Archive for the 'Tim Morris' Category

Encryption

Recently we got a memo from the Provost’s Office insisting that we encrypt our laptop computers with military-grade security software. Since I went to graduate school for English and not computer science, I failed miserably at the task. So I had to call my friend Ken Kleinkram, who was just named Associate Pinch Provost for Informatic Assets at a salary several multiples of my own. Ken came over to my office with a set of tiny screwdrivers and a device that looked like a tricorder.

“Let’s see if we can’t get you encrypted, Timbo,” said Ken. “First of all: are you connected to the Internet?”

“Ha ha,” I said, “the old ‘Tim’s an idiot’ assumption. I am certainly connected to the Internet,” I said, “it’s this grey cord that comes out of this socket here.” Which I picked up and pulled out of the various desk spaghetti, to find that the other end was plugged into my printer.

“That might explain your issues,” said Ken. He plugged something into something else, intoned a few incantations, pressed a few keys, and suddenly some element of my laptop began to rumble away like a reactor preparing for a meltdown.

“That program will run in the background for 36 hours,” said Ken. “Just don’t turn your computer off in the meantime. And don’t try to log into MyMav or Blackboard while the encryption is running.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “It’s the first week of the semester, so MyMav and Blackboard are down anyway. But tell me this: why do I need military-grade encryption on my laptop? It already has a password.”

“But what if somebody stole your laptop, broke it open, and extracted the hard disk? Thieves have procured countless bytes of essential medical-research data from unencrypted university laptops across the nation.”

“I don’t do medical research, Ken. I teach poetry.”

Ken thought for a minute. “You’re going to go all snarky on me in a sec, aren’t you?” he said. “Can you shut up for ten minutes while I explain how vital this encryption can be to the University and the State of Texas?”

I promised to restrain myself.

“OK, then,” Ken said, clicking on my hard-disk icon. “Let me show you the kinds of problems you’re not anticipating. Look at all this data that would just lie around unencrypted if you didn’t comply. What’s this, for instance?” He clicked on a file, and a checkerboard-like grid came up.

“That’s the Monday Prize Crossword Puzzle from the Financial Times.”

“Did you solve it?”

“I have one word left to get. If I mail in the first randomly drawn correct answer, I win a Collins Gem Dictionary!”

“And what if somebody from Texas A&M steals the answer and wins the dictionary?”

“Presumably it would improve spelling in College Station. But I’m starting to see what you mean. This is some serious intellectual property we’re talking about here.”

“No snark, you promised. What’s this file?”

“Oh, that’s a spreadsheet. I’m trying to find out how many major-league second basemen have played an entire season while hitting more than 20 doubles and grounding into fewer than 10 double plays. I need to find better data, though. Going through newspapers boxscore by boxscore is slow work.”

“And what if that research gets pre-empted by our competitors? Suddenly peer-reviewed results will be racked up by other universities, based on your man-hours of research production. What are these?”

Ken pointed to some dark icons.

“They’re … um … pictures of Whisper Wilson.”

“She isn’t some kind of exotic dancer, is she, Tim?”

“No! Whisper Wilson is my cat.”

Ken clicked on an icon and whistled.

“Think about this, Tim. Suppose somebody posted a picture of Whisper on Facebook.” I stared at the ceiling. “This is by conservative estimate the most adorable cat that has ever been photographed. If someone were to disseminate this photo, innumerable working hours would be spent Liking it, causing the world economy to tailspin out of control.”

I began to feel very glad about encryption.

“There isn’t much else on this machine,” said Ken. “But I think you can see the dangers of leaving it unprotected. No, wait a second – here’s another 10MB of data I didn’t see before. The folder is called The Girl with the Phoenix Tattoo. What’s that, Tim?”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s a draft of my novel. It’s a completely original idea. It’s about this English professor named Mitt Sorem, see? He’s 53 years old and irresistible to women. So he has this student who’s 19, she’s got a lot of piercings and wears leather and has a tattoo of a phoenix on her back. They have wild sex and drink lots of coffee. And it turns out she’s a hacker, and she breaks into this computer network where the drug cartel is funneling money through a Swedish furniture store and there are also spies. They beat the cartel with hacking and martial arts and Mitt Sorem gets locked in a serial killer’s basement and the girl frees him by hitting the serial killer with a badminton racket.”

“A badminton racket?”

“I may have to think more about that one. But it’s great stuff, it’ll sell mill…”

And you’re writing this story on a UTA laptop, Tim, which means that it’s an invention and/or concept which belongs to the State of Texas. If it gets stolen by an unscrupulous literary agent, we would not only lose our investment in your intellectual labor, but you yourself would have to reimburse the university for foregone revenue.”

I grabbed my laptop and threw it out the window.

“I told you not to disconnect the machine!” screamed Ken.

“That’s fine, I’ll do without a laptop,” I said. “You’ve convinced me, the risks are just too great.”

“But you still have the idea for the novel in your head, right?” said Ken.

“Of course.”

“Come over here,” said Ken. He inserted a USB drive into my ear. “Hold still for the next 36 hours. We’re going to have to encrypt your brain.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on September 13th, 2012 |4 Comments »

Literary Bicentenary: Goncharov



Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov was born on 18 June 1812 (adjusting for the vagaries of the Russian calendar). Today is his 200th birthday.

Goncharov wrote Oblomov, and Oblomov made Goncharov’s reputation forever. Very few writers in world literature have been so identified with a single iconic character. In fact, very few literary characters have become so iconic. Not being Russian, I can’t begin to understand the depths to which Oblomov (and his life-philosophy, Oblomovshchina or “Oblomovism”) have become entwined with Russian culture. But as a vicarious fan of Oblomov in translation, I have some sense of a few things that Oblomov means.

Oblomov is a deeply inertial character. It takes him several chapters of his own novel to get out of bed, and once out, he is always in danger of slipping back in. One can interpret his inability to rouse himself from a number of perspectives. To read him through our own century, he’s simply depressed. Indeed, Oblomov is a wonderful character study in depression, in the way your mind works when you hesitate to take out the trash because there will just be more trash tomorrow, when there’s no point even in microwaving some miserable leftover or punctuating your sentences and you watch one reality show after another because the remote is too far from your couch. The psychological realism of Oblomov is sometimes so fresh and so contemporary that it seems to belie social constructionism. Despite our immense distance from Oblomov in socio-economic circumstances, culture, and language, we can read him as directly as if he were sprawled on the sofa next to us. And why not? His creator was born only 200 years ago – two long human lifetimes. Being depressed can’t be all that different now than it was two lifetimes ago.

