in Emma?
N. W. Rakestraw, initials only, so much scope for the imagination. He’s the anti-hero, the … rakish, of course, dashing and good-for-nothing scoundrel who entices our heroine (or hero, depending on just how bisexual this story is) but is ultimately rejected. Unless, of course, Sir Cyprian can tame Rakestraw and they live happily ever after. And what if Rakestraw is a woman? Why not a rakish heroine? I see a Georgian-era romp…
Then there are these individual, beautiful, wonderful finds:
Richard W. Blob, one of the editors of Amniote paleobiology : perspectives on the evolution of mammals, birds, and reptiles;
Boris L. Blotto, one of the authors of The amphibian tree of life;
George Robert Crotch (entomologist, specialist in beetles);
Silvester Diggles (ornithologist);
Finally, when a book on “deep drilling” includes authors named Fuchs and Suk; and when the title Radioactive dating has an author named Wänke—it’s time to go home.
If you want to look up any of these title or names I’ve mentioned, here’s the link to our public-access online catalog (OPAC): http://libcat.amnh.org/