Monday, December 24, 2012

From trees they came, to trees they return...

With thanks to  Bookshelf Porn for these two holiday trees.

I like this one very much, but you really need something like a law library at hand to pull it off.

This is more manageable for the average reader. Who doesn't live with cats.

Wishing all readers (and cats!) a peaceful, contented and bookish holidays season.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Lockwood Concern, by John O'Hara

Thanks once again to Anthony Burgess and his list of 99 best novels! I had never heard of this title, nor of the author. The Lockwood Concern was the 13th of John O'Hara's 17 novels, published in 1965, but it never received the acclaim (except from Anthony Burgess) of his much earlier works, Appointment in Samarra and Pal Joey.
I tend to view the time I spend with a book as a short-term relationship. Sometimes it ends with a deeply felt promise to meet again, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, it ends in a huff at the end of the first date (a chapter or less).  My relationship with The Lockwood Concern began with a mad thrill  -- that infatuated feeling that I could never get enough.  This led predictably enough to disenchantment and disappointment, but I didn't dump it. I pushed on; the plot threw me enough pleasant surprises to string me along. At the end of the novel, I was ready to say good-bye to it, but with no ill feelings. It's not at all a bad book, but I don't imagine I'll want to re-Kindle our affair.  [Sorry, couldn't resist that.]

The book opens with the construction of George Lockwood's enormous new house and the very high wall surrounding it.  Mr. Lockwood is a man who places great value on privacy.  He has two hidden staircases installed, one going from his bedroom to his library, and the other from the library to the wine cellar.  The Italian workmen brought in from New York and lavishly paid are the only ones involved in the project who know about these staircases. Less skilled and trusted workers lay the bricks for the fortress-like wall with the spikes around its top. What is more deliciously enticing than such great secrets?  Surely Mr. Lockwood has some fascinating concern obscured behind his tall, spiked walls.

That's human nature, isn't it?  We see tall walls and imagine that there must be a magnificent house (or a magnificent something) concealed behind them. We sense that someone is keeping secrets, and we leap to the conclusion that they are salacious, or hideous, or wondrous. Present us with news of a hidden staircase or two, and our imaginations run riot. And there you have it:  the seduction phase of my affair with this book.

As our affair progressed, however, I came to meet not only George Lockwood, but also his grandfather Moses. Moses had killed two men in early 19th-century Pennsylvania. Some said the killings were in self-defence; others were sceptical.  At any rate, his reputation was rather checkered. As he acquired wealth, there were always murmurs of ill-gotten gains and abuse of power. We then meet Moses' son (and George's father) Abraham, who pursues an unspoken but single-minded goal:  He wants to create a Lockwood empire in his small part of Pennsylvania.  He does not wish to join the well-established Mainline Philadelphia elite -- they're already too established.  He wants his corner of the world to be the locus of the Lockwood empire, and his every thought and every action are directed toward this goal.  This, it turns out, is the Lockwood Concern.
Abraham Lockwood, as stated, had heard of the Quaker Concern, and he was aware that his great plans could be called a Concern, but he did not so refer to them, or it. He gave no name to it. A concern. A cause. A campaign. A plan. A strategy. An obsession. A purpose. A mania - it did not matter that he gave it no name. It could have mattered if he had given it a name, since a designation, a definition would have inhibited his actions within the meaning of the name. It was so constantly in his thoughts and took so many forms of action that an action that could be called loving was sometimes followed by an action that could be called cruel, and neither modifier would be applicable to a third action. Since the Concern was Abraham Lockwood's secret it did not need a name.
Abraham's two sons fall relatively complacently into place as the next generation of secretive, dynastic Lockwoods, increasing the fortune but failing to share their father's vision of a local dynasty.  George and Penwood share office space (and a secretary, Marion Stademyer, to disastrous effect) in New York.  They go in on some business deals together, others separately. Their relationship seems rooted in business far more than in blood.

George has a son, Bing, who is tossed out of Princeton for cheating, much to his father's disgust. After a vicious argument, Bing removes himself to California to find his way in the new business of prospecting for oil. Some years later, through a prep school connection, George hears of his son's dazzling financial success, and he greets the news with rancour.
And now George Lockwood was beginning to discover the cause of his forgetfulness. It was not forgetfulness at all. It was hatred, and it had been started with Preston Hibbard's visit, his report on Bing and Bing's wife and Bing's children and Bing's Rolls-Royce and Bing's standing in the Far West. The boy was self-sufficient and had made himself so with no help from the father; and he had made his mark in a kind of existence in which the father could not have survived. George Lockwood had not forgotten his son, but had banished him from his mind, and the son had made him lie to himself. He had not been overcome with desire for Marian Stademyer but by the urgent need to dominate a human being who, being a woman, could give him pleasure in the process. Yet even that was a form of postponement. He now knew that even without the violent consequences of his rendezvous with Marian Strademyer, a meeting with his son was unavoidable - because he would not have avoided it. The Hibbard snapshots had made the meeting necessary. George Lockwood had been compelled to have one more try at dominating his son even though the attempt would end in disastrous failure... The only thing left to save was his position. He had always been a sonofabitch in the eyes of his son. He would maintain that position. His son must be kept from knowing that his triumph in life was also a triumph over his father.
And there it is.  George Lockwood's walls, his hidden passages, his silences and his lies conceal only that:  he's a thoroughly unpleasant, unprincipled and unfeeling man.  There is no mystery.  And in the end, his secrecy and amorality will lead to his death, in a very fitting fashion.  So long, George. I can't say we'll miss you.