But of course, the intervening history of Russia is about nothing if it’s not about social constructionism. The Soviets believed that people took the forms that economic relations dictated to them. They read Oblomov as an indictment of an aristocracy made soft by its dependence on serfs. For that reason, Oblomov was one of the Russian classics that did best under the Soviet regime. In such a reading, Oblomov is not just somebody whose brain chemistry has let him down. He becomes allegorical for an ancien regime, brutal and lazy, that is heading for a fall.

And there are other ways of reading Oblomov that are less partisan, if just as political. One can see him as emblematic of a deep, corrupt indolence in the Russian national spirit. He can also possibly stand for positive values of tradition and community. He’s not infinitely malleable, though. He cannot stand for energy, progress, Westernization, or anything-ization, really. He has no project and no aspirations. He does have a tender side, though, and readers instinctively like him (though Goncharov may not have intended them to). He is diffident, and so ends up losing the woman he loves, Olga Sergeyevna. As heartless as his indolent defection may seem, one gets a sense that he really does leave her because she won’t be happy with him. Olga wants to change Oblomov, to get him moving. Instead, he stays right where he is, and eventually marries his distinctly declassé landlady, Agafia Matveyevna. Much like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, Oblomov realizes that what matters is not how much he loves, but how much he is loved by others. Agafia loves him just the way he is.

That Oblomov is harder to allegorize, and a richer character than the one of Soviet (or anti-Soviet) criticism. Perhaps in spite of himself, Goncharov created a character that we can’t help but enjoy and identify with, despite his fecklessness. Indeed, he’s the ancestor of a line of feckless literary heroes, as various as Nabokov’s Pnin and John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly.

Oblomov is by many orders of magnitude Goncharov’s most famous work. I tried to read his first novel The Same Old Story in the UTA Library’s copy recently, only to be told that the grim little Soviet volume did not circulate. But I was able to read his third, The Precipice, which deserves a wider audience – if only for its fallen women who emerge from the novel unaffected by arsenic or passing trains, determined to keep living their lives despite a fate, in the 19th-century novel, that is conventionally worse than death.

I know little of Goncharov’s life. He was from the upper classes, though not a nobleman, and he became a bureaucrat (in the Tsarist literary/cultural establishment, at times in his life serving as a literary censor). He knew the world populated by many a character who would appear in his own novels, or those of Tolstoy and Turgenev. He seems always to have wanted to do something else, though, no matter what he was doing. He was no Oblomov, though he may have felt like one. He seems to have been more like the protagonist of The Precipice, Boris Raisky, who wanders from one profession and artistic calling to another. Like Oblomov, Boris doesn’t get the woman of his dreams. But worse, he doesn’t get any woman at all: he wanders off into perpetual dilettantism. Oblomov, with his widowed landlady bringing him breakfast in bed, may have chosen the better part.

Published in:Tim Morris |on June 18th, 2012 |2 Comments »

The Flow of Research

The phone rings again, and for the second time this month, it’s my old mentor Lars Abraham, Professor of English Semi-Emeritus, calling from his office at Seattle State.

“Lars!” I said. “Twice in a row! How are things at Seattle State?”

“Not so good,” said Lars. Five seconds pass.

“Do you want to elaborate?”

“I am going to teach more next fall, Tim – more classes, same pay. But it is my choice.”

“That’s awful, Lars. I can’t imagine teaching any more than you absolutely have to.”

“Now you sound like a Dean,” said Lars. “But are you at all interested in my thought process?”

“Let ‘er rip,” I said.

“It happened like this. For years I have been teaching three courses in the Fall and two in the Spring. You know that I have a certain standing in my field.”

Do I ever. Lars Abraham is author of A Pop’rin Pear: Fruit and Sexuality in Shakespeare (1969), Hot i’th’ Mouth: Symbolic Spiciness in Shakespeare (1978), and Vile Jelly: Shakespeare’s Tragic Desserts (1984).

“Now Seattle State is moving to a differential-teaching-load policy,” said Lars. “They tell us that a 3/2 teaching load has actually been a ‘reduction’ all these years. We have to start proving that we deserve a reduction down to the 60-hour weeks we work now.”

“Yes, we have that at UTA, too!” I said. “It’s the best way to ensure that research-active faculty can concentrate on production, while others pursue their first love, teaching.”

“So I understand,” said Lars. “Clearly no one can do both. That is sarcasm, in case your detectors are off, Tim. In any case, to stay on my 3/2 teaching load, I must produce peer-reviewed research at the rate of one major project, two minor projects, or four mini-projects in each four-year span.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Tier One Universities need a constant flow of research productivity from their core faculty.”

“A constant flow of something, at any rate,” said Lars. “But I told them no: let me teach 4/3 and the research, forget about it.”

“But I don’t understand, Lars,” I said. “You are still producing a steady flow. Work is streaming out of you like soft-serve fro-yo. Why, just next month, you’re fixing to present your new conference paper “‘The Wild Thyme Blows’: Inferior-Quality Herbs in Shakespeare’s Festive Comedies.”

“Wait a minute, all this talk of flow makes me want to visit the little boys’ room.” Five minutes later, Lars picked up the phone again.

“Tim, are you there?”

“Hanging on the telephone, Lars.”

“As I was saying, I am not going to take the ‘research reduction,’ though why they call it that since it is the same teaching load I have had for 16 years, I do not know. And hear me out, Tim. Why do people work in the humanities, do you suppose?”

“It’s to generate citations! When we produce peer-reviewed results that get cited in our peers’ peer-reviewed results, we’re giving the university bang for its research buck!”

“Your head, I should bang against a drawer, Tim. That is the phoniest nonsense I have heard lately, and I have been reading memos from the Provost’s office all week. Tim, the reason that people do research in the humanities – and not just ‘research,’ as if that were the only thing that matters, but bibliography, criticism, creative writing, book reviewing, even just plain reading and learning – is to establish their ethos as intellectuals. We cultivate our brains, Tim – those of us that have brains, which I am not sure of in your case – so that we can become better teachers and so that the traditions of learning that make life worth living can survive.”

