Touching Toungues column available

My new Touching Tongues column is available on _Neutrons/Protons_.  It’s called “Stop Making Sense,” and talks about folk etymology:


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Stuff I’ve been reading, non-fiction edition


Listed from liked-most to liked-least.

Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert.

It’s hard to describe the complex historical web that Beckert traces, but the overall message is that talk of free markets, in an industry with so much at stake, has generally been a joke: the market is whatever the man with the whip says it is.

Here is one thread: when the British arrived in India, there was already a thriving international trade in finished cotton. The Brits used threats and violence to squeeze out the other merchants and force spinners and weavers to sell only to their agents. At first, there was an avid market in Britain, where only the super-rich had ever worn clothing that was not brown or black. But the wool and linen lobby put paid to that, and new laws forbade the import of cotton cloth.

One result was that exporters from India focused on the African market; African slave traders loved Indian cloth and wouldn’t settle for crappy European imitations. So Indian cloth paid for huge numbers of slaves, who produced sugar and rum and eventually raw cotton, the profits from which bought more slaves and more Indian cloth.

A second consequence of the import ban was that some British entrepreneurs decided to spin and weave cotton at home, and devised ways to mechanize the process. Cotton mills were the largest element of the Industrial Revolution, and they created a huge demand for raw cotton. With Napoleon making trouble in the Mediterranean and a slave revolt in Haiti, pplantation owners in the American South saw an opportunity. This was greatly expanded when a British cotton baron bankrolled the Louisiana Purchase with the specific aim of expanding US cotton production.

With the price advantage of materials produced by slave labor, the mill owners of old and New England made a killing on the ‘free’ market. By 1860, half of all US exports were raw cotton. After the Civil War, there was some concern about maintaining the reliable supply of raw cotton, so the British found it necessary to destroy the Indian domestic cotton textile industry, turning millions of artisans into landless farm laborers. These people formerly depended on their gardens for food, but now became wholly subject to the commodity market, and when prices fell, many millions starved to death. Just the cost of doing business.

The book is not exactly a page-turner, but I feel that I came away with a better sense of how the world really works. Beckert is a real historian with plenty of facts to back up his story.



On the Move by Oliver Sacks.

One of young Oliver’s report cards said “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” Well, he went too far in every possible direction. This led to some fun experiences, such as staying at the San Francisco YMCA (“Sorry, wrong room.” “Are you sure??”), hanging with Hell’s Angels, being approved as “Doctor Squat” by the boys on Venice Beach, hanging with WH Auden (Auden left him his record collection), brainstorming with Francis Crick, having Robin Williams impersonate him….you get the idea.

On the other hand, becoming muscle-bound made him liable to nasty tendon injuries, which supplemented those that resulted from generally dumb decisions (body-surfing in monster waves, careless hiking over the edge of cliffs, etc.). I guess the meth addiction, which lasted for several years, fits in the latter category. Maybe falling in love with boys who were straight or in denial does too, except that isn’t exactly a decision, at least not a conscious one. Lots of interesting stuff in the first half of the book, which then degenerates into a series of random sketches; I wonder if the author’s declining health is to blame, or if people’s lives are just not that interesting once they find their way in life.


Augustus, the First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy.

I like Goldsworthy’s writing but there is just something rather boring about Augustus, and this book is less fun than AG’s bio of Julius Caesar and his book about the fall of Rome. Goldsworthy does not subscribe to the I, Claudius view that Livia poisoned everybody, which admittedly is a bit absurd but makes for a fun story.


Rome A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History by Robert Hughes.

It is interesting to hear about the image of Rome that Hughes formed growing up in Australia in the 1950s and what it was like to arrive in this fabled place, with its astonishing history and art and vegetabhles. Sadly, after the intro, he seems to lose track of the personal story, and his exposition of the history and art is unimpressive. Actually, it is sometimes downright off-putting: “It is an extremely sexy sculpture; as it should be, since its subject is a rape.” Or words to that effect…what was he thinking?

Also, someone who claims that Augustus was called Gaius Julius Caesar Octavius should not quit his day job. It’s like writing about Muhammad Ali Clay.

Robert Hughes is what Simon Schama would be if Mrs. Schama had dropped him on his head as a baby.


Coming Out Christian in the Roman World by Douglas Boyne.

