On finding books and books finding us, and on Roland Barthes’s text as fetish.
Books sit on shelves and wait for us to find them.
Every book, inanimate as it is in its state of matter, may not have the attention-seeking drive of a living, brainy organism, but it does have a presence that selectively draws some of us closer, while repelling others.
Little experience with book covers (design, size, publisher’s logo) is needed before you can make a basic, almost subconscious approximation: yea or nay. A little more experience with certain authors, and you know upon associating their names to a new text where you stand in relation to it.
That’s old-school thinking. Still basically correct today, though evolved.
Subtler forces govern a book-world where shelf browsing often happens online, at clicking speed, where previews and reviews are abundant, where recommendation lists crop up unbidden (books-by-this-author,lists-with-this-book, what-others-who-liked-this-also-bought), and where many, mostly older, books are freely available on sites like gutenberg.org (50k) or archive.org (1500k). Continue reading “The Text That Chooses You”
Etymology of the word soul, quote from C. G. Jung’s “Modern Man in Search of a Soul”.
An unexpected etymological delight cropped up in my reading of Jung. The soul, wouldn’t you want to know whence it came? For once I did not have to trawl through a dictionary myself, but could enjoy a clear, informative, and measured exposition (no puns, no detours, no dry details).
What is the origin of the world Seele? Like the English word soul, it comes from the Gothic saiwala and the Old German saiu’alô, and these can be connected with the Greek aiolos, mobile, coloured, iridescent. The Greek word psyche also means butterfly. Saiwalô is related on the other side the old slavonic word sila, meaning strength. From these connections light is thrown on the original meaning of the word Seele: it is moving force, that is life-force.
The Latin words animus, spirit, and anima, soul, are the same as the Greek anemos, wind. The other Greek word for wind, pneuma, means also spirit. In Gothic we find the same word in us-anan, to breathe out, and in Latin an-helare, to pant. In Old High German, spiritus sanctus was rendered by atun, breath. In Arabic, wind is rīh, and rūh is soul, spirit. Thre is a quite similar connection with the Greek psyche, which is related to psycho, to breathe, psychos, cool, psychros, cold, and physa, bellows. These affinities show clearly how in Latin, Greek and Arabic the names given to the soul are related to the notion of moving air, the “cold breath of the spirit.” And this is also why the primitive point of view endows the soul with an invisible breath-body.
Wants give the reader a foothold in the story: What do you think of a man dying of thirst because he cannot reach the glass on his bedside table? Or of a political activist refusing a glass of water as part of her protest fast until she is force-fed?
Opinion is hardly dispassionate. A meagre glass of water will elicit something in even the most desensitised reader (pity, bile, fever), and the emotional investment in another’s hardship—be it fictional—amounts to attention.
Generating hardship is the storyteller’s prerogative and duty, generating it any which way, usually by an idiosyncratic magic opaque to others. But before the twirl of the wand happens, the elements of the craft are strategically employed: the opening paragraph hooks the reader, story parts flow into one another, the final punch is delivered with due panache. Ultimately learnable, practicable, and discernible, these elements are the ideal backdrop against which to measure the effect of the wand’s hocus-pocus. Continue reading “Hazelnuts in the Chocolate Text”
On Roland Barthes’s tmesis, and on density, depth, and the reading speed of a text.
In a conversation, we speak to be heard, if not listened to. In a letter for a friend or a story for the public, we write to be read, if not deeply regarded.
Every word is intended for effect.
No other starting position makes sense for a wordsmith, especially with respect to impatient, multitasking modern readers. Their attention mustn’t be wasted on unnecessary ideas, passages, or words.
(Or, in the extreme, on individual letters. Getting the Words Right, an otherwise helpful guidebook to writing, suggests that s be cut from words like towards and forwards as part of a so-called nano-reduction, at least in American English.In British English, towards and toward are interchangeable, but the nuanced distinction between forward and forwardsis still respect-worthy at the cost of the occasional extra letter.)
But who judges what’s necessary in a text?
A writer’s intentions—the best, the worst, and the proverbially dubious—pave all sorts of profoundly manufactured, “necessary” roads the reader almost certainly won’t walk. The reader seeks what the reader needs: excitement, information, oblivion, or perhaps just a digestive after a heavy meal. The reader takes what is useful and strips off the rest. Roland Barthes calls this perceived encounter of useful and useless tmesis. Continue reading “Writing What Will Not Be Read”
On Roland Barthes’s analogy between reading and striptease in “The Pleasure of the Text”
Most communions are licit between mind and body, though only some are enshrined in language.
Within standard usage, the mind can handle, sit on, kick about, or push through difficult problems, while the body remembers what it’s like to be out in the open, the legs are happy to run for miles, and the lungs don’t mind the effort. More creative metaphors would have the mind swimming through a sea of problems or the body navigating a complex ontological issue by mutating. (Here navigating, the physical action of driving a ship, was first abstracted for application in matters of intellect and Internet, before being returned to serve in the physical realm, metaphorically.)
While metaphors can sidle up, similes are signposted either with like or as, or with phrases such as the colour/sound/feeling of or the way that. Also, similes tend to focus on partial comparisons: in the context of gymnastics, a girl could be as nimble as a fawn, without the reader worrying that she might fall prey to the wolves in the hills. Because there are no wolves and no hills; the fawn is, with few exceptions, confined to the initial phrase. That said, extended, unintended meanings are effortlessly available (predatory males as wolves, for example). The imagination obliges, whenever the simile resonates. Continue reading “Reading Faster, or Speeding up the Striptease”
On the rhetorical figure asyndeton, and how Roland Barthes uses the word metaphorically in “The Pleasure of the Text”.
Covering a few miles on the weekend means checking the weather program and pulling out those old shorts and putting on the stinky trainers and knotting the fraying shoelaces and stepping outside and taking the first step and… jogging.
It can also mean getting ready, warming up, jogging, finishing with a sprint.
These two descriptions of the same activity illustrate the basic difference between the rhetorical figures they employ: polysyndeton in the first case (many conjunctions), and asyndeton in the second case (no conjunctions).
The polysyndeton brings about a stream of consciousness that reports elements as they occur, or a stately, biblical grandness, such as:
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, …
—John 10:27–28, KJV
The asyndeton brings about swiftness and density, or a jerky, rushed rhythm, such as:
The Shakespeare example is a particularly radical asyndeton, called a brachylogia (meaning short speech), where the conjunctions are omitted between individual words making them into a list or heap. Indeed, the Roman rhetorician Quintilian classed both syndetons as types of acervatio (a heaping up).
Rhetorical heaps are sensible sequences. The Gospel polysyndeton is a temporal sequence; the Shakespeare asyndeton comprises two sequences derived from the same word classes (nouns, then verbs). Other more general heaps, like congeries, rely on a climactic ordering to achieve the satisfying feeling of crescendo and carry the reader over (sometimes dubious) reasoning.
On the two reading speeds that Roland Barthes describes in “The Pleasure of the Text”.
In an age obsessed with saving time, reading speed is increasingly scrutinised. Brevity, clarity, immediate relevancy—done! Click on the next link.
The prize is gratification at the price of linguistic mystique.
Lyrical novels are the obverse. Looping descriptions, metaphors upon symbols upon embedded stories, resonances with previously unexplored feelings and questions questions questions—not done! Not done, even when the last word is read.
The prize is linguistic mystique at the price of gratification.
The dichotomy isn’t so obvious: lengthy thrillers immediately pertain to the specific goal of fun pastime, as do mystery novels; on the other hand, short poems resonate for years, as do certain “clear”, brief statements or questions (traditional sayings, koans).
One. This dichotomy isn’t drawn between nonfiction and fiction, or between genre and literary, or between prose and poetry.
Two. This dichotomy isn’t about the words per minute one person can read compared to another.
Three. This dichotomy isn’t well-defined.
Four. A better-defined dichotomy is that of renown French literary critic, Roland Barthes, who divides the world of texts according to one of the two systems of reading applied to each text.
