Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ugly books

Gradually, I realized that the books I had put off reading for so long were united not by being too demanding or too turgid but by the fact that their covers literally screamed: "Pulp me! Pulp me!"
Joe Queenan, One for the Books

OK, so maybe the covers of Joe Queenan's unread books didn't literally scream. The gist of his statement is that he did, in fact, judge books by their covers. The ugly ones he left on the shelf for another time. This makes sense to me. Just as we are more likely to eat food that looks good to us, so we are more likely to read books that appeal to the eye.

This may be more true in bookstores than in one's personal library. Given a choice between a book with an attractive cover and one with a bland cover, I will buy the former almost every time. I love holding beautiful books in my hands and seeing beautiful books on my shelves.

Self-published books, as if they didn't have enough problems gaining readership to begin with, have the added disadvantage, in most cases, of unsightly covers. If their cover illustrations look amateurish, that's because they probably are. Few self-published authors are willing to pay the additional cost of a first-rate cover design.

Some books may have had attractive covers when they were published, but those covers have deteriorated over time, making the books less appealing to read. I own a first edition of the Richard Adams novel The Girl on a Swing that had a torn dust jacket when I bought it used. In the years since the cover has only gotten worse. Every time I consider reading it, the sight of it turns me off. If I read it, I would remove that dust jacket, but even then the hardback cover is soiled. So, like Joe Queenan, I will probably keep passing on this ugly book.

The ugliest cover may be no cover at all. Retailers tear the covers off paperback books and return them to the publisher for a refund. Then they are supposed to destroy the books themselves. Years ago a discount store in my town had a bin of coverless paperbacks selling for a dime each. I bought a couple, including Cancer Ward by Alekesandr Solzhenitsyn. Soon after we left for a week of camping in Michigan, and that fat, ugly paperback seemed like the perfect book to take along. If not for that camping trip, I probably would have never read Cancer Ward.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The dictionary as law

The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver.
Samuel Hayakawa

That is a matter of opinion. If you are writing a term paper and want to be sure the word you have in mind actually means what you think it means, you may look on a dictionary as the authority that settles the matter. If you are playing Scrabble, you may leave it to a dictionary to decide whether a word an opponent plays is really a word at all. In these and similar instances, we look to the writers of dictionaries as lawgivers. They decide what's right and what's wrong.

Yet to lexicographers (and I had to consult a dictionary to be certain I had the right word), they are not lawgivers at all. They simply record vocabulary as it is used in a particular culture. As new words come into use, they are added to dictionaries. As older words become obsolete, they are dropped. Alternate spellings indicate that not everyone spells words the same way. Spellings change over time, as do meanings, so the work of a writer of dictionaries is never done. There is always more history of the language to be recorded, as Samuel Hayakawa might put it.

It used to be controversial whenever dictionaries included slang words or swear words in their newest editions. Critics charged the dictionaries were making such words acceptable. No, the lexicographers would say in their defense, they were only recording the words people are actually using.

I think those on both sides of the historian-or-lawgiver argument are right. Those who write dictionaries should view themselves as historians, not lawgivers. We really don't want scholars sitting in a room somewhere telling us which words are acceptable and which are not, or how each word must be spelled. Yet for dictionaries to have any practical use, they must be looked upon by users as being in some way authoritative.

Before dictionaries, all writers spelled words however they pleased. Dictionaries improved communication by telling us which spellings were preferred by most people and what words meant to most people. Maybe dictionaries are not the law, but to writers, publishers and anyone else who consults them, they provide a common standard that is very much like the law.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Writing is ...

My American Heritage College Dictionary defines writing as "the act of one who writes." I guess that's OK for a dictionary, but I am much more interested in how writers themselves define the word. Culled from Jon Winokur's book Writers on Writing, here is what several writers have said writing is.

Carlos Fuentes
Carlos Fuentes: "... a struggle against silence."

Goethe: "... busy idleness."

J.P. Donleavy: "... turning one's worst moments into money."

William Styron: "... a form of self-flagellation."

Gustave Flaubert: "... a dog's life, but the only life worth living."

Roland Barthes: "... the science of the various blisses of language."

Allen Ginsberg: "... a yoga that invokes Lord mind."

Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer: "... making sense of life."

Jean Grenier: "... putting one's obsessions in order."

John McPhee: "... a suspension of life in order to re-create life."

Pete Hamill: "... the hardest work in the world not involving heavy lifting."

Erica Jong: "... one of the few professions left where you take all the responsibility for what you do."

Violette Leduc: "... to inform against others."

Henry Miller: "... a voyage of discovery."

Francoise Sagan
Francoise Sagan: "... just having a sheet of paper, a pen and not a shadow of an idea of what you're going to say."

Thomas Sanchez: "... a horseback ride into heaven and hell and back. I am grateful if I can crawl back alive."

Logan Pearsall Smith: "... the art of making people real to themselves with words."

John Steinbeck: "... the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness."

Laurence Sterne: "... but a different name for conversation."

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Super story

Brad Ricca grew up in Cleveland and, as a boy, found it incredible that Superman originated right there in the same city. Years later he dug deep into Superman's origins and wrote a super book, Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- the Creators of Superman.

