Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Language and loneliness

Without language one is lost, hopelessly lonely.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, letter from New York, 1939, 
quoted in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been in America before and spoke English well enough to communicate, yet still it was not his own language. This second trip to New York was perhaps his last chance to escape the war he knew was coming to Europe. His difficulties with English were not the only reason he longed to return to Germany as quickly as possible. He wanted to be back home to try to do what he could to protect his people from the madness of Adolf Hitler. Before the war's end he would lose his life in a Nazi prison for his involvement in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler. Yet the strangeness of the English tongue seems to have been a factor hastening his return home, where despite all the dangers that awaited him, he could at least communicate easily with those around him.

Two days after reading the above line in the excellent Bonhoeffer biography I happened to watch again Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's 2003 film starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. The movie makes much the same point Bonhoeffer made in that one simple sentence. The story tells of two people with little in common other than that they are both lonely Americans stuck in Tokyo, where simple communication proves difficult even with the services of a translator. He's a former movie star in Japan to make television commercials. She's a newlywed traveling with her husband, a photographer who is too busy to spend much time with her. Both have insomnia, and staying in the same hotel they become very close, almost but not quite lovers.

I am reminded of some of our nearest neighbors in Florida. An elderly woman, recently moved into a nursing home, came to America from Poland in her youth and understands English well, even though her own speech remains difficult for Americans to understand. A year ago my wife and I were conversing haltingly with her by the pool when a man came along and spoke a few words to her in Polish. She became instantly animated and began talking in Polish with a broad smile on her face. He tried to explain that he had spoken virtually the only Polish words he knew, but she ignored him and kept talking happily in the language she knows best.

On the other side of us lives a couple in their 80s who rarely leave their condo. Partly this is due to their declining health, but I sense it must also have to do with language. They are both from Portugal and, like the Polish woman, can understand English better than they can speak it. My wife and I have tried to befriend them, yet true communication remains difficult. They must, like Bonhoeffer in New York, sometimes feel "hopelessly lonely."

At the breakfast table this morning I read a portion of another Bonhoeffer letter, this to one of his closest friends. "That the two of us could be connected for five years by work and friendship is, I believe, a rather extraordinary joy for a human life," he wrote. "To have a person who understands one both objectively and personally and whom one experiences in both respects as a faithful helper and adviser -- that is truly a great deal."

We all yearn for someone like that in our lives, someone with whom we can truly communicate -- someone who speaks our language.

Monday, April 28, 2014


The English language expanded, according to one estimate, by about 14 words a day during 2013. Most of these new words (or new uses for existing words) were used for the first time on the Internet, which by its nature makes it much easier for linguists to find and trace new words. A new word coined in the print edition of the Podunk Times might never attract the attention of anyone outside of Podunk, but words used on the Web can spread around quickly. Even so, most of these new words may never become popular enough to ever make it into a dictionary.

The word blog, itself a relatively new word, has spawned more than 200 derivatives in recent years. Among the cleverest include bloggerati (the most elite, well-read bloggers), blogstipation (not be able to think of anything to write on one's blog) and blogrolls (lists of other blogs that can be linked to from another blog).

Many other new words have grown out of the word cyber: cyberbullying, cyberstalking, cyberterrorism and cyberchondria, for example. The latter refers to reading the symptoms of some disease on the Internet and then becoming convinced you have that disease.

Here are some other words coined on the Internet, all listed in Jeremy Butterfield's book Damp Squid:

egosurfing -- searching for mentions of your own name on the Web

doppelgoogler -- someone else with the same name found when searching for your own name

linkrot -- links that lead nowhere

data smog -- the excess of information one can find so easily on the Internet

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor last month, Chris Gaylord mentions some other new terms coined on the Internet or in other electronic communication:

catfished -- developing a romantic online relationship with someone who is lying about his or her true identity

duckface -- the purse-lips posed used by many people when taking selfies (another new word)

RT -- retweet

This must be an exciting time to be in the business of monitoring the English language.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Movie tie-ins

I was surprised to learn recently that in 1924 Grosset & Dunlap published a "Rudolph Valentino Edition" of Booth Tarkington's novel Monsieur Beaucaire. Valentino starred in the movie version. I don't know if this was the first movie tie-in edition of a book, but it was earlier than I had imagined. The Valentino edition included stills from the movie in its pages and probably was very popular at the time.

