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    Sobriquet 51.24

    Saturday, February 28, 2009
    I've been feeling under the weather all day, so I am not really in the best state to write anything of substance. I'll just say that I have been reading a bit of philosophy and that I will continue to do so before calling it a night.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Friday, February 27, 2009
    Well, I did not read any philosophy last night. Instead, I yawned a bunch and played bass for an hour or so, trying my best to emulate Paul Simonon. I won't say I succeeded but, with London Calling playing on my iPod, I was able to keep pace with a few songs. What was really nice about plucking away at my Fender, though, was the fact that I was able to take a break from the the logocentric ratiocination of my dissertation work and think aurally, exercising parts of my mind that would otherwise languish unused. By the time I did get ready for bed, I found myself mentally refreshed in ways I hadn't thought possible. 'Twas nice.

    Though I'd hoped to read some more philosophy today, I chose instead to work on culling key passages from the entire corpus of Coetzee's fiction, revisiting pieces like "The Vietnam Project" that I'd not read in nearly a year. It was a productive effort, too. Although I will probably spend some time tomorrow reading some philosophy, I am feeling pretty prepared for the next little bit of the chapter, especially after my work this evening. Of course, playing "The Guns of Brixton" last night got me in a pretty good mood today.

    For tomorrow: Read some philosophy.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, February 26, 2009
    Since I had a bit of difficulty falling asleep (and, once asleep, staying that way) last night, I am quite a bit sleepier than I normally find myself at half past nine in the evening. Fortunately, I did do a little reading tonight, revisiting some passages in Doubling the Point. I would like to reread some relevant philosophical texts before bed, but I am not so sure about my ability to sustain focus in my yawny, heavy-lidded condition. I'll have to see.

    For tomorrow: Continue the rereading of texts and the collection of materials for the next section of the chapter. Writing, though unlikely, would be a swell cap to the day, methinks.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, February 25, 2009
    Last week, when I decided to finish re-reading Elizabeth Costello, there was a tiny part of me that rejoiced in putting off writing for another week. That tiny part of me, I think, must have known that the section I was to write this afternoon and evening would not be easy. In fact, it took me the better part of the afternoon to find the right sentence to bridge the paragraph I finished last week to the one I was about to type. I'm not especially proud of this fact, of course, but the tortuous process of suturing what I had already with what I was trying to write this afternoon ended up allowing me to further refine some ideas and to -- I hope -- strengthen my analysis of Disgrace.

    And, truth be told, these past few days have been dissertation hell for me. Quite a few of the early bits of self-doubt -- those pesky little demons that made starting the project so difficult in the first place -- have resurfaced and I have really been struggling to overcome them. I suspect one reason for the surge in self-doubt has been that, prior to this evening, I wasn't entirely certain how I was going to tie two very important parts of the chapter together. Putting the writing off for a few days (albeit for legitimate reasons), of course, only exacerbated the situation.

    At any rate, I do feel confident that the next few chunks of the chapter will be strong, but I will have to revisit a few key texts before embarking on the next leg of the journey.

    For tomorrow: Locate and begin reviewing the aforementioned key texts.

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    ____________________________________________
    I'm about to head to bed for the day, where I intend to finish re-reading Elizabeth Costello before tuckering myself out with a few midweek-difficulty New York Times crossword puzzles. I had hoped to finish the novel earlier in the day, during what I had initially thought would be a vacant office hour but, owing to a delightfully rambling conversation, I decided to put off reading until this evening (or, rather, early morning). So, yeah, I am tired, but the good sort of tired that only comes from having had a thoroughly satisfying day.

    For tomorrow: Plot out and/or write a bit of the Disgrace chapter.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, February 23, 2009
    One of the things I promised myself when I started my dissertation a bit over a year ago was that I would do my best to prevent my academic life from interfering with my social life. Of course, I also promised myself that I would not allow my social life to impede my progress on my dissertation. This weekend, I had the pleasure of receiving guests into my home, guests that had travelled several hundred miles to visit me. Therefore, though I would have liked to have written a few more pages on Disgrace over the weekend, I decided not to write. Instead, I continued reading Elizabeth Costello, which I should finish very shortly. Now, of course, I do feel a bit more distanced from my writing than I would like, but I reckon the "break" will do me good.

