Books That Cook: Sipsey’s Buttermilk Biscuits

During the month of September, we are celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Next on the menu: Trish Palao of NYU Press takes on the buttermilk biscuit.

Read, savor, and let us know what you think in the comments section!


“These don’t compare to your grandmother’s. She made the best.”

I hear this every time I have biscuits with my dad. My father grew up in the Visayan islands of the Philippines, in a region historically known for sugar production—not biscuits. But the American presence in the country influenced its culinary tastes and my grandmother took pride in her ability to cook the way they do “state side.” My grandfather’s colleagues from the sugar mill would be sure to drop by in the mornings to talk business. In doing so they were guaranteed an invitation to join the family in a breakfast of longanisa (sausage), fried eggs, garlic rice, and biscuits.

It’s only in recent years, after gaining some confidence in the kitchen and craving my family’s cooking, that I’ve started learning how to make Filipino dishes. Biscuits are obviously not traditional fare, but its connection to my dad’s childhood memory drew me to this recipe. I was further inspired by the accompanying excerpt from Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. It recalls a picnic between two friends. Secrets are shared as they indulge in a feast that includes biscuits and honey, respectively prepared and harvested with love. How many wonderful bonds are forged over the sharing of food?

The recipe for Sipsey’s buttermilk biscuits is deceptively simple. It calls for six ingredients and consists of five straightforward pieces of instruction. I mentioned this to our Production Manager, a South Carolina native who’s as particular about biscuits as my dad. “It’ll be hard. They require a lot of time and patience.” Then I told a friend, a former wedding cake baker. “They’re the worst to make! I can never get a good batch no matter what I try.”

I decided to do more research. It was either that or brace myself for a disappointing Sunday breakfast. Food bloggers advised: use cold butter, don’t knead too much, don’t over mix, DO NOT roll out the dough, keep them close together so they rise up and don’t spread out. Turns out there were a lot of things that Sipsey didn’t tell me.

Thanks to the Internet (and the time-saving wonder that is the food processor), my biscuits turned out fine. They tasted right and they weren’t too hard or dense. Could they have been better? Definitely. But I know that a lighter, flakier, yummier biscuit is not something I can get from looking at more websites or fiddling with kitchen gadgets. It comes from attempting the dish again. And again. And again. And eventually I’ll have figured out the method, the measurements, and the timing that result in buttery excellence.

I imagine that’s what perfecting biscuits—or any treasured family dish—is really about: unwritten knowledge, skill, and technique that come only with time, experience, and enough unexpected guests who pop in during mealtime.

Trish Palao manages Advertising and Direct Marketing at NYU Press.

Books That Cook: Caramel Cake

During the month of September, we are celebrating the publication of our first literary cookbook, Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal by rounding up some of our bravest “chefs” at the Press to take on the task of cooking this book! In the next few weeks, we’ll be serving up reviews, odes, and confessions from Press staff members who attempted various recipes à la minute.

Next on the menu: Laura Bisberg of NYU Press bakes a cake, Maya Angelou-style.

Read, savor, and let us know what you think in the comments section!


In her autobiographical story prefacing the recipe for Caramel Cake, here’s how Maya Angelou describes the dessert:

The salty sweetness of the caramel frosting along with the richness of the batter made the dessert soften and liquefy on the tongue and slip quietly down the throat almost without notice. Save that it left a memory of heaven itself in the mouth.[1]

So let’s just say my expectations weren’t low. The first step is to make caramel syrup. The instructions sound simple enough:

Heat sugar in heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Stir constantly until melted to a brown liquid. When it bubbles over entire surface, remove from heat. Slowly add boiling water, stirring constantly.

I put the sugar in an enamel pot. (First mistake.) The sound of the sugar scraping across the bottom of the pan is nails on a chalkboard, but cake tastes sweeter for a little suffering. I can bear this.

After ten minutes of stirring, nothing’s changed. I am still just pushing sugar grains around the bottom of a pot. I begin to suspect trickery. I edge the burner up to medium for a few minutes. Then medium-high. (Second mistake.)

It suddenly gets interesting, like a chemistry experiment. The sugar clumps, slowly turns tan. “Yes,” I think. “This seems right.” At twenty minutes, the sugar melts into an amber liquid. Microscopic bubbles appear at the center and foam out from there. “Excellent,” I think. “Just as described.”

