Revisiting Joseph Mitchell

Joseph Mitchell is one of my favorite New York writers; I find myself pressing his essay collections into the hands of my friends when they come to the city. "You'll love it! And maybe you'll start your own Oral History!" The Oral History is a reference to the project at hand in Joe Gould's Secret, which you could start with if you want a quick taste of Mitchell's work, or Up in the Old Hotel offers a good survey of his pieces from the New Yorker; The Bottom of the Harbor is also stellar (though its essays, I believe, are all included in Old Hotel). 

I'm revisiting My Ears Are Bent, a collection of his pieces for the World-Telegram and the Herald Tribune -- work that came before his New Yorker period. The essays are a little rougher, less polished, but no less enchanting. It's the way he captures people that really stands out; and it's no wonder. Mitchell writes:

I believe the most interesting human beings, so far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers...and an occasional bartender. The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in salooons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.

A house party

Browsing Google Books (searching, originally, for old reviews of Bertha Runkle's work, I think?), I stumbled upon a volume from 1901: A House Party: An Account of the Stories Told at a Gathering of Famous American Authors.

I haven't read the book entire, but the premise is intriguing -- invite a number of authors to a party, require them to submit a piece of fiction before the party, redact their names, then distribute the "anonymous" pieces to guests and have them try to guess who wrote what. Now, if only I were friends with people like Sarah Orne Jewett: what a party it would be.

Eating the Russian Way

Found this charming 1963 book by Beryl Gould-Marks (from the back cover: "As the wife of a documentary film director, British writer Beryl Gould-Marks has traveled in forty-eight countries where 'I follow my nose and go into kitchens and talk about food with the cooks'"). The illustrations, by Geoffrey Walker, are particularly choice (the jacket, at left, was designed by Henry Dabbs). Blinis and kvass for all!


Mystery spot

This picture, taken August 1969, is presumably somewhere out West. I don't know where it is or the story behind the picture (family road trip?), but maybe I'll do a little painting or a pastel of the landscape. My obsession of the moment, the West or Wests or what have you, is manifesting itself in my reading habits: I reread Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, then devoured Marking the Sparrow's Fall (a collection of his essays), and now I'm wading into J. S. Holliday's The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experiment. So very much to read, and only finite hours in which one's eyes can stay fixed on the page!

The Hare with Amber Eyes

I'm terribly behind the curve on this, but I'm loving Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss. I'd probably progress more quickly through it if I wasn't turning to the Internet at the end of every chapter, seeking out images of the paintings he describes or looking at netsuke on de Waal's Web site and on Google Images to get a feel for the lovely little objects that are the center of the story. 

What's it about? Well, says the jacket cover:

The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who "burned like a comet" in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.

The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection.

I'm still looking for a facsimile of the portrait of Louise Cahen d'Anvers by Paul Borget, but the Internet doesn't have all the answers. Still, there is something thrilling about being able to see Monet's La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), below left, and James Tissot's La Japonaise au bain, below right, alongside de Waal's discussion of the Japonisme that took hold in the latter half of the 19th century.

In the prologue, de Waal describes spending time with his great-uncle Iggie, the keeper of the netsuke for a time: "I liked the way that repetition wore things smooth, and there was something of the river stone to [his] stories." Repetitive the text is not, but there is solace in the easy progression of the prose; I can't help but think of one of my favorite David Berkeley songs, and though it has little bearing on the text, it's nice to take a listen, glory in the way these vastly different places and times end up with similar themes.

The Deepening Stream

Some time ago, browsing the used-books shelves at the Center for Fiction, I saw a squat little Modern Library edition that, for reasons unknown (I didn’t recognize the title and had never heard of the author) I simply had to possess.

