Friday, May 22, 2015

Why so many books?

"If anyone asks you if you've read all those books," he said, "it means you don't have enough books."
Harold Rabinowitz, "They Don't Call It a Mania for Nothing"

If you have more than a few books in your personal library, you have probably heard the question, "Have you read all these books?" Probably you have heard it more times than you can count. The question may be more revealing than the answer.

What it reveals, first, is that the questioner lacks imagination and may even be humor-challenged. It's a bit like asking a tall man, "How's the weather up there?" It may have been amusing once, but that once was a long, long time ago.

The second thing the question reveals about the person asking it is that this person lacks a passion for books, A Passion for Books being the title of the book from which the essay quoted above is found. Those who feel at all passionate about books never wonder why someone else shares that passion. They are more likely to be amazed that someone else does not.

As for the answer to that question, it being a yes or no question, there are just two basic answers. If the answer is yes, the owner of the library has read all those books, then maybe he or she really doesn't have enough books. Yet much can be said, especially when one has reached a certain point in life, for just rereading the books one has already enjoyed through a long lifetime. If a book is any good at all, reading it again and again is hardly a waste of time. Yet to the person asking the silly question, an affirmative answer may lead to yet another silly question, "If you've read them, why do you still have them?" To many people, including some who read a lot, a book is regarded as being much like facial tissue: When you're done with it, get rid of it.

Most likely, however, the person with a large library will not have read all those books. Some of those books may have been sitting on the shelf a long time waiting to be read. Some may never be read.

In truth, how this question is answered doesn't matter. It may not sound like it, but it is really a rhetorical question to which no answer is necessary. The person asking it is simply expressing amazement that anyone in his right mind would want to have so many books cluttering his home. Other people's passions can be difficult to comprehend.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Learning other languages

Is someone who speaks three languages is a trilingualist and someone who speaks two languages is a bilingualist, what do you call someone who speaks just one language? The answer, according to the old joke, is an American.

Jokes are usually  funny because they contain a grain of truth, and that is the case here. Most Americans, or at least most of the Americans I know, do speak just one language, English. Even if they studied another language in high school, that doesn't mean they can actually speak that language. I studied Latin in high school, which may give me a slight edge when I see Romance languages like Spanish or French, but doesn't help at all when I hear them spoken.

Language training in the United States tends to start too late, after the point when children can learn languages easily, and end too soon, before students can actually become comfortable with the second language.

Americans love to travel to other countries, but when they do they count on encountering people who speak good English. I enjoyed my visits to both the Netherlands and France a decade ago, but my fondest memories are of Amsterdam, not Paris. I'm sure that's because almost every Dutch person I met could speak good English, while relatively few French people could.

English has become virtually a universal language, taught in schools throughout the world. So maybe learning other languages isn't really that important. I've managed to do OK speaking just English. Still I wish I could converse with waiters and cab drivers in Paris or Montreal. I wish I knew what all those Spanish-speaking people I encounter in Florida are talking about. I wish I could travel to Germany or Japan and find my way around.

Schools already have too many government mandates. Still I'd like to see American schools, both public and private, encouraged to do a better job teaching languages. Such training shouldn't wait until high school. It should begin in the first grade, or better yet kindergarten, or even better yet, pre-school. Simply exposing young children to adults, or even other children, speaking another language on a daily basis would help teach that language. Children can learn languages with relative ease. If that training is re-enforced through the years they could one day become bilingual, or even trilingual, Americans.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Trapped

Reading Stewart O'Nan's 2011 novel Emily, Alone I kept thinking of Mrs. Bridge, the terrific 1959 novel by Evan S. Connell Jr. Each novel is a character portrait of an upper-middle class woman who feels trapped in the life she has made for herself, or which has been made for her. Connell ends his novel with a classic scene that symbolizes both the kind of woman Mrs. Bridge is and the life she leads. Her car stalls as she is pulling out of her garage, and she cannot open any of the doors. Unable to get anyone's attention, for there is no one around, she simply sits there, her gloved hands folded in her lap, waiting to be rescued.

Emily Maxwell, the focus of O'Nan's story, is older than India Bridge, but is a similar kind of woman. Recently widowed by her beloved Henry, she struggles to stay in contact with her distant children and grandchildren and to, as much as possible, maintain the life she has been living for years, usually now in the company of her best friend, Arlene, a woman in similar circumstances.

