Thursday, August 29, 2013

Amateurs in love

Stacy Horn, whose new book Imperfect Harmony I wrote about Wednesday, observes that not being a great singer has its advantages. She writes, "According to the study titled 'Does singing promote well-being?' the amateurs in the study experienced a heightened sense of joy and well-being following singing lessons. The professionals did not."

She quotes Tony Bellomy, an associate conductor, as telling her, "Amateurs don't have the hang-ups of full-on professionals. It is easy for professionals, me included, to get wrapped up in music as a job. This will kill the music faster than anything. Serious amateurs never seem to cross that line. It's because they are participating in music purely out of love for it."

And that, it turns out, is exactly what the word amateur means. The Latin word for love is amare. From this we get such words as amiable, amorous, paramour and, yes, amateur. Mark Forsyth, author of Etymologicon, writes that 150 years ago you could write that you were "not an amateur of melons" and others would understand you to mean that you didn't like them.

Forsyth also explains why in tennis the word for nothing is love. "Love is nothing because those who do something for the love of it do it for nothing. For example, people either marry for money or connections, or for love. Love therefore became a synonym for nothing, because if you do something purely for love, you get nothing."

Many people, of course, love their jobs. You sometimes hear people say, especially upon their retirement, that they would have worked for nothing because they loved what they did. Chances are, however, they would not have shown up for work every day so faithfully if they had not been paid for it. On any given day, there can always be something we love more, such as an extra hour in bed, than going to work, no matter how much we love our jobs. Professionals must show up whether they feel like it or not.

Those who sing, play baseball, marry or whatever else purely for love bring something to it that those who do it for money cannot.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Singing together

The melodies Verdi gives us (in Requiem) make it impossible to sing it any other way. But you don't get the full effect until all the different voice parts are singing together. The sweetness that Verdi wrote to embody such an important request as forgiveness and mercy comes from the harmony. No one voice alone can produce this sound.
Stacy Horn in Imperfect Harmony

These lines from the last page of Stacy Horn's Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others (Algonquin, $15.95) nicely sum up the message in her book. Singing together with other people, not alone in the shower, makes all the difference.

Horn, a middle-aged New Yorker, confesses to being an atheist, yet every week she walks several blocks to sing some of the greatest choral works of Christendom with the Choral Society of Grace Church. She has been doing this for a number of years. "Singing," she writes, "is the one thing in my life that never fails to take me to where disenchantment is almost nonexistent and feeling good is pretty much guaranteed." Maybe she doesn't always believe what she's singing about, but, she says, "I believe in singing." Elsewhere she writes, "Singing is the ultimate communion."

She cites research showing the benefits of singing to mind and body. She interviews other singers, as well as composers and choral leaders. Mostly, however, she writes about her own experiences and the joy she feels each time she sings with other people.

Horn admits to not being among the best sopranos in her choir. She says, however, that singers don't need to be great to make great music together. As evidence of this, she points to the Virtual Choir, the brainchild of composer Eric Whitacre. Thousands of people from around the world submit videos of themselves singing one of Whitacre's compositions, and the voices are combined into some intensely beautiful music. Nobody is turned away because of an inadequate singing voice. Imperfect voices blend into perfect harmony. Check out Virtual Choir 4 video on YouTube to see for yourself.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Books I forgot I owned

For the past year I have been gradually cataloging my books on LibraryThing, a site that allows members to compare their libraries, share reviews, chat and, in general, waste time that could be better spent reading. Lately I've been getting down to the bottom shelves and the bottom of stacks, discovering books I haven't seen in years and, in many cases, didn't even remember owning. Here are a few of those forgotten books:

K. Jason Sitewell's Book of Spoofs (1989) -- K. Jason Sitewell may have actually been Norman Cousins. At any rate, Sitewell used to write outlandish letters to the Saturday Review, such as one denouncing a bill in Congress that supposedly would have abolished golf. My notes in the book indicate that I once read it, but I don't remember it at all.

Somebody Else Is on the Moon by George H. Leonard (1976) -- Leonard, who according to his bio once worked for the government in unnamed federal agencies, reports that our government is withholding evidence of alien life on the moon.