Defining the figure of a book following Borges’s figure of man in “Mirror of Enigmas”.
Some measurements of an object may be more important than others. If a medieval scholar asks how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, you’re unlikely to enquire about the length of the pin. (But enquiring about the size of the dance area, namely the head, would be reasonable.)
Some measurements distort under projection. A man at noon dwarfs his own shadow, but a man in a torchlit cave casts a giant on the wall. This happens because the shadow of an object depends on the object, the source of light, the surface catching the shadow, and their relative positions. Therefore, shadows hint at features of their owner without necessarily describing their owner’s essence.
Those in Plato’s cave cannot imagine the sun.
Similarly: silhouettes are contours from one viewpoint (a cylindrical candle is a rectangle when seen from the side, and a circle when seen from above); photographs show us the lens-facing side (a rectangle of wax and a flaming disc).
Projections are simplifications.
Shadows, silhouettes, photographs, x-rays, scans are projections of physical objects that a human mind grasps more easily than the objects themselves. In intellectual matters, we outline issues and give snapshots of complex situations. Further, a state of mind is the mind viewed within a slice of time—it’s a momentary projection of a more complex figure.
A current state of the mind is by definition “reasonable” or “comprehensible” to that mind, but taken over time, taken together, these projections of mind trace an incomprehensible figure consisting of various states (incomprehensible, in as much as we cannot remember all of it or recreate all of it or make sense of all of it).
On the finiteness and linearity of book-shells, inspired by a quote from Borges’s “The Book of Sand”.
Artefacts are made to the measure of a human hand. A spoon balances between thumb and forefinger, a cigarette between forefinger and middle finger, a ring between the knuckles of the fourth finger. Akeyboard letter fits on the tip of one, a smartphone fits in the grip of all five.
Physical books are no different: their shells are designed to be held and manipulated (from the Latin manus meaning hand). Size, weight, shape; cover quality, binding; texture, thickness, stickiness of pages. Certain values of these parameters confer certain “paravalues” on the content, even if spuriously. Larger is lengthier is deeper or broader. Slimmer is smaller is sleeker or sparser. Weightier is weightier. Lighter is lighter-weight.
Test it on unfamiliar content.
Unfamiliar content is more serious in hardback, more grand in a large format, more fancy on glossy paper—than it is in mass-market paperback. The content ought to vaguely match the paravalues implied by a particular shell, and usually does. Or else, for example: A jolt of incongruity strikes me every time I see an airport novel bound solid and shiny for the centuries, like it’s a compendium of philosophical wisdom.
Test it on familiar content.
The same content in a sturdy shell and in a flimsy shell is not the same content.
Conventionally, visual aspects of the shell feed prejudice, hence the saying: do not judge a book by its cover. But the saying omits to warn against judging a book by the overall feeling of its shell—edges, friction, and gravity—when hand goes to cover.
The shell’s physicality also imbues the reading process. Via the visual aspect, as usual: font, layout, print quality. But also via the tactile: size, weight, shape, etc, like above. The landscape between the palms, with a broken spine or dog-eared pages or an annoying French flap, integrates, over the formative period, a reader’s proprioception with their mental representation of the book’s content.
This is why the e-reader experience, where the “shell” of all e-books is the same, sometimes feels like a bobbing about of the mental faculty, disconcerting and abstract, in the absence of the body—it’s discombobulating.
On the stranger illustrated words beginning with the letter B in the 1979 Merriam Webster’s Dictionary.
The bail of custody, the bail of deliverance. The bail, as an outer wall of a feudal castle. To bail a free spirit is to confine it. A bail as a container used to bail a boat, therefore freeing it from a build up of water on its interior.
That is roughly six meanings of the word bail given in the 1979 Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
The seventh meaning of bail or bale has the largest number of specific senses, which mostly centre on a curved iron part used in everything from wagons and small boats to the trunnions of a cannon to the tympan sheet in a platen printing press. Lastly, though, a bail is:
the usu. arched handle of a kettle pail, or similar vessel.
As curved handles go, my preference lies with the more mouth-rounding boul or bool, which you’d use to refer to the semicircular grip of a teapot or of a pair of scissors. This word, however, did not merit a picture, so I move on with my exploration of illustrated b-words.
On “patchwork texts” or centos in general, and specifically a cento of Paul Willems’s work.
Patchwork, colourful, a garment. I’ve carried the image since childhood. To me this internal multicoloured display is the symbol of being different, of suffering for this difference, though for ultimately righteous reasons.
It took me a while to trace the origin of this association to the Biblical story of Joseph in a comic book that I read as a child.
I do mean comic book: it had panels, gutters, speech bubbles, and lovely colourful drawings—the whole mesmerising caboodle—only the subject wasn’t Batman or Wonder Woman. Instead, I read and envisioned the Israelites’ God living in an elaborate golden box, the Arc of the Covenant, which His faithful servants carried through the desert under an unforgiving sun. The brightness of that sun was only rivalled by the brightness of the Arc itself. God spoke in a stern, sharp-angled bubble unlike everyone else’s.
The story of Joseph lends itself to a dramatic telling, panel for panel, as his fortune rises and falls time and again, to rise in the final instance. He is special, endowed with dream-visions he knows how to interpret. Joseph’s adventures, however, start with his father’s gift:
Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours.
(KJV, Genesis 37:3)
Alternative versions call it a “coat with long sleeves”, but that is of little relevance to me now, retroactively.
(This isn’t where I was going with this post, but since the association is inevitable and particularly relevant in June: Happy Pride Month!)
My personal mythology has transformed the symbolic coat at every opportunity. Colourful goes hand in hand with unique with beautiful frankenstein with remarkable with dangerously balanced on a pinhead (like Kafka’s spinning tops that lose their lustre once they’re picked up), all of which circle back to dissimilar.
On Oskar Panizza’s “The Pig” and how to deal with eccentric books.
The Pig by Oskar Panizza is difficult to classify.
It first appeared in the 1900 in the Zurich Discussions, a journal self-published by the author. Translated into English by Eric Butler, the book now reaches us via Wakefield press—an American publisher that specialises in literary oddities. The full title helps support its claim to uniqueness:
The Pig: In Poetic, Mythological, and Moral-Historical Perspective.
A quick flip-through provides a tad more insight.
It is non-fiction, erudite, creative in its approach to interpretation, and it has footnotes, lots of footnotes, so many that a page without them is a surprise and a page only of them ought to have been encouraged by the editor. Hebrew slips between two teeth, German and Latin between the other, Greek likes it on the tongue to roll about with French.
Between memories and daydreams, between the past and the future, the mind lingers.
You have to fight the onslaught of time on two fronts before you can carve out a space in which to have a moment for rational, directed thoughts.
That’s how philosopher Hannah Arendt reads the following aphorism of Kafka.
He has two antagonists: The first pushes him from behind, from his origin. The second blocks his road ahead. He struggles with both. Actually the first supports him in his struggle with the second, for the first wants to push him forward; and in the same way the second supports him in his struggle with the first; for the second of course forces him back. But it is only theoretically so. For it is not only the two protagonists who are there, but he himself as well, and who really knows his intentions? However that may be, he has a dream that sometime in an unguarded moment—it would require, though, a night as dark as no night has ever been—he will spring out of the fighting line and be promoted, on account of his experience of such warfare, as judge over his struggling antagonists.
“He” is the mind; the two antagonists are the two arrows of time: the past presses at the mind’s back, while the future presses at the mind’s front. The aphorism is told from the viewpoint of a man’s thinking ego struggling to carve out space for itself, as Arendt explains in The Life of the Mind, and not from the viewpoint of a spectator observing the thinking process. To a spectator, time flows uninterrupted (as eternal change) or it is meaningless (the forces of past and future annihilate each other). Continue reading “Quiet of the Now”
Albert Camus on Kafka and the absurd, taken from “Myth of Sisyphus”.
Here, have some flash-fiction from seventy years ago.