I remove the pot from the heat, and stop stirring for approximately 3.2 seconds while I pour out a cup of boiling water from the kettle. (Third mistake.)

Adding the water turns the dainty bubbles into a roiling lava field, the pleasant amber hue to dark rum. Some of the sugar has recrystallized at the bottom of the pot in elaborate configurations. I spoon out a couple of the Chihuly sugar sea monkeys with growing concern that something has gone terribly wrong.

I pour the sugar into a bowl. I dip a spoon in, give the liquid a minute to cool, taste it. How can I describe it? It’s acrid, bitter, tarrish. Like overcooked gym socks. I pour it down the sink.

Take two!

I correct for my mistakes. I use a non-stick pot. I pre-measure the boiling water. I resist the temptation to adjust the heat, and most importantly, I. Do. Not. Stop. Stirring.

It’s a sweltering early September, easily 90 degrees in my kitchen. Twenty minutes in, I badly want the glass of water which is only just out of reach, but I don’t give in to temptation. “STIR CONSTANTLY” is my new mantra. I don’t know exactly what it looks like to make meth, but I imagine it would be a bad time for the cops to raid my apartment as I stand over a pot of white powder at the stove, sweating profusely and refusing to stop stirring.

The sugar eventually goes through a few stages that it completely skipped last batch: snowflakes, sand, sea glass, pulled toffee. It takes close to an hour, but comes out fine this time. It tastes, unsurprisingly, like sugar water.

The rest of the cake comes together easily. I bake it, frost it, take a few photos for posterity.

And the taste? Just like Angelou promised, it’s “a memory of heaven itself,” if heaven tastes like delicious cake. The caramelized sugar and brown butter give it a rich flavor, sweet and salty and intense.

So here’s my advice: make this cake! It’s lovely! And if I scared you off from making the caramel syrup, I have plenty left over. I’d trade it for a kitchen air conditioner.

Laura Bisberg is Business Manager at NYU Press.

[1] “The Assurance of Caramel Cake,” from Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes (Random House, 2007).

Book giveaway: Books That Cook

To celebrate the final days of summer, we are giving away two free copies of Books That Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal, the newest title in our Fall 2014 catalog. 

Many of us at NYU Press have been waiting to get our hands on this delightful cookbook anthology since it made an appearance on the ‘forthcoming’ list a year ago—and it’s finally here!

Organized like a cookbook, Books That Cook is a collection of American literature written on the theme of food: from an invocation to a final toast, from starters to desserts.

Including writing from Maya Angelou, Sherman Alexie, and Nora Ephron, among many others, the collection reveals the range of ways authors incorporate recipes—whether the recipe flavors the story or the story serves to add spice to the recipe.

To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Sunday, September 21st, 2014 at 1:00 pm EST.

Plus, stay tuned to the blog—we’ll be offering a free chapter (recipe included!) from the book next month.

‘The Fault’ in our memories

—Jodi Eichler-Levine

One fine morning in Amsterdam, Hazel Grace Lancaster, the protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars, sports a tee shirt emblazoned with Magritte’s most famous painting. It reads, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe) under a painting of… a pipe. The point of the painting is that it is not a pipe, but rather, a representation of a pipe. A signifier. A treacherous fake.

Yet sometimes we insist that we see a pipe. In the same way, The Fault in Our Stars is not a group of teenagers with cancer; it is a representation of teenagers with cancer. We are enraptured by it because it signifies suffering but it is not the real thing, giving us a vicarious “fantasy of witnessing” tragedy. We insist that we are seeing heartbreak.

The film’s blockbuster success stems from many sources: the popularity of the novel; the rising power of teenage girls at the box office; our cultural fascination with death; and the fact that it is genuinely a strong film. However, except for a significant kerfuffle over a kiss in the Anne Frank house, the role of religion in the film has gone unremarked—particularly when it is religion on the fuzzy line between what we call “religious” and “secular.”