Extraterrestrial Civilizations by Isaac Asimov (1979) -- Speaking of aliens, Asimov analyzes the chances of finding intelligent life on other planets. He likes those chances.

If No News, Send Rumors: Anecdotes of American Journalism by Stephen Bates 1989 -- One of the stories Bates tells is about John F. Kennedy (yes, that John F. Kennedy) covering the British elections for the International News Service in 1945. He predicted Winston Churchill's Conservatives would lose. William Randolph Hearst ordered Kennedy to change his article to predict a Conservative victory. He did. The Conservatives lost.

Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler by Joseph C. Voelker (1989) -- I'm an admirer of Anne Tyler's novels, but I didn't remember owning a book of critical commentary about her early work. I must read this one day.

Strictly Personal and Confidential: The Letters Harry Truman Never Mailed (1982) -- In one of those letters Truman never mailed, he wrote, "I read your telegram of the tenth with a great deal of interest and outside of the fact there isn't a true statement in it, it is an interesting document."

Everybody's Dowser Book by Ona C. Evers (1977) -- This self-published, illustrated 70-page book tells hows to use anything from metal coat hangers to Y-shaped branches to find underground water. My dad used to use L-shaped wire to find the drainage pipe in his field, so I'm not going to knock dowsing, but I never tried it myself.

Man the Unknown by Alexis Carrel (1935) -- I must have once read a little of bit of this one-time bestseller. Inside I found my wife's college ID card that I had apparently used as a bookmark.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Coining new words

Anyone can create a new word. The trick is getting anyone else to use that word.

Toddlers unintentionally invent new words all the time. Forty years ago my toddler son had trouble saying Fritos. It came out friggy-toes, obviously a confusion with piggy-toes. Some corn chips do look a little bit like a baby's toes, don't they? I know parents are supposed to teach their children language, not the other way around, but we thought friggy-toes was so cute that we all started using the word. It was soon shortened to friggies. All these years later, I still sometimes refer to corn chips as friggies, but I am the only one who does. When I die, that word is likely to die with me.

Two factors may be most important in the acceptance of a new word.

1. Need. When a new word is needed, a new word is found.

Edward Fischer, anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University, tells of a tribe that at one time applied the same word to all metal objects. Whether they were talking about a tin box, a knife or an airplane, they called each of them the same thing. This didn't last long, however. As they encountered more and more metal objects, they quickly found a new word for each of them.

In our own culture, new technology also requires new words. Words like texting and blog were coined over the past few years because technology made them necessary.

2. A prominent sponsor. When it comes to coining words, some people obviously have more influence than others.

This includes anyone who invents or discovers something new. Naming rights is usually one of the perks that goes with being an inventor or discoverer.

Major publications like the New York Times and Time magazine can give a major boost to new words. If they use them, others will starting using them, too.

Important writers whose work is widely read can have a major influence on language, although this is probably not as true today as it once was. William Shakespeare introduced hundreds of new words into the English language. These include cranny, lonely, summit, radiance, majestic, hint, frugal and brittle. Scholars have said that as many a a tenth of all the words in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets cannot be found in earlier written material.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died at 29, yet in his short life he introduced an amazing array of new words. These include bloodstain, moonlit, steamship, expressionless, undefeated and interestingly, among many others.

Thomas De Quincey, best known for writing Confessions of an English Opium Eater, also brought a number of new words into the language, among them subconscious, incubator, postnatal and intuit.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits Horace Walpole with originating 233 words. These include boulevard, bask, somber, caricature, malaria and beefy. Of course, Walpole had a few duds, too. He also suggested greenth, gloomth and betweenity as new words, but they never caught on.

Betweenity? Personally, I think friggies is a better word.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Showing off

Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784, citing a college tutor

Striking out the best passage is probably not the best advice one might give a budding writer. Most written work needs all the good lines it can get. I wonder how many of the great quotations found in Bartlett's wouldn't exist anywhere if all writers followed Samuel Johnson's advice. The particularly fine passages are the ones people remember.

Yet I do think Johnson, or his tutor, had a point. When I was working as a newspaper copy editor, I had to make stories fit into the available space. That often meant cutting out everything that wasn't absolutely necessary. On many occasions there would be one passage in the story that I thought was particularly fine. It might be a good metaphor, an excellent quote or just a nifty bit of description. More often than not, it seemed, that line or two had to go. It may have been fine writing, but it wasn't as necessary to the story as all the other lines.