Oh, great, I thought. There’s nothing like an old liberal turned reactionary humanist. “So why not just do more research and get the lower teaching load?” I asked.

“Because they will make me show my work. Every year I have to report on my plans and goals, and I have to maintain a rate of flow that … excuse me again … [flushing] … that justifies my research-active course reduction.”

“And quite right, too, Lars! The state of Washington wants to know that it’s getting steady flow from its taps of research.”

“If you mention flow one more time I will fly to Texas and pee on your shoes.”

“Lars, is this one of these ‘Do you know who I am?’ snits that you senior tenured dilettantes like to engage in?”

“Call it vanity if you will, Tim. I have nothing to prove to anybody. What I do not have to do is to submit my homework to the Assistant Dean for Research Quantification. I am a rather elderly man, as Melville would say.”

“Who?”

“Shut up and listen, Tim. I am a very foolish fond old man, and I have worked hard all my life to prove that I know something about literature and language. I do not have to publish an article every four years to prove that I have brains. I have been publishing articles since before there was a Designated Hitter. I have edited a journal, I have read hundreds of manuscripts for journals and unversity presses, I have been on ten dozen thesis committees. Tim, I am peer review. So perhaps I want to learn Estonian next year. Perhaps I want to write my memoirs. Perhaps I want to re-read Henry James. Being pressured to publish some article in some journal is not going to make me a smarter person. And what if I bow to that pressure and my articles are rejected? Then I have experienced all kinds of tsuris and will still be put on a higher teaching load. It is not good for my ulcer.”

“I don’t know, Lars. If Seattle State wants to reach Tier One, then they need to undam their research fl… I mean, they need to ramp up faculty productivity. And if you’re not producing peer-reviewed results, how do I know you’re current in your field?”

“What, have I exhibited second childishness and mere oblivion in this conversation? Tim, I am older than soil, but I am still in my perfect mind. And English Literature is not computer science, nor is it this popular music you children listen to, with some new MTV thing every week. Hamlet is still Hamlet, Tim. And from Hamlet, I know.”

“Well, have it your way, Lars.”

“My way is about the only thing I have left.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on June 11th, 2012 |No Comments »

The University as Crunchyco

So the phone rings, and it’s my mentor and old friend Lars Abraham, eightysomething Professor of English Semi-Emeritus at Seattle State University.

“Lars!” I said, feeling bad for not having called him since the late 20th century. “How are you doing? How’s everything at Seattle State these days?”

“Not so good,” said Lars. “Budget cuts . . . you know, state support for state universities is down everywhere.”

[Lars didn't actually link to that story as he was talking to me. But I could hear it in his tone of voice.]

“That’s no problem at UTA,” I said, “we’re Mavericks. We’re an emerging Tier One institution.”

“We are trying for Tier One, also, but right now we are more like Tier Three-and-a-Half,” said Lars. “Really, ’state’ schools have just become private universities with better parking. We got an e-mail from our Provost saying that the English Department must find some private funding, or we will lose our graduate program and our major, and we will all be reduced to teaching five sections of grammar and composition to freshmen, in which briar patch I was born, so it affrights not me.”

“Well, you’ve got to get your brand out there, Lars. Like UTA: our brand is UNBRANDED™. Get it? Our identity is that we can’t be pinned down to an identity. That way, everyone knows exactly what to expect from us: the unexpected.”

“Such postmodernism makes my head spin.”

“Lars, you see, you’ve got to re-invent English so that you tap into the market. Serve the new generation of tech-savvy visual and virtual learners! Majors will flock to the English department once they see how the communications skills we teach will make them desirable to corporations.”

“Tim,” growled Lars, “businesses will keep hiring business majors even if English majors learn to stand on their heads and Twitter out of their tuchus.”

“But, Lars –”

“And for another thing, I am too old to re-invent English. Do we need more vowels? Am I supposed to add a fifteenth line to the sonnet? English is what it is, as you infants say.”

“OK, keep teaching sonnets, Lars. But you have to admit, you need to sell sonnets to the discerning student consumer. Studying literature teaches you to learn how to learn, an essential skill for earning a living in today’s business world!”

“Literature has nothing to do with earning a living. Literature is what makes living worth living. Though with my prostate, I sometimes have doubts.”

“Well, maybe your administration can raise some money for the humanities.”

“No, they are leaving it up to the departments to come up with marketing schemes. Universities are like junk-food companies anymore, Tim. Did I tell you about my nephew Sven, who used to work for Crunchyco? They would pit one division against another. Pretzels would fight popcorn for market share. They were told to ‘cannibalize’ the other units’ sales. The suits would go to Sven and say, ‘Sven, potato chips are a drug in the market. If you don’t turn your department around, we’re going to sell you to Frito-Lay.’ That is what liberal-arts departments are told now, Tim.”

“I’m glad UTA isn’t like that. It does sound bad.”

“It is worse than it sounds. At least Sven is an MBA, a smart man, my nephew. He knew how to sell potato chips. What our administration is doing is like going down to the floor of the potato-chip plant and saying to the line workers ‘Your chips stink on ice! Design a better chip or you’re all out of a job! And don’t slow down the line, either – in fact, work longer shifts while you’re coming up with these new products!’”

“But Lars, education really is like marketing. You have to respond to student demand.”

“Responding to demand is all well and good when we are talking about potato chips. Tim, think of this: if snack foods fight it out for shelf space, what happens to kale and broccoli and cauliflower?”

“Nobody wants cauliflower, Lars. Bye, bye, cauliflower!”

“And if departments at a university cannibalize one another for students, what happens to languages and anthropology and philosophy?”

“Bye, bye – no, wait, I don’t like the way this argument is going.”

“Tim, a university is not a buffet. At some point, someone has to take the lead and insist that students get good nutrition. And if that means subsidizing cauliflower with the profits from cookies, then so be it.”

“So you’re saying that central administration needs to attract outside funding, take overhead from those grants and gifts, and apply it strategically to strengthen liberal-arts education.”

“Outside funding, now that you mention it, they have attracted a lot. Private money is pouring in. And for what? They have built a basketball stadium with it.”

“March Madness! Go, SSU! Nothing builds a brand like getting that 65th play-in spot. Bracketology!”