    For tomorrow: Either finish Elizabeth Costello, read some criticism, plan a bit for my next chunk of writing, or, if I somehow have it in me, write some more.

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    ____________________________________________
    Friday, February 20, 2009
    Since today was an extremely long day and because I didn't sleep as much as I should have last night, I will not write much this evening. I mean, it's after one in the morning... Anyway, I will read a bit of Elizabeth Costello before calling it a night.

    For tomorrow through Monday: This promises to be a fairly jam-packed weekend, so I will say, at a minimum, keep reading Elizabeth Costello and/or criticism. If possible, spend some time plotting out or, in the unlikely event I find enough time, writing a bit more of the Disgrace chapter.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, February 18, 2009
    I found it difficult to start writing this morning but I did end up writing a few more pages. I can't say that I am especially fond of what I have written thus far, but I am pleased with myself for pushing my way through a whole lot of lassitude and self-doubt. I mean, today was pretty rough, all things considered. I really did not want to do anything at all and, when I did sit down to write, I struggled to figure out what it was I wanted to say. I am, of course, fairly used to days like today, days when my imagination begins to wander and my motivation lags and I begin to fantasize about leaving my dissertation behind me and moving to the Ozarks.

    During these times, I find, the only thing to do is to force myself to sit down and work, no matter how much I would rather not do so. That's the thing with writing a dissertation: you've got to be consistent, you've got to work every day because, really, if you skipped the days you didn't feel like working, you'd never get anywhere.

    For tomorrow: Read a bit.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesdays tend to be long days for me, so I am not especially surprised to find that, as it approaches one in the morning, I still haven't gotten a whole lot done. It wasn't a bad day or anything, but when I walked through the door this evening, the last thing I felt like doing was anything even resembling work. Instead, I watched old South Park episodes, listened to Leadbelly (and, weirdly, Cheap Trick again), played Mah-Jongg, and otherwise slacked off.

    So I am tired, but I'll be sure to read a bit more of Elizabeth Costello before bed. Probably while humming a strange combination of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" and "I Want You To Want Me."

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, February 16, 2009
    One of the things many professional writers will tell their non-writer friends is that they force themselves to write every day, that they quite literally schedule an activity many of us view as something quasi-spiritual that just, kinda-sorta happens when the mood is right. And, for some people, inspiration does indeed descend upon them. The problem is, you can't just sit around and wait for Calliope to swoop down with her coterie of fellow muses and breathe life into your dissertation. Now, my id (I do hate to draw upon the friable language of the psychoanalysts, but it works here) really wanted me to sleep in today. My id also really wanted me to spend the entire day listening to Cheap Trick and Sonic Youth while playing Mah-Jongg.

    So, instead of listening to that wretched little guy (I've anthropomorphized my id now...great), I wrote a bit more in my chapter on Disgrace.

    Oh, and then I took a nap and played Mah-Jongg while listening to Cheap Trick and Sonic Youth.

    For tomorrow: Read a bit of Elizabeth Costello or some criticism.

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    ____________________________________________
    I've come to realize that this chapter I'm in the process of writing is the Wednesday of my dissertation. Once I finish writing about Disgrace, the bulk of my dissertation will be completed, both in terms of pages produced and researched performed and that will no doubt result in some pretty significant psychological benefits. Right now, though, it feels like it's about 9:42 on that metaphoric Wednesday morning and, knowing that I will be working overtime well into the night, I kinda want some coffee.

    As far as today went, it was a pretty productive Sunday. I got some writing done early and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what to do with myself. As it turns out, I spent a good chunk of time listening to old bluegrass (Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and the Osborne Brothers) and Leadbelly records. It was nice.

    For tomorrow: Read or write.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, February 14, 2009
    I'll keep tonight's entry short. I hit the ten-page mark on the Disgrace chapter this afternoon and promptly fell asleep for three hours. I still have my doubts about the overall quality of this chapter but, I have to admit, having read it over, I think I did a satisfactory job.

