Alphabooks: D is for Drink

D: Drink of Choice While Reading

On one hand, I can and do drink anything whilst reading: water, a gin and tonic, chocolate milk, ginger beer,Cupboard Gatorade, coffee, wine, whiskey, pop, or any given cocktail.  If I’m already drinking something as I pick up a book, or if I get thirsty whilst reading, any beverage will do.

But then again, that is a scandalous falsehood.  For tea is the obvious drink.  Our kettle’s always on the stove, cabinets of tea and mugs directly above it.  The mugs big, solid, and so abundant that there’s always some standing ready no matter how many I’ve left, empty or nearly so, in my bedroom.

Tea typesOn one hand: any kind of tea will work.  Black, green, herbal; English Breakfast, Earl Grey, or spiced orange; blends like Lady Londonderry, Monk’s Blend, Enchanted Forest, or my Sherlockian teas (especially John Watson and, surprisingly, Anderson).  Harney & Sons Royal Wedding tea is delightful.  Cuppa Joy is delicious.

But then, which do I reach for first, and last, and most often in between?  What do I actually make when I need a break from a story, and sip as I sit back down?

Tetley

Generally, Tetley with heavy whipping cream and a bit of sugar.

Creamy teaYou know that Melpomene and Urania would both commend cream tea to you!  It is a most august and wondrous tradition.

What’s your go-to reading refreshment?

Happy Birthday, YouTube

YouTube has been in existence for 10 years now.

This makes me wonder if there’s a way to convert solar years to internet years, because ten years on the internet is pretty much forever, right?  There are times when I have to stop and ponder the fact that, in fact, this particular service has not existed as long as I have, that the entirety of my childhood and most of my adolescence were spent without it.  Not to mention that which has followed in its train: widespread GIFs.  Vines.  Videos on Facebook.  Videos EVERYWHERE.

Then there’s the plenitude of it.  That one site can be the place to listen to music and share performances, to give DIY instructions, to find TV shows or movie clips, to document one’s family, to vlog, to share cat videos…

How did we exist without a convenient spot for cat videos for so long?!  The mind, it boggles.

Other folks, in celebration of ten years of cat videos, have made lists of YouTube’s most-viewed offerings.  While I’ve nothing against the surprised kitty, Sweet Brown, David after the Dentist, or NyanCat, I figured I’d share a different selection.  These aren’t quite “videos you must watch to be my friend,” but they’re close.

And like unto it (kind of):

British ads are better:

Here’s a viral throwback:

And then there’s this delight:

Honorable mentions go to Axis of Awesome’s 4 Chords; Eddie Izzard’s Death Star Canteen sketch (with Legos!); OK Go’s song So Here It Goes; and In Demand.

What YouTubes have you made all your friends watch?

Alphabooks: C is for Current

C: Currently Reading…

Currently reading

The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman
Postman regards childhood as a social construct, one which arose due to changes in how Western society passes along information: the printing press drastically expanded how many books were published; more information was shared in print rather than orally; thus an emphasis on literacy and the creation of schools to make children literate. Postman maintains that schools segregated children from adult life in an unprecedented way, and further, that printing enabled adult knowledge to be a secret thing. The secrets and shames which had defined adulthood, however, are now increasingly open to younger and younger people, as electronic media make them available to anyone. This expansion of what children can know, in turn, changes both how children act and how they are treated.

Agatha Heterodyne & the Hammerless Bell by Kaja Foglio
Agatha and company (including Gilgamesh Wulfenbach and Tarvek Sturmvoraus) attempt to repair the fractured Castle Heterodyne, while others in Mechanicsburg and Sturmhaltan attempt to figure out what’s going on, and whether Agatha is possessed by the (eeeeeeevil) Other.  Featuring my very favorite mysterious BAMF, Airman Higgs (are you human?  A construct?  Half-Jäger?  WHAT ARE YOU, SIR).

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
Re-rereading. I think I started this a couple weeks back when I was in need of catharsis. It’s very, very good for that.

Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics by C.S. Lewis
Taking my unread Lewis off the shelf the other day reminded me of this book’s existence. It was Jack’s first published work, which means that the poems were composed when he had abandoned his childhood faith. Walter Hooper’s introduction includes snippets of several letters to provide a comprehensible background to the poems’ composition and publishing. “A cycle of lyrics” indicates that the poems are not meant to be read in isolation, but are to be taken together and understood as one work:

In my coracle of verses I will sing of lands unknown,
Flying from the scarlet city where a Lord that knows no pity
Mocks the broken people praying round his iron throne,
– Sing about the Hidden country fresh and full of quiet green,
Sailing over seas uncharted to a port that none has seen.

