Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Intersecting stories

"And yet I saw on  his face that within there was a book worth studying."
Thomas Hardy, Two on a Tower

A few nights ago I led a discussion about the 1980 South African film The Gods Must Be Crazy. This slapstick comedy may not seem a likely topic for thoughtful conversation, yet it triggered a lively discussion. One of the ideas we touched on was that each life is a story that becomes more interesting, and in most cases more positive, as it intersects with other lives and other stories.

The movie's three main characters include a member of a tribe of Bushmen who decides a Coke bottle found in the desert must be an Evil Thing, so he determines for the good of his people to take it to the end of the world and throw it off, a South African journalist who gives up her career to become a teacher in Botswana and a scientist, painfully shy around women, who is talked into meeting the teacher and taking her to her school. The three people, each having abandoned a familiar and comfortable life, ventures into the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Their lives intersect, and along the way each becomes a blessing to the other two and, most importantly, to a group of children held hostage by rebels.

Every movie, but for those rare exceptions such as the recent one-character Robert Redford film All Is Lost, have to do with intersecting lives. That is what most stories are about, including Thomas Hardy's Two on a Tower. The bishop who says the above words about a young astronomer is about to have a profound impact on the young man's life story, and vice versa.

I like thinking about each person's life as a book, a book that we can help write.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Leaving on a Jet Plane

As I listened to a two-disc set of John Denver songs the other day, it occurred to me what a blessing the late singer-songwriter was to the travel industry. His songs were about places as much as they were about people, and many of his lyrics could be, and in some cases have been, used by tourist bureaus to lure visitors.

One of his signature songs, Take Me Home, Country Roads, begins with the words "Almost heaven, West Virginia," and the state of West Virginia has capitalized on those words for decades. The song will probably be running through my head if I visit the state, as I hope to do, in mid-summer.

Yet Denver is probably most identified with Colorado, and not just because of his name. He sang Rocky Mountain High, I Guess He'd Rather Be in Colorado ("where the sky looks like a pearl after the rain"), Aspenglow ("Aspen is a life to live, see how much there is to give") and Starwood in Aspen ("my sweet Rocky Mountain paradise").

Other John Denver songs celebrated Kansas ("Gold was just a windy Kansas wheat field. blue was the Kansas summer sky," Matthew), Montana (Wild Montana Skies), Wyoming ("Up on the hill there's a coyote singing a song of Wyoming for me," Song of Wyoming) and Alaska ("I can't wait to see the Wrangell Mountains," The Wrangell Mountain Song).

He sang songs about other countries, too, including Shanghai Breezes, Postcard from Paris ("Paris is a postcard all decked out in color chrome"), Amsterdam, African Skies and Sing Australia. The song A Country Girl in Paris may seem to be about Paris, but the line "A country girl in Paris dreaming Nashville in the rain" suggests otherwise.

Yet John Denver songs were not always the kind the tourist industry loves. Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio includes the lines:

You ask how I know of Toledo, Ohio?
Well I spent a week there one day.
They've got entertainment to dazzle your eyes:
Go visit the bakery and watch the buns rise.

I happened to pick up a tourism brochure for Toledo earlier this month. I didn't find those lyrics anywhere within.

Friday, May 23, 2014

A unified language

I wrote previously about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's loneliness in America because English was not his native language (Language and loneliness, April 30). The Eric Metaxas biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy makes reference to a number of other topics that fall within the scope of this blog. Here are a few of them.

"The Luther Bible was to the modern German language what the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible were to the modern English language. Before Luther's Bible, there was no unified German language."

Some might argue this was not necessarily a good thing because it led to the loss of many German dialects, and by unifying the language it unified the German people, perhaps contributing to two world wars that would follow many years later. Yet I think it's important to recognize how important the Bible has been in giving people around the world in giving people a written, unified language.

I know a man, once a guest in my home, who worked for many years among the Mam Indians in Guatemala, whose language had never been written down and was in danger of being driven to extinction by the dominant Spanish is that country until he began his work there in the 1970s. Publishing a Bible in the Mam language was among his first objectives.

"A demon always resides in the written word."

The above were the words of some German Christians, Nazi sympathizers, who first tried to remove "Israelite elements," such as the words Jehovah and Hosanna, from hymns, and later from the Bible itself. They sought a Christianity free of all Jewish influences, which turned out not to be possible. The demon, history demonstrated, resided elsewhere.

