Friday, February 27, 2009

Watch and Ward. Henry James.

(Novel, 1871). New York: The Library of America, 1983.

Why read it? Why read Henry James? For many reasons. He expresses the intricacies of relationships, how people think and feel in relation to others. His character studies reveal the complexity of personality. He throws off ideas and memorable words almost as afterthoughts. One will find many a mot juste in his novels. And he deals mainly with the relationships of unsubtle, honest and straightforward Americans against the subtle, devious, cultured Europeans. However, Watch and Ward deals only with America and is an early novel.

The idea behind the novel is bizarre. Roger Lawrence adopts a little girl and brings her up to be his perfect wife. Only he doesn’t tell her that that has been his reason until she is fully grown and then she rebels against his intentions. Two young men who have courted her turn out to be untrustworthy (I was going to say, “complete jerks”) and she finally realizes that Roger is the only man she know who has a heart and, I assume, she marries him.

Some sample ideas:

Of Roger Lawrence: “In trifling matters, such as the choice of a shoemaker or a dentist, his word carried weight, but no one dreamed of asking his opinion in politics or literature.” p. 4. ………. “It was quite out of his nature to do a thing without distinctly knowing why.” p. 6. ………. “It was a specialty of Hubert’s that in proportion as other people grew hot, he grew cool” p. 66.

“There are men born to imagine things, others born to do them.” p. 106. ………. “Plainness in a child was almost always prettiness in a woman.” p. 22. ………. “She had reached that charming girlish moment when the broad freedom of childhood begins to be tempered by the sense of sex.” p. 26. ………. “It’s interesting to hear about people one looks like.” p. 79.

Nora to Roger: “You must keep your journals carefully, and one of these days I shall have them bound in morocco and gilt, and ranged in a row in my own bookcase.” Roger: “That’s but a polite way of burning them up…. They will be as little read as if they were in the fire. I don’t know how it is. They seemed to be very amusing when I wrote them: they’re as stale as an old newspaper now.” p. 34. ………. “…but he felt as if to settle down to an unread author were very like the starting on a journey.” p. 37. ………. “To go into most of the churches [in Rome] is like reading some better novel than I find most novels.” p. 88.

“I wish Roger had left you alone and not smothered you beneath this monstrous burden of gratitude.” p. 110.

In this one, I think the plot is better than the characters. RayS.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Travels with Charley. Steinbeck.

Travels with Charley (In Search of America). John Steinbeck. New York: The Viking Press. 1962.

Why read it? I found out when I read the novel East of Eden, that John Steinbeck likes to philosophize and he does it well. He does it by the sentence. Brief. Concise. To the point. Travels with Charley is a travelogue, the perfect vehicle for Steinbeck who can cross America and comment on what he finds: the people, the speech, the unforgettable characters and scenes. I thought of some other “travelogues” as I was reading it: Lolita (a novel by Nabokov) and On the Road (Kerouac). Both of those books conveyed impressions of Americans and American culture at a particular time.

For three-fourths of the book, I enjoyed the narrative of Steinbeck’s experience, his impressions and reflections. But it ends with the South—and then the book turns nasty. It’s the South I discovered when I made a trip across the country at the same time as Steinbeck, in 1960, the South that hates blacks with a vehemence and rage that stunned me and stunned Steinbeck, too. His reports of the use of the N-word, like Mark Twain’s In Huckleberry Finn, mean that I would hesitate to read the book as a teacher with middle-schoolers who would be the natural readers for it. It would be censored because that word encapsulates the feelings of some people of the South.

Steinbeck’s narrative is as much about the nature of travel as it is about what he rediscovered about America, his impressions of driving the super highways, Maine, Montana, the Mohave Desert, the people he met. But he realized when his trip was over, the very place and time. He was finished traveling. I think his experience with travel is symbolic of careers and even living. We know when we are finished.

Steinbeck offers a few ideas that are thought-provoking. Otherwise, the narrative isn’t deep. But it is entertaining—until he reaches the South. He says he is not drawing conclusions about the nature of the people in the South. But it is hard not to. A very disturbing finish to an otherwise idyllic trip across America.

Some sample ideas:

“In 1960, when he was almost 60 years old, John Steinbeck set out to rediscover his native land. Accompanied only by a French poodle named Charley, he traveled the length and breadth of the United States.” Back cover. ………. “You know when show people come into what they call the sticks, they have a contempt for the yokels. It took me a little time, but when I learned that there aren’t any yokels, I began to get on fine. I learned respect for my audience. They feel that and they work with me, and not against me. Once you respect them, they can understand anything you can tell them.” p. 149. ………. “New York is no more America than Paris is France and London is England.” p. 136.

“American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash—all of them—surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.” p. 26. ………. “And another thing I had forgotten was how incredibly huge America is.” p. 55. ………. “This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.” [What I see outside of me is colored, interpreted by what is inside of me. RayS. ] p. 207.
“I wonder why we think the thoughts and emotions of animals are simple.” p. 165. ………. “The power of an attitude is amazing.” p. 229. ………. “Sometimes the view of change is distorted by a change in oneself.” p. 194.