You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub. A doctor with ideas as to psychiatric treatments asked him “if they were biting,” to which he received the harsh reply: “Of course not, you fool, since this is a bathtub.” That story belongs to the baroque type. But in it can be grasped quite clearly to what a degree the absurd effect is linked to an excess of logic. Kafka’s world is in truth an indescribable universe in which man allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing will come of it.
The bathtub story starts from an absurd proposition (fishing in bathtub).
The doctor assumes the patient has taken seriously the first part of the proposition (fishing), so proceeds to play along by asking whether the fishes are biting.
The patient, however, latches onto the second part of the proposition (bathtub) and is insulted by the doctor’s lack of intelligence.
The logic of both participants isn’t at fault, though the disjunction stemming from the initial absurdity is. At a basic level this paradoxical repartee is easily inserted into the core of any incident. Somehow it doesn’t fail to perplex every time.
Man is talking to the wall. Friend asks whether the wall is talking back. Man responds: “It’s a wall, how can it talk back?”
Woman in a café is teaching her dog to read. Kindly waiter asks whether the dog has learned any of the letters yet. Woman responds: “It’s a dog, you idiot.“
Boy is writing dead grandma a letter. Mother asks whether he expects grandma to reply with a letter. Boy rolls eyes and responds: “Of course not, grandma is dead.”
Even though I just wrote those three examples, holding their meaning in my head makes me spin like Kafka’s top.
Beginning the New Year with a perusal of the Merriam-Webster’s “A” section.
The start of a new year is like the start of spring: you’re full of hope and projects and dreams of summer, albeit due to calendric conventions rather than mating calls and increased sunlight. The newness implies a clean beginning, all metaphorical buds and blossoms, unencumbered by preceding dead leaves. Like the first page of an unread book, or the first sentence of that first page.
But that’s still thinking in generalities.
I wanted to open up this year’s literary adventure with something truly fundamental, yet protean. And what is a more fresh and clean embodiment of potentiality than the first letter of the alphabet?
So I celebrated the 1st of January by flipping through the word-entries under the letter A in a copy of the 1976 Webster’s dictionary.
I would not recommend it as light gym reading: it weights as much as a three-month-old baby (six kilos), it’s markably more oblong and unwieldy than a baby, and is a tad more knowledgable at two-thousand-plus pages. Instead, I would recommend laying the dictionary on a desk, opening it wide, then remaining standing up and looking down at it, from a position of power. Otherwise it may threaten to make you feel diminished.
It’s also an excellent flat paperweight for pressing warped watercolour artworks, crumpled diplomas, or curling old photos—but that’s beside the point!
Here’s a glimpse into the fun I had with the letter A.
We all know the first word of the A section. Can you guess the last, or at least, how close can you get to guessing the last word?
(I tried azalea. Then Azerbaijan. Lastly, azote—which is on the final page of the section, but I couldn’t do any better.)
Where to look for inspiration when inventing words for your fantasy writing.
To write, you need words.
To write well, you need a vocabulary—preferably, a large one. And this isn’t so you can show off and write about sitting in a puddle of your own mucilage while bound in a brodequin and tortured in a tenebrous tower.
Readers have it easy: they’re given context for each word and it’s usually sufficient to intuit a meaning. Writers have to pluck a precise word and understand most of its denotations and connotations and create a fitting context (all of which happens simultaneously); therefore, writers need access to a wide roaming ground, plentiful in detail and depth, and an effective search method.
The roaming ground metaphor offers little when it comes to nonfiction writing (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write about fish, go explore the lake), or when it comes to fiction writing set in the real world (expand your vocabulary in the relevant direction; if you write murder mysteries set in a Bedouin camp, go explore the desert).
But when it comes to writing anything set in a world of your making, where you are God, where you give names—what happens to your roaming ground?
You can keep expanding it by learning concepts, but eventually you’re going to have to inventnames forthat new plant, that new race, that new arcology. You’ll even have to invent verbs and adjectives (somehow new adverbs seem to be the rarest). Two questions present themselves:
How does one invent?
How does one invent, coherently? (Because it’s likely you’ll need more than one word.)
The words you invent are the writer’s quirk words (as opposed to the reader’s quirk words)—they enrich the boundaries of language in general, not just the boundaries of a reader’s vocabulary.
Blackouts before smartphones left people to entertain themselves without relying on sight. Night before electricity, too. Sure, we’ve had fire in some form for a million years, but as a communal means of subduing the elements, encouraged by need, not by fancy. In darkness, we talked to battle fear, to commune with the dead, to exchange information, and to tell stories. We talked to others, to ward off loneliness; failing that, we talked aloud to ourselves.
It’s only recently that we’ve found ways to communicate in silence, from darkened rooms, and at a distance, but even then we are reduced to two options: written word or spoken word. Only speech requires not a ray of light.
Vision is the sole sense we can extinguish at will, outside of sleep. But when the eyelids do come down, our consciousness doesn’t vanish, we continue to think, to be with ourselves, within ourselves. If anything, the temporary blindness cements us within the bastion of ourselves, drives us deeper, allows us to contemplate because our primary input source is unavailable to disturb or distract us.
Quote: According to Seneca, we can pick from any library whatever books we wish to call ours; each reader, he tells us, can invent his own past. He observed that the common assumption—that our parents are not of our choosing—is in fact untrue; we have the power to select our own ancestry.
Let us leave aside textbooks, technical manuals, picture books, and the grey area of “bad writing” (everyone defines it differently); what remains is a thickly-padded centre consisting of books, fiction and non-fiction, that adults read because they want to. Because there is something enticing about delving into another person’s explicitly printed (if opaque, mysterious, multifaceted) thoughts.
Such books are friends that console and regale, give hope and dispel loneliness, but, vitally, they also illuminate and edify. When it comes to fiction, Lisa Cron’s book Wired for Story synthesises various authoritative sources that describe how story affects neurobiology; in essence, we crave fiction because it is a safe environment that equips us with mental tools we can use in real life. Our brains expertly convert a made-up narrative into a convincing environment, cast us as the relevant protagonists, and take us through our paces word by word.
Reading fiction is role-play.
Or, if you prefer Einsteinian terminology, reading is an immersive thought experiment. While we’re within the pages, the thinking is done for us; when we close the covers, we can either forget what we went through, or we can ruminate on the implications, extending the story, transposing it onto our own lives.
Non-fiction also transmits tales, which may be served up well-seasoned, savoury, steamy, but usually fail at inducing the sugar-rush of fiction. History is gripping because it happened—its lessons taste of iron; philosophy is mesmerising because it requires us to step through distorting mirrors to see ourselves more clearly—a paradox; books that cross-section subjects, like Manguel’s on Libraries or Ackermann’s on Senses, are magic because they reveal the intricate strings holding swathes of our reality together—they ask why.
On how a personal library can affect its owner’s writing.
Every reader is also a writer, if writer is taken to mean author to mean originator of one’s own actions. Books, like people and circumstances, influence our actions; the more we tease out those influences and knead them into useful, applicable tools, the more we are aware of our partnership with the written word.
Quote: The rooms in which writers (that subspecies of readers) surround themselves with the materials they need for their work acquire an animal quality, like that of a den or a nest, holding the shape of their bodies and offering a container to their thoughts. Here the writer can make his own bed among the books, be as monogamous or polygamous a reader as he wishes, choose an approved classic or an ignored newcomer, leave arguments unfinished, start on any page opened by chance, spend the night reading out loud so as to hear his own voice read back to him, in Virgil’s famous words, under “the friendly silence of the soundless moon.”
A den may invoke a tight, dark, mystical space, dense with gases, metamorphosing thoughts, and halusogenic phantasmagoria, but it could also be spacious, light, littered with post-it notes and gewgaws and candy wrappers, or spotless with perfectly aligned rows of books like lines on a page ready for inscription. Whatever its physical manifestation, the library is both an extension of a writer’s identity and a container for it.
To unite these two seemingly clashing metaphors—extension and container—I prefer the idea of a silo from the top of which it is possible to see lands, seas, skies, as well as, communicated with other silos.
