Notes from the Garret

by Christopher Alessandrini, July 30, 2012

For two months now I’ve been copyediting and compiling Dumbarton Oaks’s 2011–2012 annual report. If you haven’t already, check out last year’s report. It’s an exquisite volume edited by Sara Taylor, Kathleen Sparkes, and Lisa Wainwright. I carry it with me to and from work on a daily basis, almost as a talisman. (“Still reading that book, huh?” the security guard is almost certain to say.)

What it boils down to is this: I spend a lot of time copyediting—restructuring sentences; fretting over serial commas, en dashes, and title formatting; Googling scholars and their institutions of study, etc. The Chicago Manual of Style and I have mumbled and bumbled our way through the gawky early stages of acquaintanceship and are, I am happy to report, in the process of cementing a lifelong friendship. Strunk and White are as always charming and flippant and wonderful conversationalists, though one might say too rigid in their declarations. Merriam Webster and I go way back; I won’t bore you with the progression of our friendship, though I will concede that recently we’ve had some unexpected spats. “Yearlong” could’ve been the end of us, Merriam and me.

When I’m not copyediting, I’m either scribbling to-do lists on post-its, monkeying around on InDesign, sending pesky emails to DO’s wonderful staff (apologies to those who experience dread at the sight of my name in your inbox—you guys have been wonderful!), and searching for photographs to illustrate the report. Here’s a sample spread; the frontispiece features a stunning photograph by Alexandre Tokovinine:

Preliminary Frontis

A preview spread, featuring a beautiful photograph by Alexandre Tokovinine

Because the annual report is essentially an institutional yearbook, I spend a lot of my time rummaging blindly through the unkempt bowels of the Shared drive in search of usable images. This often necessitates the unearthing of some mysterious marginalia: Santa Claus making a jolly, bearded appearance at the Christmas party; croquet on the North Vista; old photographs from fellows’ events that appear to be direct descendants of  “Luncheon of the Boating Party” and Edward Gorey’s “The Doubtful Guest.”

Oddly, this all comes together in the refectory. As I watch you artfully rearrange those three leaves of salad on your plate, I know that you’re secretly a cubed cheese fiend (Christmas party, 2011) and that you’ve written a dissertation on cranial modification as rite of passage in Pre-Columbian cultures. I think you’re great. And you—I read your report on the comparison between two botanical texts from the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries and I’m itching like mad to talk about them but I don’t even know where to start. I feel young and unwise and in over my head, but it’s not a bad place to be, not really. I read your reports—these narrow windows into your lives—and I feel like I sort of know you, if only a little. I’ve known you for five hundred words and already I’m cheering for you.

One story that especially held my interest involved the re-creation of the Dumbarton Oaks Tunic in sugar cookie squares. Some Pre-Columbian junior fellows crafted it as a farewell to former director of Pre-Columbian Studies, Joanne Pillsbury. Take a look:

The Cookie Tunic

Dumbarton Oaks Tunic, in sugar cookie squares

Andrew Hamilton, the junior fellow who spearheaded the project, managed to kill two birds with one stone: frosting the individual tocapu squares proved a painstaking process, but it offered Andrew unexpected insight into the tunic’s makeup. He was forced to interpret it in a defamiliarized context; in carefully reproducing the tunic square by square, he noticed patterns emerging that he’d glossed over in the Textile Gallery, where the tunic remained behind a pane of glass. This surprising research allowed Andrew to complete a chapter of his dissertation.

About Me

I’m a rising sophomore at Harvard College from Lexington, Massachusetts.