Siegel, the writer, and Shuster, the artist, were ambitious teenagers, still students at Glenville High School, when they got the bug to develop a newspaper comic strip. After several failed attempts, they hit upon the idea for Superman. Even then, no syndicate showed any interest in it, but a new comic book publisher, Action Comics, saw the potential and offered $130 for the rights to Superman. Foolishly, Siegel and Shuster signed the contract. The publisher made millions, while the two creators    had to settle for small incomes for actually producing the stories and drawings, which soon expanded to include the newspaper comic strip they had wanted all along, except that now they weren't paid for it. Eventually the two friends lost their jobs producing Superman and found themselves struggling just to survive. Legal battles to restore the rights to Superman have continued even after the deaths of both Siegel and Shuster.

Ricca finds numerous autobiographical references planted by Siegel in the Superman stories he wrote, such as the names of people he knew (Lois Lane was named for Lois Amster, a girl he admired in high school) and allusions to the death of his father in a robbery at his clothing store.

Not until relatively late in life did the two men win recognition as Superman's creators, even if it never made them rich.

There are ironies in Ricca's story. The two kids who invented the greatest of the superheroes were themselves bullied by publishers and lawyers for their entire lives. Superman is dedicated to bringing justice to the oppressed, yet in the real Superman story, it is the oppressors who win.

Friday, August 14, 2015


Sebastian Japrisot's novel A Very Long Engagement, first published in France in 1991 as Un long divan he de fiancailles, manages to be an unconventional love story, an unconventional war story and an unconventional detective story all at the same time. It succeeds admirably as all three.

As a love story it is unconventional because the two lovers, except in flashbacks, do not come together until the end of the story. The story takes place soon after the close of the Great War, so the war, too, is described in letters and reminiscences and letters. The detective story is unconventional because the detective is a young woman, Mathilde Donnay, who was told her fiancé, Manech, died in the war. She has never believed that, so now, the war over, she begins to investigate what really happened in the French trench known as Bingo Crepuscule.

It seems Manech, whom she has loved since childhood, was one of five men condemned to die for self-mutilation. Instead of facing a firing squad, however, they were forced into No Man's Land between the French and German armies. All five are reported dead, their bodies recovered and buried. Still Mathilde maintains hope and hunts down survivors from the trench to try to keep that hope alive. That she was crippled in a childhood accident and confined to a wheelchair perhaps leads her not to easily give up on the one man who loved her, as well as giving her the time to write all those letters and to dig out the truth in all the different versions she hears.

I watched, for maybe the sixth time, the Jean-Pierre Jeunet film based on the novel on the same day I finished the book. He changed a few minor details. Mathilde had polio and can still walk in the movie. She is an orphan in the film, not in the novel. She speaks with the character Tina Lombardi in the movie, not in the book. Still Jeunet stays amazingly true to the story and, in my view, improves on it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Culture clash

The English soldiers were more polite. Or perhaps it was simply that no one could understand what they were saying.
Sebastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement

Sebastian Japrisot's novel, like the wonderful film based on it by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, contains a surprising amount of humor despite its somber setting in the trenches of the First World War and the immediate postwar period in France. Among these welcome bits of fun is the passage quoted above.

It reminds me of a passage in Little Dorrit, a Charles Dickens novel that also, for all its sadness, contains much humor. An English family, the Plornishes, are entertaining an Italian named John Baptist Cavalletto. Writes Dickens, "They began to accommodate themselves to his level, calling him 'Mr. Baptist," but treating him like a baby, and laughing immoderately at his lively gestures and his childish English -- more, because he didn't mind it, and laughed, too."

And that then reminds me of occasions when we have entertained visitors from China, Thailand, Korea, Malaysia and Nigeria in our home. Most of these visitors spoke at least decent English, yet there were wide cultural differences, and everyone, both guests and hosts, were ill at ease and eager to please. There were constant smiles and, as Dickens describes, immoderate laughter.

At their best, these kinds of informal cultural exchanges build friendships, sometimes lasting friendships. They help us understand and appreciate people from other cultures with other customs. Yet there are dangers, too. The Plornishes mistake their visitor's weak English for a weak mind and treat him like a child. The French in Japrisot's novel can't be sure the English soldiers were really polite and not making fun of them in a language they did not understand.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A flavor all their own

The famous stars of the stage, film and literature have been great because, at some point, they differed from everyone else. They had a flavour all their own.
Mack Sennett, quoted in Keystone by Simon Louvish

What early film producer Mack Sennett was talking about was style. His own style was slapstick comedy. He was responsible for the Keystone Cops, named for his studio. Such silent comedy stars as Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Ben Turpin, Mabel Normand and Harry Langdon worked for him, although most of them found they could make more money working for somebody else. Underpaying his talent also seems to have been his style.

Where I would disagree with Sennett is his suggestion that only the great ones have "a flavour all their own." Everyone has a distinct style, or flavor, if you will, although some styles are more distinctive than others. You can miss the opening credits and still know you are watching a Woody Allen film and not a Steven Spielberg film. The style tips you off.

What's true of those who make movies is also true of those who write novels. Ernest Hemingway reads nothing like John Dos Passos. John Steinbeck reads nothing like J.D. Salinger. If you enjoy a particular writer's stories, chances are you admire that writer's style., although I'm not sure the opposite is always true.

Truman Capote once said, "There is such an animal as a nonstylist, only they're not writers -- they're typists." But this is not to say that one's style cannot be changed or developed. Raymond Chandler called style "the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time," while William Styron said, "Style (by which he presumably meant good style) comes only after long, hard practice and writing."

The "famous stars of stage, film and literature" may not not be the only ones with "a flavour all their own," but through hard work they are usually the ones with the best flavor, the style that's remembered long after most others have been forgotten.