Category Archives: essays

Teaching a Stone to Talk

by Annie Dillard

Dillard is an author I’ve been aware of but never before read. This was a fine introduction. She reminds me of a cross between Diane Ackerman and John Berger. Or maybe Jeanette Winterson mixed with John Armstrong. Carefully observed nature and equally carefully chosen words result in little lessons in how a life might be productively led.

“The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place. We might as well get a feel for the fringes and hollows in which life is lived, for the Amazon basin, which covers half a continent, and for the life that–there, like anywhere else–is always and necessarily lived in detail: on the tributaries, in the riverside villages, sucking this particular white-fleshed guava in this particular pattern of shade.”

Descriptions of the Galapagos Islands lead to musings on the world closer at hand, retaining a whiff of Darwin – or is it Diamond?:

“Geography is life’s limiting factor…The rocks shape life like hands around swelling dough. In Virginia, the salamanders vary from mountain ridge to mountain ridge; so do the fiddle tunes the old men play. All this is because it is hard to move from mountain to mountain. These are not merely anomalous details. This is what life is all about: salamanders, fiddle tunes, you and me and things, the split and burr of it all, the fizz into particulars. No mountains and one salamander, one fiddle tune, would be a lesser world. No continents, no fiddlers. No possum, no sop, no taters. The earth, without form, is void.”

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Consider the Lobster

by David Foster Wallace

I’ve been rationing my last DFW, trying to delay the pleasure. Since The Pale King has now been published, I figured I could indulge myself with the Lobster. One or two of these I’d read in whole or in part, including the title essay, in Gourmet magazine. Still, a pleasure to re-read. Another that I’d read at least bits and pieces of previously was “Authority and American Usage.” I’ve had ongoing English-usage battles with several people, the old prescriptivist versus descriptivist fights, and it’s always good to get a ruling from one of my favorite users. Even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with my own. Even if he disses a little bit on Steven Pinker. Bonus: I get to learn new words, e.g.

“The truth is that most US academic prose  is appalling – pompous, abstruse, claustral, inflated, euphuistic, pleonastic, solecistic, sesquipedalian, Heliogabaline, occluded, obscure, jargon-ridden, empty: resplendently dead.”

And another down-vote for Political Correctness!:

“This reviewer’s own opinion is that prescriptive PCE is not just silly but ideologically confused and harmful to its own cause.

Here is my argument for that opinion. Usage is always political, but it’s complexly political. WIth respect, for instance, to political change, usage conventions can function in two ways: on the one hand they can be a reflection of political change, and on the other they can be an instrument of political change. What’s important is that these two functions are different and have to be kept straight. Confusing them – in particular, mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language’s political symbolism – enables the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness. This is PCE’s core fallacy – that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes – and of course it’s nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative SNOOT’s delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting change in standard usage.” (SNOOT being Wallace’s preferred term for “Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Grammar Battalion, the Language Police.”)

Another favorite was “Up, Simba,” Wallace’s coverage for Rolling Stone magazine of the 2000 presidential campaign of John McCain. Not only it is hugely entertaining reading, it has some pretty useful little insights into why you might want to be a part of the process:

“Assuming you are demographically a Young Voter, it is again worth a moment of your valuable time to consider the implications of the techs’ last couple points. If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”

Or how about Wallace writing on Joseph Frank writing on Dostoevsky:

“…I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky (or even to lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev). Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desert questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtapostion, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.”

Wide-ranging, fun, brilliantly written in his trademark long, winding, and always structurally sound sentences, this is writing that I will miss not having more of.

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