Few writers have a complete, perfect library. Better-personalised probably encompasses most desires for improvement (change in arrangement and content), but even if a snap of the fingers brought about an envisaged ideal, there remains the issue of finiteness: the library is of limited size.
This limit is one cause of reader’s angst. But we do have a choice of what to put in our library and that choice, every time it’s made, influences us.
The Library at Night is an “uneven” experience: a passing familiarity with the frequent citations is necessary, yet, if you possess such familiarity the connecting exposition sounds oddly bland and loose in places. It’s almost as if this were an expert draft ready to be tightened. Or as if the writing were deliberately left colloquial to “balance out” the dense forest of references. What Manguel excels at, however, are the dashes of insight, like in the Quote—some of them developed, some less so—that he inserts between the obvious and the obscure in his chapters.
Perhaps calling the Quote an insight is a misleading overstatement, for what he says sounds neither novel nor enlightening, but it does touch on a relevant, persistent gripe of many people: there’s never enough time to keep up with the to-read list. Whether feigned or genuine, hyped or deep-seated, I call it reader’s angst.
There are at least two types of reader’s angst: one plagues people who would like to read this or that, in an abstract, diet-and-fitness-goals sense (these are the casual readers); the other plagues people who would like to read an impossibly large number of books, in a concrete, obsessive, catalogue-and-notes sense (the compulsive readers).
Around us may be windowless walls of brick and rebar, but give us a story and immediately an arc of the horizon appears. What if we had many stories?
Magnificent arrangements of books inspire awe in most bibliophiles. Awe—the feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature (OED)—really is the right word. Public libraries, bookshops, private collections, even a carefully positioned mess of tattered paperbacks on a stack of plastic shelves in a café: they are magical vistas of possibility.
Of course, the grander the bookscape, the more likely it will overawe any visitor with sheer Olympian attitude, for where does one begin?
Occasionally, even if we were to just dip into a book, then into a another, and so on, it would take years before we wormed our pathetic way through all the covers. (For example, it would take approximately 35 years in the case of the library of Trinity College Dublin, if we were to spend a minute a book, eight hours a day, every day of the year.) The thought makes me go hot and cold and shaky—the potential knowledge, the tales, the imagination, the human ingenuity waiting within the pages, the Diderot-Deridda-Dostoevsky, and only a finite amount of time before my hands will no longer be able to reach beyond the inside walls of an ash-filled urn, let alone hold a book. The desperation!
Don’t try too hard, it’s not obvious, other than I liked them, they’re nouns, and they sit in a file together with a few dozen others. That’s it. No deeper insight.
Doesn’t that leave you feeling unsatisfied?
Certainly that’s how I feel, when I’m given a selection off someone’s list, but there isn’t a clear designation of why these words even when they’re supposedly a purposeful sample.
It’s like being given a few answers from a survey, but not being told whether those answers are the best, the worst, the most frequent, the most obscure. In which case you might respond: fine just give me all the data from the survey, I’ll read it myself.
One chapter of Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon presents a selection of words that John Milton (1608–1674) introduced into the English language. The chapter is written in Forsyth’s signature style—bantering, yet erudite—but at one point he simply lets a list speak for itself:
Milton adored inventing words. When he couldn’t find the right term he just made one up: impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental, and cooking. All Milton’s. When it came to inventive wording, Milton actually invented the word wording.
Fun! But what to make of the list? Is it ordered alphabetically? No. Are its elements the same parts of speech? No. Are the words related to an obvious subject? No. So what then?
Humour and quotes from Mark Fosyth’s “Etymologicon”.
The biographies of words are almost as riveting, embarrassing, profane, and lewd as those of humans—just turn to Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon. The official book description is:
A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language.
I would add:
Or, what happens when Humour takes Dictionary to bed and lets a writer spy on them.
Beyond that, a summary or analysis of such a book ends up being a mishmash of paraphrases and inferior humour. Instead, while I was tidying my reading notes, I marked up a number of passages that could stand on their own.
A bit on British weather:
Do you know the difference between the clouds and the sky? If you do you’re lucky, because … our word sky comes from the Viking word cloud, but in England there’s simply no difference between the two concepts, and so the word changed its meaning because of the awful weather.
A primer on how to speak with grace of the lesser human urges (euphemism):
A polite, even beautiful, word for foods that make your bottom quack is carminative.
One that makes me wonder about the reading list of the Archbishop of Canterbury:
The vice of aschematison (plain, non-metaphorical language) in titles.
Forget figures of speech. Avoid them all. Speak cleanly, and commit no rhetorical crimes. What remains is aschematiston.
But that, too, is a vice.
Aschematiston comes from the Greek, meaning without form or figure, and technically it designates not only plain-speaking but also the inappropriate use of figurative speech.
In Trying to Be Cute, I discuss how one way to think about vices (the coin model), considers licit rhetoric to lie between the extremes: the ordinary and any of the various ornamented styles. Most of us know overwrought when we see it, but aschematiston is harder to spot. In particular, sometimes it’s not clear whether a literal interpretation is called for, or whether there’s a hidden metaphorical dimension after all. I termed this phenomenon the metaphorical itch. I often encounter it in surrealist literature, but it’s also present in contextually ambiguous situations.
The last batch of my Nature Magazineheadlines falls into this category. See what you think.
On mistakes in writing and speech, modern and ancient.
Where virtues live, live vices.
Figures of speech are no less afflicted by this schism, although classifying them accordingly is as much a matter of taste, nuance, and circumstance, as any binary division of a continuous scale.
Following The vices of style by William Poole (Chapter 13 in Renaissance Figures of Speech), there are essentially two ways to approach this dichotomy:
Fine linguistic feats are opposed by abominations, but they are both just obverse sides of the same tool. (Idea drawn from Peacham’s observations.)
Virtuous rhetoric lies between the vicious extremes: plain language, on the one side, and various modes of excessive ornamentation, on the other. (Idea of Aristotelian mean.)
I call the first, the coin model; the second, the razor model.
Take the familiar notion of alliteration (starting consecutive or nearby words with the same consonant), which I develop in Ad Nauseam.
According to the coin model, alliteration can be both a good thing (it yokes ideas to words in mnemonics, it gives poems their glitter, it turns headlines into hooks, it makes names memorable, it lends a twist to prose), but it can also be a bad thing (it makes poems sound shallow, headlines puerile, names forced, prose juvenile).
According to the razor model, a gracious application of alliteration lies between the dullness of plain “tone-deaf” writing and the grossness of overuse (paroemion).
However, before you can talk about vices or virtues (using either model), you need to be able to classify the figures themselves. But surely, you say …
This week is about vicious word-choices. Up today: repetition.
Learning by rote has been banished to the domain of crafts, sports, and foreign-languages studies. Although, even there we first ask why? Certainly with unfamiliar words, we’re encouraged to memorise by association and etymological inference, to think about them before repeating, repeating, repeating.
Passive acceptance of knowledge is equated with boredom, unintelligence, accidie. Which won’t do: smart multitasking is the emblem of the successful twenty-first century man. (Heap scorn on the art of reverie and creative procrastination, which are best done while completing some innocuous action by rote.)
Also mechanised memorisation smacks of “robot”, and “robot” smacks of “subhuman”, or worse, of “brain washing”.
Perhaps I should I update my vocabulary: not paying attention to data intake is like opening up our brains to information from unverified sources and then making sure we remember every dubitable factoid by parroting it to others. (Once incorporated into a belief system, fake news ossifies to prejudice, and prejudice is a long-term affliction—just a hunch.)
It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adjective, and it’s gone down in the world. Even its origin seems unclear—most likely to do with roundness (rota) or repetitiveness (rotative), in both senses related to musical composition. Of all the early entries in the OED, I prefer the 1623 example taken from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (iii. ii. 56):
Now it lyes you on to speake to th’ people … with such words That are but roated in your Tongue.