"Von Moltke and Bonhoeffer met for the first time during their trip to Norway, which had recently been handed over to Hitler by the Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling, whose surname became an improper noun, meaning 'traitor.'"

I hadn't realized the origin of the word quisling was so recent.

"The next day, April 8, was the first Sunday after Easter. In Germany it is called Quasimodo Sunday."

No, Quasimodo Sunday was not named after Victor Hugo's hunchback of Notre Dame. Rather the character was born on the first Sunday after Easter and so was named Quasimodo. This word, Metaxas explains in a footnote, comes from two Latin words, quasi (meaning "as if") and modo (meaning "in the manner of"). The idea comes from the first words of I Peter 2:2, "as newborn babes," suggesting that for Christians, Easter represents a fresh start.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bonhoeffer

The subtitle of the 2010 biography by Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, only begins to define who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was. One might also add Writer, Friend, Family Man, Theologian and a few others. Metaxas gives due attention to each of these dimensions to Bonhoeffer's short life. He was executed by the Gestapo, under direct orders from Adolf Hitler, in 1945 just weeks before the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer, the devout German pastor, had played a role, however small, in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

Quite early in Bonhoeffer's career he preached a sermon in which he said, "if you want to find eternity, you must serve the times." The times in which he served were among the worst in history. He was a patriotic German, a member of a prominent family, during Hitler's rise to power. Most of his colleagues in the German church were slow to recognize Hitler for who he was, never really believing he might do any of the things, such as the persecution of the Jews, he hinted at doing. Bonhoeffer, the prophet, was among the first to warn German Christians that they would have to take a stand. It is something of a wonder Bonhoeffer survived as long as he did.

Yet he had plenty of opportunities to get out of Germany before war broke out and before it was too late. He made trips to the United States, England and elsewhere, and he was offered positions that would have kept him out of harm's way. Yet he felt his place was with his people in Germany. He cut short his last trip to the U.S. because of his eagerness to return to his friends and family.

The success of the Metaxas biography may have been something of a surprise. Long biographies of theologians do not often turn into bestsellers. That this one did is a testament both to the biographer's skill as a writer and to the power of Bonhoeffer's life. I notice that another Bonhoeffer biography has just been published, but I'm sure the man life was important enough to deserve even more attention.

The church I attend in Largo, Fla., has what is called the Cloud of Witnesses, dozens of busts of prominent men and women of the faith, from Moses to Martin Luther King, that surround the sanctuary. One of these belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, martyr, prophet and spy.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Keeping up with the euphemisms

When we received a coupon for something called "bath tissue," my wife asked, as anyone might, what in the world that was. In just few years, "toilet paper" has evolved into "toilet tissue," then "bathroom tissue" and now, at least according to one manufacturer, "bath tissue."

The word toilet was, of course, once itself used as a euphemism, although I have no idea what it was a euphemism for. The English language seems to have no noneuphemistic words to refer to that particular room of the house. The English word toilet comes from the French word for the process of dressing, toilette. Toile is the French word for cloth.

As children, my sisters and I used to giggle when pointing to our mother's bottle of "toilet water," but the term refers to a lightly scented perfume. Women used to have bottles of this on their dressing tables, but we don't hear the term much anymore. Nor do we hear the phrase "toilet call." This was what it was called when a fashionable lady received visitors in her dressing room. The word toilet came to refer to other things, and now even that polite word is considered a bit uncouth.

We have had scores of euphemisms for "that little room." Hugh Rawson presents an exhaustive, if still incomplete, list of them in his Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk. A few of these include ajax, altar room, bathroom, can, comfort station, facility, gab room, holy of holies, John, marble palace, necessary house, office, poet's corner, privy, rest room, sanctuary, tearoom, washroom and WC. Each of us probably has our own favorite.

Friday, May 16, 2014

When your mind goes blank

There's an interview with Francine Prose at the end of her paperback Reading Like a Writer. Responding to the seemingly simple question "What are you reading these days?", she replies, in part, "But one of the reasons I'm glad I wrote this book and I'm glad there's the bibliography at the end is that whenever anyone asks you for a book recommendation or what you're reading, everything just flies out of your mind; you just can't think of single book you've ever read."

To this, her interviewer responds, "That's true."

And I thought it was just me.

It has never made sense to me why, in view of the fact that I spend so much of my time thinking about the books I am reading and those I've recently read, I have such difficulty bringing to mind the title of even one book when anyone asks what I'm reading or what's the best book I've read lately. Such questions, which as a book reviewer I have been asked many times over the years, always seem to catch me unprepared. Five minutes later, of course, after the conversation has ended or moved on to other topics, I can remember the titles of numerous books.