Movie tie-ins are now commonplace. They help sell more copies of the book, and if they can be published soon enough, they sell more movie tickets. It can be a win-win for both movie studios and publishers. Tie-ins aren't always a win for book readers and moviegoers, however. That's because tie-ins raise expectations that movies will closely follow the stories told in the novels. That rarely happens. Directors are forced to eliminate much of the plot and even many of the characters to fit the story into a two-hour production. In most cases they go even further and change essential elements of the story, such as by adding a love interest or by giving it a happy ending the author didn't intend.

Movie tie-ins are probably most popular with those who see the movie first, like it and then want to read the story. They may even blame the authors, rather than the movie directors, for changing the story.

I usually avoid movie tie-ins when I can. In a brief tour of my library, I found just three tie-ins, although I am sure there must be others hidden away somewhere. I have a paperback of Sebastien Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement with actress Audrey Tautou on the cover. I love this French film, but I have yet to read the novel, so I am yet to be disappointed.

I own two copies of The Princess Bride, one of which is a paperback with a still from the movie on the cover. I like both the movie and the book, but I like the movie better. I also have a paperback of William Eastlake's Castle Keep showing Burt Lancaster with his eye patch from the film. I can remember seeing the movie first back in the 1960s, then going out to find a copy of the book, which I also liked.

In my mind I like to try to keep movies separate from the novels upon which they were based simply because they are often so very different. This isn't easy to do, however, because the film images are so powerful. You can read the novel, then see the movie and become convinced in your head that the story you saw on the screen was the same story you read. I think it's probably better to read the book first, but I'm sure you could also argue the other way.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Our night at the tavern

I am having my breakfast this morning at Boone Tavern in Berea, Ky. A tavern doesn't sound like a place that would be associated in any official way with a college, yet Berea College owns and operates Boone Tavern, named for Daniel Boone, and many of its employees are students. The young man operating the gift shop last night is working toward a degree in marketing.

Despite its name, there are no alcoholic beverages on the premises, as far as I know. Certainly there were none on last night's dinner menu. The back of the menu explains, "The 'Tavern' portion of the name derives from the historic definition that refers to a public inn for travelers rather than the modern definition related to the sale of alcohol." Of course, historically, I imagine many, if not most taverns that put up travelers for the night also served alcoholic beverages. Somehow it was the alcohol, not the beds, that stuck to the word as time passed.

Berea lies along our path between Florida and Ohio, and for the past two years we have managed to time it right to spend a night at the Tavern on the way home and enjoy a portion of their famous spoonbread at dinner. I hope that, like Berea College, we can keep the tradition going.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Revisiting 'Quicksilver'

I mentioned recently my practice of making notes when I read, usually on the 3-by-5 cards I use as bookmarks. If there is something I might want to use in a review of the book, an interesting or well-written passage or just a piece of information I might want to consult later, I jot it down on the card. I may never refer back to a particular note, but sometimes I do, as when I quoted from Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver in last Friday's blog post.

I finished reading that novel several months ago, but when I consulted the card tucked inside to find that quote, I found some other interesting things from the book worth mentioning. Here they are:

"There are two kinds of poor -- God's and the Devil's."

I wasn't familiar with that expression, but apparently it was once common, at least in England. God's poor were defined as widows, orphans and others who deserve help, while the Devil's poor are those considered beyond help. I see from a web search that Henry Ward Beecher once added a third class of poor: the poor devils.

Like a horseman who reins in a wild stallion that has borne him, will he, nill he, across several counties ...

Stephenson's story is set in the 17th century, and in this line he gives us some insight into the phrase we now know as "willy-nilly." The original idea, apparently, was uncertainty. Either he will or he won't. Other spellings of the phrase over the years include "willing, nilling" and "wille we, nelle we." There is also the idea of something happening whether one wills it or not.