    Other than writing, I have been devoting a bit of time to (re)reading some critical literature, combing the pages for material that will flesh out my arguments. I imagine that other dissertation-writers will smirk when I say this, but I delight in uncovering leads that, if I am lucky, will result in little more than a footnote in my larger project. I don't know why. I guess it makes me feel like a "real" researcher or something.

    Speaking of which, I had the rather surreal experience of seeing my name listed under "Suggested Reading" on what appears to be a high school's AP English syllabus. The text on the syllabus, an essay I wrote on phrenology and physiognomy in Edgar Allan Poe, was actually the first critical essay I published and, despite its flaws, one I recall fondly. So that pleasant little discovery provided me with a modicum of confidence as I sat down to write this afternoon. I mean, really, it's quite nice to think that, in some little corner of the world, something I spent a long time bringing into being (not unlike my current project) is breathing life into a discussion I probably would have enjoyed in my high school days.

    For tomorrow: Take today, repeat. Otherwise, read.

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    ____________________________________________
    I've been struggling a bit these past few days to get my work done. As much as I would like to place the blame on the fifty-odd student essays I had to grade in less than two days, I can't. I had plenty of time to sit down and read and, despite loving Elizabeth Costello, I procrastinated during my free time on Wednesday and Thursday and ended up reading into the wee hours of the morning just to get a bit of work completed. Now, while I rarely give myself a set number of pages to read, I usually have an idea in my head, a secret threshold I'd like to hit each day. That number has been anywhere from a handful of pages to a pretty hefty chunk of reading. And, for the past two days, I read about half of what I wanted to read and I've been a bit disappointed with myself as a result.

    That said, I have been thinking a good deal about Elizabeth Costello. Like Diary of a Bad Year, Coetzee's 2003 novel consists largely of the philosophical speculation of a fictional character some readers are tempted to interpret as a stand-in for the novelist himself. What I enjoy most about both novels, but find especially appealing in Elizabeth Costello, is Coetzee's ability to present deeply thoughtful philosophical dialogues that truly present multiple sides to an important question. Never does Coetzee lapse into the sort of soapbox preaching into which so much of such highly philosophical fiction often disintegrates. Instead, he depicts the eponymous protagonist as fundamentally fallible and, accordingly, leaves her open to the often ruthless critiques of those who disagree with her. Coetzee's genius lies here, in leaving the reader with the raw material for personal speculation and inward growth. While I tend to agree with Elizabeth on many issues, I find, I also agree with her detractors. Thus, I am left with the not unpleasant burden of finding out what I actually believe. Of course, critics have long taken Coetzee to task for not answering the questions he raises in his fiction, have, since the publication of Dusklands in 1974, accused him of political evasiveness. This slipperiness, this adamantine refusal to provide a definitive perspective, though, is largely responsible for Coetzee's towering stature among contemoorary writers. I mean, good writers get people talking about the issues of the day, great writers get people talking about the eternal problems of mankind, but the masters, an elite group in which I would place Coetzee, get people to think before they talk.

    At any rate, I wrote a few more pages on Disgrace this afternoon and, as is so often the case for me, I have been doubting the quality of my writing all day.

    For tomorrow: Read or dissertate.

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    ____________________________________________
    Friday, February 13, 2009
    For the second straight day, I've ended up staying up a bit later than I would have liked and, since I did not get a chance to read anything today (and, admittedly, because I got really into music for a few hours), I have not yet done my work for the day. So, not wanting to delay any longer, I'm gonna go do that. . .

    For tomorrow: Preferably, dissertate. Alternately, read or prep.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, February 12, 2009
    I'm going to have to be brief tonight. I spent most of the day socializing which, while preventing me from perhaps getting any dissertation work done earlier in the day, re-charged my soul in ways that I imagine will help me get through the next little bit of work.

    Still, I'm going to read some more of Elizabeth Costello before calling it a night.

    For tomorrow: Read a bit more or, if I can find the time, dissertate some.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, February 11, 2009
    I'm just going to make a quick post this morning to

    a) acknowledge that I did get a bit of reading done yesterday

    and to

    b) Assign myself today's work.