Mr. McFadden’s Hallowe’en by Rumer Godden
A friend recommended Godden’s China Court to me, but though I’ve gotten a copy, I started this book first. So far, an untrained horse named Haggis is running around and getting into trouble.

Not pictured, because I’m reading it online: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
So far I have learned that one must take care in how one instructs or commands a robot. Also: “Mathematical squiggles on paper were not always the most comforting protection against robotic fact.” I expect to be both amused and troubled by QT-1, the skeptical robot.

Not pictured, because I’m listening to an audiobook: Changes by Jim Butcher
I really don’t want to be spoiler-y about this, so I’ll just say that Harry Dresden is on a unique new quest with a tremendously exciting magical GPS. Also, the Red Court vampires are up to something.

What are you reading?

Alphabooks: B is for Best Sequel

B: Best Sequel Ever

I’m trying my level best not to be frightened by that superlative. The best sequel I can think of (at present) is not, in the strict sense, a sequel at all: that is, it is not a plot which takes place, in its entirety, after the events of an earlier book.

But it does follow it. It follows right along, the captain to a major. Or lieutenant-general to his general, as the case may be.

EGEnders Shadow

Whatever rank might be appropriate, I mean Ender’s Shadow. This is a parallax, or parallel story, following the setting of Ender’s Game: an alien invasion is headed for Earth, children all over are tested to see whether they can be trained into commanders at the off-planet Battle School, and the closer the invasion gets, the faster the training schedule. But rather than fixing on Ender Wiggin (boy soldier, innate commander, deadly victor), it focuses on Bean (starving orphan, genetically improbable, genius).

It could be said that Bean follows in Ender’s wake; it could also be said that Ender’s path would not have gone where it did unless Bean followed him, directing certain aspects of Ender’s years in and after Battle School: a most ingenious paradox. Bean’s place among Ender’s crew, in turn, came about because of events well before Ender’s Game began.

The thing is, Ender’s Shadow is not the only story following Ender’s Game. Both books are followed (chronologically and entirely) by a series, and in each series – the Ender Saga and the Shadow Saga – Card takes the world he’s designed and carries it to its logical conclusion. The political storm brewing in Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow is carried out on Earth in the Shadow Saga: when the Battle School students are returned to Earth, they are immediately used as strategists for the political powers-that-be there. The Ender Saga runs a different direction: traveling at relativistic speeds makes for a story that continues 3 millenia later.

Certainly the trappings of the story – instant interstellar communication, faster-than-light travel, genetic manipulation, non-human intelligences, etc. – help make it fascinating.  But the extraordinary thing about these stories is the philosophical questions they raise, and how they plumb the depths of understanding, sacrifice, friendship, love, and life.

Alphabooks: A is for Author

A: Author You’ve Read the Most Books From

I’d had the thought that, in order to keep myself from being too perfunctory about it, I’d avoid talking about books or authors I’d discussed in previous years.

So I sat awhile in uffish thought, before consulting GoodReads, my library checkout history, and my bookshelves.

All this to find that some things don’t change, and no one’s managed to shift my all-time favorites from being all-time favorites.  Especially not the champion of them all: C.S. Lewis.

Not pictured: Screwtape Letters and Surprised by Joy, which (shockingly) I do not own.

Not pictured: Screwtape Letters and Surprised by Joy, which (shockingly) I do not own.

From the Chronicles of Narnia, to his apologetics, to the Cosmic Trilogy, to his poetry and essays – I’ve read some 27 books of Jack’s, and still have a few more volumes of letters and essays awaiting me on my shelf.

Allegory of Love is at the bottom right.

Allegory of Love is at the bottom right.

Runners-up include Neil Gaiman (15.5, if Good Omens is ½ and the 10 sections of Sandman as separate volumes); Dorothy Sayers (13); Jim Butcher (11.5 at present); Orson Scott Card (11); Shakespeare (11 plays I’ve read; more that I’ve seen); and J.K. Rowling (10).

What author have you read the most of?

Alphabetical Promptings

Back in the Egotistical heyday of 2011 and 2012, we set up a couple of challenges for ourselves.  2011’s challenge gave us fodder for every single day of May; 2012 split up 10 weeks between 5 of us.  We’d schemed a bit in 2013 to follow a similar paradigm with different themes, but alas, the engine of thought never quite sputtered to life.  2014 likewise lay fallow.