Everything in the universe was curved.

Have you noticed how this is true? There don't seem to be any straight lines in nature. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, yet even light, the fastest thing in the universe, travels in waves.

"But I have noticed that the best people are frequently odd in one way or another."

I have noticed this to be true, too. Although the same thing could probably be said of the worst people. We all manage to be odd in our own individual way.

"You are charged with perverting the English language."

There are people among us who give the impression they actually wish misuse of the language were a criminal offense. These are the people who ignore whatever you are saying, but do make it a point to correct your English.

Two quotes

Finally, here are two lines in the novel that would have been worth underlining had I been inclined to do any underlining.

"Fame's a weed, but repute is a slow-growing oak."

"By populating the world with so many different minds, each with its own point of view, God gives us a suggestion of what it means to be omniscient."

Friday, April 18, 2014

Rage by any other name

As I write these words I am seated near a window that looks out over a canal, and two gondoliers, who nearly collided a minute ago, are screaming murderous threats at each other. This sort of thing happens all the time here. The Venetians have even given it a name: "Canal Rage."
Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver

Neal Stephenson's novel is set mostly in late 17th century, but he slips modernisms like the above into it from time to time. Some might think of these as historical inconsistencies, but to me they are just part of the fun of reading the story. I thought of this passage about canal rage the other day while reading Jeremy Butterfield's book Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare. It contains a "glossary of rage," which includes, of course, road rage and, among others, air rage (experienced sometimes during air travel), golf rage (when golfers miss a shot and toss their clubs into the nearest water trap), subway rage, spam rage, parking rage and phone rage.

I came close to experiencing the latter this week during a two-hour phone conversation to settle on a new health insurance plan. Perhaps this might also be termed Obamacare rage. Among the lowlights was a long, fast recitation of two disclaimers, essentially fine print read over the phone, which we had to affirm we had heard, understood and agreed with. Then, near the end of the conversation, conducted entirely in English, we were asked whether English was our preferred language.

Anger, of course, is just anger, no matter what we call it. The above terms, and many others like them, are just names for the same thing under different circumstances.

Also this week I read in Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking about something psychologists call "reward sensitivity." Although introverts are generally more sensitive about most things, extroverts tend to be more reward-sensitive. That is, they are more likely to seek immediate rewards for their actions. Thus they are more likely to take chances, whether in the stock market or in personal relationships. Then Cain goes on to say that "deal fever" and "the winner's curse" are other names given to this kind of behavior in the business world. No doubt gamblers, athletes and mountain climbers have their own terms for those willing to take big risks in the hope of big payoffs.

Just as with pop, soda and soft drink, we have lots of different words for the same things. It just depends on who we are and where we are.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The impact of technology

"Totally amazing," she continues. "Best meeting ever. Completely ... structured. You know exactly what's happening all the time. Everybody brings a laptop --"

"Do people even look at one another?"

"Not really. Everything that matters is on your screen."
Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

It's no secret that technology has changed our lives in profound ways. Here are three of them that fall within the scope of this blog.

1. Loss of eye contact.

The character in Robin Sloan's novel is describing a meeting at Google, where she works, but business meetings aren't much different wherever one may work. Everyone brings their phones, tablets or laptops and spends as much time looking at them as at whomever might be speaking. Much the same thing occurs when people gather at restaurants, churches, concerts, parties and picnics.

One of the most memorable passages in the Sebastian Faulks novel A Week in December describes numerous people crossing a bridge in London at the same time, all of them looking at their phones or talking into their phones, none of them seemingly aware of anyone else on the bridge except as an obstacle to get around.

Alternate forms of communication have existed for many years. We've been able to write letters, send telegrams, make phone calls and, more recently, send e-mails. Yet until recently these have always been considered poor substitutes for old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. Yet more and more, even when people are together in the same room, they don't actually look at one another.