“The dairy man had a Ph.D. in mathematics…. He liked what he was doing and he didn’t want to be somewhere else—one of the very few contented people I met in my whole journey.” p. 26. ………. “Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement. Then there are others…who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it.” p. 46. ………. “The best way to begin a conversation is to be lost.” p. 9.

I think I enjoyed this book because I had myself driven across country. I didn’t take the opportunity that Steinbeck did to put down my reflections on what I saw, heard and thought. I wish I had. RayS.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Soldier's Heart. Elizabeth D. Samet.

Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. Elizabeth D. Samet. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2007.

Why read it? The title of the book, Soldier’s Heart, refers to the symptoms of heart disease that appear in soldiers with post-traumatic disorders. They do not have physical heart disease. They do have a disease of the feeling, human heart.

The author, a female English teacher at West Point, who obviously has a close relationship with the institution and its students, reveals much of what it is like to attend West Point—the rituals, the language, the culture of the military. Many of these details make fascinating reading.

The subject she teaches, English, is out of keeping with the rest of the military training that makes up the cadets’ day. But the cadets’ interaction with the literature and the films to which she exposes them, is thoughtful, relating their lives and careers to the ideas of what they read and view. And it is a wide and varied range of literature and film that she uses.

So much of what she writes about is her interpretation of the institution and its training. The reader is taken inside its walls to view the scene from the point of view of the outsider who has willingly agreed to become an insider. She philosophizes about the psychology of the cadet, the duality of obedience and critical thought. She tries to reconcile the contradictions of the military mind. she deals with the many issues of what happens when free Americans volunteer to join the military.

The author has her own agenda that has nothing to do with the theme of the book, the effects of literature on West Point cadets and graduates. For example, she spends considerable time on the treatment of detainees during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While I agree with the position of the soldier she quotes on equal treatment of detainees with the treatment of prisoners in the States, it really has nothing to do with the effects of literature on the West Point cadet and graduate.

One of the interesting characteristics of her writing and teaching is the ways she can interrelate literary works from different eras and places. Truly impressive. She is an eclectic reader who can join the most disparate works by applying them to her themes and did so with her cadets.

In the last chapter, she reflects on how young the cadets are and the contrast with what waits for them after they graduate. But she has helped them to think about life and war through reading literature.

Some sample quotes:

Judge Louis Brandeis: “Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties…. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.” p. 208. ………. “When I wander through the military cemetery…I think of the unique and unfinished individuals concealed beneath.” p. 27. ………. “They [the cadets] seemed to understand that courage isn’t simply a matter of leading charges: sometimes it consists in speaking up, sometimes in stoic silence, sometimes in forging ahead, sometimes in circumspection, and sometimes in nothing less than preserving our own humanity.” p. 214.

Montaigne: “…stubbornness and rancor are vulgar qualities, visible in common souls whereas to think again, to change one’s mind and to give up a bad case in the heat of argument are rare qualities showing strength and wisdom.” p. 248. ………. “…but they have the courage to meet brutality with imagination as well as ammunition, with questions as well as convictions, with books or without.” p. 248. ………. “For the moment, I found in Grant’s Personal Memoirs a book that could keep one company—a book written by an adult, terminally ill with throat cancer, who confronted without flinching life’s one grim certainty, its end.” p. 35.

Sylvanus Thayer, often called the father of the Military Academy, served as superintendent from 1817 to 1883. Thayer’s innovations included aspects of what educators today call Active Learning: small classes in which the professors did no lecturing; daily cadet participation in activities such as solving problems, answering questions, or reciting material they had prepared beforehand.” p. 64. ………. “Army officers are magnificent trainers and motivators: they make you believe in yourself and sometimes take you beyond your capacity.” p. 197. ………. Montaigne: “Only fools…have made up their minds and are certain.” p. 248.

“My ongoing conversations with students, some of which began when men and women who are now lieutenants and captains were plebes, reveal the ways in which literature helps them to understand their own increasingly complicated lives.” p. 13.

A bright human being, an excellent teacher and a deep understanding of how life and literature can help each other. RayS.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Room With A View. E.M. Forster.

New York: Vintage Books. 1908.

Why read it? (Novel). The author’s three targets are tourism (in Italy), upper crust Victorian society, and the social equality of women and men. You could sub-title this novel, “A Tale of Two Kisses,” which is what it takes lower class George Emerson to steal upper class Lucy from upper class Cecil Vyse. The novel has a surprise ending. Miss Bartlett, the epitome of an old maid, seems to be fighting to keep George Emerson from courting Lucy. In fact, Miss Bartlett is the person who manipulates situations to enable George and Lucy to get together—so Lucy will not be like Miss Bartlett, an old maid.

Some ideas from the book:

“The Italians are a most unpleasant people. They pry everywhere, they see everything, and they know what we want before we know it ourselves…. They read our thoughts, they foretell our desires. From the cab-driver down….” p. 39.

“Italians are born knowing the way.” p. 78.

“A ‘pity’ in art of course signified the nude.” p. 47.

