Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Literary Tour

In case there's a reader of this blog out there, here are the anwers to Jack's quiz:

Williams Faulkner wrote the outline to his book "A Fable" on the walls of his Oxford, Miss., home, Rowan Oak.

I would not have known that had we not stopped to tour the house on our way home from spring break in Florida a decade ago.

On that memorable trip we also drove through the square at Canton, Miss., where "A Time to Kill" was filmed. We saw John Grisham's home in Oxford and toured the town square and the Ole Miss campus. We took the ferry to Dauphin Island and drove through the historic downtown in Mobile.

Oxford is an incubator of literary talent, as is Ashville, North Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Mississippi, as a whole, has proven fertile ground for great American writers, with Eudora Welty at the top of the list. (You can keep Faulkner.)

On that spring break trip, the last we took with the whole family, we camped on the beach at Gulf Islands National Seashore at Pensacola, where my sister, Mary, once lived and worked as a National Park Service ranger. It was cold and windy, and the beach was deserted. No wonder, the icy wind drove sand particles into your skin. We have a picture of Sam, who was about 5, racing along the edge of the surf with his hands outstretched and his head thrown back, inspired by the seagulls. He was lost in his world. That photo, as grainy as the air that day, captures his nature, approaching life at full tilt and reckless abandon. The youngest of our five and the only one still at home, he is the family exclamation point.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009



Most newspapers keep their style consistent by adhering to the rules in the Associated Press Stylebook. The Stylebook tells us when to capitalize a title and which months can be abbreviated and how to compile box scores in baseball.

The AP Stylebook also contains some annoying inconsistencies. In AP style, we use the dollar sign ($1) but not the cents (50 cents). We spell out percent (25 percent) and degrees (40-degree temperatures) but abbreviate miles per hour (60 mph). We spell out inches (8 inches tall) but abbreviate milimeters (20 mm).

The most ridiculous entry in the Stylebook might be this:

A numeral is a figure, letter, word or group of words expressing a number.

AAAAAAAAGH! In the first place, why not just put: "A numeral is a number"? What the heck does "expressing a number" mean?
And if that weren't bad enough, a numeral — to the rest of the world anyway — is a symbol or mark that represents a number.

Numbers may be written out or represented by symbols (one, 2, III, four, 5, VI ...)
But numerals are never written out (Arabic numberals: 1, 2, 3, 4; or Roman numerals, I, II, III, IV).

Monday, April 20, 2009

Three dead white males

A local reader e-mailed the correct answers to both questions and the bonus from Friday's post.

The three authors who all died 45 years and five months ago Wednesday (if I had given the date — Nov. 22, 1963 — it would have been a dead give-away on one of the authors, who also made his mark in another field) are:

Aldous Huxley: "Brave New World"
C.S. Lewis: "The Chronicles of Narnia"
John F. Kennedy: "Profiles in Courage"
Bonus: The book about their imaginary conversation on the other side:
"Between Heaven and Hell" by Peter Kreeft

Well done, Jack.

Now, can anyone name the three authors' author brothers or anything they authored?

And any thoughts on which author made the most important and lasting impact on civilization?

Here's a case for Huxley, at least for the "lasting" part. Huxley may be the least familiar of the three today, at least in the United States. But he was instrumental in pushing the Darwinian theory of natural selection into the mainstream. He believed it the duty of the naturally superior, such as himself, to engineer the non-survival of the least fit. He advocated eugenics, social engineering to prevent inferior races from procreating. Hitler was in the same idealogical camp; the Third Reich represented the logical outcome of the eugenics movement. The inherent racism in the theory of evolution is veiled today.

Huxley came from a family of intellectuals suffering a serious superiroity complex. But others were not so enamored of the Huxleys as they were of themselves. Here's what other authors had to say about Aldous Huxley:
D.H. Lawrence: "I don't like his books; even if I admire a sort of desperate courage of repulsion and repudiation in them. But again, I feel only half a man writes the books — a sort of precocious adolescent."
George Orwell: "You were right about Huxley's book (Ape and Essence) — it is awful. And do you notice that the more holy he gets, the more his books stink with sex? He cannot get off the subject of flagellating women."
Bertrand Russell: "You could always tell by his conversation which volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica he'd been reading. One day it would Alps, Andes and Apennines, and the next it would be the Himalayas and the Hippocratic Oath."

