Sunday, May 30, 2010

Another Mad Orgy of Reading

Y'know, I should just admit that reading frenzies aren't something that happen to me; they're something I do to myself. I mean, once is an anomaly, twice is a coincidence, but three times is frankly a self-driven habit, right?

I'm selling off a good bit of my personal library on Amazon -- books I've read, books I haven't gotten around to reading although I've owned them for fifteen years, etc. Those I've read and loved are not up for sale. They're moved into a permanent library of "keepers." But the rest can go, to make room -- and money -- for newer books and more recent interests.

But, when a book I haven't read sells, I decide on the spot whether or not I want to read it after all. If I do, then I drop everything and read it, because Amazon requires books to be shipped out within a couple of days of selling. And it somehow seems that when I put a few boxes' worth of books up at a time, then there is always a sudden run on just those books, out of all my inventory. I imagine that's some hidden intricacy of Amazon software, but who knows?

That confluence of circumstances -- the tendency to have a run of sales and my tendency to decide to read the book after it sells -- led to me engaging in another mad feat of reading, knocking off thirteen books (two of them upward of 500 pages!) in seven days. With just three weeks left before I move to Florida to start grad school, that brings me to forty books read this year.

A couple of posts ago, I listed the dozen or so I'd read as of that date, and singled out a few. I really should also have singled out Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Not only was it the only one of the group that I pushed on my husband to read, but it has stuck with both of us for a while now, always a mark of a good book. I slighted her because I hadn't really enjoyed The Handmaid's Tale as much. I found that too strident, even for me as a feminist. But in the twenty years between the two books, Atwood got much smoother and more subtle in working her themes into the story. I slighted Oryx and Crake because I had a bad taste in my mouth from The Handmaid's Tale, then, but Oryx and Crake is actually really engaging.

That teeny-weeny insult to Margaret Atwood corrected (I'm sure her life was on hold waiting to see that), what I knocked off in one week and shipped out to hopefully happy new owners follows:

  • The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris: a self-help book about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
  • Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thich Nhat Hanh: always a wise, wonderful writer
  • Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson, Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter Onuf, Editors: this book was outstanding. It is the only one I regretted letting go, and I immediately put another copy in my Amazon cart because I'm buying it again and this time it's going into my keeper library. This is a collection of essays by major historians on the event of the DNA tests that proved that Jefferson fathered at least the youngest, and probably all, of Sally Hemings' children.
  • Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris: a memoir of spiritual malaise, suffering, and seeking
  • Citizens, Simon Schama: his 875-page history of the French Revolution. Da noiv of that buyer! Making me read my own book! An outrage, I tells ya. But three days for this was a push and then some. Sorry, Simon, it was good in the beginning and good in the end, but I admit to skimming in the middle 300 pages or so.
  • Mr. Jefferson's Women, Jon Kukla: yes, there's a pattern here. I live forty miles from Monticello, and was once offered a job there.
  • Spook Country, William Gibson: since I don't read much fiction, this was one of my husband's books he wanted to sell. Okay, but I liked Snowcrash better
  • Certain Trumpets, Garry Wills: his book about the qualities of leaders and their anti-types. I'm not a fan of Wills, I think. I read every word of this book and of all the books on this list, I remember and care the least about this one.
  • The Burgermeister's Daughter, Stephen Ozment: an incident from a dysfunctional family in medieval Germany. A bestseller when I bought it in the 1990s.
  • Coming to Our Senses, Jon Kabat-Zinn: about his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. Could have been shorter than its 600-page length.
  • A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman: another big one, a history of the 14th Century
  • Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann: about the practice of composing a short (by necessity!) poem in the waning moments of one's life. Monks practiced this the most, but samurai, poets, and many other members of the literate nobility did as well. There are some several wonderful poems in the book, but I copied those down and then sent the book off happily, glad to have them but also glad that someone else will have them.
  • The World without Us, Alan Weisman: this book inspired the History Channel's Life Without People series. It's a great book that wears its astounding research and scholarship lightly. It makes you look at the world differently.

I had shipped the previous load of orders out the previous Monday, and I shipped all of these books out on Monday, so I read them all in exactly seven days. After that, I took a week off from so much as looking at a book. But I've since read ten more, albeit at a much more leisurely pace. The best of that batch was Hamlet without Hamlet, by Margreta de Grazia. I checked that one out from the Mary Baldwin College library, and I absolutely must own it someday soon. It looks at how Hamlet criticism approached the play before the post-modern emo brooder view took over. Since that viewpoint has had a stranglehold on Hamlet criticism for a century, a book that's all about other ways to see the play is refreshing. Moreover, de Grazia seems incredibly brilliant -- there were so many sentences in the book that bore such astonishingly new insights that each one could have been unpacked into a chapter, and moreover each of these sentences scattered like diamonds on the ground sparked off new thoughts in my own mind.

So that was my mad orgy of reading. I also wanted to mention an observation casually made by a friend about language.