“We residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little—handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get ‘done’ or ‘through’ and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl.”p. 70

“…the electric tram squealing up the new road with its loads of hot, dusty, unintelligent tourists who are going to ‘do’ Fiesole in an hour in order that they may say they have been there….” p. 72.

8 “It is delightful to advise a new-comer….” p. 8.

8 “And, indeed, a perfect torrent of information burst on them. People told them what to see, when to see it, how to stop the electric trams, how to get rid of the beggars, how much to give for a vellum blotter, how much the place would grow upon them.” p. 8.

“It’s very naughty of me, but I would like to set an examination paper at Dover, and turn back every tourist who couldn’t pass it.” p. 22.

“Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her. Instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.” p. 24.

Victorian Society and Ideals:
“Of course, he despised the world as a whole; every thoughtful man should; it is almost a test of refinement.” p. 107.

“No, Lucy, he stands for all that is bad in country life. In London he would keep his place. He would belong to a brainless club, and his wife would give brainless dinner parties. But down here [in the country] he acts the little god with his gentility, and his patronage…and everyone—even your mother—is taken in.” p. 120.

“But Mr. Eager proceeded to tell Miss Honeychurch that on the right lived Mr. Someone Something…and that the Somebody Else’s were farther down the hill.” P. 71.

Cecil: “I have no profession. It is another example of my decadence. My attitude—quite an indefensible one—is that so long as I am no trouble to anyone, I have a right to do as I like. I know I ought to be getting money out of people, or devoting myself to things I don’t care a straw about….” p. 104.

George: “You cannot live with [Cecil] Vyse. He’s only for an acquaintance. He is for society and cultivated talk. He should know no one intimately, least of all a woman.” p. 193.

George: “He [Vyse] is the sort who are all right so long as they keep to things—books, pictures—but kill when they come to people.” p. 194.

“…the novel that he was reading was so bad that he was obliged to read it aloud to others. He would stroll round the precincts of the [tennis] court and call out: ‘I say, listen to this, Lucy. Three split infinitives.’ ” p. 182.

“You will never repent of a little civility to your inferiors. That is the true democracy.” p. 20.

Mrs. Honeychurch: “Well, I like him…. I know his mother; he’s good, he’s clever, he’s rich, he’s well connected—Oh, you needn’t kick the piano! He’s well connected—I’ll say it again if you like: he’s well connected…. And he has beautiful manners.” p. 97.

“Life, so far as she troubled to conceive it, was a circle of rich, pleasant people, with identical interests and identical foes. In this circle, one thought, married and died.” p. 127.

“But there is a right sort and a wrong sort, and it’s affectation to pretend there isn’t.” p. 131.

“Mrs. Vyse managed to scrape together a dinner party consisting entirely of the grandchildren of famous people. The food was poor, but the talk had a witty weariness that impressed the girl. One was tired of everything it seemed. One launched into enthusiasms only to collapse gracefully, and pick oneself up amid sympathetic laughter.” p. 140.

“Yes, but she is purging off the Honeychurch taint…. She is not always quoting servants, or asking one how the pudding is made.” p. 141.

Equality of Women:
“…for you may understand beautiful things, but you don’t know how to use them, and you wrap yourself up in art and books and music, and would try to wrap up me.” p. 201.

“For the only relationship which Cecil conceived was feudal: that of protector and protected.” p. 179.

“But Lucy had developed since spring. That is to say, she was now better able to stifle the emotions of which the conventions and the world disapprove.” p. 188.

“It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves.” p. 46.

“We are to raise ladies to our level?” Mr. Emerson: “The Garden of Eden…which you place in the past, is really yet to come.” p. 146.

“…men were not gods after all, but as human and clumsy as girls…. To one of her upbringing…the weakness of men was a truth unfamiliar, but she had surmised it….” p. 178.

George: “Cecil all over again. He daren’t let a woman decide. He’s the type who’s kept Europe back for a thousand years. Every moment of his life he’s forming you, telling you what’s charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly and you, you of all women, listen to his voice instead of your own.” p. 194.

George to Lucy: “I’m the same kind of brute at bottom. This desire to govern a woman—it lies very deep, and men and women must fight it together….” p. 195.

“He looked at her, instead of through her….” p. 200.

“From a Leonardo she had become a living woman, with mysteries and forces of her own, with qualities that even eluded art.” p. 201.

“When we were only acquaintances, you let me be myself, but now you’re always protecting me. … I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult. Can’t I be trusted to face the truth but I must get it second-hand through you?” p. 201.

“I won’t be stifled, not by the most glorious music, for people are more glorious….” p. 201.

Cecil: “I have never known you till this evening. I have just used you as a peg for my silly notions of what a woman should be.” p. 202.

“…that all life is perhaps a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness.” p. 32.

“The sadness of the incomplete—the sadness that is often life….” p. 140.

“…it is impossible to rehearse life.” o, 154.

“ ‘Life,’ wrote a friend of mine, ‘is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.’ p. 236. ”

Lucy struggles to achieve the ability to make her own decisions. She does so against the restraints and requirements of her upper middle class status. The novel reminds me of A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett, in which the heroine decides, in spite of society’s determination that she marry, to become a doctor. She had to choose between a profession and marriage because women in American society at that time, could not be both. Part of the literature that portrays the steady development of women to achieve equality with men. RayS.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Roderick Hudson. Henry James.