“Tim, you are a nincompoop. Seattle State finished eighth in the Puget Sound Conference last year. They cannot give away tickets. Last winter the cheerleaders outnumbered the fans. Everybody who went to the games got a personal assistant coach to sit beside them and explain the Xs and Os. Which I am happy to say I never will understand. Too much running in basketball. Too much waving your hands in the other man’s face. Give me baseball any day.”

I remembered that Lars loves baseball.

“So, how are the Mariners doing?” I asked.

“Not so good.”

Published in:Tim Morris |on June 4th, 2012 |3 Comments »

Babel No More

I have never thought of myself as particularly good at languages. This despite my reputation in my workplace as someone who can read anything. Indeed, on lection, in the past eight years, I have reviewed books written in French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese, as well as English. My Latin and Greek were once good enough to read Vergil and Homer, I’ve studied Old and Middle English – and many years ago I learned enough Russian to read a Chekhov short story, though I doubt I could recognize half the characters in the Russian alphabet anymore.

I still think of myself as monolingual, however, because my capacity for carrying on a conversation in any language except English is practically nil. In Spanish, for instance, my pronunciation is good (honed by years watching Noticiero Univision), my vocabulary is adequate, and I can often think of a single thing to say, if given about half an hour to prepare. But the thought of somebody saying something back to me makes me extremely reluctant to use Spanish in my everyday life. Or rather: it’s not so much that they might answer with something I didn’t understand – I could perhaps stumble forward from there, despite my shyness, and the fact that it would take me another half an hour to think of the second thing I wanted to say – but the probability that they would immediately switch to English. Everybody’s English is better than my everybody else’s language.

However, since I can read six modern languages (with proficiency varying from high to struggling), and have a few “surge” languages in reserve that I might be able to swot up given a spare month or two, I verge in some ways on the category that Michael Erard calls “hyperpolyglot.” His fascinating book Babel No More tries to do many things: to define “hyperpolyglots” (which includes defining what it means to know or use a language); to locate living hyperpolyglots; to look at the history of hyperpolyglottery; to speculate on the neurological and social contexts for the speaking of many languages; and to travel the world while writing a voice-driven book about eccentric people.

I am deeply in sympathy with all the aims except the last; as readers of lection know, voice-driven nonfiction is one of my pet peeves. Erard, however, keeps the ratio of exposition to chatter substantially high. Once in a while he lapses. Erard flies to Düsseldorf to get some background on neurolinguistics, and tells us that

As any good expedition begins with a meal, Loraine and I considered hyperpolyglots over sushi. Tomorrow we’d be visiting the brain institute, and we had much to discuss. (166)

That’s fine, but who cares.

My peeves aside, though, Babel No More is relentlessly provocative. Erard is constantly caught between the desire that there should be linguistic prodigies in the world, and the rueful awareness that claims on behalf of such prodigies always need discounting by (at least) half. “If you read or hear that a certain person ‘can speak’ (or ’speaks’) a large number of languages (for instance twenty or more) you should always be a little skeptical,” said the late Swedish polyglot Erik Gunnermark (226). Gunnermark himself claimed to speak six languages well and seven others passably, but some who knew him in turn doubted Gunnermark’s claims: one colleague says, “I don’t think [he] could speak very many languages very well—but he could read them” (226). Gunnermark claimed to be able to read forty-seven languages (92).

Two principles are at work in the example of Erik Gunnermark. One is that the definition of “knowing” a language is far more nuanced than common wisdom would have it. I “know” Italian well enough to read contemporary novels without a dictionary, and to have read the entire Divina Commedia in the original at one point in my life. But people will come into my office and ask me the most basic words in Italian, and I haven’t the nebbiosissimo. When I was in Rome nine years ago, I was reduced to pointing and gesticulating in order to demonstrate my most basic needs. (Fortunately espresso is one of them.)

The other principle is that the languages known by any polyglot form a steeply descending curve of such competence, and can be arranged in graph form (as Erard does on 221-22). There are native bilingual and trilingual people who are completely at home in each of these languages, and they often learn a fourth or fifth language well enough to be able to converse unhesitatingly. A sixth, a seventh . . . these are within the range of accomplishment, but the conversations that a polyglot holds in those languages will be more basic. S/he might get by in rudimentary conversations in shops or airports in half a dozen other languages, and know the most phrasebook-like versions of a few others, and be able to read a few others without a dictionary, and a few others with. And then there are a bunch of languages where one knows how to say “hello,” “thank you,” and whatever-it-is you say when you bump into somebody in the market. (Συγγνώμη! Bocsánat! Undskyld!)

Nobody can be near-native in more than four or five languages. (But I know people who are highly fluent in that many, mainly from crossroads-of-Europe places like the Benelux countries and the Baltic.) Partly the constraint is one of time. It takes time to learn them and time to keep them current. A few years ago, struck by the sense that I ought to practice reading the eight languages I could nominally read, I devised a plan of reading one Bible chapter in each of them, on an eight-day rotation. One chapter a day does not sound like much; the material was familiar and the translations (or in the case of Greek, the koine of the original New Testament) fairly basic. But let me tell you, reading the Bible in eight different languages at the rate of one language per day is a shortcut to madness. You can’t keep it up unless you have nothing else to do. (Two features of many of the hyperpolyglots Erard studies are extremely good time management and near-compulsive study skills.)

“The enemy of the language-learner is forgetting,” says one of Erard’s informants. “You can only prevent this by regularly studying” (134). Sir Richard Burton (the world traveler, not the movie star) learned over two dozen languages, but never all at once; he spoke them “in blocks or spurts” (47), and time away from any of his languages had to be redeemed with time spent studying again before he could return to it. The example of such hard work, Erard says, is the basis for one theory of superlearners.

One view says: what matters is a person’s sense of mission and dedication to language learning. You don’t need to describe high performers as biologically exceptional, because what they do is the product of practice. (163)

But clearly there’s a sense in which at least some hyperpolyglots are just gifted with verbal ability.

