Category Archives: Literature

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The Case Against Flashback

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I’ve been thinking, this week, about daydreaming and fiction.  A recent article in The Atlantic estimates that people may daydream through nearly half their waking hours. That seems like a lot to me, but I readily admit to my mind “wandering” during weddings, funerals, classical-music concerts, long drives, and the line at the DMV. The relationship between dreaming — the REM sort as well as the daydream — is one that writers have evoked many times, from John Gardner’s notion of fictio…

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What’s He to Hecuba?

hecuba-statue-baseThe unveiling of the University of Southern California’s new expansion has given the Los Angeles campus an opportunity to add a new statue. She is Hecuba, Queen of the Trojans, deliberately selected as a subject to counterbalance USC’s testosterone-fueled Tommy Trojan (officially “the Trojan Shrine”), the bronze campus mascot erected in 1930.

The new statue is the work of Christopher Slatoff. “Queen Hecuba will serve as the new symbol of Troy,” said President C.L. Max Nikias, who emphasized that…

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DIY Digital Humanities

The digital humanities are known for major-infrastructure projects, such as data-crunching the contents of capacious corpora and charting the movement of vast numbers of people and ideas over space and time. An example picked from many is Martin Grandjean’s pleasingly meta visualization of digital-humanities Twitter users, below.

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Grandjean parses: “This graph consists of 1,434 nodes connected by 137,061 directed edges, each symbolizing a user ‘following’ another on Twitter.” The data, he says, …

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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 …