Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman is a story about two Victorian white men who helped create the Oxford English Dictionary. One of them went mad after the American Civil War and killed a man in England, where he was sent to an asylum. The other was a philologist who had trouble getting meaningful work in his field. Together they (did not) fight crime!
Winchester tells this story very well, with many digressions into the interesting-if-you-don’t-have-to-do-it drudgework of creating a complete record of the English language. Throughout the story he mentions that there are issues to be taken with the OED, the kinds of issues of imperialism and entrenchment of power, but it’s primarily an easily readable celebration of the work these two people (among many) put into this enormous piece of literature.
One thing I didn’t appreciate was how the prologue uses a dramatic version of the first in-person meeting between the two men, but then later in the book it explains how that was americanized bullshit written to sell newspapers in a “too good to check” kind of era. I just felt it was disingenuous to use the story as a hook in exactly the same way. But whatever. It gave me something easy to hang the story on, and got me into it in the first place. Maybe it doesn’t matter that it’s a lie.
This story wouldn’t be remarkable at all if it was being told about Wikipedia. I tend to think of its whole community of volunteers working together on a collection of human knowledge as something new and technological in an internet-only kind of way, but that is also how the OED was built. Contributors included some experts and some random citizens (who happened to be guilty of crimes). Wikipedia just flips the expected ratios of those expected categories.
I’m going to hit the reset button on my book reviews because I let them go for too long and the thought of writing 22 posts fills me with a kind of dread. But here are some highlights.
I’ve read a few books by writers who’re coming to our local writing festival next month. Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt was my favourite of those.
The only comic I read and loved recently was Chris Ware’s Building Stories. I loved it so much I feel like I need to write a huge essay about it, and probably will eventually.
I even read some nonfiction! (To me books about writing and literature don’t feel like nonfiction, which is why I separate these out from the two in the previous paragraph.) Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English was a great layperson’s guide to some linguistic issues with the language I know best, and David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology was a good articulation of some issues I think I need to be writing more about.
There were some other things too, including finally getting to Pirate Cinema, which was yes, a novel, but a preachy one in a really good way. That will probably get a real review here as it falls squarely in my professional interests.
So yeah. Books. Reading. I’ve also been doing three storytimes a week since February started and our library’s Teen Advisory Group finally had its inaugural meeting yesterday. It’s been kind of busy.
I wanted to like 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente. It’s a comic about baseball after all. But I couldn’t really get into it. There were some good bits. I liked how the English dialogue had yellow-orange coloured speech balloons to differentiate it from what would have been Spanish. I liked the dynamic art for the baseball sequences. I just found the story muddy and not as engaging as it could have been.
Scott Chantler’s The Northwest Passage is a comic about fur traders and family and lots of action in Rupert’s Land back in 1755. Charles Lord, the governor, is heading back to England but before the supply ship arrives, one of his old Cree friends ends up shot and brought into camp, with tales of a vision of death. Then the French show up and take over the Company’s fort, Lord escapes into the wilderness, family relations are strained, and he gets the old gang back together again to retake what’s his. This is historical fiction with a very action-movie bent to it. The characters are all made up and there is a bit of Die Hard-ishness, especially in the final big set piece. The dialogue wasn’t great (very pulpy), but the clean cartoony style almost makes you overlook the amount of violence going on in the story. It was a fun read, but nothing earth-shattering.
Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite writers. I make no secret of this, so take this review with that in mind. I really liked 1Q84 (though I still don’t know how to say the title in English – it’s Ichi Kyu Hachi Yon in Japanese – maybe Nine-Cue-Eighty-Four).
One of the things about knowing an author’s work pretty well is you can see the recurrent characters and themes from other works. 1Q84 feels a bit like a greatest hits collection of Murakami themes. We have (and here thar be spoilers): two worlds being traversed (Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Sputnik Sweetheart), disappearing women (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), affairs with an older married woman (Sputnik Sweetheart), mystical people with weird powers (TV People), Ushikawa (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), a cynical older peer figure (Norwegian Wood), a piece of classical music with great significance (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, The Second Bakery Attack), cults (Underground), becoming a writer (Norwegian Wood), a thirty year old narrator vaguely disconnected from life (almost every thing Murakami’s ever written) and there are probably more. In any case, a lot of the book felt familiar, but it was all rearranged into a more or less pleasing form.