Jack the e-mailer offered his own literary question:
"Now here's one for you: What famous author outlined chapters of one of his books on the walls of his bedroom/writing room?"

I got this one, but I won't give it away yet. Anyone know the answer?
And here are three bonus questions: What is the name of the book? What is the name of the house? And where is it located?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Check it out


Three authors died on the same day 45 years and five months ago Wednesday.

1. Name the authors.
2. Name at least one book each wrote.

Bonus: Name the book about their imaginary conversation on the other side of the veil. Name the author.
Double bonus: Tell me where I misplaced my copy.
Triple bonus: All three authors had brothers who were also authors. Name the brothers and at least one each of their books.

Essay: Which of the three authors made the most important and lasting contribution to civilization?


My friend and frequent critic Frank, an lawyer, said he saw a church marquee that read "Practice resurrection."
"How?" Frank asked. Good question.
"Got me," I replied. "I'm still looking for an attorney who isn't still practicing. At what point do you get it right?"
Not to be outdone, Frank responded, "About the same time that 'caregivers' stop charging!"


A co-worker told me a book we discussed is available to peruse at the library but can't be taken out of the library. I told her I would check it out. Of course, I'll have to check it out without checking it out.

I met my wife in a library. We were both on work study in college, assigned to the library. I checked her out right away. She was definitely the most interesting thing I ever checked out at any library.

My job for three years was to write -- draw, really -- the titles on the spines of rebound books, usually with white ink. Many of the books were oversize — art books and the like. The library manager hired me for my "artistic" hand. I happened to be back in that library a few weeks ago and found dozens of books that I had marked 30 years ago. It was nice to see some sign, however insignificant, that I had been there.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Kiddie lit

Do you secretly enjoy reading "children's" books? You are not alone.

C.S. Lewis, author and professor of English literature at Oxford and Cambridge, wrote this about kiddie lit:
"No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty — except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all ...
"I never met The Wind in the willows or E. Nesbit's Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story ...
"When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up ...
"Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table."

You may not have been able to read Lewis' space trilogy as a child, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia as much today as you did when your mother first read them aloud to you.

Lewis himself was enchanted by Beatrix Potter's books and illustrations as a child, and they proved a major influence on his fantasy works. And are not A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder as delightful today as when you first read them?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Enormity of writing errors


My wife stumbled across a great book for a spring fiction writers. It is entitled, appropriately, The Fiction Class.

Patterned after herself and her own experience as a writing instructor at the Gotham Writers' Workshop in Manhattan, author Susan Breen's main character is the aspiring writer and fiction writing teacher Arabella Hicks. In each chapter, the book moves from her class, where the assignments provide the setting for the dialogue, to the nursing home where Arabella meets with her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship. At the end of each chapter is an "assignment" for the reader that corresponds with the class's assignment in that chapter. Breen teaches the elements of fiction writing in the midst of a published piece of fiction. What better way to teach them?

Preventative preventive

I wish there were one. Even a fine writer like Victor Davis Hanson, in this week's column, refers to "renditions, preventative detentions, wiretapping and summary deportations ..." Some dictionaries include "preventative" as an alternative to "preventive," but it still grates. I even hear "preventative" used occasionally by medical professionals.

Enormity of the problem

Mona Charen's column this week looks at the evolving English language. "Begs" as used in "begs the question," she points out, means "avoids" or "circumvents." To beg the question is to avoid the issue at hand. But because the phrase has been used incorrectly so often to mean "raises (or prompts) the question," it is now acceptable to use it that way, according to some dictionaries, including the New Oxford Dictionary of English.

The same might be true of "15 items or less," which should, of course, be "15 items or fewer." Charen says that one annoys her adolescent child. (I think the lady in front of me in Wal-Mart yesterday thought it read "15 items or more" since her shopping cart contained at least 30.)

Charen still does not approve using the term "enormity" as a synonym for "enormousness." The term "enormity" means "excessive wickedness, passing all moral bounds." But will she accept it to mean "enormousness" in 10 years, when TV news anchors and politicians have said it that way so often that dictionaries permit it?

And not to beg the question, this begs the question: Should we avoid a common usage error until the language experts tell us it's now acceptable to use it in the popular fashion, or should we instead use the error as frequently as possible to hasten its evolution to acceptability?