Monday, June 30, 2014

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech for Better and/or Worse
Ben Yagoda (2007, Broadway Books)

    A book about the parts of speech sounds like it would be about as much fun as a fifth grade English class, but it’s not so: your fifth grade teacher was almost certainly not  half as smart and as interesting as Ben Yagoda is. As it happens, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It is partly concerned with exposing some of the lies your fifth grade teacher taught you about the rules of English. (If you want to go on observing such shibboleths, it’s perfectly fine with him; you just shouldn’t promulgate them as the One True Way.)

    Yagoda is interested in what words are, and what they’re good for.  He makes fruitful use of the British National Corpus, a 100-million-word collection of written and spoken language. It’s now possible to know, for instance, that adjectives represent about six percent of the words use in the corpus; so why did Mark Twain think they should be killed? “The root of the problem is lazy writers’ inordinate fondness for this part of speech. They start hurling the epithets when they haven’t provided enough data–specific nouns and active verbs–to get their idea across.” But to use adjectives creatively and resourcefully is “an indication of originality, wit, observation–the cast and quality of the writer’s mind.”

    I’d say the same of Yagoda’s use of quotations and examples, which he draws from all over the literary and cultural map. Shakespeare, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Dickens share the pages with Fats Waller, the Lone Ranger, and the Simpsons. Yagoda is familiar with what Stephen King and Steven Pinker have had to say about language and writing; his highest praise goes to H. L. Mencken and Henry W. Fowler, two great early 20th century writers on English and its delights.

    Yagoda does not give much aid and comfort to prescriptivists, people who wish that English would stop changing all the time. He points out, for one thing, that they are apt to promulgate rules, like the prohibition on using ‘they’ and ‘them’ as singular pronouns, that have been contradicted by the practice of writers from Jane Austen to Gertrude Stein. In any case, ‘Ultimately, the issue of correctness just isn’t very interesting. Given the inevitability of change, the only question is how long a shift in spelling, syntax, punctuation, semantics, or any other aspect of usage should be in popular use before it becomes standard or accepted. Some people want things to move  fast, some people want things to move slow (except they would say slowly), and none of them has much of an impact on the actual rate of change.”

    If we can get over being nettled by them, shifts in syntax can be fascinating: “Frame started as a verb, meaning ‘to form,’ then became a noun meaning ‘border,’ and emerged as a new verb meaning ‘to put a frame around something.’” To catch a word in the act of crossing the border between one part of speech and another, or to investigate those that live in the borderlands, is to learn something useful and important.

    Possibly even more important is this: “I realized some time ago that I have a tendency to divide all experience–buildings, people, movies, songs, weather, roads, hamburgers–into two categories. The first category makes me happy to be alive. The other category makes me sad, or at best neutral. And, in the realm of language, that’s the kind of Manichaean division I care about, and that you’ll find throughout this book.” If you’re like me, in that Mencken, Fowler, and Pinker make you glad to be alive, Yagoda will too.

Email edition, July 2014

Saturday, May 31, 2014


Debt: the first 5000 years
David Graeber (2011, Melville House)

    “For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors–of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’s children into slavery.”

    All of these conflicts have their present-day incarnations, so it’s a little distressing that we know so little about their history. On economic matters, we may be able to think back thirty years, or seventy, or perhaps back two and a half centuries to Adam Smith’s inauguration of economics as a discipline. In Debt, the First 5000 Years, David Graeber suggests that even that would not be nearly enough perspective. The historical cycles involved have been going on as long as people have lived in cities. We also need to think about more than Economics alone: without a grounding of social and political history, economic theory tends to be both amoral and incoherent.

    What a delicious book Graeber has written to meet this need! It’s dense and chewy; there’s a page of bibliography for every ten pages of text (not counting the notes, which are also worth the price of admission.) He can focus on transactions too small to be repaid, like bumming a cigarette, as well as on historically epic ones like the transfer of the silver of Peru, by way of the Conquistadors, to the coffers of China, at a genocidal cost. He’s expansive on the Tiv tribe of Central Nigeria, whose debt and kinship arrangements make up a web of obligations and rights that are continuously rebalanced, yet with an awareness that money never really equals a life. If he’s a little more condensed on the Roman empire, Chinese peasant revolts, Islamic views of usury, Buddhism, and the Crusades, it’s because he flatteringly assumes that we have some acquaintance with them already, not because his own knowledge is any less.