    For today: Read some more of Elizabeth Costello or, if I can somehow manage my time to do so, work on the Disgrace chapter in some capacity.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, February 9, 2009
    I spent a few hours this afternoon adding to the chapter I began writing yesterday. Though it's only been two days since I started the Disgrace chapter, I'm beginning to recall all sorts of unpleasant writing-related sensations that I'd forgotten about in the months since I wrapped up the chapter I put together on The Master of Petersburg: the feeling of being tethered to my office, the annoying tendency I have to find fault with everything I write, and (perhaps I should add especially) the weight of the albatross I wake up with each morning, reminding me to crack my knuckles and start writing. The lattermost feeling actually reminds me a bit of how I imagine the protagonist of Groundhog Day must feel when he wakes each morning. You know, when Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" jars Bill Murray's character out of the oblivion of sleep and back into the consciousness that, though he feels like he may have moved into the future, he's right back where he was the day before. Now, obviously, I have made progress on my dissertation and I am clearly a bit farther along today than I was yesterday, but that feeling of waking up to a whole lot of the same is, nevertheless, a significant part of my writing days in the hours before I sit down at the computer.

    For tomorrow: Since it's going to be a long day, full of meetings and other thoroughly non-dissertation obligations, I will say either reread a bit more of Elizabeth Costello or do a bit of planning for the next bit of writing. Of course, if I somehow find the time to write a bit more, that would be splendid.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, February 8, 2009
    Since it didn't seem like the anxiety I've been dealing with the past couple of days was heading anywhere I decided to start writing the chapter. Not outline, not tweak the outline, start writing. And so I did. Admittedly, it took me more than an hour to write the first sentence in a way that I found satisfactory (the image of the obscure clerk in Camus's The Plague struggling to write the perfect opening sentence did come to mind. Several times, in fact) but I started writing and, eventually, a few pages dripped out. As usual, I hate pretty much every word I've written and I have been analyzing my tone ever since I stopped writing but, fuck it all, the damn thing is underway.

    Aside from writing more than I thought I would be able to squeeze out of myself, I actually read some more of Elizabeth Costello, too. Overall, not a bad day.

    For tomorrow: Read or write or prep for writing.

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    ____________________________________________
    Saturday, February 7, 2009
    I woke up this morning with the same weighty anxiety as I felt yesterday and, to be honest, a part of me really wanted to succumb to it for a second consecutive day. I also knew that if I did hide from the blank page, I'd just be pissed off at myself and I'd have made it that much more difficult for myself to push through the unpleasantness.

    So, while I did procrastinate a bit, I made myself promise to myself that I would, before it got too late, actually try to complete the outline I started on Thursday evening. Ironically, part of my procrastination consisted of reading another chunk of Elizabeth Costello. So, yeah. I put off working on my dissertation by working on my dissertation.

    What I have come to accept about myself, though, is that I have a real problem here. There is a part of me that keeps finding (and in some cases, adding) work to do before beginning the chapter, presumably out of the fear of not being prepared to tackle what, in some ways, I have been avoiding for more than a year. (After all, I originally planned to rework a brief essay I'd published on Disgrace a few years ago, add a bit about Age of Iron and Slow Man, and turn it into a sixty page chapter on Coetzee). Here's the thing: Disgrace is just so huge, so significant a benchmark in contemporary literary history that I knew addressing it would require a half-year or more of preparation and that scared me. Now that I have done the prep work, though, I have begun feeling anxious over the sheer size of the project, anxious over my mastery of so many interlinking and often contradictory ideas. So, I'm worried. And this feeling, as I saw it today, left me with two distinct choices:

    1. Write.

    or

    2. Don't write.

    Now, since not writing tends to lead to more not writing while writing leads to less writing, I decided that the first choice was really the only way to go, so, for a little while this evening, I sat down with my outline and finished plotting out the general direction and shape of the chapter-to-be. I'm thoroughly dissatisfied with it, of course, but there's quite a bit of stuff laid out now and I have a road map to help me negotiate the foggy course I am about to take. I imagine I will spend some time over the next few days digging around in my recently-reviewed notes for various info-nuggets to put into the writing but, since that may not be as time-consuming a task as the Erik-in-fear-of-beginning might hope for, I may also dive into the chapter, outline in one hand and reams of notes in the other and stop putting off the inevitable sooner rather than later. We'll see.