The other view says: Something neurological is going on. We may not know exactly what the mechanisms are, but we can’t explain exceptional outcomes fully through training or motivation. (164)

Indeed, some language “accumulators” are of low intelligence, or hampered by social anxieties; they are savant-like in their ability to memorize gigantic vocabulary lists. They work hard, but they also do things that normal hard-working people can’t (and fail at things that the mentally normal handle easily). Great language learning can be a gift in the same way as great musical ability or great chess talent. There is probably more than one pathway there, and sometimes people take several at once (just as there is more than one kind of polyglottery).

Erard lists several talents to cultivate if you want to use a lot of different languages: mimicry, openness to experience, metamemory (remembering what you know and what you don’t), and the less-definable Sprachegefühl [sic] (“feel for language,” 263). I think I understand Sprachgefühl, though I may not possess it to any great degree. It is partly what the poet Keats called “negative capability.” In any language, there are various ways to pronounce words, various idioms that don’t make logical sense, lots of synonyms, multiple registers, and above all tons of irregularities that don’t apply in every other (sometimes any other) languages. If you have a feel for language, you roll with it.

You cannot learn languages, or in a real sense even learn much about your own language, if you are unable to yield to uncertainty. In this, language is utterly different from math or chemistry. If you ask someone who is competent in two languages, but lacks Sprachgefühl, to translate something, they will give you a rote dictionary equivalent. If you ask a multilingual with Sprachgefühl to translate something, they will tell you three ways to say it in writing, one way to say it to your grandkids and and one way to say it to a cop, plus an interesting way they say it in Kentucky. As Ron Washington says of baseball, that’s the way language go.

Erard, Michael. Babel No More: The search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners. New York: Free Press [Simon & Schuster], 2012.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 28th, 2012 |2 Comments »

Walking the Walk

In her confused and querulous review of Henry Hitchings’ The Language Wars, Joan Acocella casts opprobrium on “anything goes” linguistic descriptivists. Such academics, she implies, carefully prune their own language of substandard usage, and reap the social benefits of good grammar. But they let their charges – the students and the general public – wallow in a morass of slovenly, uncorrected English.

[Hitchings] thinks that the “who”/“whom” distinction may be on its way out. Funny, how we never see any confusion over these pronouns in his book, which is written in largely impeccable English.

No surprise here. Hitchings went to Oxford and wrote a doctoral dissertation on Samuel Johnson. He has completed three books on language. He knows how to talk the talk, but, as for walking the walk, he’d rather take the Rolls. You can walk, though.

Acocella taps into a theme current in much conservative criticism of educators. By giving up on drilling the young in “who and whom,” the argument goes, teachers are really oppressing them, under the guise of fostering their freedom and appreciating diversity. Meanwhile, these ivory-tower liberals wouldn’t be caught dead splitting an infinitive, and continue to enjoy the privileges that they deny their students. Liberals pretend to appreciate the great unwashed, but they themselves are never more than an hour out of the shower.

Some of this is just blanket “it’s all the fault of liberals” rhetoric, as when the old guard blames the New Deal for the Depression and the Great Society for urban poverty. Teachers, the complaint goes, must be to blame for ignorance. But there’s enough logic in Acocella’s remarks to merit some rebuttal. Do we do students a disservice by claiming that the double negative is a feature of their dialect, rather than a slatternly bad habit?

First principles first: the double negative really is a feature of a dialect. Suppose someone says to you: “He ain’t no fool.” You have two recourses: (A) you can scold her for using “ain’t,” which ain’t a word, and you can slap her again for saying that he ain’t no fool, which clearly, in the terms of symbolic logic, must mean that he is a fool, the opposite of the intended meaning. (The intended meaning that somehow came through loud and clear, despite the dialect.) Or (B) you can understand the sentence and answer in whatever way the subject’s degree of foolishness might require.

Now suppose someone says to you: “Il n’est pas un sot.” Again, there are several things you can say.

  1. “Hop off, frog.”
  2. “Je crois quand même qu’il est vraiment un sot!”
  3. “Huh?”
  4. “I’m sorry, but ’sot’ isn’t a word. In fact, none of your words are words. And by using a double negative – both ‘ne’ and ‘pas’ in the same verb phrase – you’ve inadvertently said ‘He is not a fool, not,’ which means that he is a fool. You need to study critical thinking.”

I’d probably say (3) in real life, and think of (2) later that night while I was falling asleep. (1) might cause an international incident, so that’s out. But (4) is hilariously absurd. Nobody corrects someone else for using their own language. You may hate the idea of escargot; you may still be calling your frites “Freedom Fries”; but even so, the French have a right to their own language, don’t they?

The people we don’t think have a right to their own language are people who speak our own differently from the way we do. Nobody’s embarrassed by cousin René when he starts speaking French, or even speaking English with that killer accent of his. But we’re embarrassed all the time by the way cousin Larry speaks: by his nonstandard syntax (even if it’s the syntax of Shakespeare); by his nonstandard vocabulary; by his regional accent (even when he’s speaking perfectly standard English in that accent).

“Non-standard” dialects of English are complete languages in the way that French is a complete language; regional accents are complete phonologies in the way that standard French is a complete phonology. It ain’t lazy or stupid to talk the way my grandfather talked, it’s plain different. Yet we disparage dialects, often in terms as seething and tendentious as those Acocella uses to disparage Hitchings’ arguments.

Why should that be? It’s essentially a social-class prejudice; as Bernard Shaw put it, “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him,” and so for Americans and Australians and Irish people, for any in-group fractured into smaller in-groups. We are more inclined to despise the language use of our fellow Americans the closer it is to our own; such situations make us more anxious. Hence Bill Cosby’s beef with Black English:

You used to talk a certain way on the corner and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows it’s important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can’t land a plane with “why you ain’t…”

Hence the way my Slovak grandmother would despise other immigrant families in Chicago: not for speaking Slovak or Polish, in which she was fluent herself, but for speaking with accents, and displaying incomplete mastery of standard English inflections. “Listen to him!” she would say. “‘I was borned here.‘ He was born here, and he can’t even say ‘I was born here!’”

Obviously there is such a thing as incomplete knowledge of a language: just listen to me trying to speak anything but English, and you will get a vivid demonstration. But there are also people who move between or among the internally-coherent dialects of English with ease, and there are those who seem trapped within a certain dialect, never really mastering another. The former, the “code-switchers” as linguists call them, may owe their code-switching to innate ability, combined with accidents of birth and upbringing. The latter, however, monodialectal as well as monolingual, may be just as intelligent, just as capable of problem-solving, moral behavior, and philosophical meditation as those who move freely. It’s just that – to borrow Bill Cosby’s terms – they talk the same way on the corner as they talk in the house.