    How many ways are there to become a slave? By kidnapping or  capture in war, as punishment for crime, by sale to repay one’s own or a parent’s debt. How do you turn a small-holder into a debt peon? Taxation, which requires him to borrow, if the tax must be paid in money. What’s the difference between peonage and slavery? The absence of a moral relationship between a master and a slave, because the slave has been torn from his or her human context.  These are questions almost more important than the answers, because we need to be able to recognize new forms these problems might take.

    Writing in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Graeber is particularly sharp  about the blinkered nature of standard economic theory; really, do you know any perfectly informed people, or any perfectly rational actors who aren’t psychopaths? What was Adam Smith’s agenda, anyway? He was a utopian, actually, and his model was imaginary, though parts of it have now been received wisdom so long that we don’t recognize the fact. “The problem with such models–at least, it always seems to happen when we model something called ‘the market’ –is that, once created, we have a tendency to treat them as objective realities, or even fall down before them and start worshipping them as gods.”

    The Market is a particularly pernicious false god, because, as Graeber puts it, “Any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons, whether these are swords and clubs, or, nowadays, ‘smart bombs’ from unmanned drones.” One of the things we really need to do, if we grasp that infinite economic growth is impossible on a finite planet, is to remember that shared love and friendship are gifts beyond price.   

Email edition, June 1 2014

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Good Book

Good Book: The bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, marvelous, and inspiring things I learned when I read every single word of the Bible.

David Plotz (2009, HarperCollins)

     Like reading all of a dictionary or encyclopedia, reading the Bible straight through is a slightly mad undertaking, but one which can be enlightening. A few years ago, David Plotz, the editor of Slate, undertook to read the Bible and write about it. (The Hebrew Bible, that is: Plotz is Jewish, so we’re on our own with the New Testament.) His goal was simple: “I wanted to find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based.”

    Plotz does not make use of any critical apparatus; he reads in English, and with a minimum of commentary alongside. That’s a good thing for his purpose, as the sharp corners are not cushioned.    Sandwiched between the familiar Sunday School tales, he finds the stories that are left out because they are too racy for children or because they make our heroes look bad. What do we really know about Jacob’s character, or King David’s? What a motley collection of swindlers, womanizers, and idolators even the best of them are!

    To say nothing of God, whom Plotz finds choleric, capricious, and capable of slaughtering thousands at a whim. In the first several books, God is present in person, as it were; later on, He speaks mainly through prophets. He’s a maddeningly inconsistent figure, sometimes punishing people for doing what He commanded them to do. Of course, as He points out to Job, He doesn’t owe you and me any explanations. “Job is the paramount example of what I would call the Messy Bible, a story that’s far more complicated, ambiguous, and confusing than its popular version.”

        His project in reading the Bible is analogous to my purpose in these reviews, reading things so that you won’t have to. If you already have a warm relationship with the Bible, you may find Plotz too flippant, but he does get to the heart of the matter: “We talk about the Bible as if there is only one. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from these months with the Good Book, it’s that we all have our own Bible. We linger on the passages we love and blot out, or argue with, or skim the verses that repel us.”

    Plotz comes out at the end rather less of a believer than he was at the beginning, and for that I have to give him credit. His tone may be irreverent, but his purpose is authentic; wrestling matches, if fair, are unpredictable.  I appreciated that, though, on the grounds that all truth is God’s truth, and Plotz is expressing genuine outrage and astonishment, as they occur to him. “Why would God kill the innocent Egyptian children? And why would He delight in killing them?” Because he’s reading on his own, he has to come to his own conclusions. “This argument has weakened my faith, and turned me against my God. Yet the argument itself represents a kind of belief, because it commits me to engaging with God.”

    So reading the Bible may be hazardous to your faith, but it might be worth it.

Email edition, May 1 2014

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Middle Place

The Middle Place
Kelly Corrigan (2008, Voice)

    I’m of two minds about The Middle Place, perhaps because it’s too easy to like. It’s a sweet memoir about motherhood, daughterhood, and breast cancer, and part of me thinks, ‘that’s cheating!’ – because what’s not to like, or at least admire? Kelly Corrigan was a thirty-something mother of two when, in 2004, she discovered a lump in her breast, treatment for which left her bald and weak.

