Friday, April 20, 2018

Relationships through reading

What is reading but silent conversation?

Walter Savage Landor
So wrote the English poet Walter Savage Landor. It is one of 10 “metaphorical quotations” about reading found in Mardy Grothe’s Metaphors Be With You. I want to consider a few of them today.

From the author’s perspective, reading may seem like a one-way conversation: the author speaking to his or her readers. For readers, however, Landor’s comment rings true. We the readers "hear" what authors have to say while responding, if only in our own minds, with our own thoughts and feelings. Rereading, whether an entire book or a brief passage, allows the author another chance to speak.

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. — Joseph Addison

Addison's comment follows from Landon’s. Just as true conversation stimulates us, as we think of how we will reply to what we are hearing, so a good book stimulates our minds. We can watch television with a passive mind, but reading requires an active mind.

Then we have this longish quote from British writer Alan Bennett:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand had come out and taken yours.

Most of us who spend any time reading at all have probably felt this way on occasion. That thought, feeling or way of looking at things may be better expressed by the writer than we could have done ourselves, but still it is our thought, feeling or way of looking at things. We have made contact with another human being, or more accurately, that other human being has made contact with us. We are not alone.

It is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin; another’s soul. — Joyce Carol Oates

Reading is equivalent to thinking with someone else’s head instead of with your own. — Arthur Schopenhauer

I have lumped these two quotations together because they say something similar. They both take what Landor, Addison and Bennett are saying and carry it one step further. Reading at its best is not just having a conversation with an author, not just finding someone who agrees with us about something, but it is, in a sense, sharing the same mind and soul, however briefly, with that author.

Reading, then, can take us from talking to touching to sharing the same mind and soul. To contribute my own metaphor, it can be something like a love affair.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

We've been wrong about trees

Trees feel pain. They scream, even if we cannot hear them. Trees can learn. They have a sense of taste and a sense of hearing. They are social beings and can communicate messages to other trees. They sleep at night. Like human couples planning the best time to have a baby, trees plan their own procreation. Then they nurse their young.

So says German forester Peter Wohlleben in his remarkable book The Hidden Life of Trees, published in Germany in 2015 and translated into English in 2016. True, he may be guilty of a bit of anthropomorphism, but his essential points are supported by the work of researchers and by his own observations over decades spent in European forests.

Observing trees is difficult because everything they do they do slowly. They can live hundreds, even thousands of years, especially in dense forests where they are protected from the wind and have the company of others of the same species. So time moves slowly for trees, and they react slowly to change. When assaulted by insects, for example, they can sense the attack and send out toxins to their bark and leaves that taste so bad the insects will depart. In the case of oaks, their toxins can even kill the marauders. But this sending of messages and toxins through limbs and branches can take a long time moving at a rate of a third of an inch per minute.

Much of what people have long thought about trees is wrong, Wohlleben writes. We think they will do better alone, out in the sunshine and some distance away from other trees. Not so. We think healthy young trees grow quickly. Again, not so. Those trees that live the longest are those that grow very slowly during their earliest decades, mostly in the shade of older trees.

Wohlleben's book, relatively short, brims not just with amazing facts about trees but also with advice for humans with regard to growing trees, harvesting trees and enjoying trees. The blood pressure of forest visitors, he writes, "rises when they are under conifers, whereas it calms down and falls in stands of oaks. Why don't you take the test for yourself and see in what type of forest you feel most comfortable?"

And while there don't do anything to make a tree scream. This book convinces us that their comfort is important, too.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The wiseguy problem

"You ain't supposed to say ain't."
William Safire called it “the wiseguy problem” in his book On Language. He put it this way: “When the person you are talking to makes a mistake in grammar, or pronounces a word mistakenly, do you interrupt with a correction? Or would such a correction be seen as a put-down, the action of a wiseguy? Or would failure to correct be taken as agreement with a mistake?” The irony is that as a language columnist for the New York Times, Safire was paid to be a wiseguy

Most of us correct somebody’s language usage at some point in our lives, even if it’s just correcting our own children. As parents, correcting language comes with the job. Same with teachers and same with copy editors, a job I had for much of my newspaper career. But even when we are not “on the job,” the temptation to correct is ever present, at least for those of us who think we know best.

The wiseguy problem is, should you yield to the temptation? If so, how do you do so in such a way that doesn’t offend the other person and possibly affect your relationship? Can you be sure you are even right? And by making yourself an authority, aren’t you setting yourself up for a fall the next time you yourself misuse the language?

Kory Stamper, who has worked for Merriam-Webster for several years, addresses this dilemma in her recent book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. One source of conflict over language, she says, has to do with word choices and pronunciations relating to dialects. English-speaking people from different countries or from different parts of the same country often use different words for the same thing (sack vs. bag, or pop vs. soda, for example) or say the same word differently. Americans, for example, emphasize the first syllable in the word elsewhere, while the British emphasize the second. Who's right and who's wrong can often depend upon where the speakers happen to be at the moment.

Even standard English, the kind taught in school by English teachers and said on radio and television by professional announcers and newscasters, is itself a dialect, Stamper says. It may seem right and proper, yet in so many ways it remains arbitrary.

