Longtime D.C. resident and independent historian Pamela Long, 71, was formally anointed a genius last week. The MacArthur Foundation granted Long one of its annual “genius grants”—-a prestigious award that comes with a $625,000 prize which recipients can spend however they want. Long ,whose research focuses on 15th and 16th century Europe and the history of science and technology, is writing a book on engineering in Rome in the late 16th century. She is currently in Rome doing research, but answered some questions about life in D.C. Wannabe geniuses, take notes. (You can learn more about her research here.)
City Desk: How do you plan on spending your fellowship money?
Pamela Long: Well, first of all I plan to live on it. Many people wake up every morning with intact salaries, but I am not one of them. I live on grants and occasional teaching and in the interstices go back to zero. So this will be quite novel for me. Second, hopefully I can find a way to stretch it out a bit. And finally, perhaps most important, it will allow me to follow my ideas more freely in the sense that I can go to the archives and libraries of Europe whenever I think I need to work in one or more of them, not just when I have the means to do so. I am a historian of European cultural history and the history of science and technology and although Washington is a mecca of rare book libraries, I also need to work in European libraries. All historians need to go to their sources, wherever they are. And finally, I don’t know where this will really take me, but it does give me a sense of greater freedom.
Where were you when you first found out you won a MacArthur Fellowship? What was your reaction?
I was in my apartment working at my desk when I got the phone call. Since I actually never answer my phone, they had figured out how to make a phone appointment through email. I was shocked. Stunned. Benumbed.
Where in D.C. do you live? What’s your favorite neighborhood? I live on the edge of Cleveland Park/Woodley Park across from the Zoo. I like my own neighborhood and also Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle. These are really my favorite neighborhoods and I walk around them all the time.
What’s your favorite restaurant?
Dino’s, which used to be in Cleveland Park and now is in Shaw.
Place to get a drink?
My refrigerator, where possibly can be found a bottle of chilled white wine.
What’s your favorite form of transportation in D.C.?
Ah, a question about transportation! Well, I have three forms of transportation in D.C. I ride the Metro a lot. I also ride the bikes of Capital BikeShare and would do so more except for my fear of being hit by one of those internal combustion engine vehicles. My main form of transportation however, are my two feet. I mostly walk everywhere. We (my husband Bob Korn) and I used to have a car, but it was flattened by a tree during hurricane Irene; I think it was in 2003 or ’04. My own conclusion was that the gods were telling us not to own a car. A big relief, and a lot cheaper, too. He (and I with him sometimes) use Zipcar, Car2Go, etc. But I myself hate driving and although I have a driver’s license I never drive. My plan to ban automotive traffic from D.C. has not gained traction!
Name one other person in D.C. that you think is doing genius-level work?
I’m afraid I can’t answer this question directly because I don’t accept its premise, the premise of “genius.” I myself have spent many years doing what could only be called idiot-level work which, for each thing published, has finally worked out, or at least, I’m not embarrassed by it, or I least, I don’t think I would be but since I can’t read my own writings once they’re published, I wouldn’t actually know. What it takes, at least from my experience, to do excellent work is long hours (not a hardship for me, I love my work), persistence, the willingness to take risks, to accept criticism, to stand by what you think if upon consideration, you believe you’re right, even if no one else believes it, and to head out into unknown places. And Washington is simply full of hard-working, creative people who do just these things. Which is why I love this city.
Where do you like to go to get work done in D.C.?
“Another complicated question! Well, first, my desk in my living room. Second, I work a lot at the Library of Congress in the main reading room and in the Folger Library across the street. And finally, when I’m working at home, I almost always go to a cafe to work in the afternoon. I walk usually either to Politics and Prose on upper Connecticut Avenue, Tryst in Adams Morgan, or Teaism near Dupont Circle. I can work oblivious to the loudest din of talking noise, just so [long as] a couple isn’t breaking up at the table next to me.
Do you know of any secret—-or any underappreciated—-libraries you can share with us?
The greatest underappreciated library in Washington is the Dibner Library in the Museum of American History. You walk in the Constitution Avenue entrance and bear right and go back into an obscure corner and there it is, one of the great collections of rare technical, engineering, and scientific books in the world. It is part of the Smithsonian Libraries.
I know you’re not a D.C. historian, but what do you find to be the most interesting part of D.C. history? As I am sure is true of many residents, I should know more of D.C. history than I do. Just who are those mounted generals, gazing out over the city, and do they know something we don’t know? And the nymphs dancing around the Dupont Circle fountain, are they former residents? But seriously, the most interesting thing about D.C. history to me is that it is so intricately intertwined with national history, and we who live here are part of it, no matter how awful it can be (and as we know, it can be pretty awful). I have been on a fair number of marches and pickets, have arrived in front of the White House after midnight on occasion (for example, those long-ago Watergate days). I walk past a hullabaloo in front of the Supreme Court regularly. I like going into my library and back to the 16th century, but I must admit, I often enjoy the hullabaloo too and have more than once looked into the intricacies of a Supreme Court case after walking by.
Anything else you want to add?
Just that, I am totally appreciative of the many people that have helped me along the way. My work would really be impossible without them. First and foremost, Bob Korn, who is deeply involved in his own highly skilled and creative work (he is a video editor and producer with his own company, Uptown Productions), but has always been supportive of my work, no matter how bizarre it at times seemed, and has always read my copy and fixed my computer. And then there are my dear friends and many others—-librarians.