Read, Re-read, Repeat

Master and MargaritaI’m currently re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantasy novel of Soviet life under Stalin, The Master and Margarita. Since this is actually a newer translation than the original one I read many years ago, I’m not sure it properly qualifies as “re-reading.” However, for me, re-reading a novel is uncommon.

I seldom have the time to re-read, because my current reading list never dwindles (in fact it grows as I continue to add books to my library). Plus my interests and not static: I constantly seek to learn new things.*

I always have a dozen books on the go, piled beside my bed in an unruly assortment. Most of these are nonfiction: history, politics, philosophy, science and style guides in particular.

Among that pile are books about books, including a newcomer I added a week or so ago: Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. It’s a book about the joys of re-reading science fiction and fantasy.

I tend not to read such collections of reviews, but when I glanced through her pieces while standing in the bookstore, I was impressed by not only how many authors and titles she has read, but on how many I didn’t know.

I’ve always thought of myself as a scifi buff with a fair bit of background knowledge and reading (not, I’ll admit, as much about fantasy). But Walton’s reading list makes me an amateur who has barely scratched the surface. There are many whose names I recognize, and some works I’ve read, but among the dozens of titles and authors are far too many with which I have little knowledge, let alone have read.

And Walton is re-reading them, That simply flabbergasts me. I’ve always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but she outstrips me as rapidly as a motorcycle passes a pedestrian on a highway.

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A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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Our Know-It-Alls

Municipal WorldCollingwood Council obviously knows more than anyone else in municipal governance. More, in fact, than anyone else in the entire country. In fact, they may all be geniuses in local governance issues.

Otherwise, why would council cancel their individual subscriptions to Municipal World magazine at the start of their term?

Previous councils subscribed to an issue for each member of council, plus others for administration. While I can’t say everyone read them, the brightest and most dedicated politicians on council read them cover to cover.

Now the whole town gets one issue. ONE for the entire workforce;  for the dozen or so staff AND politicians. That suggests council must be brighter not only than all previous councils, but brighter than all other municipal politicians, advisers, consultants, lawyers, planners and administrators in the whole country, combined.

Since 1891, Municipal World magazine has been Canada’s foremost source of information, best practices, issues, ideas, challenges, policies and opportunities for local governance. Every issue – 12 a year – is packed with important, informative articles and columns. This is considered the “bible” of municipal governance by every other politician across the nation.

But Collingwood council doesn’t read it any more. Clearly our council are all atheists, when it comes to the municipal bible.

I guess it’s because they already know so much they have no need to learn more. Their heads are just bursting with knowledge and just can’t fit any more in. No need for the ideas of others. No need to obey their own Code of Conduct which states councillors are obliged (underlining in the original) to learn more about their roles and responsibilities:

Members have an obligation to promote, support, pursue and partake in opportunities for professional development…

This council doesn’t need more learning because clearly they all know it all, already.

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In Praise of Audio Books

Audio booksAlthough I had listened to them in the past, I really discovered the joys of audio books several years ago, when my 92-year-old father entered hospital for his final months. As I travelled to and from the city frequently that summer, audio books kept me entertained and my mind from dwelling on the more serious questions of his health and mortality.

Travelling to Toronto to visit my mother in her nursing home, for several years after he passed away, often became a trip with audio books, too. Although I have always been an avid and voracious reader, CD recordings soon found a place in my library alongside the printed books. And, this year, her 95th, as I drove to and from the city, I again found them an equal source of distracting comfort.

Today, as I walk my dogs, I listen to audio books still. Sophie’s 14; old and slow, a little stiff, and she pokes along, stopping frequently to sniff. Listening keeps me from becoming impatient with her glacial pace. Some days I actually appreciate her slowness more because I get to finish a chapter.

Reading and hearing a story create quite different responses in the audience. A well-read story creates a remarkable emotional reaction in the listener in a way that reading the same book doesn’t. That, of course, is why radio shows were so popular before TV pretty much wiped them out. But I grew up in the last period of the era of great radio dramas and remember listening to them with fondness. I still get a kick out of them.

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The Venereal Game

Pun
Forgive the rather idiotic comments on the source page for this humourus image. They only prove that one need not understand something in order to comment online.