    For tomorrow: Read, prepare notes, and/or dissertate.

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    ____________________________________________
    My dissertation anxiety may have gotten the better of me today, though it did not prevent me from getting some work done. The part of me that I'd managed to spur into action last night, the part that had gotten some outlining done, froze today. I realize I could have nudged myself back into gear, forced myself to confront the tauntingly regular blink of the cursor on the page, but I opted instead to read a little bit in Elizabeth Costello.

    Now, while re-reading the novel was not my ideal approach towards dissertation work for the day, I did find that the reading reminded me of a couple of things I need to work into the Disgrace outline when I settle down and try to finish it in the next day or two. So, really, I oughtn't complain. Still, I dislike acknowledging that the anxiety surrounding this chapter affects me so thoroughly. This is part of the rationale for "assigning" myself an alternative reading each day, of course. I mean, sometimes one simply needs a break from the intellectual intensity of writing but other times, the need is more emotional or psychological. One needs to remind oneself of certain things, think and feel one's way through a relevant worry before proceeding.

    At any rate, I have really been enjoying Elizabeth Costello, which ranks as one of my favorite Coetzee novels. I enjoy the metafictional and philosophical musings (trends that the author continues to develop in both Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year) Coetzee weaves into the fabric of the narrative and, admittedly, I find the actual ideas the fictional Australian novelist presents in her rationally-flawed, emotionally-charged speeches to be among the more though-provoking passages in contemporary fiction. Elizabeth Costello is one of those novels that I enjoy both as a reader and as a student, a book I feel challenges me intellectually to question my assumptions about the world and the art it produces as well as provides me with a pleasant way to spend a chilly winter evening.

    For tomorrow: What I said yesterday for today said today for tomorrow.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, February 5, 2009
    All right. So, I started outlining the Disgrace chapter this evening. Since it involved actually typing and arranging words thoughtfully on the page, I have decided to say I have begun the chapter. I haven't necessarily begun writing it, maybe, but it is undoubtedly underway.

    Finally.

    After, like, six months or something equally insane.

    At any rate, I had a brief meeting with my advisor this afternoon and, it seems, she thinks that my general approach to this behemoth of a chapter is a reasonable one so, with more anxiety than I would care to admit, I sat down at my computer a few hours ago, strained to remember as much of what I told her as I could, and begun shaping the course of the chapter-to-be.

    And, boy, was it a nerve-wracking experience. Since it's been a half-year or so since I last wrote anything, I suspect it will take me a bit longer to work myself into the sort of writing-rhythm I'd had by the time I finished the seemingly endless chapter on The Master of Petersburg in April or May of last year. So, basically, I had to turn the key a few times for the ignition to catch but, eventually, I sputtered my way into producing a few pages of an outline.

    So, yeah. There're still some hurdles left to clear, memories to dust off, notes to consult, but the trip has begun. Again. Still, when you've been off the road for a while, it's kinda exciting to pull back onto the great concrete expanse, look in the rearview mirror at the distance you've come, and forward to a road sign on which, for the first time, the milage separating you from your destination is displayed, even if the number is pretty big.

    For tomorrow: Read some of Elizabeth Costello or work on the outline some more.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, February 4, 2009
    Now that I have finished reviewing the reams of notes on and quotations from the primary, secondary and, unbelievably, tertiary material I will be drawing upon for my Disgrace chapter, my next few days will probably consist of thinking about things in a manner similar to that depicted here:


    For tomorrow: Either begin outlining the chapter or, since the day is going to be fairly busy, begin re-reading Elizabeth Costello in preparation for the next chapter.