New York: The Library of America. 1876. (1983).

Why read it? Why read any Henry James novel or story? The insightful ideas about human relationships. The wit, the cleverness, the surprise at the language. Almost like Emerson, James writes in the sentence. It’s like an evening with Oscar Wilde. The characters take their shape. They don’t move very often. They talk. But clever talk it is.

Roderick Hudson is an egoist who manipulates people. We all know the type. It’s probably one part of all our personalities. He makes no attempt to hide his self-absorption. He makes no attempt to hide his making use of other people. In telling the story, James gives the reader some not-too-sophisticated insights into the world of sculpting. And of Rome and of Florence and of Switzerland—and Northampton, Massachusetts, by contrast with the former.

Basic plot: Wealthy, idle, Rowland Mallet befriends a young, egotistical, brilliant sculptor in Northampton, Massachusetts, America, Roderick Hudson. Takes him to Rome to study antique statuary, where he creates several minor works that are well received by experts in the arts. He falls in love with a beautiful young European woman who teases him, then is attracted to him, but marries a prince.

Some sample quotes:

Mr. Striker: “An antique, as I understand it…is an image of a pagan deity, with considerable dirt sticking to it, and no arms, no nose, and no clothes.” p. 205. ………. “What does it mean?” “Anything you please!” p. 259. ………. “He had been an ass, but it was not irreparable.” p. 257. ………. “Don’t you know how to do anything? Have you no profession? What do you do all day?” Rowland: “Nothing worth relating. That’s why I am going to Europe. There, at least if I do nothing, I shall see a great deal; and if I’m not a producer, I shall at any rate be an observer.” p. 216. ………. “Rowland received an impression that, for reasons of her own, she was playing a part. What was the part and what were her reasons?” p. 266. ………. “I think she’s an actress, but she believes in her part while she is playing it.” p. 293.

“There’s nothing I cannot imagine! That’s my trouble.” p. 351. ………. "There’s something very fine about him; he’s not afraid of anything. He is not afraid of failure; he is not afraid of ruin or death.” p. 433. ………. “…quite losing sight of his mother’s pain and bewilderment in the passionate joy of publishing his wrongs…. Since he was in pain, he must scatter his pain abroad.” p. 447. ………. “But I don’t care for her. I don’t care for anything. And I don’t find myself inspired to make an exception in her favor. The only difference is that I don’t care now, whether I care for her or not.” p. 478. ………. “But Mrs. Light told me, in Florence, that she had given her child the education of a princess. In other words, I suppose, she speaks three or four languages, and has read several hundred French novels.” p. p. 273.

“…if there is anything in faces, she ought to have the soul of an angel.” p. 273. ………. “And yet the Catholic Church was once the proudest institution in the world, and had quite its own way with men’s souls. When such a mighty structure as that turns out to have a flaw, what faith is one to put in one’s poor little views and philosophies? What is right and what is wrong? What is one really to care for? What is the proper rule of life? I am tired of trying to discover and I suspect it’s not worth the trouble.” p. 348. ………. “As yet, he reflected, he had seen nothing but the sunshine of genius; he had forgotten that it had its storms.” p. 249.

“The thing that yesterday was his friend lay before him….” p. 509.

I have read about one-quarter to one-half of Henry James’s novels and stories. And I am still reading. The interplay of mind and character and language gives me helpful insights into the human condition and that interplay is thought provoking. His novels and stories are loaded with ideas. RayS.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Mother Tongue: Bill Bryson

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. Bill Bryson. New York: William Morrow and Company. 1990.

Why read it? With a sense of humor, Bill Bryson explores the history and characteristics of the English language. He reveals a variety of facts and interesting stories about our language. Critics suggest that some of his facts and stories are without foundation, but he frequently gives the origin of those facts and stories by citing bibliographic information. Sometimes his language is a bit technical.

On one point he is emphatic: “But the people of the Near East, unlike those of the Far East, made an important leap in thought of almost incalculable benefit to us. They began to use their pictographs to represent sounds rather than things” (p. 117). And the Chinese and Japanese still use pictographs as part of their very complicated languages. Thank those people from the Near East for giving English many centuries later the alphabet.

He emphasizes the issues in English in plain English, for example, the problems with pronunciation and spelling, the problem of English idioms and foreign speakers, the many sources of American words, the significant differences in vocabulary between England and America, the stories behind names of all kinds in America, the origin of swear words and the great fun of word play from anagrams to crossword puzzles.

I think everyone in America should take a course in the history of the English language. And for those who can’t, this book, Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue, will do just as well. There will be times when you will not be able to put it down.