Although my initial infatuation was long gone by the end of the book, I admired this novel. I was glad to have met it and spent the time with it that I did. It reflects the desires of people everywhere, not only in America, to achieve a status that their society is reluctant to grant them.  It reflects perfectly the character of its author, who although he achieved a certain degree of literary success, never felt that he got the recognition he so craved.  Brendan Gill, who edited many of O'Hara's stories for The New Yorker, saw clearly O'Hara's distress.
"Oh," writes Gill, "but John O'Hara was a difficult man! Indeed, there are those who would describe him as impossible, and they would have their reasons." Gill indicates that O'Hara was nearly obsessed with a sense of social inferiority due to not having attended college. "People used to make fun of the fact that O'Hara wanted so desperately to have gone to Yale, but it was never a joke to O'Hara. It seemed... that there wasn't anything he didn't know about in regard to college and prep-school matters." Of O'Hara, Hemingway once said, cruelly, "Someone should take up a collection to send John O'Hara to Yale." O'Hara also yearned for an honorary degree from Yale. According to Gill, Yale was unwilling to award the honour because O'Hara "asked for it."
Sometimes we erect walls and build secret rooms simply to house what we feel we don't have.  And to give the illusion that we have something even better.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, by John McWhorter

So many histories of the English language focus on etymology:  Look at all the fascinating languages from which we've borrowed vocabulary!  I love words. John McWhorter loves words. But a language cannot function on its lexicon alone -- there must be a grammar, or a set of rules to put the words into a meaningful pattern.  English has some fascinating grammatical eccentricities which set it rather far apart from its Germanic kin, and Mr. McWhorter is one of very few linguists to discuss them in terms that a general audience will enjoy.
English's Germanic relatives are like assorted varieties of deer -- antelopes, springboks, kudu, and so on --antlered, fleet-footed, big-brown-eyed variations on a theme. English is some dolphin swooping around underwater, all but hairless, echo-locating and holding its breath. Dolphins are mammals like deer: they give birth to live young and are warm-blooded. But clearly the dolphin has strayed from the basic mammalian game plan to an extent that no deer has.
He starts by examining our 'meaningless do'.  Why do we use it?  Other Germanic languages do not use it. In these sentences, the do has no function, yet it's required to avoid sounding like a foreign tourist, asking "Have you not a passport?" (That would be the exact translation from most European languages.)  When and from where did English pick up this quirk?

The other Germanic languages have grammatical features that English has shed, such as gender and case inflection. When and why did English drop these things when none of its cousins did so?

McWhorter reminds us that when it comes to detective work on ancient grammars, we must accept a certain amount of circumstantial evidence and extrapolation. In early times, reading and writing were limited to the very few educated and clerical men. In England, Christian writing would have been in Latin, although that's not the language the people were speaking. One of our earliest works in Old English, Beowulf, showed a language that "had been jangling with case markers, and nouns had three genders as in Latin, Greek, and Russian."  Where did they go? By the time Chaucer penned The Canterbury Tales in what we now refer to as Middle English, they had vanished.

The Normans, as we know, invaded in England 1066, bringing with them 150 years of Norman French as the official language. Surely the natives continued to speak English at home, but all official documents were written in French.  When English re-appeared, it reflected the spoken language, stripped of its case markers and genders, and with the 'meaningless do'.  How did such massive changes occur over such a seemingly short time? Well, McWhorter says, they didn't.