John Green, the author of the book on which the film is based, was a religion and English major at Kenyon College. Before becoming a writer, he served as a hospital chaplain and considered a career in ministry. Perhaps this is one reason why his luminescent book is filled with existential fear and a refusal to meet the terror of theodicy with empty platitudes. Here, teens with cancer meet in the “literal heart of Jesus” for a support group at a local church. Hazel is not comforted by this 12-step two-step, but she also recognizes the Sisyphean task of the group’s peppy leader, Patrick. Elsewhere, Hazel’s father asks who we are to deny an elegant universe its desire to be noticed.

This is what I find so profound about the book, its inspirations, and its afterlife. Religion no longer happens only in formal institutional spaces (and it probably never did). In the hallways of hospitals, in our visceral reaction as characters high on a movie screen ponder ultimate questions—in the act of sitting in that dark theater itself—religion is happening. So is memory.

Augustus Waters wants to be noticed before he dies. At first, by the universe: to live an exceptional life. He and Hazel know this cannot be. They know they are finite; they never declare “always,” as some other lovers do, but rather, “okay.”

We all want to be noticed by the universe. This is why we yelp into our virtual superaddressee: the echoing expanse of Facebook and Twitter. We are all writing our own eulogies and those of our friends, day by day, good words and bad words and sublime and despairing logics (and the Kardashians, alas) all spun together. And it is here that we address the dead in plaintive tones. In the book, a grieving Hazel reads the memorial posts on Augustus’ “wall page.” She is both horrified by and empathetic towards the endless tributes. Giving in to temptation, she replies to one post, but is never answered, “lost in the blizzard of new posts.”

Hazel finds the term “forever in our hearts” especially galling.  Skeptical of memory, she mimics the poster’s intentions: “‘You will live forever in my memory, because I will live forever! I AM YOUR GOD NOW, DEAD BOY! I OWN YOU!’ Thinking you won’t die is yet another side effect of dying.” Hazel sees through memory’s ruse: we think our power to remember and to recover memories is how we resurrect those who are lost—and that has theological implications. To possess one’s own fellow creature through memory is godlike… but we are mortals.

What happens to our memories of love and of suffering, here in the twenty-first century?

Green answers us with both dark infinitude and a leap of faith. He became a parent while writing the book, and says this changed it. When Hazel is eight, her mother fears that she will not be a mother anymore without her daughter. Years later, she moves past that into a brazen, stark resilience. She tells Hazel that she will always be her mother. Green has said, “I just could think of no other way to lay bare the absolute hideousness of living in a world where parents have to bury their children … Humans have always lived in that world, and always will.”

And yet, he also writes: “I couldn’t write the book until I understood that the love between a parent and child (like many other kinds of love) is literally stronger than death: As long as either person survives, the relationship survives.”

John Green wants to have his existential cake, and eat it, too. Maybe that’s not the worst idea ever.

Okay.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. She holds a joint appointment with the Women’s Studies Program. She is the author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature (NYU Press, 2013).

American Literatures Initiative approaches 100th book

“The American Literatures Initiative, the first of the university press collaborative publishing grants awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, approaches 100 book mark.”

To learn more about this exciting news, read an excerpt from the press release below! [The full version appears on the ALI website here.]

In 2007, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, looking for ways to encourage presses to collaborate more on basic publishing operations, and looking to support the more economical publication of first scholarly books in what they called “underserved” fields, issued a call for grant proposals to the University Press community. The call for grant proposals was open-ended: there was no definition of an underserved field, nor were any guidelines provided about the potential size of a grant, the timeframe, or the number of presses needed in the collaboration. However, each proposal had to address several key issues, including providing evidence of an underserved field, identifying  more economical and transformative processes for the publication of first books, and providing a plan for long-term sustainability of publishing monographs  in the discipline.

The American Literatures Initiative (ALI) was the first such grant awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2008, to be followed by a half dozen additional grants during 2008 and 2009. The ALI allowed five similarly-sized university presses—NYU Press, along with Fordham University Press, Rutgers University Press, Temple University Press, and the University of Virginia Press—to collaborate on the publication of 125 first books in the field of literary studies over five years, with a grant of $1.3 million.

As the ALI approaches the publication of its 100th book, the many skepticisms voiced at the beginning—that presses could not effectively collaborate in these ways—were unfounded. To find out more about the participating publishers and the project’s goals, the Directors of the ALI presses were asked to provide a candid assessment of their progress to date, with the hope that some of the successes of the ALI might be adapted by individual university presses, or scaled onto other university press collaborations.

