Posts filed under “Books & Literature”
Dear Dr. Boli: My Kindle reader suddenly started playing the Valse triste by Sibelius, and now it won’t stop. It just keeps playing the Valse triste over and over again. It’s kind of freaking me out. How can I make it stop? —Sincerely, Jeffrey Preston Bezos.
Dear Sir: You have not mentioned what it was that you were reading. Were you reading a particularly sad book, like something by Mrs. Henry Wood or perhaps Richard Nixon’s memoirs? Ebook readers are sentimental creatures most of the time anyway, but a steady diet of sad books can turn them from sentimental to morose if you are not careful. It sounds as though your Kindle may already be in the advanced stages. The only cure, or at least palliative, is to read only amusing books on the Kindle for the next few weeks. Fill it with the works of P. G. Wodehouse or Robert Benchley, and read your sad books on paper.
You, of course, would never be the sort to play silly pranks on harried editors. But if you were that sort, you might try sending an email to the editor at Penguin Random House who is responsible for the backlist:
I found a very embarrassing error in your edition of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. It is on page 267. I will not repeat it, but it will be obvious the moment you see it.
You would—hypothetically, if you were the sort to play silly pranks on harried editors—send that off and never respond to any messages sent in reply.
In Chinese literature, four works are considered the Four Great Classical Novels. Unfortunately, they are almost unknown to Westerners, and—with the exception of Dream of the Red Chamber—it is hard to find them in translation.
But now we have computers! The Chinese texts are on line, and Google Translate us up to the task. For a peek at what we’ve been missing, here is the beginning of the second chapter of Journey to the West (traditionally attributed to Wu Cheng’en), as translated for us by Google:
Satoru Tooru second time off the magic Bodhi really Miaoli owned by the co-soul
Monkey King got word table names, contend enthusiastically, before the ceremony to Bodhi Kai Xie. That Patriarch ordered that the public cited Monkey out two door sweep teach him to deal with, deal with the advance and retreat section. Immortal pursue out. Wukong to the door, and thanks to the public brother, sleep at the arrangements between the Gallery veranda. The next morning, and all the brothers learn verbal politeness, preaching on the road, copybooks incense. Daily true. That sweeping leisure garden hoe, gardening repair tree, lights the fire and look for firewood, pick waterway pulp. Where things used, and both equipment. Six or seven years in the cave feel prosperous.
Day, founder Gordon Gaozuo altar, Zhu Xian call set, lecture Avenue. So it’s: hype, Musella lasiocarpa. Three times wonderful play to teach, subtle methodology whole. Slow roll stag tail jet bead, move the ringing thunder nine days. Said a Club Road, talk for a while Zen, three with this as natural. Gui Cheng enlightened word processor, no guidelines had sex mysterious.
Magic! Sex! Gardening! Typing! Now, with the aid of almost supernaturally intelligent machine translation, we can see why this is one of the Four Great Classical Novels in Chinese literature. It’s got Finnegans Wake beat all hollow.
Arthur Schopenhauer espouncing his philosophical pessimism.
From a short paragraph on Arthur Schopenhauer:
He is known for having espounced a sort of philosophical pessimism that saw life as being essentially evil and futile, but saw hope in aesthetics, sympathy for others and ascetic living.
Dr. Boli actually looked up the word “espounce” to make sure it was not a word that had been out there in the wild all this time without his noticing it. It does not seem to be very common, at any rate.
But we can see what happened here. To espouse a philosophical position, in the current use of the term, is to adopt it as one’s own (or, in the original sense, to marry it, which may or may not be legal in your jurisdiction). To expound an idea is to set it forth in detail. A philosophical writer naturally does both: one expounds the ideas that one espouses. The two notions go together and are easily conflated, and we end up with something like espounce. If jaguars had philosophical ideas, they would certainly espounce them.
This is a more perfect portmanteau word than most. Your average portmanteau word, like “transponder,” is an obvious combination of the first part of one word and the last part of another. In espounce the words seem to have collided at such a high velocity that they have become inextricably blended. It is possible to recognize the blending, but it is not possible to see where one begins and the other ends. It is something like mocha, in which chocolate and coffee combine to make a flavor that is obviously chocolate-and-coffee, but not first chocolate, then suddenly coffee.