It seemed like a promising idea, a gay archeologist comparing the experience of Christians in the Roman world with that of gay people in our culture (hence the ‘coming out’ in the title). But the author misses the chance for a nuanced and data-rich account, instead wasting time knocking down straw-men and repeating generalities. It’s a wee book, only 200 pages, but still I lost patience waiting for the meaty stuff.

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Edmund Wilson, Boy Curmudgeon

Writing in 1921, Edmund Wilson wraps up a mixed review of F. Scott Fitzgerald by noting that he is, after all, not yet 30:

His restless imagination may yet produce something durable. For the present, however, this imagination is certainly not seen to the best advantage; it suffers badly from lack of discipline and poverty of aesthetic ideas.


And here is Wilson on Ezra Pound:

Ezra Pound’s new book of poems, Poems 1918-1921, is as unsatisfactory as his previous ones….[His style] remains patchy and uneven, and acutely self-conscious.


Here, as in many of his pieces from the ‘20s and ‘30s, collected in The Shores of Light, Wilson seems to think he is Dr. Johnson; one piece is in fact a letter written in Johnson’s style and signed with his name. So it is startling to realize that he was only one year ahead of Fitzgerald at Princeton. They grow up so fast.

His self-importance has a positive side, because it allows him to speak frankly and trust his own judgments. In the quotes above, he says things that I pretty much agree with, and which you won’t hear nowadays. Even where I don’t agree, it is fun to read assessments of canonical writers as though they were mere mortals:

Robert Frost has a thin but authentic vein of poetic sensibility, but I find him excessively dull, and he certainly writes very poor verse.

Wallace Stevens has a fascinating gift of words that is not far from a gift of nonsense,…and he is a charming decorative artist.


At times, though, the pontification just turns prissy and sour. His wish that poets like Hart Crane and John Crowe Ransom would write about more interesting subjects may have some merit, I suppose, the terms in which he frames it strike a false note. Apparently they have not chosen adequate careers, and thus lack suitable experiences to write about:

The poet would do better to study a profession, to become a banker, or a public official, or even to go in for the movies….[I]t is perhaps only the man of the world, like Catullus or Byron, who has the right to be insolent to the great.”

“the great” of course, does not mean great artists, but those who occupy positions of power. To his credit, Wilson includes a couple of negative responses to this piece, including a letter from Hart Crane to Yvor Winters:

It’s so damned easy for such as he, born into easy means, graduated from a fashionable university into a critical chair overlooking Washington Square etc….as though all the mames he mentioned had been as suavely nourished as he, as though four out of 5 of them hadn’t been damn well forced, the major part of their lives, to grub at any kind of work they could manage by hook or crook and the fear of Hell to secure. Yes, why not step into the State Department and join the diplomatic corps for a change?”


Wilson probably gives Gertrude Stein a more respectful hearing than a lot of critics did, and his distaste for her immense icy egotism is justified, but he also betrays the limitations of his liberal culture when he writes about her story “Things As They Are,” in which a lesbian love triangle descends into “…bitter altercations that seem to reach almost the hair-pulling stage. This inevitably becomes faintly comic, as if one were witnessing a triangle between three empty mislaid gloves, all intended for the left hand.”



On the other hand, here is Wilson on Hemingway in Africa, hunting potentially interesting animals:

We do not learn very much more about them than that Hemingway wants to kill them. Nor do we learn much about the natives….the principal impression that we carry away is that the Africans were simple people who enormously admired Hemingway.


On the other other hand, EW gets all snobby when talking about movies. He says that American cinema has never produced anything to rival the best German or Russian films, and even when it draws talent from Europe or Broadway, it simply ruins and destroys it: “How shall we ever know now, for example, whether Katherine Hepburn, or for that matter Greta Garbo, ever really had anything in her?” That Kate, she could have had a real career if she’d just stayed back East.


One of the last reviews in the book has me torn. Wilson praises Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer as a trenchant satirical novel. Apparently, at the end of the book, one of the main characters gets his girlfriend pregnant and ditches her by heading back to America, but leaves money with the hero to give to her. The hero, instead, blows the money on fancy food and drink, and wanders tipsily through Paris, vaporizing on philosophical topics. Wilson considers this an amusing portrait of the “authentic American bum.”

Henry Miller begged to differ, writing that the book is not a novel, and the “bum” is not the book’s ‘hero’ but is in fact Henry Miller. So Wilson gets a D for wildly misunderstanding the author’s project, but an A for calling Miller the douchebag he undoubtedly was.