What’s the future of the ALI after the next grant period ends? “We’re exploring several options,” said Steve Maikowski, Director at NYU Press. “We see the ability to make a strong case to continue funding the most successful, transformative parts of the program, scaling back the big marketing spend, continue our experimentation in collaborative production methods, and focusing on the core plant costs, which will make these niche monographs a bit more viable on our lists. Without such outside support, some of the ALI presses may have to again significantly reduce the titles published in this field.”

In spite of the new financial challenges faced by the ALI, for new scholars in literary studies, the ALI is a beacon of hope in an otherwise dreary publishing landscape for first books for scholars in the humanities. And the ALI has indeed achieved many of the original goals in the grant proposal to The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Perhaps most gratifying is the number of prizes won by the ALI to date, most recently the top book prize of the American Studies Association. These distinguished prizes fulfill one of the most important goals: that ALI would become the destination point for the best, award-winning original scholarship in literary studies.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Peter Coviello’s new book, Tomorrow’s Parties, launches an innovative (and often
unexpected) exploration of nineteenth-century American sexuality through the lens of literature. Here, we talk with him about Joseph Smith, the Velvet Underground, and how he came about his cover image. 

NYU Press: Tell us a bit about your book.

Peter Coviello: Tomorrow’s Parties considers the strange forms pleasure, desire, and carnality could take in the writing of the American nineteenth century, just before these aspects of sex came to be reassembled under the sign of something called “sexuality.” It looks closely at imaginings of erotic life that can seem, to modern eyes, weird and unlikely, hard even to recognize as sex at all.

So I’m interested – when I’m reading Henry James or Harriet Jacobs or Joseph Smith – in
what a modern notion of sexuality might prevent us from seeing clearly, might mute or distort. In this way I think of the book as in dialogue not only with scholarship about sex in the American nineteenth century but with new queer work that worries over the adequacy of “sexuality” itself as a cherished bit of conceptual terminology. It’s my sense that a lot of us doing queer work today are wondering afresh at the misapprehending, sometimes colonizing tendencies of “sexuality” even in its queerest registers; so Tomorrow’s Parties tries to tell a story about how the emergence of that sexuality came to happen, and at what cost.

NYUP: Why the title, Tomorrow’s Parties? Are you a Velvet Underground
fan?

PC: I am. So there’s that. I also found a curious commonality across a lot
of the writers I was reading: a tendency to transform their own uneasiness with the
cramped, narrowing conceptual languages of erotic life that were available to them
into this ardent, yearning investment in futurity, and what might be possible there.
Again and again I encountered authors who, when gripped by one or another kind
of sensual intensity or bodily captivation, would begin dreaming of the future, of
some as yet unripened set of conditions under which those pleasures might find for
themselves a different kind of legibility, and perhaps even a way of living them out
in concert with a range of other people. The more I thought about that – and I do a
lot of my thinking surrounded by music – the more the phrase “tomorrow’s parties”
became inevitable.

NYUP: How did you find such a captivating image for the cover?

PC: This would’ve been in Brooklyn, I’m guessing, in the early 2000s. I was being led around a mazy gallery and feeling, I confess, a little out of my depth. Then I turned a corner and found myself abruptly transported.

Julie Heffernan’s paintings are strange without being surreal, classical but not imitative, painterly without being ironic. You look at them and feel unnerved, as though you’re seeing not a deft citation of classical style but that style as appraised
at a somehow estranging distance. There’s an eerie kind of rupture being staged in Self-Portrait in the Bedroom by the central figure – painted in outblown nonrealist extravagance – but of what? And by what? Of the antique Tintoretto-esque framing gestures by a present, or a future, that confounds it? Of an inherited order by all that fractures it: bodiliness, imagination, their pairing in sex?

Tomorrow’s Parties is about rupture: about all that might be lost – all the
extravagant ways of imagining the very parameters of sex – with the ascent of
modern languages of sexuality and sexual identity. So when my great editor Eric
Zinner asked about images for the cover, I didn’t hesitate: I could think of no image
that performed that interplay between capture and excess, legibility and erotic
obliquity, more beautifully than Heffernan’s. I’m delighted to have it for the book

Peter Coviello is Professor of English at Bowdoin College, where he specializes in nineteenth-century American literature and queer studies, and where he has served as Chair of the departments of English, Africana Studies, and Gay and Lesbian Studies. His book, Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Ninteenth-Century America is out now from NYU Press.

