Sunday, March 10, 2013

My experience in Duke's book-collecting contest

Well, I didn’t win the contest.  I didn’t place second either.  But I had a truly marvelous time!  Here’s how it went down.

Unfortunately, the public presentation (everyone sets up at booths and talks about their collection to anyone who comes by, as well as an informal interview with the judges) was at the same time as my opera class.  As a graduate student, I’m really not allowed to miss classes, so for a while there I thought I’d have to drop out of the contest.  Which would have been really sad – I’d put so much work into the competition materials and was really looking forward to showing a few of my favorites.  Luckily, they were able to be a little flexible, so I met with the judges before the public showing and then left my books alone on display.  I was concerned that without me to talk about them, people would pass right over my table, and I really wanted to share some of my favorites and perhaps convince someone to try a new book.  So I put together a binder with a single page for each book, on which I gave a favorite quote, a little about the book, and a brief story about how and where I purchased that particular copy.

My interview was a little more formal because it was just me and the four judges.  Unfortunately, because I was a bit nervous, I wasn’t able to remember any of the judges’ names, which is a bummer because I think they were all English professors, and I had some really fabulous conversations with them.  I haven’t taken an English class since high school, which I regret, and now that I’m eagerly reading classics and literary fiction, I quite enjoy talking through these books with people who share my interest.  But then again, that’s what blogging is for!  In any case, I found myself discussing Lady Chatterley’s Lover with an actual D.H. Lawrence scholar – I was praying I didn’t say anything stupid or outright wrong!  They told me they were really impressed by the cohesiveness of my collection and by the themes that linked my books.  The judges were really interested to know how I came across all of these books, so I shared a bit about my book blog and how I’ve received so many wonderful recommendations from the book blogging community – thanks, y’all!  I think my favorite part of the interview was recommending The Shooting Party, which none of them had ever heard of!  I hope at least one of the judges went home and found a copy to read.

I didn’t win, but then, I really wasn’t expecting to.  The winners of the graduate student level are nearly always folks with extensive academic collections relating to their dissertations.  And then there was me, a first-year music historian with absolutely no formal training in English lit, showing off the books that I enjoy reading in my free time.  I felt extremely validated in my choices, and it was nice to come home and tell my husband that the judges think I’ve selected some wonderful books.  To sweeten the day even further, I got back to retrieve my books just in time to meet the woman packing up her historical New Orleans cookbooks and hear a bit about her collection.  She turned out to be the winner, and now I have a new friend in the history department.

I was careful not to share too much before, but now I’ve received permission to share my materials.  I had to write an essay (one page – it was hideously difficult to shove everything I wanted to say into such a short page limit!), and an annotated bibliography and wish list.  I don’t want to make this post too overwhelming so I’ll just share the titles, but if you’re interested to hear more about any of these books, I’d be happy to talk about them!  Perhaps you’ll come across something new to you in this collection – I certainly hope to pass along the favor of a good recommendation after receiving so many great ones myself from my fellow bloggers!  The bold titles are the ones I brought with me for my display.

“It is only a question of choosing one’s parish and fitting into it”:
The Individual Experience of Community in English Fiction