The weathered red hardcover sat on my shelf for a rather long time. It’s no secret that I went on a Maud Hart Lovelace bender, and I’ve also closely followed the saga of Downton Abbey; it’s all led to an incurable curiosity about life as it was lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s – say, from the turn of the century to the end of the Great War, when the world was full of great promise and great barbarism both. I reorganized my bookshelves in early January, and when I unearthed The Deepening Stream, I did a bit of research and learned that it charts the story of a girl growing up in just that period. It went to the top of my list.

Dorothy Canfield’s novel was first published as a serial in the Woman’s Home Companion in 1930. We meet Penelope “Matey” Gilbert as a child in the States and in France, jumping from town to town as her father pursues his career in academia, and then experience with her a number of milestones: her parents die, she falls in love and marries Adrian Fort, she bears two children, and when the war breaks out, she takes her family to France to help (Adrian drives an ambulance on the front, and Matey and the children stay in Paris to help support the Vinets, a family she had lived with for a time when she was young).

The first half of the book, which centers on her youth, is not so vivid as the second half, wherein the emotional reckoning is wrought. But there is something quietly marvelous in the way that Canfield has Matey evolve.

Midway through the book, when Adrian and Matey have just decided to leave their comfortable life in Rustdorf for the uncertainty of ravaged Europe, Matey reflects that she “was discouraged by the steepness of the uphill road that led from her childish hardness toward a little understanding of the rich complexity of life. It seemed to her that she stood still, never advanced at all, unless swept forward … by a blow, by calamity.” But by the story’s end, it is abundantly clear that one need not thrive on the high dramatics of wartime living and sweeping, overnight change; rather, what truly saves us are the daily ministrations and small, unacknowledged acts that keep the car running.

Returning to Rustdorf, Adrian and Matey try to make sense of their last few years and come to some understanding of how they’ll remake their lives upon their return, disillusioned, wary. Adrian contemplatively notes:

“’I’ll manage all right. I’ve got a living to earn and an honest way to earn it, and that’s something to be everlastingly thankful for … I’ve still got my code. Apparently it isn’t based on anything solid as I used to think, but … I’m going right ahead with what I’ve been doing – trying in my small futile way to pick up a few pieces in this mess of a world. That’ll keep me busy.”

Matey, lost for words, soothes him with platitudes; she struggles to put a point to her thoughts, thinking that she might tell him “that to have missed for a time the right path and to be lost in a by-path is no ground for terror.” But ultimately she dismisses this as “preacher-like” in its audacity; “No, no, this would not do … She had quite missed the very core of what had happened to her, the knowledge that there is no small and great, that what Adrian had planned to do with his life, the obscure anonymous helpful work to which he had resigned himself, was all there was, the best there was, and gloriously enough.”

For something so simple to return to working as a bookkeeper or a teller at a bank to be “gloriously enough” – well, it made me think immediately of the closing lines of Middlemarch: “… the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

It is hard not to imagine that The Deepening Stream isn’t in part thinly veiled autobiography: Dorothy, for instance, volunteered in France between 1916 and 1919, and fragments of biographical detail available online suggest other striking corollaries. Although Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935 named Canfield as one of America’s ten most influential women, she’s far from a household name today. Serving as an education reformer and social activist – in addition to writing 22 works of fiction, 18 works of nonfiction, and 1 play – Canfield could perhaps not be described as performing “obscure anonymous” work. But the quiet wisdom and unswerving even-handedness, which may make this book “unhistoric” in the contemporary canon, indeed set it apart as a thoughtful picture of trying to get the center to hold in a time of almost unprecedented uncertainty – a valuable piece to reflect upon in today’s unwieldy, complex world.

Looking back: The books I read in 2011

Last year at this time, I decided it would be cool to see if I could read 100 books in 2011. And indeed, it was cool: so cool, in fact, that I couldn't stop reading once I started, and I ended up plowing through 118 books in all. Here's a rather unscientific exploration of what I encountered.