New Spreadable Media essays: Week 3

We’re at week three since launching the online component of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture!

Here are this week’s round of web exclusive essays written by selected contributors who have shaped the argument put forth in Spreadable Media:

  • The Value of Retrogames“—Bob Rehak, a film and media studies professor at Swarthmore College, examines how grassroots interest in residual media and culture may coalesce online, sparking new kinds of cultural practices and production.
  • Clothing has passed between different kinds of exchanges for centuries, acquiring different meanings and values in the process—and, in “A Global History of Secondhand Clothing,” filmmaker and MIT media historian Hanna Rose Shell traces and examines those shifting sartorial roles.
  • In “Retrobrands and Retromarketing,” York University professor Robert V. Kozinets discusses the strategies through which companies engage in “retrobranding,” reviving or relaunching brands from the past in ways that capitalize on existing fandoms and provide launching points for the creation of new markets.

Check ‘em out, and stay tuned at http://spreadablemedia.org/essays—where each week leading up to the book’s publication (in January 2013!), a new batch of exclusive essays will be released.

(And hey! Feel free to debate/critique/trash each piece in the comments section. Expand the conversation, transform the ideas. That’s how spreadable media works.)

For Patriot Day, a round-up of 9/11 books

In honor of Patriot Day (September 11), we’ve compiled a list of some of the best books on 9/11 published by NYU Press. Share your favorite 9/11 book with us by leaving a comment!

110 STORIES
New York Writes after September 11
Edited by Ulrich Baer
August 2004. $22.
“Short-short stories and poems by New York writers are the collection’s raison d’Etre, but personal testimony creeps in as well. The best entries approach the subject most obliquely or humorously—Jonathan Ames’s Nabokovian ‘Womb Shelter,’ David Hollander’s moving ‘The Price of Light and Air,’ Nathalie Handal’s lovely ‘The Lives of Rain,’ Lev Grossman’s hilarious ‘Pitching September 11,’ among many others…Overall, this collection proves the transformative power of art.”—Publishers Weekly

 


THE SHOCK OF THE NEWS

Media Coverage and the Making of 9/11
Brian A. Monahan
March 2010. $24.
The Shock of the News is a must-read for researchers engaged in media analyses or studying anything related to the September 11th terrorist attacks. It would be an excellent addition to undergraduate and graduate classes in media analyses or media and society.”
—Michelle D. Byng, Critical Sociology

 


ARABS AND MUSLIMS IN THE MEDIA
Race and Representation after 9/11
Evelyn Alsultany
August 2012. $23.
“Drawing on a rich understanding of the representations of Arabs and Muslims in the last century, Alsultany helps us to understand what has changed, and what has not, in the last ten years.”—Melani McAlister, George Washington University

 

 

SEPTEMBER 12
Community and Neighborhood Recovery at Ground Zero
Gregory Smithsimon
October 2011. $24.
“Scientifically exacting and warmly personal, Smithsimon elucidates the residents’ struggles from survival to recovery, the coalescence of community groups, and the debates over redevelopment and the Ground Zero memorial. A well-illustrated, critical, yet sympathetic study of privilege and catastrophe that ultimately celebrates the vitality and diversity of a great city.”—Booklist

 

Also of Interest:
HABEAS CORPUS AFTER 9/11
Confronting America’s New Global Detention System
Jonathan Hafetz
August 2012. $24.

THE UNITED STATES AND TORTURE
Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse
Edited by Marjorie Cohn
April 2012. $24.

See any we missed? Let us know in the comments section!

Notes from Betsy…on Single

Our rock-star publicist, Betsy Steve, lover of books and all things media, is here to share one of her favorites from this month. Get ready!

Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled by Michael Cobb has received quite a bit of media attention not just because of its beautiful cover (which, by the way, is Bernice Abbott’s Cocteau in Bed with Mask, Paris, 1927) or its quirky 5″x9″ trim size (think travel guide dimensions), but because it fits so perfectly with the recently reported changing dynamic of the United States’ population: More and more people are choosing singledom over coupledom.