2. Our rewired brains

Michael S. Rosenwald, in the Washington Post article I mentioned a couple of days ago, writes that the more time we spend reading on the Web, the more difficulty we have focusing on printed material. That's because on the Web we tend to skim through the material, looking for key words and ideas and ignoring everything else. Then when we try to read a book or a newspaper or magazine article, we may not be able to concentrate on it.

Rosenwald tells of a 31-year-old financial analyst who realized he had missed several keys points in a novel he had been reading. "Then it hit him: He had been scanning for information about one aspect of the book, just as he might scan for one fact on his computer screen, where he spends much of his day.

"'When you try to read a novel,' he said, 'it's almost like were not built to read them anymore, as bad as that sounds.'"

This poses a significant challenge for educators, who in a sense must try to teach their students to read all over again. But the challenge is there for all of us who use computers but also like to read away from a screen. We need to practice so they we do not lose those reading skills we worked so hard to gain back in elementary school.

3. The rights of authors

Last fall Google won dismissal of a lawsuit filed by authors objecting to the company's digitally copying  their books, without permission, for an online library. The decision was a blessing for researchers and other Web users who might like to read portions of these books without actually having to buy the books. Yet authors can be justified in wondering what their copyrights actually mean.

Monday, April 14, 2014

In defense of audiobooks

When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes.
Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

The narrator of Robin Sloan's novel describes his reaction the first time he listens to an audiobook. I don't get it.

I have been listening to books, first on tape and later on CDs, for years. I am rarely without one in my car. While I agree there are certain differences inherent in reading books as opposed to listening to them being read by somebody else, I have never noticed a lack of immediacy in the latter. In either case, the story happens inside my head, not in a little cloud around it.

So what differences do I find? First, there are the practical concerns. With audiobooks, it can be very difficult to go back and "reread" a particular passage. It's tough enough if it's just the previous paragraph you missed because of a distraction, but if it's something in a previous chapter, it's just too much trouble to bother. I like to take notes when I read, marking down page numbers where key characters are introduced, where passages are beautifully written or where some information is found I might want to refer to later. This just can't be done with audiobooks, especially while driving a car.

The best audiobooks, at least for me, are either books I have read before in the traditional way and want to revisit, books so easy I am not likely to even want to take notes or books so difficult I would rather have somebody else read so I can just listen. The first and third of these qualities were true when I listened to Lolita last year. I had read the novel for an English course back in the 1960s, so I knew it to be a great book, but not an easy one to read. So I let Jeremy Irons do the work, and I just enjoyed Vladimir Nabokov's glorious prose. I'm sure I missed something -- with Nabokov, you are bound to miss something no matter how you read him -- but I thought I also gained something hearing, as it were, Humbert Humbert tell his own story. (Irons played Humbert in the 1997 film version of the novel.) In this case, at least, I thought the audiobook was more immediate than the printed version.

All of us listened to stories before we learned to read them by ourselves. We heard children's stories read by parents, teachers or babysitters. We also heard our parents tell stories about their experiences at the end of the day around the dinner table. Humanity as a whole listened to stories long before the invention of either writing or printing. As Michael S. Rosenwald wrote in a recent Washington Post article, "The brain was not designed for reading." Mankind learned first to listen, then to read.

The suggestion in Sloan's novel that audiobooks are somehow inferior to printed books seems a bit strange. It also seems ironic when you notice the ad for the CD version of the novel at the end of the paperback

Friday, April 11, 2014

A riveting, if unbelievable, tale

Michael Hiebert's 2013 mystery Dream with Little Angels has just about everything going for it but believability. It's got all the suspense one could want in a mystery, plus humor, charm and nice writing. Hiebert tells a good coming-of-age story. Once started, the book truly is hard to put down.

Trouble is, one of the things that makes the novel so compelling, it's 11-year-old narrator, is what makes it a bit hard to swallow. Abe Teal is the son of a small-town police officer trying to find a serial killer who kidnaps and abuses teenage girls before leaving their bodies to be found. Her husband died when Abe was still a baby, and now Leah Teal struggles to raise him and his older sister, scads of trouble now that she has discovered boys, while trying to catch a murderer whose first victim died 12 years before.