Making this cut was especially galling when it was my own writing that I was trying to squeeze into the space.

Johnson was probably thinking of something else, however. This came to me while I was reading Stacy Horn's Imperfect Harmony, a book I hope to have more to say about within a few days. Writing about her own experience as an amateur composer, she says "there is the temptation to try to make your music too clever, coming up with all sorts of neat contrapuntal techniques, at the expense of what sounds musical (and what is fun and reasonable to sing!)."

What's true of composers is probably also true for other creative people. Have you noticed how many singers like to show off a little bit on the last line of the national anthem? Dancers may be tempted to throw in an extra fancy move and painters a little extra flourish to their work. Writers, too, sometimes like to show off. Some of those long, descriptive passages one often finds in novels are just writers showing off. Striking out such passages might, in many cases, improve the novel.

Reading over one's own compositions, it may be wise to remember Samuel Johnson's advice, and when you find a passage you are particularly fond of, ask yourself if it actually improves your work or if it is just showing off.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cronin's Way

In the middle of the 20th century, A.J. Cronin was among the most popular novelists on both sides of the Atlantic. That's why you can find so many of his books at estate sales and Friends of the Library used book sales. Few people read him today, although copies of some of his best-known works (The Keys of the Kingdom, Shannon's Way and The Citadel) can still be found in some bookstores.)

His novels, if somewhat dated, remain worth reading, however, as does his memoir published more than 60 years ago, Adventures in Two Worlds. The "two worlds" of the title refer to the worlds of medicine and literature. He was a successful London doctor when his own doctor suggested he take an extended rest to recover from an ulcer. During that rest, he wrote a best-selling novel, Hatter's Castle, and never returned to the practice of medicine.

His memoir, if fascinating reading, is amazingly impersonal, as if he were just an observer to his own life story. You will find next to nothing here about his boyhood, his family, his friendship or his interests. If you want to know something about his life, including what the initials A.J. stand for (Archibald Joseph), you would be better off to look up his Wikipedia article.

Although Cronin turns philosophical and theological toward the end of Adventures in Two Worlds, his book is mostly a series of stories about the people he met during his life. Because he met far more people as a doctor than as a writer, that part of the book is both longer and more interesting. He writes, for example, about a young man he saved from a suicide attempt whom he met years later aboard an ocean liner and about a hermit known as Houseboat Tam who became ill and then ultimately married the woman who had agreed to nurse him back to health.

Some of his stories seem a little too creative for a memoir, as when he describes conversations that supposedly took place while he was absent. Adventures in Two Worlds could be described as a collection of short stories instead of a memoir with about the same degree of accuracy.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A funny man

While I was placing my order in a fastfood restaurant the other day, a woman stepped up to the counter beside me and almost immediately broke into loud laughter. When she finally brought herself under control, she explained, somewhat apologetically, that she had simply read the title of the book I was holding: Don't Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards by P.J. O'Rourke.

I assured her that the book is even funnier than the title, which is a little surprising considering that it is a book about, among other things, foreign policy, global warming, the trade imbalance, terrorism, taxes and health care reform. Throughout his career, O'Rourke, who grew up near me in northwestern Ohio, has displayed a rare gift for making serious points with funny lines.

In fact, the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, which I wrote about here a week ago, includes 38 O'Rourke quotations. This compares with such other notable wits as Woody Allen (28), G.K. Chesterton (14), Gore Vidal (22), Winston Churchill (25), Neil Simon (26) and Lewis Carroll (25). Mark Twain has 43 quotations in the book, but he's dead, while O'Rourke remains very much alive. Don't Vote alone has a line on practically every page that could bring the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations or Bartlett's calling before their next editions. Here are a few of them:

"Freedom of speech is important -- if you have anything to say. I've checked the Internet; nobody does."

"The best investment I've made lately? I left a twenty-dollar bill in the pocket of my tweed jacket last spring and I just found it."

"Assusing someone of being rich is like accusing someone of adultery in the Gospel of St. John. Let he who is without anything anybody wants cast the first vote."

"The best way to have a good political system is to avoid politics."

