I recently had the pleasure of visiting the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center which houses one of the most expansive and impressive rare book and manuscript collections in the world. Not only did I visit, I was given a personal tour of the facilities by Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg. Molly, aside from being a lovely individual, was patient and generous enough with her time to tolerate my company.
(When push comes to shove, I’m not all that bad, but armed with a recording device, I’m on another plane entirely. Ladies and gentlemen, meet my alter ego: Journalist Justine, an amped up, zero-filter, news-hungry version of myself. J.J.’s done a lot for me over the years, but being grateful to her for my modest professional success and liking her are different issues entirely.)
One of the perks of journalism is that I get to see a lot of cool stuff that most people don’t. In this case, I got to see the inner workings of the Harry Ransom Center: the back rooms, the dark underbelly—give us a break, J.J., there’s no dark underbelly—the gears that make this giant literary machine turn. Most importantly, I enjoyed a private viewing of the newest addition to the Ransom’s permanent collection: the books and papers of the late David Foster Wallace.
If you just paused, scratched your head, and mumbled, “Who the heck is David Foster Wallace?” it’s not for me to reprimand you. Suffice it to say that you would do well to check out his work. Start here with Wikipedia where—let’s just admit it, shall we?—we all start, every time. Then read Consider the Lobster, Wallace’s collection of essays which contains perhaps the most well-known piece of contemporary journalism to date, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (a.k.a. “Shipping Out“). Dive into Girl With Curious Hair and/or Oblivion, two wildly impressive short story collections. Tackle Infinite Jest, Wallace’s 1000-plus-page novel which many believe to be the crowning achievement in his already impressive literary career. Try The Pale King, his unfinished novel released by Little, Brown this month, and then tell me about it because me and tax collectors, we just don’t mix. Then read my article on Wallace’s collection forthcoming in the Texas Observer’s summer books issue. But before you do any of that—which I’m sure you will—read the rest of this post. There is a point, I promise.
My few hours at the Ransom were some of my favorites of the last few months. (The 10 days I spent in Israel are up there, too. To the left, me riding a camel in the Judean Desert.) I ran my fingers over handwritten drafts of Infinite Jest*; giggled and then eeked at Wallace’s half-clever, half-desperate correspondence with his editors: “I’m not especially psyched to have this [article] run at all, much less to take a blue-skyed 75-degree afternoon futzing with it to bring it into line with your specs, and you should feel obliged and borderline guilty, and I will find a way to harm you or otherwise cause you suffering if you fuck with the mechanics of the piece,” he wrote to Joel Lovell at Harper’s Magazine; and warmed to his humanity, apparent in the smiley faces he scribbled in every margin he ever met. I devoted the majority of my time though to a thick folder labeled: “very early DFW.” Items range from illustrated short stories to school reading lists to essays on baseball. Here’s the magic of an archive, especially one which remains mostly virgin to the public’s prying eyes: I flipped a page and unearthed a treasure.
What happened next, I shudder to tell you. That shameless, no-rules J.J. swiped that sucker, stuffed it in her backpack, and high-tailed it out of there faster than you can say “David Foster Wallace.”**
So where is it now, you ask? WBN headquarters, of course.
What is it? I’ll give you a hint. Heck, I’ll give you four:
This treasure shines, but it’s not gold.
It lives, but it’s not alive.
It feels, but it’s not sentient.
It’s heavy, yet light as paper.
You can guess in our comments section below, or you can find out right here on WBN’s blog this Monday, April 11th, when we close our Writings From a Past Life series with a bang. You can even do both.
*Probably not allowed
**Definitely not allowed. OFFICIAL STATEMENT: Our lawyer has advised us to assure you, our loyal readers, that this plot point is pure fabrication. (We prefer creative license. Tomato tomäto) To state it plainly, J.J. did not in fact steal from the Harry Ransom Center. The aforementioned literary treasure was acquired by WBN through the proper HRC channels, the transaction completed entirely above board. Talk about boring.