The pedagogical implications of these principles will have to wait for another blog post. But one thing is clear about what my colleague Jackie Stodnick calls “language-land”: it is a beautiful place, full of fluent speakers. It only starts to be ugly when we don’t perceive fluent speakers of dialects to be as intelligent, or as morally competent, as speakers of whatever currently passes for the standard in our language.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 21st, 2012 |No Comments »

The Rules of Language

A desperately confused book review by Joan Acocella has touched off a flurry of corrective reactions from the online linguistics community, including two excellent posts by Mark Liberman at the blog Language Log. Acocella’s confusion is rooted in an inability to distinguish two meanings of the word “rule.” She goes ballistic over the fact that linguists disparage prescriptive usage rules, but at the same time insist that languages are structured by rules. Hypocrites!

I’ll use an analogy that I use in class. I stole it (with modifications) from Steven Pinker, but I’m not ashamed, because he probably stole it from somebody else.

The rules of language come in two varieties, like laws. You can break the laws of New York City, but you can’t break the laws of physics.

Think about this sentence: “You can’t turn right on red in New York City.” In one sense this is true. If you turn right on red in the Five Boroughs, the NYPD is empowered to write you a ticket. But in another sense, it’s absurd. You certainly can turn right on red in New York. I’ve seen it done hundreds of times – when the NYPD didn’t see it.

Now think of this sentence: “You can’t turn downwards in New York City, burrow through the pavement, and drive on subway tracks.” I think we can say with some confidence that you really can’t do that, except in a science-fiction movie. Cars can’t penetrate asphalt, at least not more than an inch or two, before they’re compelled to stop.

(Now, you might say that I’ve broken the rules for modal verbs in my examples. But that’s just a smaller example of my point. Everybody says “you can’t” when they mean “you may not,” just as everybody says “they” when they mean “he or she,” and just as they say “the White House” when they mean President Obama, or “It’s just what I needed” when their Aunt Melva gives them a crocheted toilet-roll cover for Christmas. Everybody understands what everybody else means extremely well in each of these linguistic situations.)

There’s a certain type of linguistic rule that you definitely can break, in the same way that you can turn right on red in New York. My neighbor broke several of these linguistic traffic laws yesterday in the course of explaining the deficiencies of the existing shelving in his wife’s sewing room.

“She cain’t do nothin’ with them shelves of hers,” he confided to me.

Where do I begin. My neighbor used /e/ in the word “can’t” instead of /æ/. He used /n/ at the end of “nothing” instead of /ŋ/. He used the dreaded “double negative” – “can’t do nothing” – which some would insist works out to a single positive. He used “them” as a determiner in the noun phrase “them shelves,” instead of saying “those shelves.” And he used the pleonastic, periphrastic genitive “of hers,” instead of merely saying “her shelves.”

So what did I say in reply? “Please rephrase! I cannot understand your faulty grammar and phonetics!” Well, no. I said “That’s a shame.” Because after all, she coul’n't do nothin’ with them shelves.

My neighbor executed a possible but proscribed sentence in my hearing, analogous to a cabbie making a flawless right turn on red in front of me at 37th and Madison. I understood exactly what he was doing, and though I could have written him a linguistic ticket, I surely did not. To do so would have been to act like a grammar cop, and a particularly nasty cop at that, perhaps driven by a need to meet my quota of usage tickets. More importantly, to correct his “grammar” would have been to kill our neighborly relations. I would have underscored that I have an Ivy League PhD in English and that his terminal degree is a diploma from a Texas public high school. Not to mention the facts that (1) I damn well enough understood what he said; (2) my own grandparents, and I myself when I’m relaxed, woul’n't of said it different; and (3) he’s a hell of a lot more competent to fix a shelf than I am.

But what if my neighbor had defied the linguistic laws of physics? What if he’d said

“Do she shelves those with anything not can.”

I would (A) have stared at him amazed; and (B) dialled 911, because he was obviously having a stroke.

“Do she shelves those with anything not can” is a totally impossible rearrangement of an otherwise standard English sentence. No English speaker has ever uttered it, unless in the furthest grips of neurological impairment. It breaks linguistic rules that lie deep within our brains.

And that’s what linguists mean by “the rules of language.” The rules that discourage people with Ivy League PhDs from saying “She cain’t do nothin’ with them shelves” are conscious, socially prescribed rules, much like rules of traffic, or fashion, or indeed of literary style. (In fact, in some works, “she cain’t do nothin’” might be great literary style.) The rules that prevent anyone at all from saying “Do she shelves those with anything” are unconscious, second-nature features of knowing a language.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 14th, 2012 |2 Comments »

Literary Bicentenary: Robert Browning



Robert Browning was born on 7 May 1812; today is his 200th birthday.

Like many readers’, my first exposure to Browning was “My Last Duchess.” It is probably the most-orally-interpreted poem ever written, and for good reasons, despite its omnipresent familiarity.

Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace — all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least.

That’s Robert Browning in seven lines: indirection, allusiveness, verbal economy, dizzying facility with English rhyme and meter. That may be the first time anyone has ever associated “verbal economy” with Robert Browning, but I mean it in the sense that he typically packed an impressive range of meanings and ideas into few words. At the same time, he wrote countless words, so that his poems include vast stretches of hard going. Of his early long poem Sordello, he famously said late in life: “When I wrote that, God and I knew what it meant. Now only God knows.”

With his usual perverseness, Ezra Pound claimed that Sordello was a masterpiece. Most readers prefer Browning’s dramatic monologues: “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Caliban upon Setebos,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.” In these expansive, intricate poems, characters review their lives, offering realizations, rationalizations, obfuscations, and rueful observations – behaving, that is, much like real human beings, if real human beings could speak effortless blank verse. Effortlessness is the famous theme of “Andrea del Sarto”:

I do what many dream of all their lives,
—Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,
Yet do much less.

