‘The most coveted and desirable book in the world’

April 10, 2019

Oliver Sacks is one of my favourite science writers, for many reasons: the remarkable lives he reports, his insight and empathy in doing so, his unabashed honesty, his love for the creative arts. He also excels at conveying technical ideas and complicated phenomena in plain language without compromising their complexity.

Sacks has a flair for the right word, the telling metaphor, the poetic flourish that impresses his stories’ truth. He doesn’t rely on jargon but will use it when appropriate. Though his breadth of vocabulary and command of registers are impressive, they never feel forced or flashy. This is someone whose love of words is obvious in their prose – you might think this would be automatic with authors, but it’s not.

Recently, after reading Sacks’s book The Mind’s Eye, I visited his YouTube channel to catch up on any supplemental material, and ended up watching all the videos (there aren’t many, and they’re short). In one, Sacks reads an anecdote from his autobiography, about his time at the University of Oxford, which chimes nicely with his logophilia:

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Sequoyah’s syllabary for the Cherokee language

April 2, 2019

Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel has an engrossing chapter on the evolution of writing as a communication technology. It includes a brief account of the development of a syllabary – a set of written characters that represent syllables – for the Cherokee language. The syllabary looks like this:

Original Cherokee syllabary, via Wikipedia

Some of the signs (or ‘syllabograms’) will look familiar, others like variations of familiar shapes. But any similarity to the Roman, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets is misleading. For example, in a nice demonstration of the arbitrariness of the sign, the first three, R, D, W, encode the sounds e, a, la. So what’s going on?

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Book spine poem: When the Lights Go Down

March 20, 2019

I almost forgot how much fun it is to make book spine poems. My last one was about a year ago (and led to an interview at the OED), so it’s about time I did another. This one tells a miniature story.

*

When the Lights Go Down

Stranger on a train, heading inland,

Civilwarland in bad decline.

Autumn-dark voyage,

The light of evening,

The signal and the noise.

One shot without conscience

when the lights go down:

Death in a white tie, a brilliant void.

Reader, I murdered him.

*

A vertical stack of books, with their spines facing the viewer and forming a found poem

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An odd word from Ivy Compton-Burnett

November 10, 2018

Filmmaker John Waters, in his memoir of sorts Role Models, writes that he has all of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels but has kept one unread – because when he reads it ‘there will be no more Ivy Compton-Burnett for me and I will probably have to die myself’.

When I read this a few years ago, I wasn’t familiar with the ‘adorably sour’ Compton-Burnett, but Waters painted a picture of her as fiercely exacting about words:

Front cover of 'A House and Its Head', NYRB Classics edition: on a close-up of an off-white door is a blue near-square with the book's title and author's name in yellow and ight blueAccording to the great biography Ivy, by Hilary Spurling, an old friend came to visit Ivy and she woke from a catnap and snapped, “I’m not tired, I’m sleepy. They are different things. And I’m surprised that you should say tired when you mean sleepy.” That Ivy! She was a real laff-riot.

Now, having read A House and Its Head recently, I know what Waters meant. It’s a vicious black comedy about a wealthy family in Victorian England infighting mercilessly over power. It is written almost entirely in dialogue. Slight spoilers follow.

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Sentences plunging into vacant space; or, Why the full stop is changing

July 21, 2018

I didn’t know the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones before buying a copy of Mister Pip on spec, persuaded by the back-cover blurbs. The book is a gem, humorous, moving, and understated. It also has an episode of some linguistic interest.

Grace is a black woman from a small village on Bougainville island in Papua New Guinea; Mr Watts is a white man from Australia. They are expecting their first child:

Before Sarah’s birth they had used the spare room as a dumping ground for all the things they had no use for. Now they agreed to start again with it empty. . . . And why pass up the opportunity of a blank wall? Why go in for wallpaper covered with kingfishers and flocks of birds in flight when they could put useful information up on the walls? They agreed to gather their worlds side by side, and leave it to their daughter to pick and choose what she wanted.

And so they begin writing on the walls of the nursery-to-be: family names, place names, scraps of history and philosophy, and lists both ‘fanciful and weird’: things that tell you where home is, broken dreams, advice on how to find your soul.

The narrator, a student of Mr Watts, comments on the writing’s form:

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Talk with your mouth full: the literary game of mouth-filled speech

June 29, 2018

In 2011 a reader wrote to linguist David Crystal with an interesting question. Having tried recently to brush their teeth and talk at the same time, they wondered how such ‘approximations of real words’ might factor into language – and whether authors had ever exploited this form of speech ‘for inventive literary purposes’.

In his post on what he calls ‘mouth-filled speech’, Crystal looked at phonetics, politeness, etiquette, risks, and frequency (‘really rather common’), but found scant examples in literature or language corpora. My intention here is to share a few from books I’ve read in the meantime – mostly novels but one non-fiction.

We may talk with all sorts of things in our mouth, such as food, pens, pins, fingers (our own or other people’s), tongues (just other people’s), dentist’s instruments, gum shields, gags, and of course toothbrushes. Crystal lists various other possibilities.

Transcribed, the utterance may be transparent or heavily obscured, depending on the writer’s strategy and skill in treating the phenomenon. Context can help readers infer the muddled words, or the author may convey it through repetition. When there’s no narrative reason to have characters speak unclearly, it can be a nod to realism or verisimilitude or perhaps serve as a linguistic game or challenge.

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Savouring each preposition

May 31, 2018

In ‘The Last Campaign’, from her story collection Orange Horses (Tramp Press, 2016), Maeve Kelly portrays a marriage whose members have deeply contrasting – and sometimes clashing – communication styles. Martha and Joe are a middle-aged couple devoted to each other and to their farm, on which much of their conversation turns:

Herself and Joe met at the tap on the wall outside. He hosed down his boots, thinking about something.

‘Isn’t it a beautiful day, Joe,’ she said. ‘You might get the last of the hay drawn in today.’

‘I might,’ he said, looking up at a small, dark cloud away on the horizon and checking the direction of the wind. ‘If it holds. I think there’s a change.’

‘It’ll hardly break before this evening,’ she said.

‘Maybe not.’

She wondered to herself why his sentences were always so short. Words spilled over in her own mind so much. She had to hold them back, conscious always of his brief replies and afraid she might become garrulous in her effort to fill the void. ‘Communication,’ she reminded herself sometimes, ‘is not only made with speech.’

From this brief exchange we understand not only each character’s expressive preferences but also the effect of the difference on Martha, who would likely be more talkative were Joe not so taciturn. For this lack she must console herself with truisms. And yet their mutual fondness is unmistakable and is underscored implicitly as the tale unfolds.

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