There is a fakeout ending that isn’t so severe if you read the three volumes in one shot the way my translation is put together, which was robbed somewhat of its impact. And I feel like the whole thing ended too easily. There was a lot of time spent talking about issues, restating them and not pushing forward. I feel like this could have been a leaner story, and it’s not going to be the first Murakami book I’d recommend to someone. For me so much of the pleasure was in the interplay of the old stories and seeing how these characters behaved differently from their previous incarnations.
For my money I’m still pegging Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World as my favourite Murakami novel. The themes are very similar to 1Q84′s but I think it’s a better working of them.
None of this is to suggest I think 1Q84 was a bad book. I loved it as I read it. The page-numbering goes up and down the margins, flipping into horizontal reflections as they pass the midpoint. That’s the kind of beautiful little detail emphasizing the characters’ situations that I loved to pieces, and really only gets to happen in a book by a famous writer who keeps on being in the Nobel Prize conversation.
Actually, a bit about that. I don’t really understand why Murakami would be in the running for a Nobel. I love his books, but they don’t scream “This is the pinnacle of World Literature” to me. They are books that I love but they feel too idiosyncratic to be winners of that kind of award.
I picked up David Mitchell’s number9dream from the library last week, solely because we didn’t have The Cloud Atlas in. “Japan?” I said upon picking this one up, “Sure I’ll give it a shot.”
The thing I’ve been telling everyone about it is how British it feels, despite being about a young Japanese man from the countryside going to Tokyo to find the father he never met. It’s mostly just the turns of phrase Eiji (the main character and narrator) uses to describe things. The occasional word from the English countryside is a little jarring. At first I thought this was going to annoy me to no end, but as it went on it became kind of a translation artifact. It almost made it feel more Japanese because of the obviousness of the filter. I wonder how it is when translated into Japanese?
The thing that really made the book for me was the shifting styles in each part. There’s the story of Eiji Miyake trying to find his father, but each section has different sort of dreams. Panopticon is filled with wish-fulfillment action movie daydreams (and are perfect for making the book grab you and knock you a little off-kilter). Lost Property is all flashbacks and remembering. Video Games is mediated escape from reality. Et cetera. So structurally/stylistically: great.
The story itself works, though the quest itself isn’t the main thing. At least not for me. There are unrealistic things that happen. There are Yakuza; I won’t deny that. There is a bit of a sense of the writer stringing the protagonist along in service of the structure of the book. But whatever. I was happy to take the ride. It took me through some of the same headspace that a Haruki Murakami novel does (there is a discarded Murakami novel as a tiny bit of set-dressing in one of the chapters and I am sure Mitchell was conscious of the comparison) which is a place I like to be.
I don’t know if it’s a really good book or not. Maybe it’s culturally imperialistic or ethnocentric or one of those other very bad things of me to think that some young white guy can write a good novel about Japan. Maybe I only like it because it’s the kind of Murakami pastiche my China book might turn into. I know I liked it though.
On Wednesday I was down on the main floor of the library, looking for more Yoko Tawada books (we didn’t have any so I bought another yesterday). I was on my break but not wearing a hat. Usually that’s my signifier that I’m not working. I leave the desk and grab whatever baseball cap I have along. Then I can wander the stacks without people thinking I’m working. Years ago I had a name tag, we’re all supposed to have nametags, that I could take off when necessary but mine is long since lost. I don’t know if it works, if anyone in the library makes the connection between hat-wearing me and not-working me, or if the pattern is too haphazard and only noticeable to me.
Anyway, Wednesday I’m heading back up to Section 22 when Beard Lady spots me and wants to talk about Elvis. “He’s only in English you know. I never listen to the sounds but they don’t get Jose Feliciano to sing in Spanish when he’s on the screen. Elvis is only in English. Even in the army…” yadda yadda yadda.
I am not wearing a hat so I don’t feel I can just ignore her. If I had been wearing a hat it would have been enough of a disguise to let me pass unmolested. She gets me confused with the guy whose job I filled anyway. Always calls me by the wrong nickname when she comes to the desk. As of right now she usually refers to me as Beard and him as Denmark, but for a while I was known to Beard Lady as Sperm (because “sperm all die just like the rest of us” which, when I write it out, sounds kind of ominous).
Her rant about Elvis being in English goes kind of long and I’m due back on my floor. I’m slowly walking away while the speech veers into dermatology and she smacks the skin of her throat (she’s too thin to have jowls, but she’s smacking where her jowls would be) with the backs of her fingers saying “I don’t have any relief here! There’s no dermatology! I’m being ruined by this knowledge!” And I tiptoed back to the desk, apologizing for my tardiness. Everyone there understands.