The Venereal Game is the provocative subtitle of James Lipton’s 1968 classic, An Exaltation of Larks (reprinted in 1977, and later expanded in the 1993 “ultimate” edition). Venereal, in this sense, comes from venery which in turn comes from the Latin venari, to hunt or pursue, rather from the sexual connotation.*

The collective nouns in much of Lipton’s book come mainly from hunting terms (terms of venery), many originating in the 1486 Book of St Albans and similar contemporary works that Lipton documents. Since that publication, creating collective nouns has become a game for many of a lexicographical bent, hence the venereal game. Even Conan Doyle engaged in it, in chapter XI of his novel, Sir Nigel, which Lipton quotes at length.

Everyone is familiar with several common collective nouns (or nouns of multitude) like these:

  • a school of fish
  • a herd of cattle
  • a swarm of bees
  • a flock of birds

But there are many, many more and yet others have been crafted as recently as the last few years (as in “a deck of Trekkies” coined in 2014). Some are quite ingenious and express a playful approach to the topic.

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The Road Not Taken

The Road Not TakenI was surprised to read a recent piece in the New York Post that suggests a poem I have long loved was actually not what I thought it was about. It was one of those epiphanies that made me reassess my attitude not only towards the poem but towards what I had assumed it meant.

The poem is Robert Frost’s famous piece, The Road Not Taken. You might remember it as “The Road Less Travelled” by which it is sometimes misnamed. It’s a short poem, only 20 lines long, each with a mere nine syllables. Many of us read it in school as part of our English courses. It remains a staple in many anthologies, a century after it Frost wrote it.

According to the writer of the Post piece, Stephen Lynch, it isn’t an “…ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult.” Rather, it was written as a sly jest.

This notion comes from David Orr’s recent book of the same name. Its subtitle is “Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong” and in it Orr takes a fresh look at some of the most popular, modern poetry. I just ordered my copy. It sounds like fascinating reading. Orr writes the On Poetry column for the New York Times Review of Books.

Remarkably, for a book that is essentially about poetry, Orr’s work has generated a lot of discussion online. While it also explores many other areas, such as social issues and pop psychology, it is refreshing to see poetry become a major talking point again. Frost himself wrote that he saw his poems as “all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless.” Perhaps a book about Frost’s poems can do the same.
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Victor Hugo’s Hunchback

HunchbackI have just finished listening to a well-read audio book (in English) of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame, or more properly, Notre Dame de Paris, as the original title was written. I had read the novel several years ago in a more recent Penguin edition, but hearing it on my peregrinations around town with the dogs gave me time to focus on some sections I had glossed over in the written form.

Unlike the abysmal Disney animation of 1996, and unlike all the films and TV series that have been made of the story since the first (Esmeralda, 1905), the novel doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s a sad, bitter tale. And Quasimodo, the hunchback, is not the main character. It is only in part his story. The happy, dancing hunchback of Disney’s tale is a cruel abomination of the tragic figure in Hugo’s novel.

Lon Chaney’s 1923 version was the first truly great portrayal of Quasimodo, but the censors of the time, under the Hays Code, forced the writers to recast several characters – Claude Frollo goes from villain to virtuous, and his brother, the drunken scholar Jehan, goes from vain bumbler to villain. The plot is also twisted to include bits Hugo never wrote, including a Pygmalion-like ball where Esmeralda is disguised as a noble lady.

If you don’t mind silent film, you definitely should see it for Chaney’s portrayal, but it isn’t the story Hugo wrote.

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This week’s reading

Going Clear Going Clear by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright is an expose of the Church of Scientology. Fascinating, scary stuff and it makes you want to keep looking back over your shoulder to see if someone is watching you.

A great read, though, and a real eye-opener if you’ve ever wanted to know the inner workings of this group (they hate to be called a cult but it’s hard to think of a better name as you’re reading this). The New York Times called it “essential” reading.

It’s also the inspiration for an HBO documentary of that name, apparently not (yet?) available in Canada. However, you can watch the BBC’s Panorama series on Scientology on YouTube, which, while a bit older, is still worth seeing. This isn’t the only book I’ve tread about Scientology, but it is both the most impressive and the most thorough. My only quibble might be that Wright sometimes seems too accommodating to the church, especially when he recounts the details of their bizarre teachings.

