A few years ago when I chaired an English Department at an independent school, it occurred to me that I could save my employer literally thousands of dollars by replacing the ridiculously expensive textbooks of our survey courses with compilations we put together ourselves. After all, 90% of our texts fall in the realm of public domain. Rather than forking out $145 a pop for an anthology, we could download the material, format it, print and bind it for $20 each. Although the volumes would lack background on historic periods and authorial biographies, we could provide the cultural underpinnings of the Augustan Age or Ernest Hemingway’s gallivanting via lecture. Even better, the kids could keep the books and therefore annotate the texts. Since it was my big idea, I volunteered to do the amassing, formatting, and editing myself.
O, dear readers, that was a promise I wish I could have undone. Formatting was nightmarish. Any slight correction would send the text gaping open, sliding along the screen, the blocks of prose or poetry gaping open here and there, like this:
[. . .] afraid of Jim; he was a drunkard, but he could twist the law to suit his client’s needs as no other man in all western Kansas could do; and there were many who tried. The lawyer closed the door gently behind him, leaned back against it and folded his arms, cocking his head a little to one side. When he assumed this attitude in the courtroom, ears were always pricked up, as it usually foretold a flood of withering sarcasm.
Plus I needed to number lines or paragraphs, which further disjointed the format. We’re talking hours, days, weeks, a summer of uncompensated labor.
One aspect I came to enjoy, however, was providing footnotes. Ever since I was a child, I’ve dug footnotes (endnotes not so much). Anyway, I started traditionally enough:
Passage: A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be “clay,” and “stop a hole to keep the wind away,”
Footnote: From Act 5.1 of Hamlet, the graveyard scene, when Hamlet contemplates Alexander the Great’s corpse decomposing into clay and Alexander’s clay ultimately being used to plug up beer barrels.
However, as time passed, I started relating the material to works they had read the previous year.
Passage: “The false society of men —
— for earthly greatness
All heavenly comforts rarefies to air.”
Footnote: From George Chapman’s (c. 1559 – 1634) The Tragedy of Caesar and Pompey. Chapman, by the way, is the translator Keats lauds in “On First looking into Chapman’s Homer.”
As even more time passed, I became self-indulgent and egocentric.
Passage: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged (sic) our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
Footnote: Psalm 137. Also, the first two lines are the beginning of the Reggae great Jimmy Cliff’s “By the Rivers of Babylon,” a lament about Jamaicans’ colonial enslavement. Slaves of the Americas identified with the Israelites of the Old Testament.
And then even more egocentric.
Footnote: Literally “born to be purple,” as in of royal blood. Cf. the composer of “Purple Rain” and ”Little Red Corvette.”
Then downright sardonic:
Passage: “The evil that men do lives after them.”
Footnote: This famous line you should know, damn it! (BTW, you don’t get footnotes like this at the Magnet).
Passage: It is the excess of the suggested meaning — it is the rendering this, the upper instead of the undercurrent of the theme — which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind) the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists.
Footnote: Not exactly a ringing endorsement of ol’ Ralph Waldo and his gang.
Passage: The next desideratum was a pretext for the continuous use of the one word “nevermore.”
Footnote: Why spend all those days and nights studying Latin unless you get to flaunt your learning with an unnecessary, showoffish phrase or two?
At any rate, I managed to complete the project in time, and now, even in my retirement, I continue to edit the Readers as my former colleagues add and subtract entries. It’s not nearly as burdensome now that I don’t have classes to prepare for or summer reading to complete.