An early highlight of my reading year has been Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories. Many of her stories put a slight and strange and startling twist on consensus reality (or a fresh insight that amounts to the same), sometimes combined with a self-conscious linguistic flourish:
I am reading a sentence by a certain poet as I eat my carrot. Then, although I know I have read it, although I know my eyes have passed along it and I have heard the words in my ears, I am sure I haven’t really read it. I may mean understood it. But I may mean consumed it: I haven’t consumed it because I was already eating the carrot. The carrot was a line, too.
This synaesthesia-adjacent report is one of fifteen self-contained entries in a story titled ‘Examples of Confusion’.
Every April the Cúirt literary festival kicks off the festival season in Galway, Ireland, where I live. This year, its 35th, events in their original format were cancelled because of the pandemic, but festival director Sasha de Buyl and team put together a terrific mini-festival entirely online.
I just caught up on the talks I didn’t see or hear live last weekend – live online, I mean – and you can do the same if you haven’t already. Nine are freely available to view on Cúirt’s YouTube channel, and two audio-only events can be listened to on Soundcloud.
It’s a feast of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each talk is about an hour long and has one, two, or three authors speaking about literature, language, writing, and life, including short readings from their new work. If you’re not sure where to start, try Kevin Barry and Jan Carson talking with Peggy Hughes:
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:
My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford. We dissected bodies and attended lectures, and a couple of years later had to sit for a final anatomy exam. When the results were posted, I saw that I was ranked one from bottom in the class. I dreaded my mother’s reaction and decided that, in the circumstances, a few drinks were called for. I made my way to a favourite pub, the White Horse in Broad Street, where I drank four or five pints of hard cider. Stronger than most beer, and cheaper too.
Rolling out of the White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize: the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk, and looked at the exam paper. There were seven questions to be answered. I pounced on one – Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation? – and I wrote non-stop for two hours on the subject. Then I left, an hour before the exam ended, ignoring the other six questions.
The results were in The Times that weekend. I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded. How could someone who’d come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams Prize? Fifty pounds came with a Theodore Williams Prize. Fifty pounds! I’d never had so much money at once. This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s Bookshop, next door to the pub, and bought, for 44 pounds, the 12 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary – for me, the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf now and then, for bedtime reading.
If you’re impressed (or appalled) by the idea of someone reading the entire OED, well, there’s another book all about that; I’ll have more in a separate post soon. In the meantime, you’ll find more Oliver Sacks in the Sentence first archives.
If you enjoyed my quiz on nouning and verbing, you might like my new quiz on portmanteau words, now up on the Macmillan Dictionary site. It will test your knowledge of novel portmanteaus such as plogging, smombie, theyby, and zoodles. It’s multiple choice, so you can guess at any strange ones.
Portmanteau words are words that blend two or more others in structure and meaning, like smog (smoke + fog), brunch (breakfast + lunch), and portmonsteau (portmanteau + monster). That last one hasn’t caught on yet. They should be distinguished from compound words like teapot and seawater, which also combine words but don’t blend them.
There’s an xkcd cartoon popular among copy-editors because it combines fussiness over hyphens with gently risqué humour:
Language Log, meeting language lovers’ most niche desires and then some, has a bibliography of suffixal –ass as an intensive modifier. In this vein, you’d expect the hyphen in little ass car to go between the first two words unless you were being seedy, or xkcdy. But there’s an exception, and it’s not rude at all.
Irish author Pádraic Ó Conaire, in his short story collection Field and Fair (Mercier Press, 1966; tr. Cormac Breathnach), refers several times to his ass-car, by which he means his donkey and cart. One story, about how the author came to befriend the donkey, is titled ‘My Little Black Ass’. It’s hard to read that now and not find alternative meanings rubbing up against the intended one.
Maybe writing about typos in Ulysses triggered it, but I finally took Brenda Maddox’s book Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce off the shelf. It’s an exceptional study, rich in insight and research: highly recommended to anyone interested in her life, personality, and relationships, and in the author himself.
Maddox defends Nora soundly against a tendency in some Joyce scholarship to caricature her as ignorant or even illiterate. The scarcity of Nora’s own letters for some decades didn’t help this perception, nor did her famous dislike of Ulysses. She appreciated its value, but ‘her acceptance was always tempered by her dismay at its obscenity’, Maddox writes. When Joyce complained that Wagner, whom Nora loved, was obscene, Nora pointed irrefutably at Ulysses.
Lewis Carroll was an enthusiastic and prolific letter-writer. On New Year’s Day in 1861, aged 28, he began to keep a register of the letters he sent, and the last one it records is number 98,721. The full tally, forever unknown, is probably much higher.
The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll (Macmillan Press, 1982), edited by Morton Cohen, has some items of interest on the subject of language use. For example: Writing to Edith Rix on 15 January 1886, Carroll teases her about a spelling error and about her choice of preposition after different: she uses to, but he favours – insists on – from:
Now I come to your letter dated December 22nd, and must scold you for saying that my solution of the problem was “quite different to all common ways of doing it”: if you think that’s good English, well and good; but I must beg to differ to you, and to hope you will never write me a sentence similar from this again. However, “worse remains behind”; and if you deliberately intend in future, when writing to me about one of England’s greatest poets, to call him “Shelly”, then all I can say is, that you and I will have to quarrel! Be warned in time.