Verse came so easily to Robert Browning that he may have feared the fate of Andrea del Sarto. But his achievements were massive and important. They culminated in The Ring and the Book, one of the great Victorian novels, almost unread today. It’s complicated, it has an obscure historical setting, its effects are operatic and grand, and it’s in verse: you can see why people read Dickens instead. But The Ring and the Book is a milestone of incipient postmodernism. Several observer-participants tell the story of a murder. They have different interests at stake, different memories, and different styles: where does the truth reside? Almost a century later, Rashomon would become shorthand for fictions dependent on the perspective of multiple observers – but Browning had figured out how to do the Rashomon thing on a grander scale, and long before.

Even while he was making a considerable living as a professional poet, and drawing critical acclaim, Robert Browning saw his literary reputation overtaken by his celebrity. When he and Elizabeth Barrett married in 1846, they became the Brangelina of the Victorian literary world. Barrett was the better-known poet then, would write at least one poem far more famous than any of her husband’s, and would, like him, write a great verse novel that nobody reads – or at least, nobody read Aurora Leigh for a long time, till feminist critics captivated by its themes and its sheer readability vaulted it past The Ring and the Book in reputation and canonicity. For much of the 20th century, though, the Brownings were known mainly from the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street and from mandatory memorization of “My Last Duchess” or “How do I love thee?



And from Max Beerbohm’s devastating cartoon of the long-widowed Robert “taking tea with the Browning Society.” The poet survived his wife by many years, writing the whole time, enjoying salon superstardom, but becoming less and less relevant to late-Victorian art and intellectual life. Robert struck his acquaintances as shallow and not all that smart – the contrast he posed to his extremely sharp poetry puzzled observers and led them to discount his intelligence. Henry James even wrote a story, “The Private Life,” about the discrepancy between Browning the person and Browning the poet. It’s not that either Browning ever quite became a joke, but that both, and their relationship, were sentimentalized out of significance. They were the kind of writers that, if you had unlimited money, you might build an incongruous shrine to in the middle of Texas. To love the Brownings, by the 1960s, was a sure sign of middlebrow aesthetic inertia.

And that’s a shame. It’s a shame now largely redeemed in the case of Elizabeth, who now figures as a major poet and major voice for feminist and progressive causes; but even that recuperation seems to cast a bit of shadow on her husband, whom we suspect was probably doing something to enmesh her in patriarchy. There’s little evidence for that – she wrote Aurora Leigh during their marriage – but there’s little evidence that Robert was as progressive as Elizabeth. He was no Thoreau; he wasn’t even George Eliot, for that matter. He was a writer with an incredible verbal gift, who had the even rarer gift of recognizing a “poetic moment” and conveying it with deft obliqueness. “Memorabilia” is perhaps the best example of this gift: a poem so slight that it can pass unnoticed, and once noticed, it seems to be unable to pay attention to what it’s about. But that’s only until you see that being unable to pay attention is the nature, and the minor-key tragedy, of an ephemeral existence. That minor tragedy has never been better evoked.

Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak to you?
And did you speak to him again?
How strange it seems, and new!

But you were living before that,
And you are living after,
And the memory I started at—
My starting moves your laughter!

I crossed a moor, with a name of its own
And a certain use in the world no doubt,
Yet a hand’s-breadth of it shines alone
‘Mid the blank miles round about:

For there I picked up on the heather
And there I put inside my breast
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather—
Well, I forget the rest.

Published in:Tim Morris |on May 7th, 2012 |1 Comment »

Literary Obituary: Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012


It’s an old-fashioned, an outrageous thing
To believe one has a “destiny”

— a thought often peculiar to those
who possess privilege —

but there is something else:   the faith
of those despised and endangered

that they are not merely the sum
of damages done to them

[Sources (1983)]

No short passage could sum up the vast and various intellectual work of poet/essayist Adrienne Rich, but that short piece from a long poem speaks to two important things about her. She was undeniably privileged, a child of east-coast Establishment ease and Radcliffe education, a Harvard faculty wife by her early 20s, author of tasteful poems that W.H. Auden praised in a pat-on-the-head way for “not telling fibs.” Nobody would have blamed her for hosting Cambridge cocktail parties for the rest of her long life.

Yet the choices she made, in the process of remaking herself personally and professionally again and again, did make her “despised and endangered,” and in no figurative sense. She left the Ivy League and the Seven Sisters behind, taking a teaching job in the radical open-access SEEK program of the City University of New York. She came out as a lesbian. She devoted almost a half-century to speaking out against misogyny, homophobia, racism, militarism, and anti-Semitism. In the process, she forged a kind of free-verse, long-sentence, highly rhetorical poetry that has been hugely influential on American verse. Her poems read like essays and her essays read like poems. All are topical and engagée; she called one of her volumes Leaflets because she saw no essential difference between poems and calls to action.

And, unashamedly, Adrienne Rich believed she had a “destiny”:

When I talk of taking a trip I mean forever.
I could say: those mountains have a meaning
but further than that I could not say.

To do something very common, in my own way.

["A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," 1971]

Somebody – it’s usually supposed to be Winston Churchill – once said that if you aren’t liberal when young you have no heart; if you aren’t conservative when older, you have no brain. Adrienne Rich, possessed of both, lived that trajectory in reverse. It’s not that her first few volumes of poems are especially reactionary, but they are decorous. Women’s half-lived lives feature in her books from the 1950s. One can imagine a poet retreating into half-silence after writing them, or flowering into madness (like Rich’s contemporaries Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton). Rich instead did “very common” practical things, addressing what needed addressing with directness and sanity.

And as Rich aged, she just got more progressive. All her obituaries cite her 1997 refusal of a National Medal of Arts, when she wrote President Clinton that “the very meaning of art as I understand it is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” That’s the Clinton administration, mind you, the one so many progressives now look back on with nostalgia – the administration that Maya Angelou, no closet conservative, had memorably ushered in. But in Rich’s eyes, Clinton failed to pass a healthcare bill, dismantled welfare programs, capitulated on “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” waged drone wars against ill-specified enemies, and made a mess of the Kyoto environmental accords. In fact, one could argue that one of the Clinton Administration’s most progressive positions was its determination to honor Adrienne Rich. She wouldn’t help them out.

Many of Rich’s poems read like essays, I’ve said, and her essays are probably the most vital part of her literary legacy. In “When We Dead Awaken” (1971), she argued that

“Political” poetry by men remains stranded amid the struggles for power among male groups . . . The mood of isolation, self-pity, and self-imitation that pervades “nonpolitical” poetry suggests that a profound change in masculine consciousness will have to precede any new male poetic—or other—inspiration. The creative energy of patriarchy is fast running out; what remains is its self-generating energy for destruction. As women, we have our work cut out for us.