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Don Quixote was a steel-drivin’ man

I’m afraid I’m not going to make it through Don Quixote. It started out pretty well, except for the dedicatory poems, which probably lost most of their funniness in the last four centuries and lost the rest when translated into English doggerel. The Don’s initial sally has a certain demented dignity: the publican and prostitutes whom he takes for a castellan and noble ladies find that accommodating his fantasies is amusing enough without needing to humiliate him (the innkeeper even gives him the excellent advice to bring some money along the next time he goes erranting).

The Don himself shows some courtesy, though he also shows the first signs of his arrogance and his tendency to treat everyone he encounters as an enemy. The first time he challenges some random passer-by in his stilted, pompous manner, and then gets his ass kicked, is mildly entertaining, the windmill thing has a kind of grandeur, and nobody gets hurt except the Don himself.

There is also the mock Inquisition in which DQ’s friends and niece burn his books. The modern reader is likely to be creeped out by the knowledge that these were the people, more or less, who gave us the real Spanish Inquisition, making the scene a rather dark farce.

But so far as I can tell, Cervantes ran out of ideas about a hundred pages in. DQ heads out on a second journey, equipped with money which he ends up refusing to use, and encounters some very civil goatherds and then a bunch of aristocrats pretending to be shepherds, like the characters in one of those dreadful pastoral poems (the English ones often feature Colin Clout blowing his oaten reed, lamenting the cruelty of the fair shepherdess, etc.). Cervantes deserves credit for giving the fair shepherdess the chance to tell the shepherds where they can stick their oaten reeds, but otherwise this episode is a snore-fest.

Then we begin to get repeats of Quixote’s previous adventures, only instead of humor, this time there’s nothing but brutality, stupidity,, ugliness, and lots of puking.


DQ and Sancho get beaten up (this time Rocinante gets beaten up too), then they come to an inn, where they bed down in filth and are further beaten up by one of the guests and a spectacularly ugly member of the staff. DQ prepares a healing balsam consisting mostly of rosemary, which sounds harmless enough; anyway, it makes him throw up and then sweat, but later he feels better (it’s very hard to tell Renaissance medicine from a lampoon of Renaissance medicine). After a while Sancho drinks some too, but at first he goes into a sort of seizure instead of vomiting. Then…

By this time the beverage began to work to some purpose, and the poor squire discharged so swiftly and copiously at both ends that neight the rush mat on which he had thrown himself nor the blanket with which he covered himself were of the slightest use to him.

Nice. Sancho gets beaten up some more before they finally head out in search of adventure, which they find when DQ mistakes some sheep for embattled armies. He rides in and kills a bunch of the sheep, until the shepherds (real ones this time) start pelting him with rocks:

At that instant a smooth pebble hit him in the side and buried two ribs in his entrails. Finding himself in such a bad way, he thought for certain that he was killed or sorely wounded, and remembering his balsam, he took out his cruse and raised it to his lips. But before he could swallow what he wanted, another pebble struck him full on the hand, broke the cruse to pieces, carried away with it three or four teeth and grinders out of his mouth, and badly crushed two fingers of his hand.

Well, if that doesn’t have you in stitches, then I don’t know what can be done for you. (Btw, I am not sure about the spelling of cruse, or what the proper ENglish word for it is—it’s some sort of little pot.)

Sancho runs up to see how his master is doing, and the Don asks him to look into his mouth and tell him if he has any teeth left:

Sancho went so close that he almost thrust his eyes into his mouth. And it was precisely at the fatal moment when the balsam that had been fretting in Don Quixote’s stomach came up to the surface, and with the same violence that a bullet is fired out of a gun, all that he had in his stomach discharged itself upon the beard of the compassionate squire.

Sancho for a moment thinks that DQ is vomiting blood, but quickly recognizes the odor of the balsam:

…and so great was the loathing that he felt, that his own stomach turned, and he emptied its full cargo upon his master, and both were in a precious pickle.

Yes, I too thought the balsam had been shot out of his hand before he had time to drink it. But that is by the way.

Can someone tell me it gets better than this, a lot better? Does Don Quixote get more like a real novel, with plot and interesting characters and comedy that might entertain a reader who has successfully completed toilet training, instead of the what appears to be the novelization of Itchy & Scratchy?


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Instead of synopses of poetry books, here are some links to poems I’ve been reading and which I think you might like:


Jude Nutter, “The Shipping Forecast.”

Rebecca Morgan Frank, “Extinction.”

Leslie Shipman, “This Great Sadness.”

