Wednesday, October 6, 2010

How to Read an Encyclopedia Entry

Greetings! The semester is well under way and at last I can resume my own pace of reading and writing, such as it is, instead of racing around trying to keep up with the always chaotic pace of September.

I have recently resumed work on one of my long term interests, travel writing, having my interest renewed at the always enjoyable conference of the International Society for Travel Writing, held this year in South Carolina. It was my pleasure to be on a panel about 20th Century American women travel writers and an even greater pleasure to hear the presentations during the conference that introduced me to many more writers to explore.

This entry is titled "How to Read an Encyclopedia Entry" because I will in the next few paragraphs show you a delightful technique for uncovering possible scenes for movie scripts. Bear with me.

One of the conference attendees shared with me her interest in translating books by Americans about Germany into German. Of course, my personal research interest, Clara Laughlin, wrote So you're going to Germany and Austria! in 1930, so I shared this information. Curious to see what other titles share the subject heading Germany -- Guidebooks I hopped into Link+. If you're playing along at home in the library catalog of your choice, you might be mildly disappointed in the results. 246 is not enough! So, I tried another similar subject heading: Germany--Description and Travel, which generates 420 results. You might be expecting at this point I am going to launch into a discussion about the difference of these two subject headings, but instead I direct your attention to the works of an author revealed by these searches:

Observations and reflections made in the course of a journey through France, Italy, and Germany

Piozzi, Hester Lynch, 1741-1821.
London : Printed for A. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1789.
2 v. ;

This bibliographic record also nicely lends itself as an example of what sets off my Bookcharmer Alert System. 1789, always of interest. But the combination of "Hester" with "Piozzi" is what sends me quickly, quickly to biographical sources!

Happily, our Hester Lynch Piozzi is well represented in the Dictionary of National Biography, or as it is known in its online incarnation: The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. You should read this entry for yourself, whether your library has print or online access, as it is worth the effort to locate this essay to read about this remarkable woman and wonder, as I did, why her name is not mentioned as frequently as Samuel Johnson's. Here's the citation: Michael J. Franklin, ‘Piozzi , Hester Lynch (1741–1821)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 6 Oct 2010]

As I say to students in library instruction opportunities, encyclopedia authors use neutral language as encyclopedia publishers do not wish to be sued. Encyclopedia entries are intended to give the upshot of a topic and provide useful citations to further reading. DNB does this very well. However, sometimes the language is SO neutral that a bookcharmer must raise her eyebrows and provide an alternative version sotte voce.

For example, DNB writes of Hester Lynch's marriage to one Henry Thrale, "When not actively seeking a male heir, Thrale was distant, somewhat severe, and prone to womanizing if his wife was not available; a man about town, he valued his wife primarily as a woman who did not object to his town house in Deadman's Place, Southwark, and ultimately as a vivacious and ornamental hostess at his Streatham Park estate."

Loosely translated: he was a pig.

Grieve not dear reader, for Hester had her day, once Thrale departed this life and she was also relieved of having Samuel Johnson as a house-guest for sixteen years. The DNB goes on to tell us, as neutrally as possible:

"three years after the death of Thrale, she made a love match of her own. Against the advice of her forceful eldest daughter, Hester Maria [see Elphinstone, Hester Maria]—aptly nicknamed Queeney—and the violent opposition of Johnson, whose ill health increased his self-absorption, and to the dismay of almost all her fashionable and bluestocking friends, she married the Italian musician Gabriel Mario Piozzi (1740–1809)."

Reader response: "What! Where, when did she meet Piozzi?!? She married him even though Johnson was hateful about it and so was her eldest daughter ("forceful" is loosely translated as "bitchy")!

Are there not several scenes ripe for cinema in this entry? This has costume drama written all over it! Who would you cast as a bloated, selfish Johnson? As the long suffering and finally happy Hester? (Meryl Streep of course). And as the apparently imperious daughter? (Scarlett Johannson).

I now exit stage left to determine if I will begin reading about her with the early editions of Hester's Letters, the re-edited writings, or the attempts at biography that have been published about her.

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