In fact, in New York and Washington D.C. alone, one in two households are occupied by someone who is single. And, as Michael Cobb would argue in his book, there’s nothing wrong with that. For too long, the single person has been unjustifiably maligned and pitied by society. As Michael tells Maclean’s Brian Bethune in an interview, “I had a lot of frustration with why singles weren’t being represented. We were always pre- or post-coupled—widows or bachelors or divorcees, unfortunates of some kind. Just a really awful category.”

In Single, Michael takes readers through an eclectic set of literary, cultural, philosophical, psychoanalytical, and pop culture pieces that celebrate the uncoupled, providing a much-needed counter voice to the chorus of the coupled. Don’t miss interviews with Michael from Wisconsin Public Radio, the Toronto Star, the CBC, Slate.com, as well as reviews from the Toronto Globe and Mail and featured excerpts on the Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy.”

Rocking Out to Single

—Jiayi Ying

My first day on the job at NYU Press, I had two emails waiting for me. One was to get my ID approved for building access, the second was an assignment to brainstorm and research creative ways to get the word out for an upcoming release called Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled. Getting right down to work, I thought—I liked it. After finally willing away my first day jitters, what really got me excited about the project was the fact that one, it dealt with—argued for, in fact—being single, and two, it promised to dissect Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” to make its case. (I don’t know about you but, aside from that Australian fly being named after her a couple of years ago, I hardly think of academic books and Beyoncé in the same train of thought.)

So to say I was excited is an understatement—I was really excited. And, after finally finishing the book, I found myself with a list of songs, TV shows, movies, and books that Michael Cobb had discussed in those 239 pages. Something needed to be done with them, so my lovely supervisor, Jodi, and I compiled a playlist of the songs. For good measure, we asked everyone around the office for their recommendations (because the best things in life are shared, you guys). The result is this mix below, courtesy of Single, and NYU Press’s marketing and sales departments. Enjoy!

[You can also listen here.]

Jiayi Ying is Online Marketing and Social Media Intern at NYU Press. Be sure to look out for her forthcoming profile in our Meet the Interns series on this blog.

Singles, rejoice!

From Liz Lemon to Melville’s Bartleby, the ones who prefer not two

by Michael Cobb, author of Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled (forthcoming this July)

I used to nurse my single self each Valentine’s Day by blasting Morrissey’s “Will Never Marry.” His voice is softly defiant: “I’m writing this to say / In a gentle way / Thank you, but no / I will live my life as I will undoubtedly die, alone.” How could I resist such self-indulgent melancholy? Morrissey is a fascinating single icon, refusing confirmations of his sexual identity, reveling in his secrecy about whom, if anyone, he has kissed.

This ritual of Morrissey devotion drove a friend crazy: How could I celebrate a life without marriage? How could I appreciate being single, which he, like so many coupled people, assumed is a terribly lonely thing to be? According to my friend, who was in a romantic relationship, I was too comfortable in my singleness.

To choose single life is to choose the scent of rotting vegetables and unused product portions drifting out of the fridge; the numerous wedding invitations with an “and guest” violently scrawled next to your name; the pathetic glances of people saddened that you have nothing of substance to report about a “love life”; and the perplexed utterances of wait staff asking, “Just you?” One might think being single is a condition that must be cured—and certainly not one to take lightly. (This is why Liz Lemon is such a refreshing antidote. In more than a few scenes of “30 Rock” we watch her, alone in her apartment, eat something, choke, and self-administer her own Heimlich maneuver to be saved from death, at least this time. Last season she recovered from a breakup by adopting a cat, which she petulantly names after one of the most famous American singles, Emily Dickinson.)

But I know that the moments I’ve felt the loneliest are when I’ve been in a relationship, wondering why there’s so much distance when there should only be closeness. The coupled are supposed to be the lucky ones, so why all this sadness? Is it possible that the coupled inoculate themselves against this haunting sense of disconnect by refusing it away, and pushing their confusion onto the single, insisting, again and again, that it’s the single who are lonely, not they?

With Emily Dickinson (Liz’s cat) in mind, it might not seem so unlikely that “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s 19th-century story of a stubborn, insubordinate law copyist and the lawyer who can’t seem to fire him, offers up a solution to the age-old conundrum of what to make of a “lonely,” single person on Valentine’s Day.