Jill McDonough, “Heirloom.”

Jamal May, “There Are Birds Here.”

John Donne, “The Canonization.”


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Book Reports

Here’s what I’ve been reading in the last two months (except for the poetry), from the ones I liked to the ones I didn’t:


Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

Adorable portrait of the ultimate nerd, both describing and enacting his childhood obsession with chemistry. Young Oliver used to spend hours ogling the wares at his local chemical supply store before spending his allowance on a bit of mercury or cyanide or whatever. His parents indulged him in every scientific enterprise, but also shipped their kids off to hellish boarding schools and never noticed that they were being starved and brutalized. When an aunt asked why his brother’s back was covered in livid scars and welts, they had no idea, they thought he was enjoying school. Ah, the English upper middle class.


Svante Paabo, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

Fascinating memoir by the researcher who pioneered the study of the DNA of extinct animals, most notably Neanderthal people. The first step was trying to analyze the DNA of some liver he bought at the grocery store. Paabo is good at explaining the difficulties of assembling a genome from the tiny fragments that remain after milennia (in fact, any large sequences are automatically discarded because they are sure to be modern contaminations). Also digs into his freewheeling sex life with both guys and dolls.


Tim Powers, Three Days to Never.

A heart-warming father-daughter story with time travel, Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, the Harmonic Convergence, and lunatic fringes of Mossad and a cult claiming to derive from Albigensian heretics. Also lots of quotes from The Tempest. Not perfect, but very engaging.


William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine.

A steampunk classic, maybe the steampunk classic. In alternative Victorian London, the government collects data and processes them with analog computing machines full of tiny gears, based of course on designs by Babbage and Lady Ada Byron, the Prime Minister’s daughter. But someone has designed a virus that criplles these analytical engines, and apparently it’s been stolen…very nicely done, only the invocation of chaos theory seems really dated.


David Lindley, Boltzmann’s Atom.

It is surprising how much resistance the idea of atoms (and molecules) encountered, long after they had shown their usefulness. In 1900, Ernst Mach was still declaring that he did not believe in atoms, though the younger generation had quietly moved on. The objection was that atoms could not be seen or felt directly, and science should only deal with the observable facts.

On the other side was, for example, the kinetic theory of gases. There had always been two separate fields, dynamics, which used concepts like velocity and kinetic energy, and a separate field that attributed to fluids and gases such properties as pressure and temperature. The kinetic theory said that these latter were not separate at all: temperature is just the average kinetic energy of the molecules, pressure just the force exerted by molecules bouncing off a surface. Boltzmann showed that the atomic theory could also explain the mysterious concept of entropy in an exact and elegant way, but his theory was even more controversial because he used statistics, then an unfamiliar subject to physicists.

From a modern perspective, it seems bizarre that so many scientists spurned the power and simplicity of the atomic theory because they couldn’t see the atoms directly. Direct evidence finally arrived in 1905, in Einstein’s paper on Brownian motion (this was his third most important paper of 1905, the other two being special relativity and his explanation of the photoelectric effect, which proved that light comes in quanta).

The book also describes Boltzmann’s life, which is mildly interesting; he appears to have been a rather annoying ditherer.


Tim Powers, Last Call.

Not as good as the other one. This one has Tarot cards, poker, and The Waste Land, with some cross-dressing that must have been a lot more shocking in 1990 than it is now.


Sean Carroll, The Particle at the End of the Universe.

About the Higgs boson. I was happy to learn more about ;its discovery, though at a certain point I still get lost. Emphasizes the large number of people who contributed significantly, making it hard to give anyone the Nobel Prize.


Eric Bergerod, Fire in the Sky The Aire War in the South Pacific.

Churchill it ain’t, but there is some interesting stuff. The Japanese planes were very light and maneuverable, and Allied pilots had to learn that you never wanted to be in a dogfight with a Zero. The Americans gradually developed planes that could dive at high speed and were tremendously durable.

One Japanese strategy was to fly a single Betty bomber over, say, Guadalcanal at night, doing little damage but putting the fear of god into the Allies and keeping them awake. They would desynchronize the propellers, producing an alarming chugging sound that earned them the nickname Washing Machine Charlie.

Also memorable is the fact that we continued fighting on New Guinea long after the front had passed it by, wasting many thousands of lives to no strategic purpose.


M.T. Anderson, Agent Q, or, The Smell of Danger.