I plan to review this more thoroughly, but I’m only about three-quarters of the way through it now. Another few days and I’ll be done. I found the hardcover as Chapters at a discounted price, since the paperback has since been released.

Morning Noon and NightMorning Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books was another discounted title that caught my eye at Chapters. It’s about how guidance through and explanation for our rites of passage can be found throughout literature. Kirkus Reviews called it a “beautifully, tenderly conceived work.”

It’s part of the ongoing discussion about the value of literature and storytelling to our lives, a subject that has intrigued me ever since I read Joseph Campbell’s works on mythology, back in the 1970s. I have several books on this subject including some recent ones on the value of storytelling in public relations (which I referred to in my own book, Buzz, Brands and Going Viral). This is, however, more personal than the rest.

It is also a guide through some of the writing that has inspired Weinstein himself, and I’m always keen to learn what works have awakened passion or the intellect in others. I delight in discovering an author or a work I didn’t or overlooked because it opens up a path to follow I had not trod before.

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The Paleo-Fantasy

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMOjVYgYaG8]
PaleofantasyPerhaps the best – and certainly the funniest – description of what happens to your life when you pursue pseudoscience fads like the “paleo” diet is here on Popsugar. It’s laugh-aloud funny and too good not to be shared. I loved so many lines it’s hard to pick one or two, but from the description of making inedible “paleo” cookies:

The cookies look exactly the same before they are digested as after. They are eternal and unchanging. As time passes, they don’t decline in quality or taste because they can’t. They’ve already started out at theoretical zero on that scale.
I weep as I take a bite. These cookies will outlive me unless I destroy them.

For a more serious critique of the “paleofantasy” diet, read this piece on Scientific American:

The Paleo diet not only misunderstands how our own species, the organisms inside our bodies and the animals and plants we eat have evolved over the last 10,000 years, it also ignores much of the evidence about our ancestors’ health during their—often brief—individual life spans (even if a minority of our Paleo ancestors made it into their 40s or beyond, many children likely died before age 15).

Not to mention the main issue raised by nutritionists and anthropologists: the “paleo” diet is mainly based on mean, but our ancestors ate a lot – some say mostly – vegetables:

A paper out just this month suggests even Neanderthals–our north country cousins and mates– may have eaten much more plant material than previously suspected. Still, the more macho camps paint a picture of our ancestors as big, bad, hunters, who supplemented meaty diets with the occasional berry “chaser.” Others suggest we spent much of our recent past scavenging what the lions left behind, running in to snag a half-rotten wildebeest leg when the fates allowed. Although “Paleolithic” diets in diet books tend to be very meaty, reasonable minds disagree as to whether ancient, Paleolithic diets actually were. Fortunately, new research suggests a clear answer to the question of what our ancestors ate.

And what about the insects? Paleolithic humans ate them, probably a lot of them:

If you’re really going to follow a paleo diet, you ought to be eating bugs, “lots and lots of bugs,” Daniella Martin argues in “Edible.” The diet, after all, suggests we should eat more like early hunter-gatherers did, and what could be easier to hunt and gather than bugs? (Martin uses the term “bugs” interchangeably with “insects” to refer to “terrestrial invertebrates.”) The creatures are packed with protein and other nutrients. In some non-Western cultures they are considered a staple; in others, a delicacy.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6GimGZz6a8]

Watch the TED Talks, above, for a brilliant explanation why the “paleo” diet fad is just a paleo fantasy.

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Books versus E-readers

Books vs ereaderBack in February, Naomi Baron wrote a piece calledReading on-screen versus on paper,” in which she compared the two reading experiences: printed books and e-readers in five areas:

  • Cost
  • Container vs content
  • Environmental impact
  • Quality of screens
  • Concentration

Baron actually looks at these as true-or-false questions, not really comparisons. She doesn’t address issues like aesthetics, tactile sense or emotional response, or the relative value of hypertext to content, nor does she tread into the science and ergonomics of reading. For that, you have to look elsewhere. Which, of course, I did.