I. Gender studies

I've never put much stock in the claims of male writers who say no woman can be their equal (apologies, Mr. Naipaul), but I did not explicitly set out to read more books written by women than by men. Nonetheless, that's how it shook out: of the 118 books I read, 67 were penned by women -- that's about 57%. Undoubtedly the best of those was Middlemarch, which I put off reading for far too long; I suppose Daniel Deronda and Silas Marner and Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss are destined to figure in my 2012 list. Also quite memorable were two books that I suppose can be classed in the sub-genre of "girls behaving badly": The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (Alina Bronsky) features the comically awful grandmother Rosa, and Harriet the horrid is unforgettable in After Claude (Iris Owens).

II. Nostalgia

I've mentioned it on the site a few times now, but one of the most important events in my reading life this year was rediscovering Maud Hart Lovelace and the Betsy-Tacy books. I read the first four books, now available as a treasury from Harper Perennial, as well as two books following The Crowd in their high school years. I've urged thrift-store copies on friends and family members, I've somehow acquired a Betsy-Tacy tote bag, and the July 2012 Betsy-Tacy Convention in Minneapolis and Mankato, Minnesota, is starting to look mighty tempting. Although not about Lovelaceiana, I found Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life an interesting exploration of rediscovering childhood favorites; she takes on the world of Little House on the Prairie with grace and humor (and there's even a brief mention of Mankata, Maud Hart Lovelace's hometown, which has an LHOP/Laura Ingalls Wilder connection of its own). And while we're on the subject of childhood favorites, for fans of Ramona and Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary's memoir A Girl from Yamhill was sublime.

III. Double duty

I try and vary my reading diet as much as possible, but a few authors figured more prominently in my list than did others. I read a few books by Colson Whitehead, a handful by Maureen Johnson, and two by Kevin Wilson. If you haven't read Wilson's short story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, you should.

IV. Out and about

It turns out I'm one of those people who likes themed reading: a creepy tale by Patricia Highsmith on Halloween, something with a good holiday scene for Christmas. And, of course, when I travel, I try to find stories about the places I'm going. While in Paris, I read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables and Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; on the way to Singapore, I made my way through a strange book of colonial travel, The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (Isabella Bird); a far better read was Stella Kon's The Scholar and the Dragon, about a Chinese immigrant to Singapore in the early 20th century.

V. Ape for apes

Monkey-related similes and metaphors appeared in nearly every book I read in 2011, but only two explicitly focused on our primate friends. Benjamin Hale's The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a story of a chimp caught between the animal and human worlds, out of place, ultimately, in both. But Brigid Brophy's Hackenfeller's Ape, a used-bookstore find, stands out here: it's about animal testing, sort of, but it's also a primate love story, and then there's a sidetrack into "top-secret government rocket research" that culminates in a scientist skinning an ape and donning its skin as he is blasted off into space. Truly, truly strange.

I could go on and on (other important categories include epics [Lonesome Dove, Middlemarch], books about books [The Professor and the Madman, Globish, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Mystery and Manners], and awesome literature in translation [Suicide, The Jokers, The Sleepwalker, The Clash of Images]). But instead, I'll turn back to my reading -- which for now is the second half of Nicholas Basbanes' A Gentle Madness and a bit more of Heidi Julavits' The Effect of Living Backward -- and we'll meet again in a year for another roundup.

The big world

Not so very long ago, I found an old copy of Maud Hart Lovelace's Heaven to Betsy and fell in love, again, with a childhood favorite. It was inevitable that I would go back and reread all the Betsy-Tacy books, and fortuitously, Harper Perennial just come out with The Betsy-Tacy Treasury, which includes the first four books (Betsy-Tacy, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown).

I ate up the first book this morning, and, gosh darn it, nearly misted up at the Lois Lenski illustrations (the ones that were in the editions I read when I was younger). Such simple pleasures, ones that can be enjoyed at any age:

They climbed and they climbed, and they came to the top of the hill.