Part of a YA series. There are some funny bits, mostly involving the setting in a Delaware whose physical and political geography is more reminiscent of Albania, or maybe North Korea. Anderson can do better, though, and I’d recommend his Feed instead, or maybe the Octavian Nothing books.


Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

I like to have a go at a proper literary novel from time to time, though I usually get bored and give up after an hour or so (more for Anne Tyler, less for Richard Ford). I managed to get all the way through this story of musical losers in search of redemption, but it wasn’t exactly fun. The characters are reminiscent of those in a Nick Hornby novel, former hipsters, washed-up rockers, and generally lost souls, but they’re not funny like Hornby people, and are generally too repellant for me to care whether they find redemption. The most appealing are the ones who commit suicide.

Part of my impatience is probably due to the ennui of yet another book about Manhattanites and their status anxieties.


Daryl Gregory, Harrison Squared.

A prequel to his We’re All Completely Fine, this book lacks the weird neuroscience that is one of his trademarks. A very creepy high school swimming pool is not enough to cover the loss. Read Pandemonium or After Party instead.


Ingrid Hill, Ursula Under.

Hill is addicted to the “Little did he know…” trope, which I think is seldom used by real writers. She also seems to have a bit of a fetish about procreation; the author bio says she has 12 children, which seems rather self-indulgent. I didn’t get very far before punting.


Joe Haldeman, Forever Free.

The Forever X franchise definitively jumps the shark. I like Haldeman, but something very bad happened here, leaving his characters adrift in a sea of mannerisms and attitudes, and leaving me unable to finish the book.

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You can’t go home again if you’ve never been there

The other day I ran across a charming example of how very hard it is for people to read what is in front of them. It was in something called the New American Bible, produced by the Catholic Biblical Association of America. The editors have supplied brief introductions to each book, and these seem pretty respectable, acknowledging that the gospels were written by different people with different perspectives, in different contexts, each using various sources.

They also supply little headings within the books, and it was one of these that caught my attention. In the Gospel According to Matthew, the Holy Family flees to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre. The next section is headed, “The Return to Nazareth.”

Do you see the problem? I don’t expect you to, because you haven’t just been reading Matthew, but it’s pretty surprising that the editors of the gospel don’t. The problem is that in Matthew, Joseph and Mary are not from Nazareth, have probably never been there. Matt introduces us to Joseph and Mary without saying anything about where they live, and tells the story of the virgin birth. Then the three guys visit Herod and mention that the new king is being born in Bethlehem. That’s wehre they find the baby Jesus, in a house (nothing about a manger, nothing about a census, no vacancy at the inn, etc.). Any normal reader would assume J and M are from Bethlehem.

But it’s made quite unambiguous when they return from Egypt. If they were from Nazareth, there would be no need for an explanation of why they went from Egypt to Nazareth; if any were offered, it would be that they went there because that’s where they came from. Instead, Matthew gives us an elaborate rationale for why they didn’t just return to Bethlehem, which for him is the obvious choice.   You see, Herod is dead now, but the new rule in Judea, Archilaus, doesn’t seem very nice either, and J & M are afraid that Judea is still not safe. Thus they resort to Galilee, and specifically a town called Nazareth. (In his obsession with prophecy, Matt seems to think that they chose the town so that their child could fulfill a prediction about being called a Nazarean.)

The “return to Nazareth” heading represents an intrusion from a different story in a different book, namely Luke. Matthew and Luke, who knew nothing about each other, faced the same dilemma, that they wanted Jesus to be from Bethlehem, the city of King David and the ideal birthplace for a Messiah, but on the other hand, the one thing everybody knew about Jesus was that he was from Nazareth, which was nowhere near Bethlehem. They knew Mark’s gospel, but he has nothing to say about Jesus’ birth, so each evangelist came up with his won clever solution to the problem: Matthew simply had the Holy Fam move to Nazareth after the massacre and exile stories (which allowed him to connect Jesus with Moses), while Luke had them leave home for the census and then return (he gets to include the appealing manger bit and the shepherds). They’re both good stories, but to see just how contradictory they are, consider that Luke’s Holy Family goes from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, showing off their baby at the Temple in Herod’s capital city. Not really what you’d do if you were on the run from Herod.

The editors of the NAB, like the rest of us, grew up with a Nativity narrative that is a rather bizarre gemisch of the two stories, with Matthew’s three guys showing up at Luke’s manger. At some point, probably in grad school, they learned the grownup version, but sometimes the prejudices of a lifetime can jump up and bite you.

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