I recall once being asked by a woman for a book I would recommend for her to read. Honestly the only book I could think of at that moment was Mark Winegardner's novel Crooked River Burning, which I had finished some weeks before. Now that is an excellent novel, set in Cleveland. I once spoke with Winegardner at a book festival and told him the novel reminded me of something John Dos Passos might have written. He seemed surprised at my comment and told me he had been reading Dos Passos before he wrote it. So, yes, Crooked River Burning is an excellent novel, but I knew as I spoke it was not something this woman was likely to enjoy. Yet I couldn't think of anything else I had ever read. When she promised to buy a copy of Winegardner's book, I actually felt guilty.

I've been better prepared the last couple of years. Last year I was smitten by Ann Patchett's novel State of Wonder. The best book I've read this year so far has been Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. So I think I'm ready if someone asks me to recommend a book. That doesn't mean I will actually remember either of these titles when I'm on the spot, however.

Prose added a long list of books she recommends at the end of Reading Like a Writer. Her own ready reply to such queries now is even easier than mine: "Read the list," she says.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Twain in Berlin

With a title like A Tramp in Berlin: New Mark Twain Stories & an Account of Twain's Berlin Adventures, it's a little hard to know what you're getting. Even after one reads it, the book isn't easy to describe.

Mark Twain's long visit to Berlin with his family, beginning in the fall of 1891, lies at the center of the slim new book. Most of the text consists of Adreas Austilat's description of Twain's "Berlin adventures." Three newspaper articles, all written near the time of Twain's arrival in Berlin, are also included. And then there are the "new Mark Twain stories," which are the reason most readers will pick up this book in the first place.

These stories, which are stories more in the journalistic sense than the fictional sense (although with Twain, it was never easy to tell the difference), prove to be a mixed bag. The most entertaining of the four is one called "On Renting a Flat in Berlin," in which the American author describes, with his typical exaggeration, his difficulty in finding a suitable place for his family to live.Twain intended to sell this article for publication, but Austilat, a Berlin journalist, says it embarrassed Olivia, his wife, and she forbade it.

The second essay describes an imagined conversation with Satan about Twain's German stove, which he loved. Why Satan? Probably because he knows a thing or two about heat, although the fact that the author is pleased rather than tormented by the heat prevents the story from being as amusing as it might have been.

The least interesting piece is the opening chapter of a novel Twain intended to write about Wilhelmine, the sister of Frederick the Great. He was probably wise to abandon the project.

Finally we have something Twain wrote about Berlin for the Chicago Tribune, which was first published April 3, 1892. This sounds like Twain's typical travel writing, for which he is almost as well known as for his fiction.

The book offers numerous photographs and other illustrations, many of which show buildings in Berlin that didn't even exist at the time of Twain's visit. In fact, after more than a century and two world wars, very little of Berlin remains the same.

That Twain lived in Germany as much as he did and that he spoke German as well as he did may surprise many of his readers. That this book by and about one of America's greatest authors isn't more interesting will surprise many others.


Monday, May 12, 2014

Writers on writing

Listening to writers talk about writing is what the Ohioana Book Festival, held each May in Columbus, is all about. The writers themselves, each of them with some Ohio connection in their background, may have different priorities: rubbing shoulders with other writers, meeting their fans and, of course, selling some books. To most of us who attended the event last Saturday, however, the best part was listening to the panel discussions of writers talking about writing. Thirty such panels met during the day, giving attendees plenty of options.

Here are a few of the comments I heard Saturday that I thought were particularly interesting:

"I wanted to put my eyes on what their eyes had been on."
Brad Ricca

This was Brad Ricca talking about his research prior to writing Super Boys, a biography of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the teenage Cleveland boys who created Superman back in the 1930s. Ricca grew up in Cleveland and had long been amazed that Superman had originated in his own hometown. He says he made an effort to view the city and the times through their eyes, to read what they read and to try to feel what they must have felt.

"I don't believe in writer's block. I believe in laziness block."

R.G. Yoho
Western writer R.G. Yoho, who lives in Southeastern Ohio, said he writes every day. He doesn't wait for inspiration. He just writes. Yoho's novel Nightfall over Nicodemus was the only book I bought Saturday.

"Technology throws writers into self-doubt."