Like de Grazia, my friend Andrew is also brilliant. Every time we have dinner with him, he tosses off something wise and insightful that amazes me, and I'm always left with the sneaking suspicion that I've made a fool of myself in his presence. [Luckily, he likes me anyway, I think!]

Andrew, like his brother, tutors teens for the SAT and such tests. Last time he observed that the tendency of "these kids today" to live their whole lives online, tweeting and Facebooking every thought (even such thoughts as "I'm about to throw up" and "I really like anal," as proven by the hilarious Failbook) has created a generation that may not value privacy much, but has got to be the most honest and least prejudiced generation he has ever seen. As he noted, when every thought is public and can be checked and pulled up from archives, there is no upside in lying. And when you are raised knowing that certain thoughts are racist or bigoted and are viewed with disgust by most people, and you are of the generation that has zero sense of privacy, you simply don't have those thoughts. Since they would open you to ridicule, and since you don't even know how to keep them to yourself, you simply can't create the kind of compartmentalization necessary to have them and not reveal them. So you just reject those thoughts.

The most recent dinner we had with Andrew, we were discussing how the web is changing English. I don't like to be a grammar cop, so I overlook the tendency of people to confuse "there," "their," and "they're," or "its" and "it's." But then one day I realized, I can't even make those mistakes by accident. Even when I find myself starting to type the wrong word, my pinky is tapping the backspace key before my brain has even consciously registered the mistake. What I said to Andrew was this: the meaning of each word is so different that they are not the same word at all to me. They're three totally unrelated words. I could no more confuse them than I could type "ham sandwich" when what I meant was "hacksaw."

Ah, said the wise Andrew G., that's because for you they are visual words. Your experience of language and grammar comes largely via the printed page. [Certainly true.] And printed, they are totally unrelated words, as well as by meaning. But most people now relate to language only as it's spoken, not as it's written. And aurally, they are the same word. And since rules of grammar are invisible aurally, the words, their meanings, and the rules for using them correctly get mashed together into one undifferentiated blob.

Being such a reader by nature, I had never thought about it that way before, but of course he's right. So when you want to be a grammar cop, just remind yourself that the person who made the mistake knows the words aurally rather than visually. It doesn't make them any less wrong, but it does make the error slightly less annoying.

I've already said that precision in language and thought are deeply important to me. I can bring this all around in a big circle by adding that this is not only a philosophy of language that I share with George Orwell, but one that I also share with the Buddha. Two of the greatest qualities in a practicing Buddhist are extreme honesty with oneself and others, and incisive precision in viewing oneself and the world. These are elements of Right View, Right Mindfulness, and Right Speech, three elements of the Eightfold Path that is the foundation of Buddhist practice. For me, good writing is inseparable from Buddhism. To lie, to make mistakes, and to be logically fuzzy are all obviously off that path. In making such mistakes, I betray not only my intellect, but my spirit as well. Maybe that's why I've found nearly all Buddhist writing to be above the average, because whether they articulate it or not, other Buddhist writers feel the same way.

In that vein, and with credit given to Yoel Hoffmann's fine book Japanese Death Poems, I will leave you with several poems from that volume. Namaste!

Those who are dead
increase from day to day --
in such a world
how could I think
that when it came to me ...


I thought to live
two centuries or even three --
Yet here comes death
to me, a child
just eighty-five years old!


Empty-handed I entered the world
barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going --
two simple happenings
that got entangled.


No sign
in the cicada's song
that it will soon be gone.


Spitting blood
clears up reality
and dream alike.


Raizan has died
to pay for the mistake
of being born:
for this he blames no one
and bears no grudge.


Moon in a barrel:
You never know just when
the bottom will fall out.


I cast the brush aside --
from here on I'll speak to the moon
face to face.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Eek! I'm a "Professor!"

No sooner did I post the last blog about writing than I discovered that I'm going to Florida State University for grad school. That's great, because I'll be working with Gary Taylor, who has a worldwide reputation in Shakespeare studies. Plus, I got a full scholarship and a stipend. Also great, right?

Then they tell me that the financial deal is in exchange for me teaching two Freshman Comp writing courses and that I have to be in Tallahassee June 28 to learn how to teach.

Yipes! I've guest-lectured before, but I thought I'd have years before actually having to teach a class of my own. After my initial panic, though, I'm excited about the idea. And I realized that I've got a lot to say on the subject of good writing, because for me good writing is inseparable from good thinking and good living.

As I said last time, I am an ardent supporter of George Orwell's claim that precision in language is vital because precision in language is the outward sign of precision in thought, and precision in thought gives us our political freedoms, our morals, and all our higher thoughts. Vagueness, sloppiness, imprecision, or fuzziness in thought spills over into language, but worse, it spills over into life. Language is the primary means by which we negotiate our presence in the world. It matters, a lot.

Besides precision, what I hope to teach the unfortunate souls who will be my first students are breadth and depth in language.

