Archive for August, 2009

Why Orwell Still Matters

August 31, 2009

George Orwell (1903-1950) deserves to be read and reread: in part for his spare and disciplined and luminous style,  but more importantly perhaps because much of his work is cautionary.  It warns its readers about the evil in the individual human heart as well as about the dangers of an oppressive tyranny, whether imposed by a individual like Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler or by a revolutionary party,  such as the fascists and “National Socialists” in the Europe of the mid-twentieth century.

Doubtless most of you are familiar with his two most popular novels, the fantasy of “Animal Farm” and the brutal realism of “1984.”  Some of his lines will stay with me forever, such as the first sentence in “1984”:  “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” And this from “Animal Farm”:  “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Orwell is also important for his teaching others about the values inherent in good writing practices.  Like his contemporary, the greatest writer among the great writers on “The New Yorker” Joseph Mitchell,  Orwell was a master of the English declarative sentence.  His “Politics and the English Language”  is a small masterpiece.

As a disciplined writer and teacher, who was part of the North Carolina Writing Project in the 1970s,  Harriett McDonald much admired Orwell as both a model and a mentor.  I have captured and kept something she wrote many years ago that is worth our attention:

“George Orwell said, in 1946, that the decadence of our language is probably curable.  And he gave us six ‘Canadian Air-Force Exercises’ by which to cure ourselves.    Orwell’s rules are:

1. Never use a metaphor, a simile or other  figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short word will do.

3.  If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.  Never use a passive voice, where you can use the active.

5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.  Break any of these rules  sooner than say something outright barbarous. ”

Reactions?  Additional recommendations?



Should Deaf Citizens Serve on Juries?

August 26, 2009

As a hearing-impaired geezer (and “geezer” is relevant to this topic),  I am somewhat sensitive about those who become impatient and/or get perturbed when I do not immediately respond to, or respond inappropriately, to a question or a remark.  (Like most folks,  I tend to cover up some of my inadequacies in the company of others.  I am staying away from push-up bras.)

Are you aware that the North Carolina legislature is considering a bill that would allow  the “deaf and hard of hearing”) as Gene Smith terms it in his July 18 column to serve on juries?  Gene, whom I know pretty well, is quite hard of hearing (more than I, I believe), and he has been excused from jury duty on appeal at least twice in recent times.

In this column Gene presents strong opposition and valid reasons as to why the bill being considered (State Representative Rick Glazier of Fayetteville is the manager of the bill, Gene points out) should be killed.  I totally agree with Gene:  amplification, sign language,  and improved hearing aids still would be inadequate to help people like Gene and me to the degree that we could function as well as those with “normal” hearing.

I too have in the past year or so now twice asked the Clerk of Court to be permanently excused from jury duty as I am now over age 72 and likely will continue to be.  (My primary caveat, truly though, is not my age but my hearing disability.)

The only “out” that might work would be for the court system to videotape proceedings and do an “instant replay”  with “Closed Captioning.” Another assist here for our many Hispanic residents could be offering Spanish captioning.  (I don’t know if facility in the English language is now a requirement, but I expect for now the prosecution and the defense both would move to dismiss such potential jurors until they have used up their given number of DQs.)  I have not heard of any legislation pending that would permit Hispanic people who know little of no English to serve on juries.

Food for thought?  Do you have any observations?   RJR

Some Tom Swiftlies So Old They Seem New

August 26, 2009

You remember (don’t you) the “Tom Swiftlies” ( most term these “Tom Swifties” as the hero in the novels of early last century in which such sentence forms were common was Tom Swift) we’ve had fun with a number of times?  Way back when?

Anyway this is a metalinguistic exercise in which the adverbs punned on the statement that Tom has made.  Example:  “I told you it was a mistake to fly to the North Pole,”  said Tom icily.

Here are five originals that appeared in a contest run by “New York” magazine a good many years ago. Some of these don’t rely on an adverb but are close derivations of the form. (After that,  you can supply a good example,  can’t you?)

(1)  “Damn,  I can’t think of one single Victor Hugo title,”  said Les, miserably.

(2)  “Poor Peter, he never heard the crocodile coming,” Wendy deadpanned.

(3)  “Seems like cruel and unusual punishment for stealing,” I remarked to the califph offhandedly.

(4)  “I refuse to send payment for the glove,”  said the ballplayer unremittingly.

(5)  “I never seen such a twister–blowed the clothes right off my back,”  said Dorothy’s aunt embarrassedly.

OK,  your turn.  Prize:  A free refill on water at our September breakfast meeting!


Are You Ready to Bolt?

August 23, 2009

What an amazing athlete!  First he sets new world records at the Beijing Olympics last year in both the 100 and 200 meter dashes in remarkably easy fashion, it would seem.