"You can remove morality from politics like you can remove the head from a chicken and they'll both keep going, politics much longer than the chicken."

"Government is so inefficient that it can't even get bribe-taking right."

That's P.J. O'Rourke out of context. In context, he's even funnier.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Vicarious living

One of the New Yorker cartoons posted on the bulletin board in my den shows an old man on his death bed surrounded by members of his family and a clergyman. He says to them, "I always lived vicariously. Why can't I die vicariously?"

If this family happens to be British, it is possible that the clergyman might be a vicar, which would be appropriate because we get the word vicarious from the word vicar. Vicarious, as the word is used by the man in the cartoon, means "experienced or realized through imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another," according to Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary. The word also means "serving instead of someone or something else."

Historically in the Church of England, a vicar was a stand-in or substitute for a rector. Vicars usually did much the same thing rectors did, but they were compensated much less. Country churches often got vicars instead of rectors. Most churches in the United States have other terms for what, to be blunt, may be considered second-class clergy. We may call them associate pastors, assistant pastors, supply pastors or interim pastors.

Whenever we read a novel or watch a movie, we are, to some extent, living vicariously. Watch something on the Travel channel and you are traveling vicariously. Watch a program on the Food Network and you are cooking and, perhaps, eating vicariously. See a romantic movie and you are having an affair vicariously. No matter how much we may live vicariously, however, we still have our own lives to live, as dull as they may be in comparison. We still must eat, sleep, work and, yes, die on our own.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Getting started

It happened by the grace of God that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a card game.
Francine Prose, Household Saints

As opening lines go, that one from one of Francine Prose's early novels, Household Saints (1981), ranks among the best. It draws the reader into the story immediately. You want very much to know how this man won his wife in a card game and what happened next. Good opening lines do that. They impel readers to keep reading.

That's why novels that begin with a descriptive passage can be so disappointing. We read novels for the stories, and the sooner those stories get started, the better.

Yet there are exceptions. Sometimes descriptive opening passages can be effective in setting the scene and and pulling the reader into the narrative. Thomas Hardy, one of my favorite authors, had a gift for description, and some of his descriptive opening lines were among his best. Here's how he opens The Return of the Native:

A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.

Then there's his description of Farmer Oak with which he begins Far From the Madding Crowd:

When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

Just as good is Dashiell Hammett's description of his main character at the beginning of The Maltese Falcon:

Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down -- from high flat temples -- to a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan. He said to Effie Perine: "Yes, sweetheart?"

One of literature's best descriptive opening passages must by John Steinbeck's first paragraph of Cannery Row:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tome, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps. sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, "Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men," and he would have meant the same thing.

If the purpose of the first paragraph is to make a person want to read the second, then each of these openings succeed magnificently.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Attributed, but still humorous

Many of the funniest things ever said may have never been said at all, at least not by those who are supposed to have said them.

That's one of the conclusions to be drawn from reading through Ned Sherrin's Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations. Sherrin offers hundreds of pages of amusing lines, followed by the names of the people who said or wrote them. Yet after a surprising number of these names one finds the word attributed. In other words, it can't be established that this is the person who actually originated the line.

It's usually easy to authenticate the words of writers like Shakespeare or Emerson. You simply turn to their published work, and either the line is there or it isn't. With people like Yogi Berra or Sam Goldwyn it's different. They may have said, whether intentionally or not, some very funny things, but they are also people who, because of their reputation for saying funny things, have probably been given credit for a lot of things they never said. Or some of their statements may have been paraphrased to make them funnier.

Here's something former Yankee catcher Berra may or may not have said: "If people don't want to come out to the ball park, nobody's going to stop them."

Goldwyn, a movie producer, is supposed to have said, "Let's have some new cliches," but nobody knows for sure.

Here are some other lines that Sherrin puts attributed after:

"No, I'm breaking it in for a friend," Groucho Marx, when asked if Groucho were his real name.