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    ____________________________________________
    I drew this meat grinder to help illustrate the way I currently feel about the Disgrace chapter I am about to write. Imagine you've got, like, a herd of cattle. Now imagine cramming that herd into the little funnel at the top of the meat grinder and trying to turn the crank.

    Now, imagine that herd of cattle is really a herd of literary critics and my brain is the grinder and the crank is . . . well, you get the picture.

    For tomorrow: Finish putting the meat in the grinder; prepare to turn the crank.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, February 2, 2009
    I finished reviewing the pile of notes on the critical writing about Disgrace yesterday evening after watching the Super Bowl. This afternoon, I began what promises to be the much briefer process of reviewing my notes on the novel itself. I anticipate starting the outlining process within a few days. As much as I know I will probably struggle with and strain over the actual writing stage, I am glad it is nearing. It marks the beginning of the end of a very, very long segment of the dissertation process, a period of time I am eager to see in my metaphorical rear-view mirror.

    Now, of course, this isn't to say that I am glad to see Disgrace go because, like the handful of other books I consider to be among my favorites, the novel is one that has irrevocably enriched my life and one from which I will certainly continue to draw food for thought. What I am pleased to have behind me is the criticism or, more precisely, the act of reading so much of it. I recently spoke with a fellow doctoral candidate I know at an Ivy League institution and, as is common in our exchanges, we frequently discuss the trials and tribulations of the typical graduate student at our respective institutions. I'm consistently fascinated by the subtle differences between student life at an elite private institution and that of the average student at a large, public institution. Often, the little differences are intriguing, revealing a good deal about graduate-level study in contemporary America. One of the things that was not different, though, is the approach many scholars take towards reading literary criticism when working on a book, dissertation, or essay: you simply do not read all of the stuff out there on your topic.

    Now, obviously, there are certain writers about whose work so much criticism has been published that it would be well-neigh impossible to read even most of the secondary material published about a given work. Take Hamlet, for instance. Were I to write my dissertation on Shakespeare's great tragedy, I doubt I would have the time or money to track down the bookshelves of material written about the play over the past few centuries. And, clearly, the amount of material published about works like Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Don Quixote, the Divine Comedy, and the Bible would be equally difficult to master, especially in the time allotted for a graduate student to write a dissertation. When it comes to a book like Disgrace, though, about which several hundred articles have been published, I cling to the idea that such a comprehensive reading is both possible and, if anything, proper for an individual seeking to include a discussion of the novel in his doctoral dissertation. And this is where I have been mired for the past half year. While many of my peers will have read a page or two of many articles before summarily dismissing them, I have felt an obligation to read everything I could on the book. And I have. Now, certainly, not every article is relevant to my dissertation, but I always assumed that the dissertation writer will want to secure as comprehensive, if not encyclopedic, a familiarity with the material he or she chooses to focus on as possible. I realize that it is easier and, in a situation where time and money are both in appallingly short supply, perhaps even more reasonable to take the shorter, more direct route through the process. But I find that I cannot. If I am going to put my name on the dissertation, I reason, I want it to be something I can say I put my best, most concentrated effort into completing. And, to do so, I feel that I have to have the sort of comprehensive familiarity with the critical literature I have sought to achieve. . . Still, with the pragmatic approach espoused by so many of my colleagues ringing in my ears, I am so glad to be done with the critical reading on this section of the dissertation. I did it my way and, thankfully, I have not tossed in my towel, despite often hating the sheer monotony of it all. In the end, though, I want to be able to respect myself, to be able to say I did the whole damn thing the "right" way . . . And, you know what? I actually learned some pretty amazing stuff in the process of reading a bunch of stuff I reckon other people in my position would've skipped over.

    So, I've got that.

    But, damn, am I glad it's behind me now. Ecstatic, even.

    For tomorrow and the next day or so: Re-read the quotations from and notes on the novel.

    For fun, here're a few links to this blog from elsewhere on the internet:

    Sobriquet Magazine, according to this Swedish university's website is "an invaluable source of reflection for the serious scholar of Coetzee's ouevre. Here one finds, with a modicum of perusing, nearly all the members constituting the central body of scholarly commentary concerning Coetzee."


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