The land was as flat as a plate, and there were oak trees scattered about, and the white house stood there ... the one the sun came up behind in the morning. They went to the white house and they peeked all around it. They almost expected to find the sun in a pocket behind that house. But there was only a deep ravine, with the sound of water gurgling, and another hill beyond.

"Goodness!" said Betsy. "The world is big."

They had thought they would be satisfied when once they had climbed the Big Hill. But now they wanted to go down in the ravine, and see this water which sounded so merry, and climb the next hill.

Mountains beyond mountains, they say ...

More Betsy-Tacy

Harper Perennial just reissued the first four Betsy-Tacy books in a new treasury (with introductions by other authors who are fans, such as the great Judy Blume!). This cover includes the illustration I remember from the books I checked out at the library when I was a girl. Great memories, and a great community of readers.

The Mankato Free Press reports on the release and the activities of the Betsy-Tacy Society -- a group that is, by the way, "planning a Victorian Christmas Party, which will feature the Betsy-Tacy houses dressed up in their Victorian holiday best, refreshments, caroling and more. That event is slated for December 3."

Get 'em while they last!

I can't vouch for the quality of Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe by Daniel Hoffman, as I sadly left this great moment in book-cover art on the shelf, but I can alert you to some awesome deals. Argosy Books, on 59th between Park and Lex, has biographies -- mostly hardcovers -- on its outdoors racks. They're $3 apiece. A small price to pay to learn about someone else's fabulous (or tragic, or complicated) life! 

I picked up Samuel Johnson: A Biography, by John Wain, and Elinor Wylie: The Portrait of an Unknown Lady, by Nancy Hoyt (I confess to picking this blindly based on a quick Google search that yielded the following summation of Wylie: "She was changeable, self-absorbed, and dangerously romantic ... in the end, few acquaintances had much patience or, for that matter, much good to say about her"). I've been on a biography kick lately; for my birthday, I got Joan Schenkar's The Talented Miss Highsmith (on the life of Patricia Highsmith) and Jane Fletcher Geniesse's The Passionate Nomad (on the wanderings of Freya Stark).

Well, what are you waiting for? Go! Read!

Sketches by Sylvia

Sylvia Plath would have been 79 today; this curious French cat is one of her sketches, part of a collection of 44 pen-and-ink works on exhibit in London's Mayor Gallery through mid-December. Such tremendous talent. From "Lady Lazarus":

And I a smiling woman.

I am only thirty.

And like the cat I have nine times to die.

Fearless Freya

Although I quite love to travel, I've never made a habit of reading travelogues. But, given Sumeet's affection for Patrick Leigh Fermor, Eric Newby, and the like, we don't suffer from a lack of tales of interesting people going interesting places.

One of my grouses has long been the preponderance of male writers in the genre; nothing wrong with men writing about their meanderings, but I like to hear a different perspective from time to time. "Freya Stark?" he suggested, years ago, and I kept her name in the back of my mind but didn't get around to reading anything of hers until today, when I devoured The Journey's Echo: Selected Travel Writings in one sitting.

Stark, born in 1893, became fascinated with One Thousand and One Nights at a young age and learned Arabic and Persian. In World War I, she worked as a nurse in Italy, and then, in the late 1920s, she began the journeys about which she wrote around two dozen books: she ventured to Beirut, Lebanon, western Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. 

The Journey's Echo is her last book, and it's something of a mish-mash that pulls together all her earlier writing. It's disjointed, its vignettes akin almost to a highlight reel, and thus perhaps the book is not the best representative of her true talent. But much of it is quietly astonishing; her imagery is breathtaking, and I ended up dog-earing a good third of the pages, so that I can page back, reread, rejoice. She writes about travel, of course, but also about the value of solitude, and the fundamental similarities of people across cultures, and about language (and its uses and abuses).

From my little Queens flat, an extract that reminded me there is much more to be seen (or to marvel over not seeing):

It is lucky to live in a city on a hill and to be saved by the view at one's window from thinking of the world as flat, so that one may see at a glance how all we have in sight slips over some edge into the veils of space.