It’s quite fitting that one should think of words as being roted (I almost wrote rooted) in one’s tongue, like second-nature reflexes—which is what speaking becomes in healthy adults. But it’s also a fitting quote because it pinpoints where tongue meets memory meets ear in the musical nexus of the language.
A number of years ago I read a book called How to Read a Book (1940), by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. It’s not some postmodernist meta-referential literature; it’s non-fiction that teaches the art of absorbing letters.
I was mocked for taking it seriously. (After all, what is there to reading?)
The book pointed out some useful techniques, of which one at least has become almost a reflex. I call it book pigeonholing.
Rule 1. You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.
Knowing what type of text you’re approaching determines your point of view. For example, reading a short fictional story versus a piece of investigative journalism changes your willingness to suspend disbelief and apply critical thinking.
Pigeonholing a piece of writing is usually done first by source: where did you find it, who wrote it, is it a trustworthy source, is it fiction, etc. Then by title and subtitle: as I’ve discussed these past two weeks in terms of non-fiction, the most successful titles are designed to resonate with the content (as well as “hook” the reader). Next come any prefaces or pictures or graphs or other information.
Ultimately, it’s all to do with expectation. The closer a reader’s initial expectation is to the actual experience, the higher the likelihood they’ll be satisfied. This is why blurbs or advertisements ought to be representative; and why we have the divisions into fiction and non-fiction, into literary and genre, into YA and adult; and why websites tell you the expected reading time of an article or the particular skill set or information you will glean.
On personification in titles of “Nature Magazine”.
To improve the taste of an insipid factual statement, baste in metaphor, bake with active verbs, and serve soused in piquant words. But be wary of overdoing it.
For example: There was a mirage on the horizon.
Could be changed to: Sun-drunk air shimmered in the offing.
Regardless of whether the edit is an improvement, it is a more complex piece of writing which triggers a more complex response. In particular, the reader recognises the sentence as not being literal because air cannot be drunk.
On the workings of puns, with examples from “Nature Magazine” headlines.
The humble pun.
What interests you more: its aesthetics or its taxonomy?
The internet seems to think that the issue of aesthetics cannot be settled: if you like puns, you like them; if you don’t, you don’t. But nothing is ever so clear-cut, and especially when it comes to newspaper headings where wordplay is almost an obligatory linguistic foreplay.
Out of context and as a congeries, the titular wordplay assumes melodramatic proportions. I have in mind a mordant self-critique taken from The Economist’s blog (Oct 28th 2010by G.L. | New York). Try not to cringe as you go down the list.
I note with chagrin that The Economist‘s series of awful puns in stories about the Chinese currency has reached epic proportions:
A yuan-sided argument
Yuan small step
Yuan up, yuan down
Tell me what you yuan, what you really, really yuan
It’s yuan or the other
Yuan step from the edge
Yuan for the money
Perhaps you didn’t cringe, perhaps you enjoyed that. Either way, I won’t discuss taste—I’ll focus on the taxonomy. However, I will not do so with any degree of precision that a true linguist might appreciate. My method is a mental shortcut through the jungle of word-jokes.
Three references to myth in scientific terminology.
LAOCOÖN, n. A famous piece of antique sculpture representing a priest of that name and his two sons in the folds of two enormous serpents. The skill and diligence with which the old man and lads support the serpents and keep them up to their work have been justly regarded as one of the noblest artistic illustrations of the mastery of human intelligence over brute inertia.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
This week we’ve seen literature, film, and music referenced, but how often do myths crop up in Nature Magazine?
For example, there’s a reference in An Achilles heel for kidney cancer, but Achilles heel is a recognised OED term and is no longer properly thought of as the Trojan hero who was dunked into the Styx while held by a heel.
I found no obvious mythological references in the general section. However, the specialised, cutting-edge research articles yielded some interesting terminology:
The science:Argonaute proteins were observed in a plant that reminded researchers of an octopus called Argonauta argo, which itself had gotten the name from a (never-observed) method of propulsion along the surface of the sea that resembled a boat with sails.
The myth:Jason and the Argonauts were the Greek heroes of legend who went to steal the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts were named after the ship they sailed on, Argo (which makes Argonauta argo a pleonasm).
Analysing film and music reference in “Nature Magazine” headlines.
1. The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
3. The cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc. in an artificial medium containing nutrients.
Like in Titles: Literary Allusions, today’s post discusses the bridge between culture (meaning number 1) and culture (meaning number 3). Today, I focus on the titles from Nature magazine that are related to film and music.
But first: here’s what happened when a pun-detector was applied to a 2004 copy of The Economist (source).
SIR – Your newspaper this week contains headlines derived from the following film titles: “As Good As It Gets”, “Face-Off”, “From Russia With Love”, “The Man Who Planted Trees”, “Up Close and Personal” and “The Way of the Warrior”. Also employed are “The Iceman Cometh”, “Measure for Measure”, “The Tyger” and “War and Peace” – to say nothing of the old stalwart, “Howard’s Way”.
Is this a competition, or do your sub-editors need to get out more?
Tom Braithwaite, London
Actually, even further back, in 1986, a certain Richard J. Alexander published a paper entitled Article Headlines in “The Economist”. An analysis of puns, allusions and metaphors. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my efforts to analyse headlines were not that dissimilar from (if less rigorous than) those applied as recently as thirty years ago.
Analysing literary allusions in titles from “Nature”.
Puns proliferate in titles. Allusions, alliteration, attention-grabbing sensationalism. Anything goes, so long as it attracts the reader to click on a link or peruse an article. Sometimes it’s cute, sometimes—and especially out of context and surrounded by ten other similar examples—it’s downright silly.
It sounds like a cunning ploy by the author or editor to market a text.
And it is.
Because it works.
The next few posts will focus on the fun behind the titles of Nature Magazine. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve finally compiled a list of my favourites from the past nine months of their weekly editions.
If you are not a scientist, do not be alarmed—a PhD in neurobiology or astrophysics is not required. In fact, today’s post highlights the opposite: if you are a scientist reading Nature, you have to be conversant in literature or else you might miss the resonance hook when scanning the contents page.
The listed titles come from the print editions, so sometimes do not correspond exactly to the linked articles.
Reference: Edwin Abbot’s 1884 satirical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.It develops the idea of a two-dimensional society, Flatland, where women are lines and men are polygons. Regularity and multi-sidedness is praised (triangles are the lowest caste, near-circles the priests). The narrator is a square who dreams of both Lineland (a one-dimensional world) and Spaceland (a three-dimensional world). An intriguing read if you haven’t seen the idea before.
The Nature article is about condensed-matter physics and being able to study the phenomenon of ferromagnetism in a truly two-dimensional setting, that is, in “flatland”.
Verdict: Informative title; guessable without literary background, but helped with it.
On learning words and the section on vocabulary in Noah Lukeman’s “First Five Pages”.
Modern-day aspiring authors are advised against long words in convoluted punctuation-sausages filled with phrase upon clause upon fragment. Such constructions are said to be either obsolete or abstruse. And why bother when masters of the craft themselves rarely reach for such exotic linguistic contortions?
(Brevity is the soul of wit.
Taken at face value, that kind of advice is equivalent to suggesting you should make a good façade, without worrying whether your building is part of a Potemkin village, that is, whether there exists a building behind the front-facing wall.
It’s the fake it till you make it method, which argues that eventually you’ll pick up the complicated stuff by osmosis.
But any serious piece of writing is cumulative: you can only fake it for so long. Sooner or later an audience member will move in a little closer and touch the brickwork with their pinkie. Which is when the glitzy scenery comes toppling down—paint, plywood, and authorial pride included.
So before making it the hard labour has to be done: the foundations dug, filled in, reinforced, all that goodly construction work that ensures the building can withstand the hurricanes of time and the hellfires of critics. In the case of the writer, that means grappling with (amongst other things) the basic blocks of language: words.
Hands up if you’d love to brush up on your vocabulary.
Hands up if you do brush up on your vocabulary regularly. Or ever.
(I’m not even going ask about learning foreign languages.)