But recently I found an alphabetical list from Perpetual Page Turner, and thought it was just the thing for this spring.  My plan is to respond to a prompt every weekday of April and May (more or less).  Feel free to join me; since you can be as brief or as detailed as you like, you may only require a single post!

Here are the prompts:

A. Author You’ve Read The Most Books From
B. Best Sequel Ever
C. Currently Reading
D. Drink of Choice While Reading
E. E-Reader or Physical Books?
F. Fictional Character You Would Have Dated In High School
G. Glad You Gave This Book A Chance
H. Hidden Gem Book
I. Important Moments of Your Reading Life
J. Just Finished
K. Kinds of Books You Won’t Read
L. Longest Book You’ve Read
M. Major Book Hangover Because Of…   (i.e., a story so intense or engrossing that you can’t quite get over it or emerge from that world for awhile)
N. Number of Bookcases You Own
O. One Book That You Have Read Multiple Times
P. Preferred Place to Read
Q. Quote From A Book That Inspires You/Gives You Feels
R. Reading Regret
S. Series You Started and Need to Finish
T. Three Of Your All-Time Favorite Books
U. Unapologetic Fangirl For…
W. Worst Bookish Habit
V. Very Excited For This Release More Than Any Other
X. Marks The Spot (Start On Your Bookshelf And Count to the 27th Book)
Y. Your Latest Book Purchase
Z. ZZZ-Snatcher (last book that kept you up WAY late)

Book stack

Review: Righting the Mother Tongue

I’m not sure where I found this book originally, but it called out to me and my word-loving sensibilities.  Let it stand as a point in favor of libraries: you can have all the fun of impulse book-buying without any issues of budgeting (well, except your time) or storage (aside from the temporary tsundoku by your bed).

Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling is David Wolman’sWriting the Mother tongue journey through history to figure out just how English spelling became so confusing, whether it’s possible for it to be simplified, and what might become of the language in future.  Wolman himself grew up with siblings whose competence in spelling left his ability far behind – not to mention the frustration that attended his classroom attempts at words like “different,” “restaurant” and “license,” words from various forebears with diverse paradigms.  He heads on a road trip through various parts of England and America to discuss language shifts with a number of experts.

I was, for the most part, already familiar with a lot of his journey: the Wessex dialect of Old English spread on account of Alfred the Great’s influence; monks, clerics, and scribes set about copying manuscripts and Bibles; the Norman conquest brought an influx of French words, used mostly by the higher class.  Then there was a bit of an English resurgence, due in part to the popularity of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible.  Gutenberg’s printing press and its movable type meant that printing houses chose spellings that worked best for their margins, as opposed to the scribes who would tailor their wordwork for the ease of whoever was buying (and reading) it.

Chapter 5, which bridges the gap between the advent of printing and the publishing of Johnson’s dictionary, was the most illuminating section for me.  It noted that self-appointed tastemakers and language-shapers in the 16th and 17th centuries favored this or that construction/spelling and set it apart as most “correct,” so as to distinguish the polloi from the more educated, stylish elite.  For example, they included more Greek and Latinate terms, and, occasionally, tweaked certain words to more greatly resemble their fellows: rime became rhyme to match rhythm, delit became delight to match right and might (which had themselves undergone a shift, from pronouncing the “gh” to leaving it silent).

Then follows Samuel Johnson’s codification of English in his Dictionary of the English Language: In Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, To Which Are Prefixed a History of the Language and an English Grammar.  Spelling was far more settled by this point (1755), and the dictionary cemented it further.

The chapters following that detail some history of American English, including several different parties in the past 200 years who wished to render English spelling a simpler matter.  Even today, the Simplified Spelling Society fights for a more efficient system.  Admittedly, the members of said society aren’t quite sure which system to utilize instead…but they all agree that English has a lot of “booby traps,” spelling-wise, that students have to spend a lot of time learning to navigate.

For my own part, that navigation was easy.  I grew up with the luxuries of educated, involved parents; plenty of reading material that taught me how words looked; and a fairly good memory for reproducing words, especially if I knew their etymology.  Wolman addresses this in a chapter on the Scripps National Spelling Bee:

Manning says she sees words differently now that she’s a Bee parent.  She had never thought much about all the other languages that influenced English spelling or the different parts of speech, but as her daughter developed a love of words and started studying for the Bee, Manning found that there was much more to spelling than just remembering what letters go where.  “It’s those clues and weird little histories that you pick up – that’s what makes it interesting.”

