Why Would I Even Bother Writing Titles Anymore

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When I was a senior in high school, I opted to take an elective called “Novels.”

Novels was the god of all blow-off classes—the class every other blow-off period would strive to be if they weren’t all such slackers. It was quite literally an hour and a half at the end of the day set aside for reading. We could choose any book we wanted off a long list of popular novels, spend as long as we cared to reading it, and then move on to the next at our leisure.

We weren’t even tested on them, or required to write reflective essays. We just had to “conference” for ten minutes with the woman who called herself our teacher but spent every afternoon holed up in her dim office wearing sunglasses, complaining of a light sensitivity.

The “conferences” went like this:

Teacher: So, you read Little Women.

Student: Yes.

Teacher: So, what are your plans after graduation?

Student: Like, college.

Teacher: You should go to Prague instead.

Student: OK?

Teacher: When I graduated, I went straight to Prague.

Student: …

It was during the course of this class, Novels, that I discovered Edith Wharton for the very first time. Just one page of The Age of Innocence later, and I was a goner. My friends and I were truant for a lot of Novels as the semester dragged on, but that book kept me in my seat for days at a time. I had never read anything quite like it, in all its wrenching irony, devastating romance, and exquisite disdain.

In college, I read The House of Mirth for an American Literature course (the legitimate kind, this time) and fell in love with Wharton once more, for exactly the same reasons. I look forward to finding her again and again over the years to rekindle our passionate affair. And when an opportunity came up, in the form of a Headstuff assignment, to investigate the lives and legacies of world-famous writers, I immediately chose Mark Twain and Edith Wharton herself.

Wharton seems, at least by my impression, to be one of those names everyone has heard but doesn’t know anything about. This, of course, is exactly why I chose her. I was not disappointed or bored for a second in my research on her life and writing—but with both articles behind me now, I can say with all certainty that biographies are not my calling. I take pride in milking tedious material and churning out entertaining results, but biography has left me coming up empty.

Maybe it just can’t be done? I’ll have to read Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare and find out.

Anyway. Remember when I frantically wrote my Mark Twain piece in firework bursts of panic, and Headstuff casually rejected the title? I managed to be microscopically offended, even though they simply wanted to keep the titles consistent across the series (“The Open Book”).

Well, this time around, I didn’t even supply the outstanding and click-worthy title I had come up with—”Edith Wharton: Accomplished Writer, Comprehensive Badass,” it went—to save myself another infinitesimal agony. AND THEN THEY GAVE IT A DIFFERENT, NON-SERIES TITLE ANYWAY—something standard and competent that Edith Wharton would have liked.

The very nerve.

I’m OK, though. I’m coping. I’m even considering a trip to Prague.

It is, after all, long overdue.

Mark Twain Teaser

At the end of May, I used a free weekend (what am I saying, I’m free every weekend) as an excuse to take the Peter Pan bus up to Hartford, Connecticut, and visit the Mark Twain House & Museum.

As a Twain enthusiast and, finally, houseguest, I volunteered to write up a gushing Twain profile for Headstuff’s new literary series. But until then, here’s a preview of the delights in store—in the form of, obviously, fun facts:

  • He lived right next door to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was much more famous than him in the 19th century. (I’ll write more about her another time—I visited her house, too!)
  • He worked as a typesetter, a riverboat pilot, and a miner before settling down to write books.
  • He proposed to his eventual wife, Olivia Langdon, in 1868. A coal heiress far, far wealthier than Twain, she (and her family) took some convincing.
  • He was a prolific smoker, often finishing off 25-40 cigars per day.
  • He was anti-imperialist, anti-slavery, critical of organized religion, and an active supporter of women’s suffrage—to name just a few of his convictions.
  • He had a lifelong obsession with Joan of Arc, going on to write a book about her in 1896.

Learning about him has spurred me on to finish The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, just so I can fill my TBR pile with his writing. I think I’ll start with The Innocents Abroad—a travel narrative mocking his fellow tourists. Or maybe I’ll just squeeze that into my next free weekend (a.k.a. this weekend).

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