Children imbibe new words; they’re unafraid to experiment with them, to practise their variations, to ask endless chainlinked why questions. The rest of us swallow new words like they’re thistles—it’s painful and digestion takes a while.
But that shouldn’t deter us.
In Negative Writing Advice, I discuss Noah Lukeman’s First Five Pages. His approach to telling writers what not to do works well, in part because he also includes some brilliant exercises and positive advice. He won me over with a tight, spot-on section on vocabulary.
Aha, a revelation! Your eyes have been opened; your problems have been fixed.
Negative advice is like being shown the same vase …
… and being told it’s not a vase. Then the interpretation is up to you.
Yes, I did flip the image; yes, I added some black, some white. I not only changed my perspective, I embellished it—according to my imagination.
Negative advice is far more open-ended and sometimes it’s the only kind you can give with a degree of certainty. In particular, here’s Noah Lukeman, in the opening of his book The First Five Pages.
Quote: There’re no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.
Note, however, that avoiding poor writing is a necessary, but by no means sufficient, condition for producing great writing. Indeed, like with my vase example above, even after you’ve been told what not to do, your literary venture—in all its newfound gloss and glory—may fall short of a masterpiece. Just because you’ve been shown which way lies artistic hell, doesn’t mean you’ve found a ladder to the heavenly abode of your muse.
(It occurs to me: eight of the Ten Commandments are of the negative form thou shalt not.)
A survey of some unfamiliar beast from Borges’s “Book of Imaginary Beings”.
Of all the beasts in Jorge Luis Borge’s The Book of Imaginary Beings, I am most struck by those I do not understand. As understanding stems from familiarity—a fallacy and an illusion, but prevalent—I am left fascinated by those I cannot relate to. Or rather, by the ones that keep evading my grasp like Kafka’s godforsaken Odradek, a flat star-shaped spool for thread with a handle, mentioned last time in Playing Detective.
Borges’ book contains 120 entries detailing creatures born of mythology and literature. In his 1957 Preface, Borges chooses to mention the dragon.
Quote: We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster …
While reading his book, I noted that the most common feature seemed to be a relation to birds—about a fifth of the creatures has some capacity for feathered flight. Whether that makes them dragons or not, I’m not sure (I too am ignorant of the meaning of dragon), but if the chicken is the closest modern relative to the Tyrannosaurus rex, then perhaps we can assume birds and dragons hatch from similar eggs.
The two oddest imaginary birds are the Pinnacle Grouse and the Goofus bird found under the heading of Fauna of the United States. The Goofus bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been. I get queasy looking backwards when riding the bus, so I’d say that lifestyle takes a sturdy gizzard. Based on this scant information, I speculate that the Goofus bird would be a good pet for anyone in the sect Laudatores Temporis Acti, comprising those who worship the past—to them the past is absolute: it never had a present, nor can it be remembered or even guessed at. On second thought, according to them, the Goofus bird shouldn’t exist.
Digging up details and quirks starting from a quote by Borges.
That one question gives life meaning. How, who, where, when, all lend solidity to our world, but the intangible web of causality tickles our imagination like nothing else. Asking why means staring into a chasm of chaos and glimpsing sense—the intellectual equivalent of climbing into the jaws of a shark, looking around, and coming out with a souvenir. It’s exhilarating.
Why is also the reason everyone likes playing detective occasionally.
Today, I’m investigating The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (co-written with Margarita Guerrero), an encyclopedic account of a most eccentric menagerie. It contains familiar names such as Centaur and Cerberus, Norns and Nymphs, Salamander and Satyrs, amongst a whole plethora of unfamiliar ones.The starting point of my investigation is the opening of the Preface to the 1967 Edition.
The title of this book would justify the inclusion of Prince Hamlet, of the point, of the line, of the surface, of n-dimensional hyperplanes and hyper volumes, of all generic terms, and perhaps of each one of us and of the godhead. In brief, the sum of all things—the universe.
(Translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni in collaboration with Borges)
My question: Why did Borges chose to include in his book Harpies, but not Hamlet, Fauna of Mirrors but not the symmetries of surface friezes, Animals in the Form of Spheres but not the n-sphere …? I suppose that including all generic terms, each of us, and the godhead, would require an infinite book like the The Book of Sand, Borges invented in his eponymous story published in 1975—over a decade after the Quote. In fact, given the Quote, The Book of Sand could be said to begin with an almost familiar sentence:
Lines consist of an infinite number of points; planes an infinite number of lines; volumes an infinite number of planes, hypervolumes an infinite number of volumes…
A gander at Borges’s original work reveals he had other ways of addressing mathematical issues, so perhaps we can assume he simply left that for “later”.
Start simple: the meaning of words is transformed by the sequence in which the words are read.
I grabbed the bottle, poured myself a glassful and took a swig.
I grabbed the bottle, took a swig and poured myself a glassful.
In the first the swig was likely from the glass, in the second from the bottle. The basis of such inferences is twofold: we assume that preceding events cause succeeding events, and we use sequences of words to indicate relationships between them. The former is post hoc ergo propter hoc, sequence implies causality—usually a fallacy, yet linguistically indispensable. The latter is a generalisation of how we interpret pronoun antecedents.
I held out the bottle, ready to pour the drink. As I reached for the glass, she knocked it to the floor.
She knocked the glass, right, not the bottle? Without any further information that’s the reasonable assumption because it is closer to glass than to bottle. A combination of the two principles also means that you assume the swig (in the original example) was taken either from the bottle or from the glass, and not from a nearby jar mentioned earlier in the scene.
So spacial arrangement and causality yield coherent events yield meaning.
“… to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.”—Alberto Manguel
Quote: During the student revolts that shook the world in the late 1960s, one of the slogans shouted at the lecturers at the University of Heidelberg was Hier wird nicht zitiert!, “No quoting here!” The students were demanding original thought; they were forgetting that to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present. To quote is to make use of the Library of Babel; to quote is to reflect on what has been said before, and unless we do that, we speak in a vacuum where no human voice can make a sound.
The Quote illustrates part of the reason I chose to blog about quotes. As Alberto Manguel says, to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present.
Context determines meaning; without it we are doomed.
She stomped down hard and everyone applauded means one thing if she stomped as part of a flamenco dance, another if she stomped on a snail, yet another if she stomped on the fingers of her opponent in a fight to the death.
On writing as translation from thought-speak to human-speak, and on the equivalence of meaning.
All novels are translations, even in their original languages.
— Michael Cunningham, Introduction to Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
Therefore, if you write, you translate. How’s that for being fluent in a foreign language without ever opening a dictionary?
What Cunningham means is that most of the problems that translators face were faced by the authors themselves.
Every writer of course works differently, but I suspect that most novels begin in their writers’ minds as confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot, to name just a few.
This week was marked by two posts on synonymia, Synonyms to Spare and One Word is Not Enough, so it’s unsurprising that I’m primed to consider lists and how conceptually distinct their content really is. What did you think of: confusions of images, impulses, scattered meanings, devotions, grudges, fixations, and some vague sort of plot? Are devotions the same as fixations in this context? Is a confusion of images the same as some vague sort of plot?
For me the answer is yes in both cases: devotions are fixations in writing because I don’t do things by halves; and I draw a vague sort of plot from a confusion of images and a vague sort of plot is what I’d call a confusion of images.
You probably disagree, and that’s alright.
Equivalence of meaning sits at the heart of synonymia: no two different word fragments are interpreted identically across all writers and readers, across all time. People may be more flexible or more pedantic, but what will be called a creative, meaningful variation in one instance, is likely to be considered redundant repetition in another.
Equivalence of meaning also sits at the heart of translation. The novels in writers’ minds may or may not be synonymous with the novels on the shelves; two official translations of a novel into another language may or may not be synonymous with the original novel, or with each other, depending on who’s reading and to what end. But the mere existence of novels (as translations from thought-speak to human-speak) and of their translations in the standard sense (from one human-speak to another) proves that we believe equivalence of meaning is worth seeking out. Even if what we find is only a good approximation.