The BBC has a 30-minute piece on Stark's life, or Jane Fletcher Geniesse's Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark is said to be good.

Days of the dictionary

Marc Hundley's Dictionary caught my eye at the Art Book Fair. A book was released, and there is also an exhibition of Hundley's work:

[His] second book Dictionary focuses on a series of suggestive illustrations from the American Heritage Dictionary that hold an idiosyncratic, personal ... significance for the artist.

Art Since the Summer of '69 has closed its Chrystie Street space; it is now a mobile and online project.

Books and art, what could be better?

Ah, fall: when New York bestows upon its citizens a plethora of fests, fairs, and fun! The New York Art Book Fair, which closes tomorrow, is a lovely free-for-all at MoMA PS 1 in Long Island City (so convenient!).

L Magazine highlights 10 things you shouldn't miss; I'll just present a list of book and zine titles from the fair's presenters that I found poignant, amusing, or otherwise noteworthy:

Buy a book -- or two, or three! Or just marvel at the wonderful design, the creamy pages, the odd tchotchkes on offer (such as the clip-in inchwide streak of gray hair, the Sontag: Feminist Hair Wear, yours for the low, low price of $25!), the hipster glasses, the plethora of limited-edition totes.

An author by any other name ...

Last night, I finished Carmela Ciuraru's Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. A cool topic, and interesting to consider in an age where some are calling for more transparency and less anonymity on the Internet.

I read novels most of the time, and this was a good reminder of all the cool STUFF that nonfiction can teach you. I mean, did you know:

  • Lewis Carroll (or Charles Dodgson) was an early proponent of the standing desk ("He wrote most of his books, include Alice, while standing up," according to Ciuraru, and supposedly could stand at his desk for 10 hours a day). Carroll also had strange tea rituals -- he steeped it for exactly 10 minutes, and paced, swinging the teapot, for those 10 minutes -- and walked, sometimes as much as 20 miles a day, to solve problems or reflect on life (though it's anyone's guess as to why he made notes about his feet and how they held up post-walk).
  • Georges Simenon, what a whacko! Ciuraru notes, "He owned a gold watch that a reporter described as 'the size and shape of a brioche.'" [yum!] "This was a man as intoxicated by himself as others are by fine wine ... On the advice of his doctor, he restricted himself to two bottles of red Bordeaux daily. (He did got through periods of renouncing alcohol for Coca-Cola.) One friend recalled a common sight: Simenon throwing up a bottle's worth of cognac in the garden, 'two fingers down his throat, after he finished a chapter.'" (Drunkenness, many a writer's friend/foe.) Also? "... he weighed himself before and after completing each new book, so as to measure how much sweat the project had cost him."
  • Patricia Highsmith, who wrote Strangers on a Train, was altogether unpleasant, but had a strange affection for snails: "Her fondness for snails was such that she kept three hundred of them in her garden in Suffolk and insisted on traveling with them. When she moved to France in 1967, she smuggled snails into the country by hiding them under her breasts -- and she made several trips back and forth to smuggle them all."

Read it. The Bronte bits and the Mark Twain chapter felt somewhat familiar, but now I'm raring to read some Henry Greene (Henry Yorke) and learn more about the sad end of James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon).

Oh, heavens!

At the Salvation Army in Astoria a few weeks ago, while browsing the shelves of books, I came across Heaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace. And I nearly dropped the other three books I was carrying; I snatched the lovely old copy (from 1945) greedily, like my 7-year-old self, thrilled at the idea of getting reacquainted with Betsy and Tacy (and don't forget Tib, though she figured only as a pen pal at this point in the series).