Novelist and poet Amit Majmudar of Dublin, who is also a diagnostic nuclear radiologist, was speaking about how easy it is for writers today to get immediate feedback from fans and critics because of the web. Majmudar, author of Partitions and The Abundance, also said, "Take all criticism with a whole shaker full of salt."

"Language is based on sounds. We're driven by sounds."

Novelist Geoffrey Girard of West Chester argued that listening to one's prose is essential to good writing. On the same subject, Yoho contributed, "I read out loud to my wife. It's part of my editing process."

Janice Gary
"You develop your characters by developing yourself."

This was Majmudar speaking again. I would have liked to hear more from him on that subject.

"It's not what you remember. It's what you can't forget."

Janice Gary, formerly of Cincinnati and the author of Short Leash, spoke about writing a memoir and how one decides what to focus on.

I thought these were all perceptive comments.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Books and duty

It is a man's duty to have books.
Henry Ward Beecher

Students may have a duty to study their books. Book reviewers and critics probably have a duty to actually read the books they write about. Librarians have a duty to properly care for the books in their collections and to add as many new books as budgets will allow.Yet as much as I love books, I had never thought of ownership of them as being a duty. A privilege? Yes. A pleasure? Certainly. But a duty? This idea never occurred to me until I read a few lines from 19th century preacher and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher in the A Passion for Books.

In the same essay, Beecher writes, "A home without books is like a room without windows." To me, that makes perfect sense, yet I am sure many people live contented lives without books or without ever opening those few they do own. These include some with college educations, perhaps even teachers who never read books other than the ones they actually teach from. Some people like to have books around, others don't. Are the latter somehow shirking their duty?

Yet I can't dismiss Beecher's idea altogether. He begins to make sense when he brings children into the picture. "No man has the right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them," he writes. "It is wrong to his family. He cheats them. Children learn to read by being in the presence of books."

One's duty, therefore, is to one's family, not to books. Just having books around the house can make an impression on children. Seeing their parents reading those books can make an even bigger impression.

I rarely saw my father with a book in his hand, but he must have read a lot when he was a boy because he had quite a number of books in the house that made quite an impression on me in my youth. I still have most of those books, including some Horatio Algers. As far as I am concerned, my father did his duty.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Acronym coverups

Linguists call it verbal pruning or clipping. The term refers to the tendency of English speakers to shorten words, making them easier to say and to write. Thus, we say ad instead of advertisement and sub instead of submarine sandwich. Bike, bus and even printing (it was once called imprinting) are other examples of words formed by pruning.

Acronyms are another form of pruning, turning phrases into a short series of letters. Sometimes these acronyms, as with NCAA and IRS, become more familiar than the words they represent.

Yet abbreviation is not the only justification for acronyms. We make use them as euphemisms for phrases that may be indelicate or vulgar, such as BS, SOB and BM. And then there are those names and phrases that may say something that's dated or even slightly embarrassing. Some examples:

NAACP It must have been back in the 1960s or 1970s that I heard a black comedian on television (it may have been Nipsey Russell, a favorite of mine) refer to the "National Association for the Advancement of Certain People." Even back then the phrase "colored people" was something to be avoided. If it was racist for whites to use, then perhaps blacks shouldn't be using it either. Yet there it is in the name of the most prominent black organization. Rather than change its name, the group prefers everyone just use the acronym.

KFC A number of years ago, Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name officially to KFC. The new name, of course, was much easier to say and to fit on signs, but it also served three other functions. 1. It eliminated the word fried at a time when fried foods were looked down upon by nutritionists. 2. It eliminated the word
chicken, thus opening the door for diversifying the chain's menu. 3. It eliminated the word Kentucky, which means something in the United States but not in China and other countries of the world where KFC has been expanding.

A friend recalls a time when she and her husband invited some students from either Africa or Asia to their house for a home-cooked meal. She had to work late that day, however, so on her way home she stopped at KFC and picked up a bucket of chicken, which she placed into her fanciest bowl and served to her guests. The ruse didn't work, however, as one of the students immediately exclaimed, "Oh, the Colonel!"

NCR What company would want to be named after a technologically obsolete piece of equipment? Thus National Cash Register now calls itself NCR Corporation.

YMCA At one time the Young Men's Christian Association and the Young Women's Christian Association were separate organizations usually housed in separate buildings. As this separation began to feel dated, so did the groups' names. They no longer served just young or just Christian people. Nowadays the organizations mostly just call themselves The Y.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The perfect book

When I worked as a copy editor, our goal on the copy desk was always to produce a perfect newspaper. We never succeeded. Most days we were satisfied if no reader complained about an error or made light of one. Yet there were always errors, however minor: misspelled words, misplaced commas, quotes that weren't exactly right, whatever. When you are publishing a newspaper every day, there just isn't enough time to catch every mistake and to double check every fact.