Approximations are all we have time for in this life.
On an amusing collection of proverbs from Lanham’s “Handlist of Rhetorical Terms”.
Reading through a list often inspires dread or boredom. It is redolent of school, rote learning, tasks at work, chores at home, shopping at the supermarket on the weekend. It symbolises all those things you don’t want to do in your free time.
But wait, what about dictionaries?
Dictionaries are for daydreamers that think in words, mind-travellers that see adventures in a syllable, historians of linguistic persuasion. The fun is never-ending!
Am I in the minority again?
Browsing dictionary entries is an acquired taste, but every so often there’s an amusing comment or personal aside suitable for wider consumption.
On circumlocution. Example from science journalism: Nature Magazine.
Genome editing is creeping out of science-fiction into real life, and the question is who owns the rights to a breakthrough. The CRISPR technology is particularly promising and lucrative, and has led to a legal fight for the patent between MIT and Harvard’s joint venture, Broad Institute, and the University of California, Berkeley. The Quote comes from a recent article in Nature Magazine.
Quote: Although that battle is over, the war rages on. Berkeley has already appealed against the decision; meanwhile, the European Patent Office has ruled in favour of Doudna and Berkeley. Doubtless there are many more patents to milk out of this versatile system. And then there’s the fistful of 66-millimetre gold medals they give out in Stockholm each year.
Why is that last sentence so long? Why didn’t the author just say: And then there’s the Nobel Prize?
What makes the Quote quiver?
A mini puzzle to make the readers feel in-the-know once they’ve worked it out.
On De Quincey’s narrative style in his book “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater”.
How much do you know about opium?
Poppies. Sherlock Holmes. Afghanistan.
What about its “classical” forms?
Those came later. Opium meets “classical readers” in the form of laudanum, a 10% tincture of opium, discovered in the sixteenth century and recommended as a panacea during the first two hundred years of its existence.
(Not to be confused with ladanum or labdanum, which is made from rockrose, another flower, and which crops up in perfumes.)
The topic’s locus classicus is Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. It was meant as a cautionary tale of opium abuse, although the first part of the book is dedicated to justifying De Quincey’s contact with the drug and the second part to lauding its restorative qualities (before reaching the third, cautionary part). Good intentions aside, today’s post focuses on a piece of writing taken from the autobiographical section.
Quote: This person was a young woman, and one of that unhappy class who subsist upon wages of prostitution. I feel no shame, nor have any reason to feel it, in avowing that I was then on familiar and friendly terms with many women in that unfortunate condition. The reader needs neither smile at this avowal nor frown; for, not to remind my classical readers of the old Latin proverb, “Sine cerere,” &c., it may well be supposed that in the existing state of my purse my connection with such women could not have been an impure one.
De Quincey wants us to believe him. He asserts his honesty in the matter, then he invokes a proverb to testify in his favour: his pecuniary difficulties must imply his chaste behaviour.
The problem with the Quoteis that classical readers are rare in modern times.
What would have made the Quote quiver for the classical reader?
It is entirely plausible that some people have not heard of Apple, so let me just say that Apple Inc. is a forty-one-year-old technology company from California that designs computers, tablets, phones, and that names them MacBooks, iPads, iPhones. Theirs is the logo that looks like Snow White had a go at it.
Today’s Quote is Apple’s tagline for their upcoming operating system, iOS 11.
A giant step for iPhone.
A monumental leap for iPad.
A bit familiar, a bit grand, a bit silly. Let’s see why.
Tips on how to write clean, balanced prose that conveys your meaning (without hiding it behind unnecessary hedge words.)
E. B. White was not yet thirty-eight when he wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about Roosevelt’s suggestions to retire Supreme Court judges over the age of seventy. At seventy, men are just beginning to grow liberal again, after a decade or two of conservatism, writes White. The piece ends with the following paragraph; note White’s use of sweeping generalisations, balanced by a sprinkling of caution (italics are mine).
Quote: A man’s liberal and conservative phases seem to follow each other in a succession of waves from the time he is born. Children are radicals. Youths are conservatives, with a dash of criminal negligence. Men in their prime are liberals (as long as their digestion keeps pace with their intellect). The middle-aged, except in rare cases, run to shelter: then insure their life, draft a will, accumulate mementos and occasional tables, and hope for security. And then comes old age, which repeats childhood—a time full of humors and sadness, but often full of courage and even prophecy.
— E. B. White in Life Phases (2/20/37), Writings from The New Yorker 1927–1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale.
Do you agree, more or less, or do you disagree and have you come up with (yourself as) a counterexample?
Where the metaphorical seas lap the literal sands of language, idioms are born. Some of them are then picked up, like pebbles, to be tossed around, transmitting meaning and merriment. Some get dropped, others get so smoothed out by time, tongues, and tortuous trajectories, that they’re labeled clichés.
Does that mean that a cliché is linguistically dead in the water and beyond the pale? That everyone is sick and tired of it? That you run the risk of boring someone stiff if you use it? Not necessarily. There are ways and means. Let’s see a demonstration (emphasis is mine).
Quote: Stories without [an implicit framework] go unread; stories with it are capable of knocking the socks off someone who’s barefoot.
Quinn’s book is a short, gently humorous introduction to figures of speech with plenty of examples. (At their simplest, figures of speech are a form of speech artfully varied from common usage.) My eye caught on the metaphor in the Quote, as it felt fresh and apt, in a heartwarming way despite the mention of flesh.
This could be said of most aspects of our lives, not just writing. Even the tiniest experiences can be mined for gems and insights. A paragraph down, Bradbury elaborates.
From now on I hope always to stay alert, to educated myself as best I can. But, lacking this in future I will relaxedly turn back to my secret mind to see what it had observed when I thought I was sitting this one out.
We never sit anything out.
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.
The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.
On E. B. White’s “Style is an increment in writing”, and on Bukowski’s short poem “Style”.
Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzegerald’s style, we don’t mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. All writers, by the way they use language, reveal something of their spirit, their habits, their capacities, and their biases. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito. — E. B. White, An Approach to Style in Strunk & White
White puts it so plainly, so delicately. Only skilled writers show theirspirit, their capacities, their biases because their expressive medium is no longer cluttered by ungainly turns of phrase and forced plot devices. Don’t his words make you want to reach that increment in writing where you too have style? (Not to say that you don’t already.)
White also reaffirms that hiding behind words is not possible: the better you write, the more each word says about who you are.
Perhaps I will now commit sacrilege—if so, please avert your eyes and ears, and click away—by placing alongside one of the most timid and decorous writers, E. B. White, the complete opposite: one of the most brash and indecorous men, Charles Bukowski.
On Oliver Sacks’s arguments in his essay “The Lost Virtues of the Asylum”.
I associate neurologist and author Oliver Sacks with serene-laughter. Don’t ask me to define the term. The best I can say is: look at the image of him that appears on the cover of his book Musicophilia.
I read his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat a long time ago, so I do not remember whether he employed magnificent figures of speech, or merely decent ones. But I do remember that his case-studies were not oppressive, despite the seriousness of the conditions he described. The New York Times called him the poet laureate of medicine for a reason.
Ideally, I would quote the introductory paragraphs here, then dissect their arguments below, but the post would become too cumbersome. Instead, I urge you to read the first few paragraphs of the NYR page to feel the power of his argument, before having me ruin its effect.
New York, September 1887. Twenty-three-year-old journalist, Nellie Bly (real name: Elizabeth Cochran Seaman) has agreed to go undercover in Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum and write a report about her experiences for the New York World. After her employers promise that they will somehow get her out, she is left to find a way in. At the time, to be sent to an asylum, a judge had to declare you insane, after two physicians agreed you were of unsound mind. Nellie fears she cannot fool them.
Quote: But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.
E. B. White on a writer’s duty: always play to an audience of one.
It is now necessary to warn you that your concern for the reader must be pure: you must sympathize with the reader’s plight (most readers are in trouble about half the time) but never seek to know the reader’s wants. Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living. — E. B. White, Approach to Style in Strunk & White
In other words, stop trying to imitate J. K. Rowling or Stephen King; their duty is to themselves, your duty is to yourself.