Some sample quotes:

“We have some forty sounds in English, but more than 200 ways of spelling them. We can render the sound sh in up to fourteen ways (shoe, sugar, passion, ambitious, ocean, champagne, etc.)….” p. 120. ………. “In Britain the Royal Mail delivers the post; in America, the postal service delivers the mail.” p. 177. ………. “Unlike American crosswords, which are generally straight forward affairs, requiring you merely to fit a word to a definition, the British variety are infinitely more fiendish, demanding mastery of the whole armory of verbal possibilities—puns, anagrams, palindromes, lipograms (text composed without a certain letter), or whatever else springs to the deviser’s devious mind.” Example: What is a famous city in Czechoslovakia? The answer? “Oslo” in Norway. Czechoslovakia. p. 225. ………. “By virtue of their brevity, dictionary definitions often fail to convey the nuances of English…. On the strength of dictionary definitions alone, a foreign visitor to your home could be excused for telling you that you have an abnormal child, that your wife’s cooking is exceedingly odorous, and that your speech at a recent sales conference was laughable, and intend nothing but the warmest praise.” p. 150.

“To explain the word ‘what’ to a foreigner—takes five pages in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).” ………. English probably is the richest vocabulary, the most diverse shading of meaning as any language. p. 68. ………. “…we have a strange—and to foreigners it must seem maddening—tendency to load a single word with a whole galaxy of meanings.” “Fine” has 14 definitions as an adjective, 6 as a noun, 2 as an adverb. “Set” has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb, 10 as a participial adjective. The OED needs 60,000 words to discuss them all.” p. 69. ………. When the same word has contradictory meaning, it is a contronym. Sanction means permission and sanction means forbidding. Cleave means both to cut in half or stick together. p. 70. ………. English has more than 100 common prefixes and suffixes; can re-form words with facility not found in other languages. French mutin, “rebellion,” becomes in English, mutiny, mutinous, mutinously, mutineer. p. 80.

We tend to slur those names most familiar to us, particularly place names. Australia becomes “Stralia”; Toronto is “Tronna”; [Philadelphia is “Fluffia”]; Louisville is “Loovul”; Iowa is “Iwa.” p. 88. ………. “Rhymes too tell us much. We know from Shakespeare’s rhymes that knees, grease, grass, and grace all rhymed…and that clean rhymed with lane.” p. 94. ………. “Simeon Potter believes that English spelling possessed three distinguishing features that offset its other shortcomings: the consonants are fairly regular in their pronunciation, the language is blessedly free of the diacritical marks that complicate other languages—the umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes and so on—and above all, English preserves the spelling of borrowed words, so that people of many nations are immediately aware of the meanings of thousands of words which would be unrecognizable if written phonetically.” p. 121.

And that is just a sampling of the interesting information you will find in The Mother Tongue. RayS.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage

William and Mary Morris. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. 1975.

Why read it? Entertaining comments on the English language and English usage. The distinctions are sometimes “nice” in the sense of splitting hairs. For example, NEVER say “an historic….” If you hear the sound of the “h” as a consonant, you use “a.” If you can’t hear the sound of the consonant, use “an,”” as in “an hour.”

The authors set up a usage panel consisting of some of the country’s best-known writers. There were disagreements on almost every item of usage. The best line, however, was Lionel Trilling’s: “I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language.”

Will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about language.

Some sample quotes:

“…treats of virtually every aspect of today’s language—idioms, slang, vogue words and regionalisms as well as all the vast range of words used in formal speech and writing.” p. ix. ………. “Only one answer to a question was unanimous. All others had yea-sayers and nay-sayers. Inasmuch as all the panelists have amply demonstrated their ability to use the language effectively, this lack of unanimity is proof that language is not a static thing to be fixed by rules.” p. x. ……….Stewart Beach: “I hope the panel will overwhelmingly flout the incorrect and flaunt the correct.” p. xi. ………. Abe Burrows: “Good grammar has to be good sound.” p. xii. .......... John Ciardi: “Are there any enduring standards of English usage? I think there are only preferences, ‘passionate preferences….’ ” p. xii.

John Ciardi: “In the long run the usage of those who do not think about the language will prevail.” p. xii. ………. Walter Cronkite: “Language has many functions from simple communication to the emotional stimulation of great literature….” p. xii. ……….. Leon Edel: “The media are changing our language…. If TV speech could be improved our young would speak more accurately.” p. xiii. ………. Alex Faulkner: “…catch the careless, the commercial, the bureaucratic and the technological making a mess of the language….” p. xiii. ………. Elizabeth Janeway: “We must strive for precision on pain of losing our ability to talk together at all.” p. xiv. ……….

Lester Kinsolving: “Someone once defined a classic as a book which would never be read unless assigned in class.” p. xiv. ………. Eugene McCarthy: “The integrity of language is always threatened most seriously by those who have difficulty explaining themselves or who don’t want to explain. The English language, as used in the United States, has survived the assaults of the Pentagon and of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, as they attempted to justify and explain the Vietnam War.” p. xv.

David Poling: “There are so many forces in opposition to clear and precise language.” p. xvi. ……… Jean Stafford: “THE WORD ‘HOPEFULLY’ MUST NOT BE MISUSED ON THESE PREMISES. VIOLATORS WILL BE HUMILIATED.” p. xviii. ………. Judith Viorst: “Some things simply make me wince…. I love splitting infinitives, but ‘performancewise’ gives me pains in my stomach.” p. xix.

Much ado about language usage, but a lot of fun to read if you enjoy reading about language. RayS.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Closing Circle. Barry Commoner.

The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology. Barry Commoner. New York: Bantam Books. 1971.

Why read it? Can the human race survive environmental pollution?

The problem of modern pollution begins with technology. Technology increases productivity and profit, which increases pollution.

Synthetic products replace natural products. Synthetic products are not biodegradable. They pollute the air through burning or add to the massive piles of garbage. The production of power pollutes the air through chemicals and then water by way of rain and snow. Nuclear power pollutes by spreading radiation. The automobile’s engine is improved and increases pollution in the air, choking cities with fumes.

The complex problems of the environment require interconnected, complex solutions, but science and technology solve problems by breaking complex systems down into their individual parts. Nature is interconnected. Its problems cannot be resolved piecemeal. The pollution problems in nature are complex and interconnected and affect the whole of nature. The solutions will have to be complex and interconnected. We need to act. But how?

Return sewage and garbage to the soil. Replace synthetic materials with natural ones. Expand, don’t shrink land cultivation. Shrinking land cultivation increases the need for fertilizer to boost production. Excess of fertilizer pollutes land and water. Use biologically based pesticides. Discourage power consumption. Control and reclaim wastes from power production. Recycle, recycle and recycle metal, glass, and paper products. Plan land use to preserve the ecology.

The author offers several practical solutions, but no basic, underlying complex solution to the complex problems of environmental pollution.

Some sample quotes:

“…the displacement of railroad freight haulage by trucks…. This means that, for the same freight haulage, trucks burn six times as much fuel as railroads—and emit about six times as much environmental pollution.” p. 169. ………. “The search for a simple cause-and-effect relationship between a given air pollutant and a specific disease breaks down in a hopeless morass of complex interactions.” p. 74. ………. “It begs the insistent question: by whose hand was this deed done? When explanations are demanded, the response is often a plea of innocence or ignorance, evasion or a recourse to the influence of uncontrollable forces.” p. 103. ………. “Natural organic compounds have enzymes that will break them down. Man-made organic systems have no enzymes that will break them down. And the material tends to accumulate.” p. 40.

“In sum, we can trace the origin of the environmental crisis through the following sequence. Environmental degradation largely results from the introduction of new industrial and agricultural production technologies. These technologies are ecologically faulty because they are designed to solve singular, separate problems and fail to take into account the inevitable ‘side effects’ that arise because in nature, no part is isolated from the whole ecological fabric.” p. 191. ………. “A process that insists on dealing only with the separated parts is bound to fail.” p. 185.

“…the world is being carried to the brink of ecological disaster not by a singular fault, which some clever scheme can correct, but by the phalanx of powerful economic, political and social forces….” p. 299. ………. “In general, modern industrial technology has encased economic goods of no significantly increased human value in increasingly larger amounts of environmentally harmful wrappings Result: the mounting heaps of rubbish that symbolize the advent of the technological age.” p. 172. ……….

“What is the connection between pollution and profit in a private enterprise economic system such as the United States?” p. 256. ………. “…evidence that a high rate of profit is associated with practices that are particularly stressful toward the environment….” p.262. ………. Vance Hartke, Senator from Indiana: “A runaway technology, whose only law is profit, has for years poisoned our air, ravaged our soil, stripped our forests bare, and corrupted our water resources.” p. 5.

“The issue of survival can be put in the form of a fairly rigorous question: are present ecological stresses so strong that—if not relieved—they will sufficiently degrade the ecosystem to make the earth uninhabitable by man?” p. 215.

I learned what I guess I already knew: The change in the world’s ecology came after WWII when we entered the world of technology. I also learned that science analyzes and nature synthesizes and that solutions to the problems of pollution might therefore not be resolvable. Ouch! Rays.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Buddenbrooks. Thomas Mann.

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family. Thomas Mann. New York, London: Everyman’s Library Alfred A. Knopf. 1901 (1994).

Why read it? Novel. The study of how a middle-class, prosperous family of businessmen in Germany declines in prosperity: the origin, causes and progression of decadence in the family, a transformation of the male heirs from the hard-headed spirit of business and reality to the spirit of escape from the world into beauty through art. The novel begins with the sumptuous dinner at the Buddenbrooks’ elegant and substantial house that illustrates the prosperousness of the family and ends with the death by typhoid of the last male heir, the sickly, fifteen-year-old Hanno whose sole love was music…. “To produce an artist is the end of a bourgeois business family….”

Thomas Buddenbrook traces the history of everyman, from youthful energy, to hard-working community servant, to enervated, dejected, dispirited, conscious-of failure-in-life, old age. The code of the Buddenbrooks is to do one’s duty to the family and to sacrifice one’s individual happiness to the prosperity of the family. The failure of the disciplined life and adoption of the code of art and beauty leads to the end of the Buddenbrook business and family.”