For those of you who didn't grow up reading the Betsy-Tacy books, a bit about the author: Maud Hart Lovelace was born in 1892 in Minnesota, and she spent her formative years there. From the jacket copy:

From 1906 to 1910 Maud Hart went to high school in Mankato, Minnesota, and had, she says, a very good time, which she recorded in four diaries, one for each high school year. The diarist went on to the University of Minnesota, traveled a bit, wrote a few stories, and married Delos W. Lovelace, then deep in the First World War. Mrs. Lovelace too wrote some historical novels, including the popular Early Candlelight. Then the Lovelaces came east, had a daughter named Merian, and settled down in Garden City, Long Island, where Mrs. Lovelace began to write the Betsy-Tacy stories, and Mr. Lovelace became a newspaperman.

The books I remember best were about Betsy, Tacy, and Tib in grade school; Heaven to Betsy regales the reader with stories from their freshman year of high school, modeled on the turn-of-the-century Minnesota small town Maud herself recalled so fondly.

I was nervous that upon rereading the stories would not hold up -- that, rather than giddily enjoying the characters I had grown up loving, I would be dismayed at provincialism or outdated views of gender, etc., etc. But I should have had more faith; the book was refreshing and realistic and quite a pleasure. A few of the more winning moments:

  • In Chapter 11, "Sunday Night Lunch," Lovelace describes how Mr. Ray, Betsy's father, commandeered the kitchen and made grand meals for his daughters and their friends. Then something very strange is described: "First he put the coffee on. He made it with egg, crushing shell and all into the pot, mixing it with plenty of coffee and filling the pot with cold water. He put this to simmer and while it came to a boil, slowly filling the kitchen with delicious coffee fragrance, he made the sandwiches." Now, in Oregon, we pride ourselves on knowing how to make a cup. But egg, shell and all, in your coffee? Never seen it before. Have others? Is this normal? It is practically inevitable that one cool winter evening I will experiment and report back.
  • Since we're on the subject of food, let's talk about onion sandwiches. "If nothing else was available [Mr. Ray] made his sandwiches of onions. He used slices of mild Bermuda onions, sprinkled with vinegar and dusted with pepper and salt. About the use of pepper and salt Mr. Ray had very positive ideas. He used his condiment with the care and precision of a gourmet. Not too much! Not too little!" These were his most popular offering, which perhaps suggests that his Sunday lunches weren't worth all the raves. But I do like onions. Maybe Betty Crocker has nothing on Betsy and crew.
  • Everyone is drinking cocoa, all the time, and simple writing suffices. Instead of a long, tiresome conversation about small-town Minnesota football politics, there are a few lines of dialogue, then the following: "Everyone was indignant, and the cocoa tasted very good." Small outrages, quiet resolutions.
  • In Chapter 14, "Halloween," Betsy is thinking about a boy she likes, but she also begins to reflect on what she really wants out of life. "She had been almost appalled, when she started going around with Carney and Bonnie, to discover how fixed and definite their ideas of marriage were. They both had cedar hope chests and took pleasure in embroidering their initials on towels to lay away. Each one had picked out a silver pattern and they were planning to give each other spoons in these patterns for Christmases and birthdays. When Betsy and Tacy and Tib talked about their future they planned to be writers, dancers, circus acrobats."
  • In Chapter 23, "The Talk With Mr. Ray," Betsy and her sister Julia plan to approach their father to explain that they want to convert from Baptists to Episcopalians (gasp!). They're nervous, and when they tell him, he ribs them a little. Betsy replies, "Don't joke. Julia and I know that you'll feel terrible. In the first place it will be so embarrassing to you; ... [people will] criticize you, and we can't stand the thought of that." Instead of this becoming a big, dramatic scene, we get to see Mr. Ray respond to his daughters with a little common sense: "Let me set you right on one thing first of all ... we aren't going to decide this on the basis of what people will say. You might as well learn right now, you two, that the poorest guide you can have in life is what people will say." And then there's a lot of religion talk, which ends with Mr. Ray's thoughtful response: "The most important part of religion isn't in any church. It's down in your own heart. Religion is in your thoughts, and in the way you act from day to day, in the way you treat other people. It's honesty, and unselfishness, and kindness. Especially kindness."
  • Some of the most dramatic action revolves around Betsy winning an essay contest Rhetoricals with a rollicking tale from the Puget Sound. Ultimate young-writer moment of victory, and it's how she gets over a heartbreak -- resilience and fulfillment from what you do, not what boy likes you! Very cool.
  • "Puny" is used frequently -- not in a derogatory way, but as the ultimate compliment. ("Why, lovey! How puny you look! Aren't those McCloskeys the puniest folks?")
  • Moustache cups.