A bit of motivation for all those (in the complement of Rowling and King) who are planning to write this weekend.
Christopher Morley in “Pipefuls”, on seeing agrarian unrest and industrial riot in flowers and prunes, and on the human sympathy trust.
Quote: His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes.
That’s Christopher Morley writing in his essay, Thoughts on Cider, taken from his collection of humorous essays, Pipefuls (1920). In the Quote,Morley is referring to a poet called Dove Dulcet. A bit of internet snooping suggests that Dulcet may have been Morley’s pseudonym, or that Dulcet may have been a literary agent. (Let me know in the comments if you know the answer.)
The Quote tickled my fancy in more ways than one. There’s the minor mystery of who Dove is; there’s the minor question of what exactly is meant by a girded spirit; there’s the poor daffodil with unrest in its soul, and the poor tin of prunes brewing riot within its walls.
I sought to explain the girded spirit by referring to the context of the Quote.
Dove is one who has faced many and grievous woes. His Celtic soul peers from behind cloudy curtains of alarm. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago fume in the smoke of his pipe. His girded spirit sees agrarian unrest in the daffodil and industrial riot in a tin of preserved prunes. He sees the world moving on the brink of horror and despair. Sweet dalliance with a baked bloater on a restaurant platter moves him to grief over the hard lot of the Newfoundland fishing fleet.
I was left with a sense of: spirit girded by sorrow and discontent.
But the daffodil! Yes, I agree, girded spirit or not, who could accuse a daffodil of such subversion? (Tinned fruit has always been suspicious, I’ll give him that.)
Describing the intangible. On meditation, happiness, and the habits of a thinking mind.
In The Quantum and the LotusMatthieu Ricard speaks about meditation, and how the effect of meditation on the mind can be described.
Quote: For example, some authors say that thought is initially like a frothing waterfall, then like a stream with occasional eddies, then like a large river with the odd ripple running over it, and finally like the ocean, whose depths are never disturbed.
A simile is a figure of speech that compares two seemingly disparate objects. It describes by analogy. The word simile itself comes from the Latin word like, and used to also mean likeness, resemblance, similarity (in examples such as: there is no simile between the two). Imitation is a basic learning mechanism. Our acts, words, ideas are first seen, repeated, then modified by circumstance or will. We start by emulating our parents, our friends, our teachers; later on we emulate ourselves, learning and improving on what we have done. The mutual similarity and the gradual alternations of our actions allow for (a perceived?) continuity of personality.
Diane Ackerman describes our senses, vividly, with humour and humility. Studying her writing for clues what makes her prose sing.
Quote: White clouds shoot out in all directions, in a dust storm of flame, a gritty, swirling Sahara, burning from gray-white to an incandescent platinum so raw it makes your eyes squint, to the radiant gold so narcotic you forget how to blink.
It has become trite to label a book wonderful, as if the word has been bleached of meaning, and left only with a wash of lukewarm approval. A shame. I rather prefer and, in this case, mean: full of wonder; such as to excite wonder or astonishment; marvellous. Truly.
Let me dole out a bit more of her prose, as precious proof, how non-fiction can stir an image as much as fiction can. The Quote above continues as follows.
The air is full of bee stings, prickly and electric. Your pores start to itch. Hair stands up stiff on the back of your neck. It used to be that the launch pad would melt at lift-off, but now the 300,000 gallons of water crash from aloft, burst from below. Steam clouds scent the air with a mineral ash. Crazed by reflection, the waterways turn the color of pounded brass. Thick cumulus clouds shimmy and build at ground level, where you don’t expect to see thunderheads.
(In The Emperor of Scent (2003) Chandler Burr tells how Luca Turin, a French-Italian biophysicist, originated the vibrational theory of olfaction and struggled to be heard within the scientific community. Exciting non-fiction book, lively prose, highly recommended.)
Metaphors, by their non-literal nature, are built on disparate knowledge.
Here is the full quote:
“Metaphor is the currency of knowledge. I have spent my life learning incredible amounts of disparate, disconnected, obscure, useless pieces of knowledge, and they have turned out to be, almost all of them, extremely useful. Why. Because there is no such things as disconnected facts. There is only complex structure. And both to explain complex structure to others and, perhaps more important—this is forgotten, usually—to understand them oneself, one needs better metaphors.”
All sorts of knowledge come in handy: deep and shallow, dispiriting and uplifting, morbid and pure. Indeed, staying away from the nasty, reading just about the nice, would leave us few verbal and mental tools — perhaps even leave us an unexercised imagination — with which to fight the daily melancholy of our own lives, let alone some fiercer trouble. Facing demons within the safety of literary worlds is practice, and the only kind of practice we can get before reality strikes unreservedly, untempered.
PS (added on 5 May 2017): I just noticed that Ian McEwan said in his 2002 interview for the Paris Review: “We need to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”
E. B. White shows us how to summarise for humour in his essay Mr. Forbushe’s Friends.
I see him, again, concealed in the lowest branches of a spruce on a small island off the Maine coast—a soft, balmy night. He is observing the arrival of Leach’s petrels, whose burrows are underneath the tree—eerie, strange birds, whose chuckling and formless sounds might have been the conversation of elves.
Edward Howe Forbush wrote Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States (1927–29), a book E. B. White cherished and returned to over the years, and subsequently wrote about in the aforementioned essay calling it “a three-volume summation of the avian scene”. Through his own writing, White transmitted Mr Forbush’s enthusiasm and even found merit in his rich prose occasionally touched with purple but never with dullness or disenchantment — high praise from the co-author of Strunk & White, where Omit needless words is a dictum carved in stone.
A rather dull topic for those not interested in birds, isn’t it?
Have you always wanted to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but never found a way to get started? Here’s how.
Have you always wanted to read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but never found a way to get started? No? Am I helping when I say it’s 600 pages of narrative poetry in Latin written in 8 AD and that it covers the myth and history of the world from the beginning to Julius Caesar? Oh and it influenced Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. There, if that didn’t convince you that the following quote — which is not from Metamorphoses — is relevant, I don’t know what will.
Quote: The gods are invoked or they initiate. They are the intermittent forces, applied at the end of the lever, with a mortal at the fulcrum on whom a myth turns.
This is a line from A. S. Kline‘s A Honeycomb for Aphrodite, Reflections on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s a reasonable, easy-to-understand, 120-page book. It doesn’t claim to be an introduction to the subject matter, but it can give you an idea of what to expect. Also, the author has published his own translation of Ovid’s poem into prose (in the same book). Instead of struggling through meter and stanza you can read in full sentences a sweet little summary of its contents.
However, if you wish to indulge in a beautiful translation, after much internet traipsing, I’ve concluded (possibly incorrectly?) that this translation by Allen Mandelbaum is poetically the most satisfactory.
E. B. White and the unruffled but prickly surface of a pasture pond. Exemplary writing, and what makes it so.
Quote: The pasture pond was unruffled but had the prickly surface caused by raindrops, and it seemed bereft without geese. The sky was a gloomy grey. Two rosebuds bowed courteously to each other on the terrace.
A vivid few sentences by E. B. White in his essay, Eye of the Edna, from the book Essays of E. B. White. He is describing his farmyard before Hurricane Edna struck New England in 1954.
Alberto Manguel on metaphors and quotations from “A Reader on Reading”.
On metaphors, quotations, and the continuity of literature, while the world and the times change. From one of the best books about books, A Reader on Reading, by Alberto Manguel.
Metaphor builds on metaphor and quotation on quotation. For some, the words of others are a vocabulary of quotations in which they express their own thoughts. For others those foreign words are their own thoughts, and the very act of putting them on paper transforms those words imagined by others into something new, reimagined through a different intonation or context. Without this continuity, this purloining, this translation, there is no literature. And through these dealings, literature remains immutable, like the tired waves, while the world around it changes.