In fact, it is a portmanteau word in the original sense of the term, for the term “portmanteau” was adopted by Humpty Dumpty to explain some of the unusual vocabulary in “Jabberwocky”:
“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy.’ ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active.’ You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
Slithy is just the same sort of construction as espounce. It is not first one word, then the other, but the two words folded together completely. Or, if you prefer a chemical metaphor, it is not a suspension, but a solution.
So we have discovered a new word. Now, we could mock the writer for an obvious mistake. In fact, that is what Dr. Boli set out to do. But instead he began to like the word espounce, and is now disposed to suggest that we should embrace it as expressing an idea not otherwise easily expressed: the idea of simultaneously espousing an idea and expounding it to others.
Another victim sinks into the tomb,
Struck by Consumption,s dire
unering dart again fond friends
are call,d to bewail the doom of
one whom love had link,d to
many a hart.
This was the epitaph on the tombstone of a young man who died in 1830 at the age of nineteen. Our friend Father Pitt found it in the old Bethel Cemetery, and it immediately struck him that it was probably not an original composition. It looks like a semiliterate transcription of a published poem. But where was the poem published? asked old Pa Pitt. It took exactly twenty seconds to type the first line into Google and come up with the answer:
It is from The Casket, a popular American magazine of the day; click on the image above to be taken to the full volume in Google Books.
Twenty seconds, and we have the answer. Think about that for a moment. How long would it have taken a mere quarter-century ago? Dr. Boli suspects that it literally could not have been done. The poem was, as far as he knows, never reprinted after its initial appearance; it can be found only in the June, 1830, issue of The Casket. Probably half a dozen libraries in the world, at the very most, have copies of that magazine in dusty bound volumes somewhere. The odds are pretty well stacked against stumbling across one of them by accident. It might occur to one in a brilliant flash of insight that the poem had come from a current magazine; but even then, to search through all the extant magazines published in 1830 in all the libraries in North America would have been such a daunting project that one would almost certainly not have begun it.
Every once in a while, when we wonder whether the Internet is good for anything but YouTube comments and quack cancer cures, we can remind ourselves that it makes whole species of knowledge possible that were not possible before.
From an article at the end of a long stream of clicks:
So ended one of the most notorious (and mostly unknown until now) chapters in NFL history.
This is a sentence that leaves one staring into the screen in puzzlement. Dr. Boli has not run into this meaning of “notorious” before. But it is an adjective, after all, and as a certain Mr. Dumpty once said: “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs: they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”
This is a short review of Robur-le-Conquérant by Jules Verne, which appeared in La Nouvelle Revue when the book came out in 1886. Dr. Boli has hurriedly scribbled a translation from the French, for no other reason than that nobody else would do it.
The work of Jules Verne, which has numerous enthusiasts, certainly has its detractors as well. They accuse it of mixing up fantasy too intimately with science, and of troubling young intellects with ideas that are false, or incompletely true, about the phenomena on which modern science has still shed little light. Either way, no one can deny that the ingenious and audacious author has marked out a new territory all his own in our contemporary literature, and that is certainly a kind of talent that is not without merit. His new work is no less original and no less bold than its predecessors. Again an engineer is the hero, but this time it is the immensity of the heavens that is the theater of his adventures and experiments. Robur the Conqueror is the inventor of an aerodrome with seventy-four helices and two propellers: the Albatross, which guarantees him the empire of the air. Alone, convinced that each invention must come at its proper time, and that science ought not to outstrip morality, he disappears, taking with him his secret that could change the social and political conditions of the world. But he announces that he will return the moment humanity is knowledgeable enough to profit from that secret, and wise enough not to abuse it. Of course, as in all his novels, M. Jules Verne has added a considerable amount of humor and gaiety to Robur the Conqueror, and his innumerable readers will once again pass some delightful hours in enjoying these marvelous and entertaining adventures.
The book is available on Project Gutenberg: