December 10, 2013
Books accompany me almost everywhere. Because you never know. On a walk or cycle I may decide to sit on a bench or rock or by a tree and pass an hour with the view, and while there in the fresh air might feel the urge to visit whatever portable parallel world I’ve packed. Or I might be in a slow queue and tired of looking around, so out comes a book and the wait dissolves.
Some books are especially engrossing and greedily demand every moment even tenuously available. Though reading over a work-break cup of tea or while on the loo is normal enough, reading while walking to the kettle or bathroom might not be. (This, at any rate, is just an occasional indulgence.) But I know I’m not as bad as Percy Bysshe Shelley – for one thing, I don’t forget to eat. Not habitually, anyway.
Shelley . . . was always reading; at his meals a book lay by his side, on the table, open. Tea and toast were often neglected, his author seldom; his mutton and potatoes might grow cold, his interest in a work never cooled. He invariably sallied forth, book in hand, reading to himself, if he was alone; if he had a companion reading aloud. He took a volume to bed with him, and read as long as his candle lasted; he then slept – impatiently, no doubt – until it was light, and he recommenced reading at the early dawn. . . . In consequence of this great watching, and of almost incessant reading, he would often fall asleep in the day-time – dropping off in a moment – like an infant. He often quietly transferred himself from his chair to the floor, and slept soundly on the carpet, and in the winter upon the rug, basking in the warmth like a cat; and like a cat his little round head was roasted before a blazing fire.
(Extract from Thomas Jefferson Hogg’s biography, quoted in the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by James Sutherland. I do like that use of “impatiently”.)
Fellow readers, how conventional or extreme are your reading habits?
Joseph Severn, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing ‘Prometheus Unbound’, oil on canvas, 1845
November 5, 2013
Anyone who has ever transcribed an interview, conversation, or unrehearsed speech of any sort will be very aware of how disfluent this form of language is. We start and stop and stall, repeat ourselves, insert filler phrases and sounds, search for forgotten words, abandon trains of thought, deal with interruptions and distractions, follow tangents, and double back.
It’s a far cry from writing, which gives us the luxury of time to prepare and arrange the translation of our thoughts. Grammar is therefore normally much tighter in writing than in speech. And because we learn about language through writing, significantly later than we develop speech, we cannot help but find speech wanting when we (unfairly) compare the two.
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July 19, 2013
Photos, for a change. Last weekend three old friends and I climbed Croagh Patrick, a mountain in County Mayo in the mid-west of Ireland. (Croagh is an anglicisation of cruach, Irish for stack.)
The Reek, as it’s also known, has a cone-shaped peak that dominates the surrounding skyline. You can see it in the distance here on the road to Westport town, our home base for the day.
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June 21, 2013
My new bookmash is more a story fragment than a found poem. But the format remains the same.
I am Mary Dunne,
The fifth child, Liza,
Earthbound the beginning of spring –
Almost there, in other words.
I’m not scared.
(All names have been changed.)
(click to enlarge)
Thank you to the authors: Brian Moore, Ira Levin, Doris Lessing, Ivan Turgenev, Richard Matheson, Penelope Fitzgerald, Nuala O’Faolain, C.J. Moore, Niccolò Ammaniti, and Claire Kilroy; and to Nina Katchadourian for the idea.
Bookmashes are great fun to make, so feel free to add one to the thread below or let me know if you post one elsewhere. They work best with a photo, but it’s not essential. There are lots more in the bookmash archive, including links to other people’s.
June 4, 2013
The much-loved “jive talk” scene from the comedy film Airplane! is an amusing if slightly improbable demonstration of how a single language – in this case English – can accommodate varieties so divergent as to be mutually incomprehensible.*
A more plausible form of the phenomenon appears in John McWhorter’s book The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, in which the author recounts an incident that neatly depicts the existence of such varieties in a language, one perfectly transparent to him and the others increasingly unintelligible.
The dialects in question are Standard English and Guyanese creoles. McWhorter was at a conference when he entered an elevator with his dissertation advisor; another Guyanese man hopped in at the last minute:
They started out speaking Standard English, largely in deference to me, but as the elevator went up and their conversation became gradually warmer and more spontaneous, they started gliding into increasingly more creole layers of their speech repertoire. The higher we went, the less of their conversation I could grasp. I lost the first sentence above the fifth floor; by the tenth, all I knew was who they were talking about; by the eighteenth, all I knew was that something was really funny and that it probably wasn’t me. By the twenty-fifth floor, when we got out, they might as well have been speaking Turkish. Yet to them, they had never stopped speaking “English” – they had simply traveled along a continuum of creolized varieties of it leading away from the lone vanilla variety I grew up in.
What I like about this anecdote is the incremental but radical spontaneous morphing of the language, along with the readymade metaphor (an elevator) in which the continuous shift takes place.
Ethnologue’s page on Guyanese Creole English also notes the “continuum of variation from basilectal Creole to acrolectal English of the educated”.
* Sometimes this communicative shortfall hinges on a single word, as in the famous case of William Caxton’s egges/eyren.
April 4, 2013
Horatio Bottomley (British politician and co-founder of the Financial Times) was in prison for fraud in the 1920s. On one occasion, so the story goes, he was visited by a chaplain who saw him sewing mailbags and said: “Ah, Bottomley. Sewing, I see.”
To which Bottomley replied, “No, sir. Reaping.”
(Adapted from J. P. Bean, Verbals: The Book of Criminal Quotations, and other sources. For anyone unsure of the pun, it’s a play on sew/sow homophony and the saying “You reap what you sow.”)
February 12, 2013
Irish Folk Furniture is a stop-motion documentary, 8½ minutes long, that won an award for animation at the Sundance Film Festival last month. Director Tony Donoghue thought it might be too specialist to appeal widely, but it has charmed its way around the festival circuit. I recommend it warmly.
The film celebrates the tradition and use of farmhouse furniture in Ireland, with 16 items restored to a functional state. This is furniture not usually seen as beautiful – or starring in a film – but whose appeal lies in its very ordinariness and utility, and in the history it amasses over generations of use.
It’s a quiet gem in both form and content: as if Jan Švankmajer had rambled down a boreen in Tipperary. Dressers and flour bins wheel around the countryside while their owners chat away. The film is gently funny, beautifully shot, and features some lovely rural Irish accents and syntax, e.g. done as preterite in “we done a good bit on ’em”.
I wanted to link to the original on Donoghue’s YouTube page, but that video has since been set to private, so here it is from another page:
Edit: I’ve removed the video after seeing a comment on YouTube from Tony Donoghue saying his film was only meant to be online for the two weeks of Sundance, and that its continued online presence may undermine its film festival run.
If it reappears legitimately, I’ll reinstate it here.