Doing Things With Words

16 Dec

Even in this untextual, unverbal epoch, there are still people with a fascination for the intricacies of linguistic mechanics and those building blocks of language, words. In the popular culture publicist turned journalist William Safire expended much attention on word usage. In slightly more rarefied venues, language shaman and sages, take for example, Barbara Walraff in the Atlantic , represent the keepers of Correct Grammar and Style. This is , of course, can be interesting stuff but honestly the most attention I am able to muster for such matters is the fairly recent cutesy iteration of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style as rendered by Mara Kalman.

What does spark my enthusiastic attention are commonplace books and quotation/aphorism anthologies —of which a number of such have recently made their way into published reality. Here’s an annotated list

Lend Me Your Ears: The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations ed by Anthony Jay(Oxford University Press) This volume represents the 4th edition, including 5000 citations with 300 new ones—from Napoleon to Barack Obama,featuring such eminences as Dorothy Parker, Mahatma Gandhi, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Washington, Charles de Gaulle, and Juan Peron[but apparently not the wife]. You’ll find gems such as Hillary Rodham Clinton’s, ‘If I misspoke that was just a misstatement.’ and ‘Rahm Emanuel’s ‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.’ And much more.

The Oxford Book of Parodies edited by John Gross (Oxford University Press) Not quite in the mold of quotation collections (close enough in my mind) well regarded John Gross, formerly of the [London]Times Literary Supplement and the New York Timescollects gems from masters of parody and some unexpected voices—Max Beerbohm, Robert Benchley, Bret Harte, H. L. Mencken, George Orwell, James Thurber, Peter Ustinov, and Evelyn Waugh. Their sharpened blades vivisect such literary notables as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Poe, Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Conan Doyle, A. A. Milne, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, Allen Ginsberg, and Martin Amis. Need I point out this volume is a treasure of great, good fun?

The Bed of Procrustes Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Random House). Taleb, a former [financial] trader and currently Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University is well known for his “groundbreaking and prophetic” opus, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. His author biography includes the claim that he ” spends most of his time as a flâneur [idler or lounger], meditating in cafés across the planet.’ Which is, of course, nice work especially if the greatest exertion involved is coining astringent and apparently clever aphorisms.

The Novelist’s Lexicon Writers on the Words That Define Their Work – edited Villa Gillet/LeMonde (Columbia U Press) Phillip Leventhal,who is an editor at the Columbia University Press, apprised me of this sweet little tome (I feel compelled to credit Phillip to avoid any false impression(s) of literary omnipotence). It is also a hybrid of the straight forward anthology collecting essays by seventy “prominent” authors—Jonathan Lethem ,A. S. Byatt , Colum McCann , Daniel Mendelsohn, Etgar Keret, Annie Proulx, Rick Moody, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Enrique Vila-Matas, Adam Thirwell , Andre Brink and Péter Esterhazy— on a word that opens a door to their work

Here’s Jonathan Lethem’s contribution, Furniture

However appalling to consider, however tedious to enact, every novel requires furniture, whether it is to be named or unnamed, for the characters will be unable to remain in standing positions for the duration of the story. For that matter, when night falls—whether it is depicted or occurs between chapters—characters must be permitted to sleep in beds, to rinse their faces in sinks, to glance into mirrors, and so on. (It is widely believed that after Borges, mirrors are forbidden as symbols in novels. However, it is cruel to deny the characters in a novel sight of their own faces; hence mirrors must be provided.) These rules apply no matter how tangential the novel’s commitment to so-called realism, no matter how avant-garde or capricious, no matter how revolutionary or bourgeois. Furniture may be explicit or implicit, visible or invisible; may bear the duty of conveying social and economic detail or be merely cursorily functional; may be stolen or purchased, borrowed, destroyed, replaced; may be sprinkled with crumbs of food or splashed with drink; may remain immaculate; may be transformed into artworks by aspiring bohemians; may be inherited by characters from uncles who die before the action of the novel begins; may reward careful inspection of the cushions and seams for loose change that has fallen from pockets; may be collapsible, portable; may even be dragged into the house from the beach where it properly belongs—but, in any event, it must absolutely exist. Anything less is cruelty.

This is an eminently charming and engrossing and charming book. Indeed. In fact, all four titles are.

One Response to “Doing Things With Words”


  1. RIP John Gross « ourmaninboston - January 12, 2011

    […] of the recent book notices here noted esteemed editor John Gross’s latest excellent anthology, The Oxford Book of Parodies (Oxford University Press). The New York Times reported today that Gross passed […]

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