    “Still needing a boost, I send out an e-mail, tinkering with every sentence. It has to be upbeat so people won’t worry too much and funny so they won’t be scared to write back. It’s a big job, being the first person your age to get cancer.” This performative spirit of spunk comes directly from Corrigan’s father, George, a preternaturally optimistic advertising salesman, with a sideline in lacrosse coaching.

    When George is diagnosed with bladder cancer (having already survived prostate cancer), Kelly feels stretched and terrified. “This is impossible–me in California slicing bananas for Georgia and Claire, my brothers at work, my parents in Philadelphia tracking down second opinions and insurance authorizations.” But this is the essence of the middle place: taking care of the generations before and after without going to pieces yourself.

    The Middle Place is a warts-and-all picture of the Corrigans. I find George’s booming positivity rather wearing; not everybody wants a nickname and a pep talk. But most people like him, his daughter says, “...because his default setting is open delight. He’s prepared to be wowed–by your humor, your smarts, your white smile, even your handshake–guaranteed, something you do is going to thrill him.”

    I also feel for Kelly’s incredibly patient husband, Edward. It’s really rather preposterous for her to resent Edward’s phone calls to his own parents, considering how much of a Daddy’s girl she is. She also seems just a bit greedy when she protests vociferously about not being able to have another baby; it’s the hardest part for her about having cancer, but these things are not guaranteed to anybody.

    On the whole, though, I like The Middle Place, and appreciate its honesty. Having cancer didn’t make Kelly Corrigan a saint or a savant, just a witness. “I feel like a newly discharged soldier, a kid who was drafted suddenly and shown things she can’t forget and then paraded around town on the back of shiny convertible waving to the crowd of admirers who don’t know the half of it.” We need witnesses like that.

Email edition, April 1, 2014

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Lost Carving

The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making
David Esterly (2012, Penguin)

    David Esterly carves in limewood, like his hero of three centuries ago, Grinling Gibbons. Esterly taught himself, which seems a remarkable feat, but, at the time, he didn’t know any other living people who did it. The Lost Carving is the story of a year he spent apprenticed to Gibbons, replacing some decorative work that had been lost in a 1986 fire at London’s Hampton Court.

    Gibbons’s carvings are a riot of leaves, flowers, and fruit in deep relief, made possible by the unique qualities of his material, which is “[c]risp and firm, soft enough to be carved quickly but strong enough to be radically undercut, with a remarkable grain structure that can (with a little effort) be worked in any direction.” What it permits, it also demands, according to Esterly. The round fruits, curling leaves, and weaving stems are shaped to the full depth of the wood, even in places that would have been invisible to the viewer after the pieces were in place.

    The Lost Carving comes in layers, too. The year of the carving work was 1989-90; Esterly kept a journal, and based the main part of the story on them, writing twenty years later. He has also to carve in some of the peaks and valleys of Grinling Gibbons’s career, and of his own, both before and since that time. Both in 1671 and 1989, working in a royal environment means dealing with political functionaries, with all the attendant frustrations.

    For instance, the royal apartments at Hampton Court comprised a series of four rooms, each of which had symmetrical sets of carvings over the doors. Esterly discovered that some of the panels had, at some point, been hung out of place, or even upside down, but it was quite a challenge to get them rehung in the right places. He won that one, but his strong desire to show the limewood in its original pale color was too much of a stretch.

    There was deep satisfaction, though, in discovering a piece of lost botanical technology. Grinling Gibbons worked many decades before sandpaper was invented, yet the finished work bore signs of having been smoothed, and nobody knew by what. Except – the Natural History Museum came up with a cousin to the horsetail fern known as Dutch rush, or scouring grass, which picks up silica from the sandy soil it grows in. When the plant is dried, its surface can be used to roughen or smooth the limewood surface at the very end of the modeling process.

    All this arcana is delightful in its own right, but there are some deeper lessons. Not surprisingly, Esterly says that carving is a metaphor for everything. Most obviously, writing: “In front of you the same smooth vacant surface waits, and within you the same nervous mustering of resolve, the same sense that the first stroke is important and a bad start might be ruinous.” With its fine details set in the deep sweep of history, The Lost Carving is as intricate and multi-layered as the Hampton Court carvings.

    Consider, too, that the carving tools are driven with one hand, but guided and controlled by the other. “The propulsive hand always wins, or there is no carving. The chisel moves forward to do its work. But not before its primal energy has been reined in by the constraining hand, chastened and given a tincture of purposeful intelligence.” Dynamic tension as the meaning of life – you could do worse.