Breadth in language, because the right nuance makes all the difference. Happiness is not the same as joy; joy is not the same as contentment; contentment is not the same as ecstasy. Striking the right nuance allows for insight, allows the writer to create finely shaded portraits of characters whose words and actions stay true to their fictitious selves. Miss three or four nuances in a row and instead the writing is just galumphing around without direction, or with three or four directions at once.

I could offer a thousand examples here: "Let not the bloat king tempt you to bed" from Hamlet. What a word choice -- "bloat"! It's magnificent, a single syllable packed with a dozen notions of disgust, sleaze, sensuality, weakness, decay, hatred, even putrefaction. "Fat," though nominally a synonym, does virtually nothing here. Switch words and you go from an unforgettable line to an unmemorable one.

The wall calendar a few feet away from me right now features Edward Gorey's poem The Doubtful Guest, and the couplet for May is "It betrayed a great liking for peering up flues, / And for peeling the soles of its white canvas shoes." Even in a comic poem about an imaginary creature, look at the difference in character between "betrayed" (revealed in spite of itself) and possible alternatives "revealed," "displayed" or simply "showed" (if one ignores meter). Gorey's word choice supports all the rest of the poem about this enigmatic, moody, vaguely disturbing -- but still child-like and innocent -- creature, as opposed to one that is ostentatious or transparent. I hope to encourage my students to develop as broad and rich a vocabulary as they can so that they can command the full breadth of language.

But my favorite thing about language has to be its depth. I am transported with delight when I see an author use a word in such a way that it is the only possible word in all of English that could have been used in that spot. Here are three of my favorite examples:

A Sappho fragment translated by Anne Carson (a poet in her own right) runs like this:

You gather back
All that dazzling dawn put asunder:
You gather
a lamb
Gather a kid
Gather a child to its mother

A beautiful, peaceful image, but Carson's choice of the word "kid" could not have been any other word. By meaning both juvenile goat and human child, she links the agricultural image of lamb to the familial image of mother in the two surrounding lines. "Kid" is the fulcrum on which the line pivots. "Piglet," "duckling," "chick" "toddler," "teenager," -- none of those would have worked with such symmetry. Only "kid" could have worked there to smoothly transition from daytime farm work to evenings around the hearth, from generic generational to personally loving and familial. "Kid" is a what I would call a depth word, one that has two meanings equally important to the poem.

My second example is from pop culture. One of my favorite '80s bands is Pet Shop Boys. Their bouncy synthesized music formed a catchy, ironic contrast to their usually downbeat lyrics (example: the infinitely danceable, hummable ditty called "What Have I Done to Deserve This?")

Their early song "Rent" is about a poor lover kept by a rich one (genders seem unimportant to Pet Shop Boys -- I've listened to the song for years and couldn't begin to guess at which partner is supposed to be which gender). The song is endlessly ambiguous, aggressively ambiguous, and ambiguous in layers that keep folding over one another. While a background chorus coos enticingly, "It's so easy," the singer narrates all the expensive goodies the relationship provides -- dinner off Broadway, caviar, shopping, a bill-free existence -- yet the refrain goes,

Look at my hopes, look at my dreams,
The currency we've spent
I love you
You pay my rent.

Again, "currency" is the only word that can carry the meanings of both cash and more intangible things of value. Cowrie shells are a form of currency because they are valued, but they are not the coinage and paper that "cash" suggests. Because it carries both meanings, it refers both to the expensive toys and to the hopes and dreams. In the penumbra of related words, it even has a triple meaning -- current as in time. The singer's youth is yet another item that has been spent. A great depth word. "Money" there would have lost more than half the meanings in the line, even though it's the most obvious surface synonym.

My last favorite example of depth in writing, of course, has to come from Shakespeare. Sonnet 87 is not an easy sonnet for novices to read. It uses the language of finance to talk about love, and not only finance but 17th-Century Elizabethan finance. Many terms are now hard for casual readers to understand. But just let the general sense of the sonnet's meaning wash over you. Only clarification/reminder: "dear" is British for "expensive," as it still is today.

Farewell! thou are too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again in swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gav'st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

First, oh!, how much of a heart-breaker is that final couplet? It gets me every time; sometimes it brings tears to my eyes. Rue, chagrin, and ever so slight bitterness, all subsumed under such lost, utter hopelessness.

But the depth word for me is "wanting." Only "wanting" can mean both "lacking," its surface meaning here, and "desiring," the depth meaning. "The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting": I lack the qualities that would allow me to deserve the gift of your love. But also: my desire, my passion, drove this relationship, but now you've realized that you deserve better and the relationship is over. My wanting couldn't overcome my wanting.

The usual gloss on this sonnet is that it concludes a cycle in which the poet loves a Fair Youth who is stolen from him by the Dark Lady. Of all the words at his disposal and all of his facility -- and felicity -- with words, only one word here works both themes of desire and loss, and Shakespeare unerringly nails it. It's exhilarating to come across such a fine use of language, no matter the author or the context.

As usual, I'm running on long with my usual logorrhea. I meant to talk about how the Web is changing language, but I'll save that until next time. Namaste!