Book editors get more time to read and reread manuscripts and page proofs before publication, yet still errors occur. In Passion for Books, William Keddie tells the story of a Glasgow publisher of fine books in the 19th century that tried hard to produce a perfect book. "Six experienced proof-readers were employed, who devoted hours to the reading of each page; and after it was thought to be perfect, it was posted up in the hall of the university, with a notification that a reward of fifty pounds would be paid to any person who could discover an error," Keddie wrote. "Each page was suffered to remain two weeks in the place where it had been posted, before the work was printed, and the printers thought they had attained the object for which they had been striving."

Yet after publication, several errors were discovered, including one in the first line of the first page.

The Bible is one book publishers try especially hard to make perfect. At one time it could be punishable by death just to publish a new translation of the Bible. Publishing copies that contained significant errors could be more than just embarrassing. Yet in 1611 the so-called He Bible was published, given the name because in one verse Ruth was referred to with the masculine pronoun. Twenty years later a publisher omitted an important not in the Seventh Commandment: "Thou shalt commit adultery." This became known as the Wicked Bible. The Vinegar Bible replaced  the word vineyard with vinegar. According to the Unrighteous Bible, the "unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God."

Somewhere I have a copy of a now-defunct Christian magazine that, for typographical reasons, would sprinkle large initial letters at the beginning of certain paragraphs. Not until after publication was it noticed that the initial letters across a two-page spread spelled out a common four-letter vulgarism. Yes, it really does happen.

Chance are there is no such thing as a perfect newspaper, a perfect magazine or a perfect book. There are just errors that haven't be discovered yet.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Cobwebsites

Earlier this week I listed a few newly coined words from the Internet mentioned by Jeremy Butterfield in his book Damp Squid. One I left out but wish to write about today is cobwebsite, "a site which hasn't been updated for a long time, so that figuratively it has cobwebs hanging off of it." The word may never catch on, but I like it just the same.

Without knowing the word at the time, one of my biggest fears when I started blogging was creating a cobwebsite, a blog that stopped suddenly because I lost interest, lacked the time to continue it or simply ran out of things to say. I wanted a vehicle of expression when I headed into retirement, after more than 40 years of writing for newspapers, but I wanted to be careful not to start a blog whose focus was either too broad or too narrow.

It strikes me that bloggers who leave themselves free to write about anything at all quickly find themselves with nothing at all to write about. As I may have mentioned before, one of the difficulties I faced as an editorial writer was that most days I was free to write about whatever I chose to write about. I always had more trouble finding a topic on those days than when my editor suggested I write about a new city ordinance or a recent Supreme Court decision. I may have had no strong opinions about either the ordinance or the opinion, but having a framework in which to operate made it easier to find something constructive to write. Too narrow a focus can create a similar problem. Had I been told I should write editorials only about local politics I would have been similarly frustrated. Most days I would have been hard pressed to find anything at all to say.

And so I decided to write about the related topics of language and literature, about which there are an endless number of things to say. Yet the focus is narrow enough that I have some idea of where to look to find something to write about. Consequently I have managed, so far, to keep this blog updated on a fairly regular basis, at least two or three times a week. When I miss a day or two it usually just means I am traveling. I'm sure Wordmanship will turn into a cobwebsite eventually. Nobody can go on forever.

I have been looking at some other blogs that became cobwebsites much too soon. Here's one called Bears for Hugs that has not been updated since Oct. 20, 2011. On the penultimate post the blogger wrote, "I realize I never update my blogs anymore, so probably nobody is actually following me ..." Yet that post drew four comments, which is more than I have had in the past six months. It's too bad the blogger lost interest.

Another called Val's Thoughts was, like Bears for Hugs, essentially just a diary put out there for anybody to read. Val's last entry, on May 31, 2012, begins, "Sorry to be so boring! Still not much going on around here." Yet if you go back and read some of her first posts 10 years earlier you can see she once found plenty to write.

A blog called BeLog had 111 posts in 2005, 34 in 2006, 9 in 2006 and just a few over the next several years. The last post, about a concert in Detroit, was written three years ago.

Too many blogs are like Christmas toys, fun for a brief time, but soon forgotten.