I fear, indeed, that this will be the fall of revisiting more of the tales of my good old friends -- or even branching out into Lovelace's other works, of historical fiction, of tertiary characters later in life. The Maud Hart Lovelace Society has tons of great information about the author and her work; reissued paperbacks have recently come out, and you can even get a related songbook, if you're so inclined. For the particularly passionate, consider a trek to Minnesota for the National Betsy-Tacy Convention in July 2012. (Thanks for the heads up, Kathleen!)

(The illustration above, from my used copy, is by Vera Neville.)

The Information

I had something of a hard time hanging with the entirety of James Gleick's The Information (one-line Janet Maslin review, extracted from the Times: "The Information is to the nature, history, and significance of data what the beach is to sand.").That said, the book's final paragraph is a thing of real beauty:

The library will endure; it is the universe. As for us, everything has not been written; we are not turning into phantoms. We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and of the future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.

Perhaps this is indecipherable denuded of the context of the 500-odd page tome, but I found it striking. Lots of provocative ideas and little bits of history and culture; tons to unpack and meditate on.

Then it was newspapers, now it's Twitter

From The American Language, on how newspaper writing and design has shaped language use:

'The headline,' said the late E. P. Mitchell, for many years editor of the New York Sun, 'is more influential than a hundred chairs of rhetoric in the shaping of future English speech. There is no livelier perception than in the newspaper offices of the incalculable havoc being wreaked upon the language by the absurd circumstance that only so many millimeters of type can go into so many millimeters' width of column. Try it yourself and you will understand why the fraudulent use of so many compact but misused verbs, nouns and adjectives is being imposed on the coming generation. In its worst aspect, headline English is the yellow peril of the language.' 'This,' says G. K. Chesterton, 'is one of the evils produced by that passion for compression and compact information which possesses so many ingenious minds in America. Everybody can see how an entirely new system of grammar, syntax, and even language has been invented to fit the brevity of headlines. Such brevity, so far from being the soul of wit, is even the death of meaning; and certainly the death of logic.'

Fun game: substitute "Twitter" for "headline" -- you can see how their arguments would extend into our millennium. What will be the next technology to drag our language through the gutter?!

Americanisms new and old

I'm turning, again, to H.L. Mencken's The American Language; it's so dense and packed with information that I find it hard to progress more than a few pages without starting to track down some of the source material to learn more (today's diversion: an 1841 edition of the Congressional Globe on Google Books, which offers "A glance at some of the characteristic coinages of the time").

My copy, a fourth edition reprinted in 1937 that I found at Argosy Books, was perhaps the best-spent $11 I've doled out in the past year. It's a great reminder that so-called corruptions of English, American or otherwise, have been fretted over for decades; for example, Mencken notes:

A great rage for extending the vocabulary by the use of suffixes seized upon the corn-fed etymologists, and they produced a formidable new vocabulary, in -ize, -ate, -ify, -acy, -ous and -ment. Such inventions as to concertize, to questionize, retiracy, savagerous, coatee (a sort of diminutive for coat) and citified appeared in the popular vocabulary and even got into more or less respectable usage.

Suddenly, systematize doesn't seem quite so egregious. But don't worry -- the BBC is still cataloging our linguistic sins; here's 50 irksome turns of phrase that grate across the pond. Maybe they can just make a list of things we are allowed to say?