Category Archives: Literature

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Hemingway’s Cuban English

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I can speak and read French but cannot write it; nor Italian, nor German. But can write Spanish. English sometimes too, maybe. –Ernest Hemingway, 1950

Here, in the house, we talk Spanish always. –Ernest Hemingway, 1950

“I have often wondered what I should do with the rest of my life,” wrote Ernest Hemingway aboard a steamship, just after leaving Paris and divorcing his first wife. “Now I know — I shall try and reach Cuba.” The writer, born 118 years ago Friday, would go on to spend ove…

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Nina in Siberia

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Elif Batuman and her new book

 

Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, published earlier this year, has as its protagonist young Selin who, at the book’s beginning, is starting her freshman year at Harvard. We are in the fall semester of 1995. Selin is more or less a stand-in for her creator: Not only does she want to be a writer, she also has some of the same experiences that Batuman has written about in earlier memoir-essays. The book is self-conscious about the uncertainties immanent in language:…

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The Half-Life of Metaphors

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The adjective weaponized — meaning “adapted for use as a weapon, equipped with weapons,” or more broadly, “militarized” dates only to 1956, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when the following was published in the journal International Security: “The fourth was an air burst of a boosted fission weapon using a U-235 core which obtained an energy yield of approximately 251 kt. It was probably a weaponized version of the 1953 boosted configuration reduced to a m…

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A Story of Grammar

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Those of us — poets, fiction writers, literary essayists — who consider our work with language to amount to art often have a strange relationship with discussions of language. It’s hard to find a parallel in other forms of art. We who are not painters have little to offer on the subjects of paints and canvases; we who are not composers generally have few opinions about the qualities of various key or tempo signatures, much less about the composition of the orchestra. We have the right to …

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Why Won’t They Heed Plain Facts?

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My title asks it in words of one syllable. But if you will allow polysyllabicity: How can I persuade dyed-in-the-wool grammar conservatives to consider it at least possible in principle that their claims might need support from evidence? You wouldn’t trust a physician who ignored all evidence gathered in the past two centuries of medical science; but the analogous behavior regarding language and writing is happily accepted by academics who in other domains seem sensible.

Consider the responses …

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Dracula, Strunk, and Correct English Usage

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Do not place your trust in either of these men.

On May 26, 1897, exactly 120 years ago, Bram Stoker published his dark and gruesome epistolary Gothic novel Dracula. Its fearsome central character, despite his few appearances, has had more impact on the popular imagination, and appeared in more movies, than any fictional character apart from Sherlock Holmes.

On my laptop I keep a small library of late 19th-century and early 20th-century novels (downloaded from gutenberg.org), Dracula being one. I…

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Who Really Said That?

???????????????????????????????????????????????????For a time in my 20s, I worked as “assistant to the publisher” at Schocken Books, now part of Random House. Like anyone with that sort of glorified-secretary position, I took on a lot of tasks that weren’t part of the job description. At one point, my boss realized that a charming “book of days” desk calendar, with clever quotes and illustrations — for which he had purchased publishing rights and print-ready films from a British publisher — lacked the permissions to reproduce most …

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Mamma Mia!

us-afghanistan_8a340064-2074-11e7-beb7-f1cbdf0743d8Last week, the United States dropped its MOAB, or Massive Ordnance Air Blast, on a network of tunnels in Afghanistan, killing approximately 94 people who have been reported thus far as ISIS militants. Of course, Massive Ordnance Air Blast is not how the press has been referring to this largest nonnuclear device; it (or she) is referred to as the Mother of All Bombs — which may, in fact, have been the original moniker, with the more official-sounding term a back-formation from this Mom Bomb idea.

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Language Birthers

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Shakespeare birthers believe that anyone but the Bard wrote the plays and sonnets.

Birther is an excellent word, invented about a decade ago to designate those who claimed, against all evidence, that Barack Obama was born in Africa (or Asia — anywhere outside U.S. territory) and thus prohibited by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution from holding the office of president of the United States. (Nobody claimed that he had not attained the age of at least 35 years, or had not been a resident…

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The Empathy Effect

20151021_genre_fictionI am writing this blog post on the last day of National Reading Month, a featured period of time that may become quaint in the years ahead. For now, though, it has comprised several weeks of recommendations, read-ins, read-aloud marathons, and general hoopla around the joys and benefits of reading. And for several years now, the researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano have been tying reading to a specific outcome that many feel is woefully lacking in our political life: empathy. In particula…