First let me state that it is not really an us-vs-them situation: e-readers vs printed books. Both technologies co-exist quite comfortably and each has its own merits. Neither will displace the other, and our civilization cannot survive with only digital content.*

Several Pew Research studies have shown that the number of Americans owning e-readers is still modest (24 percent by the end of 2013 but 32 percent by Jan. 2014; compared with tablet ownership which was at 42 percent by 2014) and the number of adults who had read an e-book within the previous year was a mere 28 percent with only 4 percent reading e-books exclusively (up to 5 percent by 2014). That, however, is a slowly growing figure.**

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Propaganda?

Newsletter frontLast term, when council sent out community newsletters to keep residents informed, the illiterati screamed these were ‘propaganda’ and a waste of tax dollars.* Now this council has done the same thing and these nattering nabobs of negativity have raised their voices and screamed… nothing. Their silence is deafening.

Well, they wouldn’t want to embarrass their friends on council, would they? Even if this council repeats the same practice as those they reviled last term…

Let’s not dwell on the hypocrisy of the sycophants and bloggers, else we will never get further (it would fill pages and pages to recount…). Let’s instead look at the ‘newsletter’ that came in your mailbox recently.

It’s not the same as the newsletters sent last term, you will notice.

The first impression it gives the reader is: dullness. It’s so insipid it makes my teeth hurt. Greyness abounds. It has not a single speck of colour anywhere. Not even in the town’s logo. There are some graphics, but the greyness just reduces them to insignificance. Lettering on the low-contrast grey pictures is almost impossible to read, and the background images are so faint they look like dirty smudges.

Newsletter frontOne may argue that colour costs more to publish, but presentation is everything. After all, this newsletter reflects the town, its staff and council. Surely not even the current council is as drab as this monochrome presentation. It simply sucks the brightness out of the day to unfold it. The additional cost of colour could easily have been paid without affecting taxes had council not voted itself a raise and instead spent your taxes more wisely on communication.

But this piece also reflects on the town’s CAO. After all, the buck stops on his desk.

Last term, the interim CAO read and approved all of our newsletters before they went out because he was keenly aware – as any competent CAO is – how important it is to get both the message and the medium right. I can only assume that, if the current CAO takes his responsibility for communications equally as seriously, that he read and approved this piece. In which case, what does this piece say about his communication skills or his dedication to council and the community?

Since we have it in front of us, let’s dissect the newsletter’s contents, style, spelling and grammar. Channel your inner editor and graphic designer with me for a few minutes.

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The Count of Monte Cristo

Count of Monte CristoMany of us grew up on the stories of Alexandre Dumas; from cartoons to comic books, TV series and movies. And, yes, books, albeit often abridged for the young market, with drawings of swordsmen, women in flowing dresses, and the court of kings. Swashbuckling adventures, romances with honour and swordfighting. We may not have always realized that it was Dumas who was the source, of course. Do you watch The Princess Bride and wonder who inspired it? His ideas and plots were mined by many who came after.

We learned to behave, to be men and women, by reading such tales, by imitating their heroes, by wishing on their stars, learning their manners and their wit and their honour; by being our own Musketeers.

Neighbourhood children made swords out of wooden posts and branches, then rolled around on the lawn playing at swordfights, banging our rough sticks together, bruising fingers, laughing, jumping on imaginary horses and riding off, firing our finger-pistols at the approaching Cardinal’s men. We died, histrionically, at a sword thrust defending our imagined Milady.

Athos, Porthos, Aramis, Artemis, d’Artagnan –  I knew the names of all four Musketeers better than I knew the historical names in my school textbooks. I knew at an early age about the subterfuge of cardinals and the honour of queens. As time progressed, d’Artagnan blended into Robin Hood into  Lancelot, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon and and eventually into Luke Skywalker. Swords gave way to guns and then blasters then computer games.

Years went by. I didn’t read Dumas after my early teens; the comics and the abridged children’s books yellowed, forgotten on the shelves. Other books, other pastimes, other heroes took my interest. I saw a few films based on his works, some TV, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to them.  Fun stuff, entertainment popcorn, but I forgot the Musketeers.

It was only last year that I bought Richard Pevear’s recent (and excellent) Penguin translation of Dumas’ Three Musketeers almost by accident. The odd cover art caught my eye and I felt compelled to get it (sadly, the cover art that beguiled me has since been replaced by a poster-type cover taken from a recent movie made of the tale….). It was a good choice…

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