As a graduate student in musicology, I value the library for my academic scholarship.  I see great symbolic significance in participating in the academic process through shared use of communal resources.  As a result, I do not often purchase books for my research, preferring to find them in library stacks.  Instead, my book-collecting habits tend toward fiction.  I don’t read fiction for escapism.  My book collection is intended for my own personal enjoyment, of course, but its value is not limited to mere diversion from the more intense intellectual rigor of graduate coursework and research.  My personal library provides an opportunity to engross myself in alternate topics and reflect on themes and experiences parallel to those I study professionally.
My academic research focuses on English Reformation-era sacred music; specifically on the relationships between music, theology, and the layperson’s experience of worship and authorized Christian practice.  My preferred fiction (generally late-nineteenth through mid-twentieth-century English literature) focuses on a similar theme: the individual’s experience within the larger scope of culture and society.  I have found myself preoccupied with English national and religious identity both in my musicological work and the fiction I enjoy.  All of these novels were written by English authors.  Most take place in England; those that do not feature English characters transplanted to alternate settings.  Many of these books have become integral parts of the English cultural imagination.  Like the theological writings and church documents I research, these texts reflect and participate in their culture and have also actively worked to shape it, and their impact often extends past the borders of England itself – Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, like the Book of Common Prayer, has had a worldwide influence.
I am interested in the consequences of political, military, economic, or religious turmoil on a national level upon individuals and families, and in the boundaries and expectations of society.  Several of these books feature protagonists who deliberately flout societal conventions or who feel stifled, trapped, or oppressed by the expectations of community or family.  Many are built around tensions between various religious traditions or between faith, duty, and personal fulfillment.  The Church of England plays a role in many of these novels as some characters participate in Anglicanism and others reject its values.  Because I am fascinated by the experience of those on the periphery of major events, many are domestic dramas, telling the stories of the wives and daughters of the men who are directly involved in England’s actions.
This collection is comprised almost entirely of books by women, due in large part to my penchant for collecting Virago Modern Classics.  Virago Press exclusively publishes books by female authors in an attempt to balance the classical canon, which has traditionally privileged books by men – a goal I greatly admire.  The theme of community comes out even in how this collection was compiled.  None of these novels were purchased new.  Shopping for used books connects me to whatever community I find myself in, so I make a point of visiting a used book store whenever I travel, and I always insert a bookmark from the store so that when I read it, I can remember the place in which I bought it.
  1. Austen, Jane.  Emma.  New York: Signet Classics, 1996 (first published 1815).
  2. Austen, Jane.  Lady Susan; The Watsons; and Sanditon.  London: Penguin Books, 1974.
  3. Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  New York: Signet Classics, 2008 (first published 1814).
  4. Austen, Jane.  Northanger Abbey.  New York: Signet Classics, 2008 (first published 1817).
  5. Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  New York: Signet Classics, 2008 (first published 1817).
  6. Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  New York: Bantam Books, 1981 (first published 1813).
  7. Austen, Jane.  Sense and Sensibility.  New York: Signet Classics, 1997 (first published 1811).
  8. Austen, Jane.  Volume the First.  London: Athlone Press, 1984.
  9. Brontë, Charlotte.  Jane Eyre.  London: Penguin Classics, 2006 (first published 1846).
  10. Brontë, Charlotte.  Villette.   London: Penguin Books, 2004 (first published 1853).
  11. Bunyan, John.  The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003 (first published 1678).
  12. Burnett, Frances Hodgson.  The Secret Garden.  New York: Tor, 1990 (first published 1910).
  13. Colegate, Isabel.  The Shooting Party.  New York: Avon Books, 1982 (first published 1980).
  14. Colegate, Isabel.  Statues in a Garden.  York: Avon Books, 1982 (first published 1964).
  15. Delafield, E. M.  Diary of a Provincial Lady; The Provincial Lady Goes Further; The Provincial Lady in America; and The Provincial Lady in Wartime.  London: Virago Press, 2008 (first published 1930, 1932, 1934, and 1940, respectively).
  16. Delafield, E. M.  The Way Things Are.  New York: Penguin Books, 1989 (first published 1927).
  17. Duffy, Maureen.  That’s How It Was.  Garden City, New York: The Dial Press, 1984 (first published 1962).
  18. Eliot, George.  Middlemarch.  London: Penguin Books, 1985 (first published 1871-1872).
  19. Eliot, George.  The Mill on the Floss.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 (first published 1860).
  20. Gaskell, Elizabeth.  Cranford and Cousin Phillis.  London: Penguin Books, 1986 (first published 1851-1853 and 1864, respectively).
  21. Gaskell, Elizabeth.  Wives and Daughters.  London: Everyman, 2001 (first published 1864-1866).
  22. Hall, Radclyffe.  The Unlit Lamp.  London: Virago Press, 1981 (first published 1924).
  23. Kennedy, Margaret.  The Constant Nymph.  London: Virago Press, 1983 (first published 1924).
  24. Kennedy, Margaret.  The Ladies of Lyndon.  New York: The Dial Press, 1982 (first published 1923).
  25. Lawrence, D. H.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995 (first published 1928).
  26. Panter-Downes, Mollie.  One Fine Day.  New York: Penguin Books, 1986 (first published 1946).
  27. Pym, Barbara.  Excellent Women.  New York: Plume, 1978 (first published 1952).
  28. Rowson, Susanna.  Charlotte Temple and Lucy Temple.  London: Penguin Books, 1991 (first published 1791 and 1828, respectively).
  29. Sackville-West, Vita.  All Passion Spent.  New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1991 (first published 1931).
  30. Sackville-West, Vita.  Seducers in Ecuador and The Heir.  New York: Penguin Books, 1989 (first published 1924 and 1922, respectively).
  31. Smith, Dodie.  I Capture the Castle.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998 (first published 1948).
  32. Taylor, Elizabeth.  Palladian.  New York: Penguin Books, 1985 (first published 1946).
  33. Taylor, Elizabeth.  The Soul of Kindness.  New York: The Dial Press, 1984 (first published 1964).
  34. Taylor, Elizabeth.  The Wedding Group.  New York: Penguin Books, 1985 (first published 1968).
  35. Trollope, Anthony.  Barchester Towers.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 (first published 1857).
  36. Trollope, Anthony.  The Warden.  London: Penguin Books, 1986 (first published 1855).
  37. Trollope, Anthony.  The Way We Live Now.  London, Penguin Books, 1994 (first published 1875).
  38. Von Arnim, Elizabeth.  Elizabeth and Her German Garden.  London: Virago Press, 1992 (first published 1898).
  39. Webb, Mary.  Gone to Earth.  London: Virago Press, 1979 (first published 1917).
  40. Webb, Mary.  Precious Bane.  New York: The Dial Press, 1982 (first published 1924).
  41. West, Rebecca.  The Fountain Overflows.  London: Virago Press, 1984 (first published 1957).
  42. White, Antonia.  Frost in May.  New York: Penguin Books, 1992 (first published 1933).


  1. Congratulations on the contest! I thoroughly enjoyed reading through your list of books and your summary. Perhaps a PhD in the English dept is in your future :)

    1. Oh goodness, one PhD is quite enough for me! I'm grateful that English lit remains a hobby; it makes it a wonderfully interesting (but still relaxing) break from all of my academic musicological or theological reading. I sometimes wonder if reading fiction becomes work for English academics.