Some sample quotes:

“…the spectacle of decadence and art emerging from bourgeois banality….” p. xvi. ………. Nietzsche: “Every good book that is written against life is still an enticement to life.” p. xxii. ………. “Yes, this was certainly the right kind of match; but Herr Grunlich, of all people. She pictured him and his tawny whiskers, his pink smiling face, that wart beside his nose, his mincing steps; she thought she could feel his wool suit, hear his bland voice.” p. 103. ………. “And if she wants to wait until someone comes along who is both handsome and a good match—well, God help us all!” p. 109. ……….”Isn’t it remarkable…how you can’t get bored at the beach? Try lying on your back for three or four hours anywhere else—not doing anything, not thinking about anything.” p. 138. ……….

“My Christian convictions, dear daughter, tell me it is our duty to have regard for the feelings of others, for we do not know whether one day you may not be answerable before the highest judge because the man you have stubbornly and coldly scorned has been guilty of the sin of taking his own life.” p. 143. ………. “We are not born, my dear daughter, to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain; and it is inconceivable that we would be what we are without those who have preceded us and shown us the path that they themselves have scrupulously trod, looking neither to the left, nor to the right but, rather, following a venerable and trustworthy tradition.” p. 144. ………. “Tony had the lovely knack of being able to adapt readily to any situation in life simply by tackling its new possibilities.” p. 227.

“God strike me, but sometimes I doubt there is any justice, any goodness, I doubt it all. Life, you see, crushes things deep inside us. It shatters our faith.” p. 730.

An interesting theory about the relationship between business and art. What are its implications? RayS.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov.

New York: Berkeley Medallion Books. 1955.

10-second review: Ah Ha! A dirty book, eh? I have to admit the situation is dirty, middle-aged Humbert trying to seduce pre-teen Lolita. But the book isn’t. As you read, you will see that Nabokov is having fun with the English language and American culture.

Some Sample Quotes:

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever, but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.” p, 62, ………. “A combination of naiveté and deception, of charm and vulgarity, of blue sulks and rosy mirth, Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating brat.” p. 135. ………. “…the whole gamut of American roadside restaurants…impaled guest checks, life savers, sunglasses, adman visions of celestial sundaes, one-half of a chocolate cake under glass, and several horribly experienced flies zigzagging over the sticky sugar pour on the ignoble counter…. p. 142. ………. “…the institution might turn out to be one of those where girls are taught…not to spell very well, but to smell very well.” p. 161. ……….. “We had been everywhere; we had really seen nothing.” p. 160. ………. “That is, with due respect to Shakespeare and others, we want our girls to communicate freely with the live world around them rather than plunge into musty old books.” p. 162. ……….

Nabokov: “In pornographic novels, style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.” p. 285. ………. Nabokov: “Their refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned…. Two others are: a Negro-white marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.” p. 285. ………. Nabokov on the possible symbolism of Lolita: “…old Europe debauching young America…young America debauching old Europe.” p. 285. .......... Nabokov: “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere connected with other states of being….” p. 286. .......... “After Olympia Press in Paris published the book, an American critic suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel…. …substitution of ‘English language’ for ‘romantic novel’ would make this elegant formula more correct.” p. 288.

It took me a while, but I soon began to notice the way in which Nabokov played with the English language. It’s almost like playing word games. And to all you censors out there, lighten up. RayS.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Vol. One.

James Boswell. 1791. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.. Inc. 1949.

10-second review: Boswell gathered every scrap of Johnson’s conversation in order to re-create the great lexicographer’s life in London’s pubs, homes and society. Never has there been a more thorough biography.

Sample Quotes: Boswell: “And he will be seen as he really was; for I profess to write, not his panegyric, which must be all praise, but his life; which great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be entirely perfect.” p. 8. .......... “What I consider as the peculiar value of the following work is the quantity it contains of Johnson’s conversation; which is universally acknowledged to have been eminently instructive and entertaining.” p. 8. .......... “In following so very eminent a man from the cradle to his grave, every minute particular, which can throw light on the progress of his mind, is interesting.” p. 14. ........... Johnson on Mr. Hunter, the headmaster: “He used…to beat us unmercifully, and he did not distinguish between ignorance and negligence, for he would beat a boy equally for not knowing a thing, as for neglecting to know it.” p. 18.

“The ‘morbid melancholy,’ which was lurking in his constitution…an horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom and despair which made existence misery.” p. 30. .......... “He had a peculiar facility in seizing at once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labor of perusing it from beginning to end.” p. 34. .......... Johnson: “Sure, of all blockheads, scholars are the worst.” p. 35. .......... Johnson: “…as it has been said, that Tories are Whigs when out of place, and Whigs Tories when in place.” p. 71. .......... “The great business of his life (he said) was to escape from himself…which nothing cured but company.” p. 82.

“Sir Joshua Reynolds once asked him by what means he had attained his extraordinary accuracy and flow of language…had early laid it down as a fixed rule to do his best on every occasion and in every company to impart whatever he knew in the most forcible language he could put it in; and that by constant practice, and never suffering any careless expressions to escape him, or attempting to deliver his thoughts without arranging them in the clearest manner, it became habitual to him.” p. 119.