The barebones of the plot: A lawyer hires a scrivener to help with his paperwork. Bartleby is an excellent scrivener, but will only perform the very mechanical task he was originally asked to do: copy. He does not deviate from his job description (at least at first), and when asked to do more, or something else, he famously states, “I’d prefer not to.” Throughout the course of the story, the lawyer attempts to engage Bartleby in all sorts of office tasks, and most requests are met with Bartleby’s, “I’d prefer not to.”

Here is where things get interesting. Instead of dismissing him, the incredulous lawyer only becomes more curious: Who is this strange character? He puts it this way: “There was something about Bartleby that not only strangely disarmed me, but in a wonderful manner touched and disconcerted me.”

Let’s imagine that the touched and disconcerted feelings of Melville’s lawyer are of the romantic variety. After pages of nearly obsessive infatuation, the lawyer makes a bold move. “‘Bartleby,’ said I, in the kindest tone I could assume under such exciting circumstances, ‘will you go home with me now—not to my office, but my dwelling . . . ?” Bartleby rejects this offer, and the lawyer, as if heartbroken, flees the office, running up Wall Street (to Broadway no less).

Bartleby spends most of his time contentedly absorbed in his own whims and interests, his own “wall-like reveries.” And he has the power to do the unthinkable: Refuse to be coupled. In a way, he says to the lawyer, and perhaps the world, “I’d prefer not you, ” or maybe even, “I’d prefer not two.”

The lawyer describes Bartleby’s refusal to be involved in the world of others in pathetic terms, punctuating his sadness by exclaiming, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” But this is his perspective, his bias. The mistake the lawyer makes is that he’s not inspired by Bartleby’s example. He assumes that single Bartleby is lonely and must be coupled off. He strives to make Bartleby his own; the scrivener is “a valuable acquisition.” The lawyer is more predatory than appreciative. And he doesn’t realize that he is the one who is most unsettled, most forlorn, in the story.

The key to understanding anything about single life in a world rabidly devoted to the supremacy of coupling off is to think of a single character who can strip away all the sad and pathetic descriptions that are placarded on singles by those who don’t feel singles could ever exist happily or grandly alone. Here’s a pantheon of some of my other favorite real-life Bartleby’s: Georgia O’Keefe, Agnes Martin, David Souter, Octavia Butler, Janet Reno, Proust, Baudelaire, and so on.

These people made the world a richer, if not larger place without the romantic support the coupled world deems so invaluable. Yet rather than view the singles in our midst as those who might also harbor such extraordinary powers, we view them with suspicion, as the ones who are supposed to be much lonelier than those who are coupled. Why not regard them with curiosity and even possibly affection and leave it at that? We can marvel at their self-possession. The single’s value, like anyone’s value (coupled or not), surely exceeds any one relationship in his or her story. And that story need not be any more or less tragic than anyone else’s.

Michael Cobb is Professor of English at the University of Toronto. He is the author of God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence, also published by New York University Press.

A Valentine’s Day for the bookish!

In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re skipping the chocolate hearts and giving you 20% off a few of our loveliest books. Check out the few featured below. Or, for a list of all the discounted titles, visit the sale page on our website! Sale ends on February 20th.

  
For the lonely hearts – Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, by Michael Cobbs
$21.00 / now $16.80  ♥

“Using the rhythms of banter, suggestion, and devilish claims, Cobb pits the brio, the grandeur of singleness against the deadening form of the couple… as beautiful as it is brilliant.”–Kathryn Bond Stockton, author of The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

For the non-traditionalists — Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China, by Judith Stacey
$21.00 / now $16.80  ♥

“Clever and practical blend of research, history and anecdote.”–Kirkus Reviews

For the romantics Love Lyrics, by Ámaru and Bhartri·hari
$22.00 / now $17.60  ♥

“Anyone who loves the look and feel and heft of books will delight in these elegant little volumes.”–New Criterion

 

For the cynics – Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisisby David Shumway
$23.00 / now $18.40  ♥

“… illuminates the complexities of an important recent development in American marital ideals.”–Journal of American History

 

For the lit lovers – Lover, by Bertha Harris 
$23.00 / now $18.40  ♥

“[A] spellbinding, verbal sleight of hand as satisfying as it is serpentine.”–Washington Post Book World