In one of the most amusing chapters in the book, Stamper tells of her experiences with the word irregardless. When users of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary complained of that word's presence in the dictionary, she was charged with writing a reply. At first, she says, she doubted it was even in the dictionary. Surely irregardless wouldn't be accepted in the dictionary she was working for. Yet there it is. It is identified as not being standard English, but it's there because, standard or not, many people use it in both speech and in writing. If people use it, then it's a word; and if it's a word, it belongs in the dictionary.

As Stamper continued to study this word, she found it has been used, often by educated people, for many years. Irregardless may mean the same thing as regardless. But then inflammable means the same thing as flammable.

Correction of others, thus, is tricky business. Sometimes even when you're right, you're wrong.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The lure of bookstores

Below are some quotations about bookstores found in a Mardy Grothe’s Metaphors Be With You:

Alas! Where is human nature so weak as in a book-store! — Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher
Beecher obviously was talking about himself and other bibliophiles. For other people, their human nature may be weakest in clothing stores, music stores, hardware stores, candy shops, auto dealerships, jewelry stores or wherever. We’re not all put together the same way, but we each have our weaknesses.

As for me, I share the Beecher curse. Bookstores have the draw of Sirens. Ordinarily I have little patience for shopping. Get in and get out is my motto. In bookstores, however, I have patience until my legs give out. And sometimes it's not until my money runs out.

When I visit a new bookstore, I demand cleanliness, computer monitors, and rigorous alphabetization. When I visit a secondhand bookstore, I prefer indifferent housekeeping, sleeping cats, and sufficient organizational chaos to fuel my fantasies. — Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman
I understand perfectly what Fadiman is saying. I get annoyed in stores that sell new books when those books are on the wrong shelves or when authors in the fiction section are not in perfect alphabetical order. I certainly don't want to see books stacked on the floor. In secondhand stores, however, such things are more forgivable and, as Fadiman suggests, even desirable. The lack of perfect organization gives the suggestion that books have been coming into the shop faster than even the owner has been able to look through them all. Thus, or so we want to believe, there may very well be undiscovered treasures on those shelves and in those stacks and boxes.

Add a sleeping cat and you have heaven on earth.

Even an ice cream parlor — a definite advantage — does not alleviate the sorrow I feel for a town lacking a bookstore. — Natalie Goldberg

Sadly, most American towns, even some large enough to be called cities, now lack a bookstore. First because of superstores such as Barnes and Noble and, for a time, Borders, and later because of Amazon, small, independent stores have had difficulty surviving. Even secondhand books can be easier to find on the Web, if you know what you are looking for, so shops selling used books have trouble surviving, as well.

For those who live in such towns, ice cream parlors are small consolation.

A bookstore is one of the few places where all the cantankerous, conflicting, alluring voices of the world co-exist in peace and order, and the avid reader is as free as a person can be, because she is free to choose among them. — Jane Smiley

When I visited a bookstore earlier today I noticed on the magazine racks such publications as Free Inquiry, Reason, American Atheist, The Humanist, National Review and The New Republic all standing side by side in peaceful co-existence. The same thing was happening on shelves where books about politics and other controversial subjects were kept. In bookstores, as in libraries, differing points of view get along just fine. We are free to take what we want and read, then argue about it later.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

What's news in science?

Every year for the past two decades, John Brockman has been posing what has become known as the Edge Question. (Find it at It is always science-related, and scientists and others interested in science are invited to answer it in their own way. He then gathers the responses together in a book. I recently read Know This, the book that resulted from his 2016 question: What was the most interesting scientific news of the year?

The book has more than 200 essays, ranging from a single short paragraph to five pages in length. Most were written by scientists, but others are from science writers, philosophers, artists and even show business personalities such as actor Alan Alda and singer Peter Gabriel.

Even when several contributors give the same basic answer — climate change, for example, or the Higgs boson — their perspectives are so different that the essays never seem repetitive. Some writers are much too technical for general readers. Consider this line from Maximilian Schich: “Driven by the quantification of nonintuitive dynamic cultural science is accelerated in an autocatalytic manner.” Yet most writers keep it as simple as possible most of the time.

A bigger problem for me is that so many contributors stray from science into politics, feminism, theology or whatever their personal hobbyhorse happens to be. Journalist David Berreby writes about how wonderful it will be when America no longer has a racial majority and everyone is more tolerant of others, then shoots himself in the foot by saying, “We are seeing inevitable ethnic renegotiation, as what was once ‘harmless fun’ (like naming your football team the Redskins) is redefined as something no decent American should condone.” No decent American? How tolerant is that? It's like saying, how wonderful it will be when everybody thinks the same way I do.

Imagining brave new worlds is, in fact, a common theme in many of the essays, as if the Edge Question had to do with science fiction, not science news. One considers the possibility of head transplants, another announces that "self-driving genes are coming," another that some "bacteria may have jumped from Mars to Earth." Noga Arikha, identified as an "historian of ideas," mocks this sort of thing in his own essay about claims that reflect "wishful thinking rather than actual reality, typical of what constitutes fast-burning 'news.'"