As detailed as it is, Boswell’s biography of Johnson is fascinating to read. RayS.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Deephaven. Sarah Orne Jewett.

1877. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1994.

10-second review: Novel. Two young women spend an idyllic summer vacation on the coast of Maine. Jewett is one of America’s finest writers.

Sample Quotes: “It seemed as if all the clocks in Deephaven, and all the people with them, had stopped years ago, and the people had been doing over and over what they had been busy about during the last week of their unambitious progress.” p. 42. ..........“It was curious to notice in this quaint little fishing-village by the sea, how clearly the gradations of society were defined.” p. 39. .......... “When we came down from the lighthouse and it grew late, we would beg for an hour or two longer on the water, and row away in the twilight far out from land, where , with our faces turned from the light, it seemed as if we were alone, and the sea shoreless, and as the darkness closed round us softly, we watched the stars come out, and were always glad to see Kate’s star and my star, which we had chosen when we were children.” p. 23. .......... “I must tell you a little about the Deephaven burying ground, for its interest was inexhaustible, and I do not know how much time we may have spent in reading the long epitaphs on the grave stones and trying to puzzle out the inscriptions, which were often so old and worn that we could only trace a letter here and there.” p. 36.

“I think today of that fireless, empty, forsaken house, where the winter sun shines in and creeps slowly along the floor, the bitter cold is in and around the house, and the snow has sifted in at every crack; outside it is untrodden by any living creature’s footstep; the wind blows and rushes and shakes the loose window-sashes in their frames, while the padlock knocks—knocks against the door.” p. 124. .......... “Then she went on slowly to end of the chapter, and with her hands clasped together on the Bible she fell into a reverie, and the tears came into our eyes as we watched her look of perfect content: through all her clouded years the promises of God had been her only certainty.” p. 132.

“The thought of Deephaven will always bring to us our long quiet summer days, and reading aloud on the rocks by the sea, the fresh salt air, and the glory of the sunsets, the wail of the Sunday psalm-singing at church, the yellow lichens that grew over the trees, the houses, and the stone walls; our boating and wanderings ashore; our importance as members of society, and how kind every one was to us both.” p. 140. .......... “I wonder if some day Kate Lancaster and I will go down to Deephaven for the sake of old times, and read the epitaphs in the burying ground, look out to sea, and talk quietly about the girls who were so happy there one summer long before.” p. 141.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Essays and Lectures: Ralph Waldo Emerson

1803-1882. New York: Literary Classics of the United States. 1983.

10-second review: Emerson’s message was in the single sentence, sometimes cryptic and always thought-provoking.

Sample Quotes: “Whatever limits us we call fate.” p. 952............ “But every jet of chaos which threatens to exterminate us is convertible by intellect into wholesome force.” p. 958........... “A man must thank his defects and stand in some terror of his talents.” p. 960........... “Person makes event, and event person.” p. 962........... “Concentration is the secret of strength in politics, in war, in trade, in short, in all management of human affairs.” p. 982........... “A man who has that presence of mind which can bring to him on the instant all he knows, is worth for action a dozen men who know as much, but can only bring it to light slowly.” p. 983........... “All the great speakers were bad speakers at first.” p. 984........... “…for wise men are not wise at all hours….” p. 992........... “A great part of courage is the courage of having done the thing before.” p. 1019........... “But books are good only as far as a boy is ready for them.” p. 1020.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Story of Philosophy

Will Durant. New York: Pocket Books. 1976 (1953). 28th Printing.

10-second review: Durant tries to explain the technical ideas of philosophy in the everyday language of people who are not philosophers, but who are interested in ideas.

Sample Quotes: Keyserling: “Philosophy is essentially the completion of science in the synthesis of wisdom.” p. xii. ..........“Science is analytical description, philosophy is synthetic interpretation.” p. xxvi. .......... “We are like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov—‘one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.’ ” p. xxv. .......... “The philosopher tries to put together…that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart.” p. xxvii. .......... “Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.” p. xxvii. .......... Emerson: “In every man there is something wherein I may learn of him, and in that I am his pupil.”

Monday, February 9, 2009

Dictionary of Foreign Terms

Revised and Updated by Charles Berlitz.. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 1975.

10-second review: Who says a reference book can’t be fun to read? This book is full of fun, popular ideas that are really half-truths. You can think of lots of exceptions. But you can also think of lots of examples. Sit back, relax and enjoy reading the world’s wisdom.

Sample Quotes: “Old men are twice children.” p. 50. “As we grow old, we become more foolish and more wise.” p. 129. “Anger is a brief madness.” p. 190. “A wager is a fool’s argument; betting marks the fool.” p. 156. “Criticism is easy and art is difficult.” p. 203. “Beauty is a flower, fame a breath.” p. 151. “Every beginning is cheerful.” p. 17. “I believe it because it is absurd or unlikely.” p. 92. “Life without literature or books is death.” p. 358. “The brave man may fall, but cannot yield.” p. 151. “Fire tests gold; misery tests brave men.” p. 178. “All things change and we change with them.” p. 254. “He conquers twice who conquers himself in victory.” p. 50. “Everyone is the product of his own deeds.” p. 60.