…an orthography that is perfectly reflective of pronunciation may not be ideal.  In isolation, words with silent or extra letters may strike people as inefficient, and at times they are.  But in other cases, they help our brains draw dotted lines between words with related meanings, such as sign and signature, condemn and condemnation, dough and doughnut, or bomb and bombard.

After deftly navigating the arguments between prescriptivists, who wish to prescribe, or lay down rules, for ‘proper’ spelling and grammar, and descriptivists, who prefer to record how people are in fact using language from day to day, Wolman goes on to examine how we treat orthography in the 21st century.  Nowadays, everyone’s computer or mobile device is outfitted with an spellchecker, which some suppose renders spelling irrelevant; does it matter if I forget the first “r” if my computer underlines “irelevant” with a red squiggle?  If we all disregarded the red squiggle, would the spelling change?  Wolman spends some time on the history of spellcheck before turning to Google and its suggested spelling function:

The last thing Google people want is to be perceived as setting rules or boundaries around what users do.  A company as big as Google already has enough trouble dispelling fears of Big Brother-esque practices.  “The question, ‘Do you mean?’ is deliberately ambiguous,” said Norvig.  “What we’re not saying is, ‘Here’s how you spell.’”  In this way, Google can be authoritative without being authoritarian, providing a snapshot of what’s out there in cyberspace without presuming to correct your English.

Chalk Google up as descriptivist, I guess.  I lean toward the prescriptive side myself, though not as heavily as I did before reading this book.  Reminding myself of the centuries of change English has already undergone makes me a tiny bit less likely to castigate someone’s spelling as wrong! …but see what I do next time something says “there” instead of “their.”

Overall, Righting the Mother Tongue is a fairly interesting book on the history of English orthography, a discussion of of spelling reform, and some description of the cognitive side of reading and writing (which helps account for the difficulties some people have in these activities).  While he examines the weirdness behind certain words – the now-silent “g” in “right,” the “h” in “ghost” or “rhubarb,” the in-and-outs of “aisle” and “isle” – Wolman spends more time on the shaping of the English language as a whole:

“Language is people,” Crystal told me as we stared out at the River Avon.  Words are not the flesh of thought entirely, for we also think in pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings.  But words are an essential part of the flesh of society and cultural intercourse.  They are products of human innovation, folly, power, preference, and change.  For that reason, correct English is nothing more than a phantom.  That doesn’t make English any less expansive and glorious, but the idea that there is clearly a right or a wrong way to go about the business of pronunciation, grammar, or even spelling, flies in the face of language’s true machinations.

English has grown and shifted before, an organism that changes with time and the people who use it.  It is not petrified or ossified, but living: it will continue to grow and shift and, perhaps, look quite different in a generation or two.

Quick Style Question, Y’all

How quickly can an author’s style influence, shift, or otherwise change yours?

I have a couple of book reviews in the pipeline, including one for Neil Postman’s Technopoly.  Since I am tracking my 2015 reading with GoodReads, I gave it a quick rating there, which exposed me to everyone else’s thoughts on it.

Intriguingly, even the people who hated or disagreed with its premise and/or arguments noted that they were impressed with the writing itself.  Some declared that the reason for their 2-star (rather than 1-star) rating; others were disgusted that his prose style was so compelling, as they believed that obscured the weakness of his arguments.

All of which is to say, Neil Postman’s got style.  And I wonder how to get it.

Or, well, that’s not quite it.  I’ve heard and read enough to know that style is an elusive sort of beast, slippery like a ferret.  And despite concerted effort, changing or shifting one’s writing style can be like moving a glacier: undeniable, inexorable, powerful…but slow.

So I wonder: how slow?  The other day, I came across this post about copying out the work of excellent writers in order to sharpen one’s skills.  It’s a method that promises improvement, but most certainly requires an investment of effort, a healthy measure of intention and attention, a careful ear and eye, and above all, time.

I’m not hoping for an overnight change to my own writing, but I want to put myself in mind of the fact that I am – and my writing is – what I read.  What I set before my eyes determines what issues from my mind and out through my mouth or keyboard or pen.

Perhaps I will start with Elements of Eloquence, or with a reread of Strunk and White.

No matter what, it is time to begin.