Yet as the novel progresses in its brief, episodic chapters (again, much like Mrs. Bridge), we discover, as does Emily herself, she is living a lie. She listens to classical music on the radio all day every day, yet she dislikes most of what she hears. She attends The Nutcracker every year at Christmas, even though she hasn't enjoyed it in years. She doesn't even like spending so much time with Arlene.

As a girl, Emily was even more rebellious than her daughter, Margaret, ever was, yet where is that rebellion now? Like Mrs. Bridge caught in her own garage, Emily is trapped, not just by advancing age and declining health, but by a life that doesn't suit her anymore, if it ever did.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Foisting books on others

I hate having books rammed down my throat.
Joe Queenan, One for the Books

Joe Queenan goes on to say this may be why he never liked school. "I still cannot understand how one human being could ask another human being to read Look Homeward, Angel and then expect to remain on speaking terms."

I, on the other hand, loved school and always looked forward to discovering which books would be the assigned reading for each particular class. Maybe I didn't always enjoy reading these books, and maybe I just skimmed through a few of them, but today I at least have some familiarity with The Merchant of Venice, The Canterbury Tales, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Lolita, Barchester Towers, The Heart of Midlothian and numerous other literary works because some high school teacher or college professor rammed them down my throat. I may have never dipped into any of them had they not been assigned reading. Today, all these years later, I have yet to read, or even opened, Look Homeward, Angel, and I regret that some instructor didn't assign it.

Yet I still agree with Queenan's basic point. I, too, hate having books rammed down my throat. Several weeks ago a woman simply handed me a copy of a biography of William A. Wheeler, vice president under Rutherford B. Hayes. She didn't ask me if I wanted to borrow the book. She simply gave it to me and began talking about something else. When Hayes learned that Wheeler had been nominated by the 1876 Republican National Convention to be his running mate, he is said to have asked, "Who is Wheeler?" Who is Wheeler, indeed. Unlike Hayes, I wasn't that interested in finding out. I did sample a few pages here and there in the book so I might have something intelligent to say when I returned it, but fortunately she again quickly turned to talking about something else, saving me the embarrassment of admitting I didn't actually read the book. I still consider her a friend.

I did at least return the book. Queenan says he keeps such books on the theory that "people who foist books upon other people don't really want them back." He writes, "Lending books to other people is merely a shrewd form of housecleaning." Even if that were true, why would either Queenan or I want other people's book cluttering up our homes. We already have our own books cluttering up our homes. Returning them, whether read or unread, as quickly as decently possible seems like the better way to go.

Gift books at least do not have to be returned, although you may feel obligated to read them at some point because someone was kind enough to give them to you. I still have a paperback copy of Tom Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby given as a Christmas present in the mid-'60s. I hope to get around to reading it someday.

I wrote book reviews for a newspaper for nearly 40 years, and even in retirement I receive, on average, one review book a month, which I write about in this blog, on the LibraryThing website and, rarely, for Amazon. Yet these books sent by publishers are not quite being "rammed down my throat." I have, with two exceptions during all those years, never been obligated to read or review any particular book, plus I get a some choice in which books I get from publishers. Even so, I have often felt I would rather be reading one of my own books according to my own schedule.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Like Mama used to make

While eating my way home from Florida this week, I found myself thinking about such phrases as "home-made" and "made from scratch" so common in restaurants. What exactly do they mean anyway?

The term "home-made" makes me want to ask, "In whose home was this made?" Of course, I realize it has come to mean "made right here, not somewhere else and shipped in, then warmed in a microwave," or something like that. But even then what does it mean? Were the ingredients shipped in, perhaps already seasoned, sealed in packages, which were then opened, mixed and cooked, baked or deep fried by some high school dropout in the kitchen? Or did trained cooks or chefs start and end the process themselves, using fresh meat, fruits, vegetables and other ingredients?

The latter is suggested by the phrase "made from scratch." The phrase supposedly originated from the practice of scratching a line in the dirt to signify where runners in a race should begin. "Made from scratch" certainly implies the food in question began with the raw ingredients, not with any kind of mix. In Georgia we stopped at a Cracker Barrel, a restaurant chain fond of this phrase. Yet the "made from scratch" biscuits, dumplings or whatever seem to taste the same at Cracker Barrels everywhere. How is this possible if everything is made from scratch by scores of different cooks in scores of different restaurants? Of course, "made from scratch" does not necessarily mean "home-made." Could dough have been made from scratch somewhere else, then baked at the local restaurant?