"Politics are almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics -- many times," Winston Churchill

"Rise early. Work late. Strike oil," John Paul Getty's formula for success

"Last week, I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed," W.C. Fields

"Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt," Mark Twain

"Enter the strumpet voluntary," Kenneth Tynan of a guest at a party

"I'd rather be Frank Capra than God. If there is a Frank Capra," Garson Kanin

"They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. They're not laughing now," Bob Monkhouse

"Censorship, like charity, should begin at home, but, unlike charity, it should end there," Clare Booth Luce

Of course, a line need not be authentic to earn a legitimate place in Sherrin's book. It only needs to be humorous. In most cases, it also needs to be said by, or attributed to, somebody famous.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

From Burke to Bryson

Bill Bryson reminds me a lot of James Burke. Burke, now in his late 70s, hosted those Connections television series and wrote several books with a similar theme, describing how one scientific innovation or historical event led to others in totally unexpected ways. In Twin Tracks, for example, Burke tells how Mozart's opera, The Marriage of Figaro, led to the development of the Stealth bomber in not one but two different ways.

Bryson is less disciplined than Burke -- even he doesn't seem to know where he's going in his rambling -- but he is more fun (and Burke has a keen wit) and much easier to follow. Reading At Home is something like listening to my late father (or any old person) tell stories. One tale leads to another and then another until you begin to wonder how he got so far away from the original subject.

This book, published in 2010, is subtitled "A Short History of Private Life." Never mind that it's more than 500 pages long. Ostensibly At Home tells about each of the rooms in an old English house, from the hall to the attic, except that Bryson never stays on subject and sometimes never seems to find his subject at all. His discussion of the dining room leads him to the subject of salt, which leads him into scurvy, then vitamins, the spice trade, Christopher Columbus, Samuel Pepys' diaries, coffee. tea, sugar, opium and, somehow, the flatware used in a Victorian dining room.

In the same way, Bryson finds himself discussing rabid bats in his chapter on the study, Indian cotton in his chapter about the dressing room and both Charles Darwin and Herman Melville in his attic chapter. Like James Burke, he finds odd connections and follows them wherever they lead. It's an amazing ride just to follow along.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Strait or straight?

If you want to walk the strait and narrow when it comes to proper English, you had better write "strait and narrow" and not "straight and narrow."

Strait and straight are not different spellings of the same word but two completely different words. Strait, when used as an adjective, means narrow or confining. As a noun, it means a narrow passage of water connecting two large bodies of water, such as the Strait of Gibraltar. Straight refers to the shortest distance between two points. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, straight was once the past participle of stretch until it was converted from a verb into an adjective. If you stretch a curly rubber band it becomes straight. Strait, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word strictus, meaning "drawn tight."

"Straight and narrow" actually makes sense and may even seem preferable to the more redundant "strait and narrow." It suggests moving ahead without detour or distraction, which is often close to what we mean when we use the phrase. That phrase, however, comes to us from the Bible (Matt. 7:14), where Jesus says, "Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." In other words, it's a tight squeeze, sort of like that camel trying to get through the eye of a needle that Jesus mentions elsewhere.

Proper uses of strait include strait-laced (those laced corsets make one's waist more narrow), straitjacket (confining) and dire straits. Use straight in straight razor, straight man, straight shooter, straight off and straight whiskey (even if it can make one tight).

The two words straighten and straiten are also distinct and easy to confuse. The former means "to make straight," the latter "to make narrow." Sometimes, as when stretching a rubber band, either word will do.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Rooms off the kitchen

Large dinner parties with many guests and vast amounts of food were once the norm, often several nights a week, in England and elsewhere. This necessitated many servants and large kitchens for the preparation of all this food. It also led to the construction of smaller rooms off from the kitchen designated for certain functions.

Scullery Somebody had to wash all those dirty dishes, and that task fell to to scullery maids. Those plates, pots, flatware, etc., were stacked in the scullery, where they were washed in a large sink. This word came from the Old French word for dishes, escullier.

Larder Before the days of refrigeration, meat would be delivered daily and placed in the larder until the cooks were ready to use it. The word larder came from the French word for bacon, lardon.

Pantry Other food was stored in the pantry, a word derived from the Latin word panna, meaning "bread room."

Some particularly grand country homes might also have a game larder, bake house, brewery, knife room, pastry room and other rooms set aside for one purpose or another.

Most homes today just combine everything in the kitchen, although some may still have a pantry like the one shown at the left. My mother had what she called a fruit room in the basement where she stored the food, mostly fruit, that she canned during the summer for consumption during the winter.