One can understand Leah being protective of her kids, but would any police officer really take an 11-year-old to crime scenes? Would she allow him to be present for interviews? And what are the chances the kid would turn out to be a better detective than the detective?

The trick in reading Dream with Little Angels is simply to accept that strange things happen (odd behaviors do happen all the time) and accept the novel for what it is, a riveting good story.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The plural you

There are, believe it or not, languages where pronouns vary only for person but not number, such that I and we are the same word, he, she, and they are the same word, and as such, singular and plural you are the same word. For some reason this tends to be in Indonesia and New Guinea. But for it to be this way only with the second person? Odd, and, again, illogical, inconsistent, unpretty.
John McWhorther, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Back in the 1980s I served on a committee charged with finding an associate pastor for our church. Our choice was a lovely young woman with degrees from Swarthmore and Harvard Divinity School. One thing that puzzled me about Connie was her frequent use of the phrase "you all." She did not speak with a drawl, yet this phrase still made her sound as though she were raised in Georgia, not eastern Pennsylvania.

Connie came to mind after reading John McWhorter's comments quoted above. Was she, like so many other English speakers, simply uncomfortable with using the pronoun you as a plural? The word sounds to our ears like it refers to just one person, not two or more. The plural you is, as McWhorter puts it,illogical, inconsistent and unpretty. So many of us find alternatives.

In the South, you all or y'all is favored. Elsewhere in the country, you guys serves the same purpose, but without the charm. In Florida this winter I heard you guys much more than y'all. This could be because so many people in Florida are transplanted from elsewhere, but it could also mean that you guys is spreading. Even older women, who once hated to be referred to as you guys, now use the term themselves.

You might also hear you lot (common in Britain), you-uns, yinz (Pittsburgh area) or youse or youse guys.

We all tend to repeat the language we hear everyday, but I do hope Connie, who last I heard was serving a church in Virginia, is still saying you all, not you guys.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Pint-sized secret agents

The very best literature for children appeals equally, or almost equally, to adult readers. I'm thinking of books like Alice in Wonderland, Charlotte's Web and the Dr. Seuss books. I was over 18 when I read both Winnie-the-Pooh and the Narnia books, and I loved them. I still read children's books from time to time, and when I do I judge them not on how I think a child might like them but rather on how I like them. At the very least I judge them according to what might have appealed to me when I was at a particular book's target age.

Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle by "Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith (2014) does not pretend to be great literature. It's just a comic adventure tale for kids nine and over. I give it a mixed grade. At times I got caught up in the story, finding the comedy genuine and the mystery truly suspenseful. At other time it seemed dull and repetitious, as if the authors were just filling pages until they could legitimately move on to the exciting climax.

The book, the second in a series, concerns twins named Nick and Tesla, who are staying with their batty Uncle Newt while their parents are away on a secret mission. They suspect that someone hanging around the house is really a spy, and they are determined to discover who it might be. They have a number of suspects.

I would not be surprised if my grandson, about to turn 10, reacts as I did when he reads the book, which I hope he will do. I think he'll love the instructions on how to build a fingerprint kit and a secret code wheel, among other gadgets contributed by Pflugfelder. I know those kinds of things would have thrilled me when I was 10, whether I actually would have built the gadgets or not. I think, too, he will laugh at the funny bits Hockensmith, author of the Holmes on the Range mysteries, brings to the book.

I just hope he doesn't get bored and give up on the book before it gets interesting again, as I was tempted to do. Young readers aren't really that different from older ones. They like stories, such as Winnie-the-Pooh, that stay fun all the way through.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Baby steps

Lately readers have begun to complain about my short chapters, although in my opinion there is no particular reason why a chapter should be long.
Larry McMurtry, Hollywood

The above sentences takes up three lines in the 26th chapter of Larry McMurtry's memoir about his many years writing screenplays for Hollywood and writing novels that Hollywood turned into movies. The entire 26th chapter runs to just six lines.