The next day, stopping for lunch at Boone Tavern in Berea, Ky., I encountered the phrase "house made roast beef" on the menu? Now what might that mean? Did they butcher their own cattle or just roast their own beef or make their own sandwiches?

I don't mean to imply anything sinister about restaurants that employ such phrases. I love Cracker Barrel and Boone Tavern, which is why we stop there repeatedly. My point is simply that these phrases are used because a) they are suggestive and b) they are ambiguous. They suggest a meal like Mom used to make, or in the case of Cracker Barrel, like Grandma used to make. Their ambiguity, however prevents their being pinned down by lawyers, allowing a number of possible interpretations. How customers interpret the phrases may not necessarily be how restaurant owners interpret them.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Pitter-patter

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker wonders what we say ping-pong and pitter-patter rather than  pong-ping and patter-pitter. Why see-saw and hee-haw and not saw-see and haw-hee? You could ask the same question about shilly-shally, ding-dong, clickety-clack, riff-raff, flim-flam, chit-chat, sing-song, spic and span and a number of other expressions.

Fortunately Pinker answers his own question, "The answer is that the vowels for which the tongue is high and in the front always come before the vowels for which the tongue is low and in the back."

Pinker goes further. We tend to place "words that connote me-here-now" in front of words that suggest someone else or somewhere else. Thus we say this and that, not that and this; now and then, not then and now; friend or foe, not foe or friend. He observes that Harvard students speak of the Harvard-Yale game, while Yale students call it the Yale-Harvard game.

I long ago noticed at wedding receptions that you can tell from the gift tag which side a wedding gift is from. At Bob and Sally's wedding, Bob's friends and family will write "Bob and Sally" on their gifts to the couple, while Sally's friends and family will write "Sally and Bob."

All this has made me wonder about partnerships. Do any rules apply in how the names are ordered? In law firms, I imagine the senior partner generally goes first. But what about comedy teams like Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, Rowen and Martin, and Martin and Lewis? In these instances, the straight man gets top billing, but what about Laurel and Hardy, Bob and Ray, Stiller and Meara, and Nichols and May?

And then there are those famous musical partnerships like Gilbert and Sullivan, Simon and Garfunkel, or Rodgers and Hammerstein. I think it sounds better to us when the shorter name is listed first, and in most show-business teams that seems to be the case. It's Bert and Ernie, after, all, not Ernie and Bert. Yet Rodgers and Hart sounded just as good to us as Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The priorities of novelists

Literature made an abrupt change of direction about 100 years ago. Compare, say, Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1892) with James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). In the span of just 30 years (and you could use other examples to narrow the span further), the understanding of what constituted great literature changed dramatically. Writers like Hardy, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope gave way to writers like Joyce, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Why?

What happened to the novel at about the time of the First World War was happening to other art forms, as well. Poetry no longer had to rhyme. Paintings no longer had to look like anything. The old rules no longer applied to novels either.

Thomas C. Foster analyses this change in his book How to Read Novels Like a Professor. He suggests that novelists' priorities changed from the 19th century to the 20th. In the 19th century, writers sought first to win an emotional response from their readers and after that, in order, an intellectual response and an aesthetic response. Early in the 20th century this hierarchy reversed itself. Writers sought first an aesthetic response, then an intellectual response and an emotional response.

Nineteenth century writers weren't interested in creating art. They were trying to make a living. People were more likely to buy books, or the publications in which novels were serialized, when they could be emotionally involved in the lives of the characters. Writers like Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner and those who followed in their footsteps did not have nearly as many readers because they didn't write stories that were as emotionally accessible. That's why so many of them have, like Faulkner, moonlighted as Hollywood screenwriters or, like most literary writers today, taught creative writing courses in colleges to supplement their incomes.

It is probably still too soon to predict what the priorities of 21st century novelists will be. Will aesthetics continue to be valued above all else, or will there be another change of direction?  The ideal, it seems to me, would be a balance between the readers' emotional, aesthetic and intellectual responses. When I think of the two 21st century novels I most admire so far, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, I think that perfect balance has been very nearly achieved. Readers respond emotionally to these stories, which have both been best sellers, yet they respond intellectually and aesthetically, as well. Both novels contain enough ambiguity for literature professors to argue about for years, yet enough clarity to give satisfaction to ordinary readers. They are smart, they are beautifully written and they can bring a tear to the reader's eye. Sounds like literary perfection to me.