Forty years ago, poetry was seen by academic critics almost entirely in aestheticist terms. If it is now seen almost entirely in rhetorical and political terms, we owe that more to Adrienne Rich than to any other single critic.

Published in:Tim Morris |on March 29th, 2012 |4 Comments »

Literary Bicentenary: Charles Dickens

English Matters began with a 300th-birthday tribute to Samuel Johnson in 2009, and makes its belated-phoenix reappearance today to mark the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens on Tuesday 7 February.

Like Dr. Johnson, Charles Dickens is a huge figure in English studies, so large and various that it’s practically impossible to sum him up. You know an author is great when other great writers spend so much time dissing him. “Dickens knows Man but not men,” complained Henry James, a subtle distinction: basically, Dickens didn’t get out enough in the social circles that James yearned to dine in. Oscar Wilde snarked at The Old Curiosity Shop: “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” And what was Virginia Woolf implying when she said that George Eliot’s Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people?”

Among great English novelists, George Orwell most admired Dickens, but with qualifications: “Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters.” Orwell specifies lots of minor matters. However, he goes on to say that “the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.” Orwell was therefore fascinated and appalled by the images of (literal) class warfare in A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens, who hated injustices perpetrated by the rich and powerful, hated the savagery of the great revolution against the rich and powerful. Of course, one imagines that the leftist-crusading author of Animal Farm would be especially drawn to such a contradiction. But it points to an odd dynamic about Dickens: that his best-known novel is in some ways his least typical, and gives an impression of him as a kind of reactionary.

Is A Tale of Two Cities “written for grown-up people?” I read it in the 8th grade; it followed Silas Marner (7th grade) as the total of my middle-school exposure to Literature. I loved it; it’s all plot, and it offers gorgeous opportunities to read its final sentences in the voice of Ronald Colman. But as Jeff Daniels says in The Squid and the Whale, it’s “minor Dickens.” The major novels are the ones where he refracted the boundless pain and titanic energy of his own personality through a limitless set of characters. “After Shakespeare, God has created most,” said Alexandre Dumas père, but he was too busy creating a lot himself to keep up with the even greater creations of Dickens.

I read David Copperfield on my own even before the 8th grade, struggling through a world so unfamiliar to me as a child of 1960s America that I envisioned almost everything about it wrong, picturing Great Yarmouth as something like the Jersey Shore. (I even thought the Peggottys were black, which actually says a lot about parallels between race in America and class in Britain.) David Copperfield, like the earlier Oliver Twist, is a book about gentility in eclipse. David’s birthright has been lost in the shuffle, and he descends into an urban working class below which there is no obvious safety net. Orwell thought Dickens bourgeois, which he certainly was; Orwell remarks on how “it is questionable whether he really regards [the working class] as equals.”

Yet all of Dickens’s class squeamishnesses have to be seen as relative. In Anna Karenina, written well after Dickens’s death, Vronsky goes to the opera and muses

God knows who they were; the same dirty crowd in the gallery; and in all this crowd, in the boxes and front rows, there were about forty real men and women.

Perhaps Tolstoy is satirizing Vronsky’s own prejudices, but I doubt it. For Tolstoy, the middle class is barely human; society consists of a few aristocratic families and some rustic, idealized muzhiks. For Dickens, despite all the sentimentality, despite Tattycoram and Little Nell and Tiny Tim, every range of the middle class exists, and those trying to hang on and make a living against the odds exist most of all. The poor exist, and the homeless, and the mentally handicapped, and the impossibly pretentious, and the bullies, and the victims, and the ciphers. Everyone, in short, that you never hear about if you’d rather be reading Jane Austen :)

Great Expectations crystallizes the anxieties of class better than any other Dickens novel. If David is degraded by his time in the bottle warehouse, Pip is degraded by his own desire to leave the working class behind. Blacksmith Joe Gargery may be a caricature of the kind of “men” that Dickens really didn’t know any better than he knew Henry James’s minor nobility. But he’s a damn sight better person than Pip, and Pip knows it, and Pip can’t help despising Joe anyway, despite and because of Joe’s essential decency.

If English novelists have tended to look at Dickens with various attitudes fashioned from envy – disdain, embarrassment, indignation, condescension – writers in other countries have just wallowed in his influence. Mark Twain when young seems to have had a mancrush on Dickens, and it would be evident from his writing if he hadn’t admitted as much. Herman Melville shared Dickens’s histrionics, his panoply of characters, his tendency to lapse into blank verse. And many a European writer looked to Dickens, as earlier generations had looked to Walter Scott, as the pattern of what one could do in fiction. This includes Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (the latter’s range of social reference resembling Dickens’s as much as Tolstoy’s differed), Hugo and Zola, and perhaps most of all Proust. It may seem preposterous to connect Proust to Dickens, but in characterization and satire, Proust was a positive disciple. The “petit noyau” of the Verdurins, in Proust, is an homage to the Veneerings’ circle in Our Mutual Friend, and Proust’s habit of reducing minor characters to verbal or physical tics (think of the narrator’s aunts who talk to M. Swann only in recondite allusions) is a perfection of Dickens’s method.

When I was young, the distinguished Welsh actor Emlyn Williams came to New Jersey and gave a reading, in full dress and character as Charles Dickens, from Dickens’s works – much as the novelist used to do on continual speaking tours himself. Williams was by all accounts a frosty, inaccessible man; Dickens could strike people that way too. They were both larger than life, surrounded by myths and pretenses, anxieties and baggage. Without dropping a smidgen of character or a syllable of prose, Williams read his way through his pieces, leaving an effect of great technical mastery and considerable personal mystery. Dickens was apparently also like that. As a middle-aged celebrity of great wealth and unmatched fame, he would sometimes walk from his estate in Kent all the way to central London and wander the haunts of his childhood by dark, then walk back to Rochester by dawn. It’s impossible to know what drove him to create so much, and hard to empathize with him as a person. That’s OK: all you really have to do is read him with appropriate abandon.

Published in:Tim Morris |on February 5th, 2012 |3 Comments »