The book itself takes just 146 pages but has 60 chapters. You can do the math. I made Hollywood my lunchtime book for a brief while. Sometimes I could read an entire chapter between bites. I loved it. Like McMurtry, I favor books with short chapters.

The author explains his short chapters like this, to quote the third sentence of his three-sentence 26th chapter: "In fact I am old and there are very many subjects about which I have something to say -- just not much." Perhaps advancing age explains my own preference for short chapters, but I don't think so. I favored them even in my youth.

The other night I watched yet again the old Bill Murray comedy What About Bob? He plays a man who has great difficulty just leaving his own apartment, let alone coming into contact with other people. His new doctor (Richard Dreyfuss) gives him a copy of his new book, Baby Steps, which urges people like Bob to think in terms of baby steps. Think only as far as the next step. After that step, focus on the next. You can go far just taking one small step after another.

I feel that way about reading books, especially long books. Short chapters break the text down into baby steps. Instead of thinking about the 500-page biography or novel that lies before me, I think just about the next chapter. The shorter that chapter is, the easier it seems to start reading and keep reading. I found this true again recently when reading Donna Tartt's massive novel The Goldfinch, which is 771 pages long. It has only 12 chapters, but each chapter is broken down into numerous subchapters, some of them not much longer than McMurtry's chapter 26. I think the novel would have been much harder to read if it had only those 12 chapters, each more than 50 pages long.

It's not just short chapters that make reading easier. Short paragraphs and short sentences also help. In  the newspaper business, where I devoted my career, keeping paragraphs brief, rarely more than two or three sentences, is considered mandatory to improve readability. Copy editors also often divide long sentences into two shorter ones for the same reason.

A college professor once reviewed a book manuscript of mine (never published). One of her main complaints was that my paragraphs were too short. In academia, of course, long paragraphs are the rule, but I came out of journalism, where the focus lies on brevity. Larry McMurtry probably would have agreed with me. His six-line chapter 26 has three paragraphs, one for each sentence.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Surprises from Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry has written more memoirs than most people have written letters home. I have just finished reading Hollywood (2010), the third of his literary memoirs, but he has written at least two other books, Paradise and Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, that might be termed memoirs, as well. As sketchy as these books are, the 77-year-old writer may still have a few more memoirs left to write.

In Hollywood, his recollections of his many years as a scriptwriter, McMurtry makes the surprising, at least to me, comment that he works "harder at screenwriting than I do at fiction -- fiction comes to me easily, and scripts don't. I have to work at them; they're a craft I've only partly mastered -- the character part." Much of McMurtry's fiction, like his memoirs, has an easy-going style, as if it were just poured onto a page. Even so, I would have thought any serious novel would be more difficult to write than any screenplay. True, scripts are often written by committee, with the director getting the final say about what actually goes into the movie, which must be frustrating for any scriptwriter. But this doesn't appear to be what McMurtry is talking about.

Elsewhere in the book he recalls that after a heart attack in the 1990s, "I could write fiction, which doesn't really require a clear mind: it's a semivisceral experience ... No one can write screenplays in this trancelike state." Fiction doesn't require a clear mind? That seems revealing. I would love to hear other novelists comment on this observation. Is this why so many writers thrive in the party atmosphere of Key West? (See my March 20 post, "Key West literary tour.")

McMurtry says he's grateful to Hollywood because "it's essentially financed my fiction, my rare book business, and, to a huge degree, my adult life." Besides, he confesses, he just loves Hollywood and numbers actress Diane Keaton among his best friends. He hates movie sets, however, and makes a point to avoid them. Speaking of directors, he writes, "the kindest thing an author can do is stay out of the way and not slow them down."

Another surprising thing in McMurtry's memoir is that he believes Loop Group a much better novel than Lonesome Dove. I've read his Hollywood novel Loop Group, and I enjoyed it, but it seemed slight to me, again as if it were written on the run, while I consider Lonesome Dove a masterpiece of western fiction. Most readers and not a few critics seem to feel the same way. It did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, while Loop Group went largely ignored. McMurtry could be right, however. I would love to read both of those novels again.