The 'meaningless do' is found in Welsh and Cornish, a couple of Celtic languages native to the British Isles.  When the Anglo-Saxons invaded, they did not slaughter all the Celts nor even completely subjugate them, and thus, this oddity made its way into English over centuries.  It appeared in writing about a thousand years later, because only then did the written language reflect the popularly spoken one.
However, starting in the Middle English period, when it became acceptable to write English more like it was actually spoken, this would have included not only virtually case-free nouns, but also our Celticisms. Therefore, it is not that Celticisms only entered English almost a thousand years after Germanic speakers met Celts in Britain. It is merely that Celticisms did not reach the page until then, which is quite a different thing. People writing the way they actually spoke. 
Likewise, it took centuries for English to rid itself of the genders and case markers. Where did they go?  Mr. McWhorter suggests that the Vikings axed them. When they came down to the British Isles in their ships, they found the English spoken there to be very complex. What do we do when we can't deal with a complex system of suffixes?  We tend to drop them.  And once again, the spoken language at that time would never have appeared in print, so when Middle English appeared after the 150 years of the Norman invasion, the absence of all those suffixes appears to be a much more abrupt change that it really was.  In the following excerpt, McWhorter uses a lovely analogy to illustrate the limited view of more conventional linguists who insist that the written record is the only acceptable proof of a language's changes over time.  Usually in stultifying academic prose, no less. They want facts, evidence, hard proof. That, however, is the problem with language -- in the absence of sound recordings or written records, we must gather the circumstantial evidence and surmise.  It does not really seem like such a stretch to reach McWhorter's conclusion that the Vikings lopped off all of Old English's pesky suffixes.
When it comes to charting how English got to be the way it is now from what it was in Beowulf, the common consensus is all about describing rather than explaining. "The such-and-such suffix -en eroded into -uh, then x centuries later it is gone entirely except in this document, likely written in a conservative register due to influence from factor y; meanwhile -um eroded into -en; see in Figure 7 how the erosion took place at such-and-such a rate in documents from this region but more slowly in documents from that region . . ." That is, this kind of work shows us what happened decade by decade in the English scriptures. Treating scripture as the only valid or interesting evidence in studying how English changed in ancient centuries risks leaving untold forever an interesting chapter in the saga of English. This is especially unsavory in that treating the peculiarity of Modern English as a matter of chance is like walking past cars parked along a street and happening upon one with the windshield broken in, three hubcaps gone, and no license plates, and deciding that all of this must have happened via ordinary wear and tear. But obviously, someone broke into this particularly smashed-up car. Something happened to it. Attention must be paid. We should report this car. Especially since this happens to be a neighborhood well known as a favored haunt of -- oh, let's just toss the analogy and say Vikings! ...
I suppose we should thank the Vikings for simplifying our language, but in rendering it such a misfit amongst its European relatives, they have made life a bit more challenging for us, as well. McWhorter of course cites Mark Twain's brilliant satire, The Awful German Language, as one example of an Anglophone struggling madly to re-learn the genders and cases that our language shed centuries ago.
English's simplicity is, in terms of explanation rather than mere documentation, weird. It is evidence of a blind-siding by adults too old to just pick up English thoroughly the way children of immigrants do. The Scandinavian Vikings left more than a bunch of words in English. They also made it an easier language. In this, in a sense, they clipped Anglophones' wings. The Viking impact, stripping English of gender and freeing us of attending to so much else that other Germanic speakers genuflect to in every conversation, made it harder for us to master other European languages.
Being very old, Bookface first encountered the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that the grammar of one's language colours one's world view and thinking processes) in her introductory Linguistics course in 1984.  I don't remember the professor endorsing it, but I don't recall her denouncing it, either. McWhorter completely discredits it and yet marvels at its durability.
The hypothesis has .. failed. Repeatedly and conclusively. Decade after decade, no one has turned up anything showing that grammar marches with culture and thought in the way that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis claimed. At best, there are some shards of evidence that language affects thought patterns in subtle ways, which do not remotely approach the claims of Whorf. Yet the Sapir-Whorf idea is cited enthusiastically in textbooks even today, and is a favorite approach to language by journalists. In 2004 a New York Times writer supposed that the language of the Kawesqar tribe in Chile has no future tense marking because, having been nomads traveling often in canoes in the past, they would usually have been so unclear on what was going to happen in the future that there was no need to ever talk about it (!). Never mind that Japanese has no future markers either, and yet the Japanese hardly seem unconcerned with the future.
Whorf, as it turns out, was a fire inspector by day, and an amateur linguist in his spare time.  I don't mean to suggest that such a person has nothing of value to offer.  Einstein, of course, dreamt up his theory of general relativity during his quiet times at the patent office where he worked as a clerk. Unfortunately, Mr. Whorf based his hypothesis on a very limited knowledge of the Hopi language and some very flawed extrapolations from that.  

Why, the author wonders, do we still cherish such a flawed hypothesis, and yet reject the ideas that the Celts and Vikings moulded English grammar, when there is much more substantial indication that they did so? Besides being a thoroughly enjoyable read, this book was an effective prod to ask questions.  Question theories, hypotheses, theses and those who present them. Ask why one language has certain characteristics, and why another does not. And probe your language more deeply than its collection of words.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fondling the Details

With thanks to the book section of Flavorwire, who included this in their list of 10 Famous Writers on How to Read.

“In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it. Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.”                                                                    

-Vladimir Nabokov