Category Archives: Literature

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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…

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A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first rec…

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Words of Solace, Words of Action

d510962f696c5b1a77bf1a42fcad5846Votes did not save us from the precipice last week. Yet, so often, language has buoyed us — given us wings, or perhaps simply currents of warm air, to carry us onto steadier ground. I have no such words of my own, but in the past 10 days I’ve been hearing some wise voices, from other dark times. Here are a few:

From W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose building…

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How Does It Feel?

ows_147681816330759I feel that today is a day when it’s incumbent on me to be newsworthy, so I’m writing about …

Bob Dylan. When the announcement came last month that he had been selected for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the ensuing hue and cry was, as my Lingua Franca colleague Bill Germano has noted, predictable.  The notion of Dylan-as-poet had been controversial for more than 50 years. Bobby Zimmerman, of Hibbing, Minn., adopted a poet’s last name and over the years published a book of verse (Tarantula), a s…

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Literary Judgment, Literary Luck

0179f6077adad6796a3eac8bfd6cb67aTwenty years ago this month, I was in New Orleans to receive an award for my writing. I’ve been thinking about that moment as we return to classes. Whatever subject you teach, you most likely find yourself in the position of judging the quality of students’ prose. Indeed, for most of us, the grades we award at the end of the term will depend largely on how well our students express themselves in writing.

Here’s how the award I received in 1996 came about. I had published a couple of books in t…

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That in Aleppo Once …

Othello

Shakespeare’s Othello recalls having killed an enemy in Aleppo.

 

When, in an MSNBC interview with Mike Barnicle on Morning Joe, the Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson tripped and fell over Aleppo — “And what is Aleppo?” — he provoked a mystified response, “You’re kidding!” and then Johnson’s fate-sealing “No.” High-minded groans.  Twittersphere code red. Facebook posts asking whether Johnson thought Aleppo might be, say, an acronym. Americans Like Excusing Po…