When contributors stay on subject, the results can be edifying. Several, and these are among the most interesting, have to do with findings that a significant percentage of published research papers, especially in the field of psychology, cannot be replicated. The findings of such papers are often the ones most likely to be reported in news accounts. Yet when other researchers do the same study in the same way, they come up with different results. Too many researchers find what they want to find or what those paying for their research want them to find. As psychologist Philip Tetlock writes, "The road to scientific hell is paved with political intentions, some well intentioned, some maniacally evil."

Monday, April 9, 2018

Write what you should know

But writers don’t always write about what we know, contrary to literary rumors. Sometimes, we write about what we should know.
Cathie Pelletier, Author’s Note, The One-Way Bridge

Cathie Pelletier
Aspiring writers are often advised to write what they know. It’s good advice, up to a point. Each of us is more competent writing about our own feelings, our own opinions or our own experiences than somebody else’s. We can describe people we’ve known or places we have been much better than imaginary people and places. Early writing exercises often concentrate on memoirs or family histories. For a great many writers, first novels tend to be autobiographical because they are writing what they know, about a younger version of themselves living through a slightly altered version of their own early life.

One person’s life can inspire only so many novels, however. Gradually successful novelists must tap their imaginations for characters they have never known and situations they have never experienced.

Then there are all those stories about things that nobody has known. I'm thinking about sci-fi tales that take place on distant planets or in the distant future, fantasy adventures in strange new worlds and even thrillers where the violence is taken to extreme levels. Sure, some knowledge of people and how they interact with one another is useful in writing such books, but they also require a great deal of imagination.

Cathie Pelletier, in an author's note at the end of her novel The One-Way Bridge, tells of her resistance to one of the main characters in that novel, Harry Plunkett, a Vietnam veteran. The character came to her, she says, in 1991. Her novel was published in 2013. For more than two decades she wrestled with Harry, who had been broken by a war she knew next to nothing about. How could she write about a soldier's experiences in Vietnam, not to mention his nightmares about them in the decades following that war? She wanted to drop the character, yet he was too important to the story she wanted to tell.

"I could not delete Harry Plunkett, nor could I change what he was insisting on remembering, on reliving, on teaching me," she writes. "He was too real to me by then." So she did what good writers do: research. She read histories and memoirs about the Vietnam War until she, too, was haunted by it. One important thing she learned was that veterans' memories of and reactions to their experiences in Vietnam are so varied and often so over-the-top that almost anything she wrote about Harry could seem realistic. Details about such things as places and weapons could always be found in a book somewhere or on the Web. And some details, she realized, don't even matter in a work of fiction.

"Did any soldiers in the Mekong Delta ever hear he coop coop of the Crow Pheasant, or was it only in the Central or Northern Highlands?" she asks. "I don't know. Writers take license at times for the sake of poetry."

Her advice to writers? Don't just write what you know, but write what you should know. That means doing the research until you do know.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The metaphor of the bridge

“What’s going on here?” Ray asked.

Orville hunched his shoulders.

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “ I guess I ran out of self-control.”
Cathie Pelletier, The One-Way Bridge

Running out of self-control is something that plagues several of Cathie Pelletier’s characters in The One-Way Bridge. Yet a one-way bridge, her novel’s main metaphor, is something that needs self-control to work. Whoever gets there first has right of way. Anyone coming from the opposite direction must wait his turn. A one-way bridge, like a four-way stop or society in general, requires a measure of patience and respect for others.

There were three such one-way bridges in Pelletier’s hometown of Allagash in northern Maine when she was growing up. (Now she has returned and lives in the same house where she was born.) And so it was easy for her to imagine a one-way bridge in her fictional town of Mattagash in northern Maine. A map at the front of the novel’s helps readers visualize the town, the bridge at its center and the homes and businesses of her various characters.

These characters include Orville, the Mattagash mail carrier in his last week of work who now regrets his decision to retire; Edna, mother of identical twin boys who, fantasizing about a man she conversed with when he passed through town, tells her husband she wants a divorce; Harry, who still recovering from the shocks of a rough experience in Vietnam and the death of his wife, gets a different kind of shock when the woman who runs the local eatery makes it plain she desires him; and Billy Thunder, impatient for Orville to deliver his latest shipment of illicit drugs so he can sell them and pay off a couple of hapless hoods, as well as an ex-girlfriend he stole from.

All this sounds like serious business, and it is, but Pelletier mixes in so much humor that it seems like a comic novel, a suggestion buttressed by the cover illustration, which the author said she hated when I saw her in St. Petersburg in January. I love the cover and think it's perfect for the book.

A bridge is something that joins, not just two sides of a town separated by a river but also people separated by whatever. Pelletier’s one-way bridge, instead of just being the source of a crisis when two vehicles enter it at the same time, becomes the catalyst for the solution to just about everyone’s conflict, or loss of self-control.

This novel won't suit everyone. Some will find it too pat, too light or too unrealistic. I, however, found it wonderful.