Now in the World Games in Berlin,  he has broken both records once more.

And his playful, free-spirited approach to all this reminds us of another such amazing athlete,  Cassius Clay, now Muhammed Ali.

Usain (Saturday’s headline in the local newspaper called him “Insane Usain”) Bolt is from Jamaica,  a culture in which the English language is not perhaps totally mangled but is often rearranged a bit.

In Friday’s story, he is quoted by the AP as having said,  “I am on my way to being a legend . . . .  If Queen Elizabeth knighthooded me and I would get the title of Sir Usain,  that would be very nice.”

I am intrigued here particularly by the ease with which Mr. Bolt transforms a noun,  “knighthood,” into a verb.  We might correctly observe that “knighted” is the conventional verb usage.

However,  I rather enjoy (hearing at least) a noun translated into a verb when it is useful and easily done.  A good many years ago, for example,  “wastebasketed” was discussed in lexicographic services as perhaps a serviceable verb form. After all, is not the sentence “I wastebasketed it” perfectly understood and also much shorter than “I threw it into the wastebasket”?  The new usage by Mr. Bolt has less going for it.


How Is Your Favorite Genre Doing?

August 19, 2009

Safely back from our trip to, and stay in,  Williamsburg, Virginia.     We were not surprised to find herky-jerky traffic both coming and going on I-95.  But we were surprised to find many more folks than in August 2008 circulating around the crazy-quilt traffic patterns inWilliamsburg,  this historic and hospitable city,  during the rainy weather we encountered as we sought once again an easy route to the time share resort to which we’ve been coming for many, if not most, of the years since we acquired our domain in “Patriot’s Place” in 1986.  (Sentence too long,  did not have time to make it shorter, sorry)

But onward to today’s topic:  the functions of the rules of “genre” in creating, interpreting and evaluating literature.

We’re in a transition period currently in which the lines dividing fiction from nonfiction are becoming less and less clear, at times perhaps even irrelevant. As E.L. Doctorow observed a few years ago,  “There is no longer such a thing as fiction or nonfiction, there is only narrative.” I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Doctorow, whose 1975 novel,  “Ragtime,”  illustrates how factual events and characters can be interwoven into a narrative that is also imaginative.  But keep reading.

Truman Capote,  writing about his 1966 book,  “In Cold Blood” claimed the rights to the origin of what he designated as “a nonfiction novel.”

Since Doctorow’s and Capote’s  publications, there have been a deluge of excellent “nonfiction novels.”  Among those I have read in recent years (or intend to) are the very popular 1994 narrative “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt (which spent an amazing 216 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List),  Frank McCourt’s  1996 “Angela’s Ashes,”  Darin Strauss’ s “Chang and Eng” a 2000 story narrated by Siamese twin Eng Bunker) and Mark Frost’s 2002 “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the story of Francis Ouimet’s triumph over Henry Vardon and other great golfers of the day in the 1913 Unites States Open.

There is still enough resistance,  however, to commingling the two parents of the bastard work of nonfictional narratives that a writer whose book was chosed by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club was later dishonored because the author had borrowed or invented some information in his memoir without attribution.  This was James Frey,  a confessed alcoholic, drug addict, and convicted criminal whose powerful personal memoir,  “A Million Little Pieces,” was chose as the September 2005 for Oprah’s Book Club.

It took quite a while for the steam to build against Frey’s representation, or characterization, of his work and also against his publisher, the respected veteran Nan Talese.  Talese and Frey (he for a second time) appeared on Oprah’s TV show to admit wrongdoing and  to ask forgiveness.  The show drew a great audience and was highly praised by most TV mavens.

My perspective here would be that Frey’s and Talese’s malfeasance discredits less the genre of the “nonfiction novel” than that it exposes a lack of integrity in both TV journalism and in the publishing world in our time.  (We can find several instances of outright fabrication also in newspaper features of several highly respected newspapers in recent times.)

So, what do you think?  Is the novel-cum-memoir or memoir-cum-novel a good thing, or not?  Maybe blog readers can also mention some of their favorite nonfiction novels.


Blogger Takes a Break

August 7, 2009

Dear Blog Community,

I haven’t lost my grip on the speaking and writing conundrums that have continued to emerge, even when we think that the print media or other producers of volumes of words are on their best behavior.

Although I am taking about a week’s break as we vacation in the Williamsburg area,  I do encourage you, when you have time and motivation, to continue livening up our discussions.

You might, as a suggestion, track down earlier (maybe much earlier) blogs I have posted that you haven’t read.  You can comment on these at will on in the space provided on this posting.

And yes, thanks to Marshall for his two most recent.  I would like to hear more about this jazz guitar interest, BTW.