Book 13 of 100 – The Fight For English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left by David Crystal

As much as McWhorter gave David Crystal a raking over the coals in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, I suspect he and I share Crystal’s stance on prescriptive grammar, the usage police, and grammar punditry – pointless and futile at best, downright pernicious at worst.

This book is a brief history of language punditry, and how they all got it so wrong.

The first half consists of a chronological history of curmudgeonly commentary on the state of English, while the second half branches out into a more in-depth discussion of why language punditry is unnecessary and even detrimental to the language, and what ought to be done about it.

The real travesty that Crystal traces here is the generation I belong to, whose parents, perhaps like mine made to feel the sting of a ruler for the sin of dangling a participle, eschewed not only the stark prescriptivism of their parents, but the entire study of grammar.  One reason books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves do so well is that a generation has been cast adrift, and those like myself, who out of interest and curiosity found themselves clinging to a branch, often seek out reinforcement for a fussy prescriptivism such as that offered in a book like that.

My Freshman English teacher, who after retiring more than a decade ago spends her time overseeing a dozen or so book clubs (and even got a writeup in the New York Times for it,) chose to teach us grammar (which she called ‘Grammar and Grandpar,’) but I don’t believe it was still required at that stage, and I don’t recall studying it again after that until college.  I always thought of myself as a ‘grammar nerd,’ though ‘usage buff’ might be a more accurate term.  I had more than one copy of the Elements of Style, and also read the style handbook from my freshman year of college from cover to cover.  I perceived that these were structural touches, but also still held the mistaken belief that they were the only possible way to build that edifice.  I was uptight about things like misplaced commas, you’re instead of your etc.

Then at one point I helped to tutor a friend who, although he was an engaging speaker who could always carry the thread of a conversation, had never been taught the rules of how to build sentences, paragraphs, essays, etc, at least not in a way that clicked.   I realized that all along I knew what he was saying, it just didn’t fit into the form demanded by whatever class he was taking.  So I helped him learn how to translate his meaning into that form, and at the same time realizing the only reason he couldn’t write just as he talked was convention.  It started me down the road to the position Crystal expounds in this book.

I still have fun with grammar, but I prefer now to see it in all of its remarkable variety, rather than getting hung up on griping about the rules.  There are plenty of other avenues for that anyway.

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Book 12 of 100 – Star Wars – Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover.

Again, having read the prequel, Labyrinth of Evil, I went on to the novelization of episode 3.

This one makes explicit the trap of the Sith – in the end the self is all Anakin has.  He clung so fiercely to his fears, his passions, and his anger, that in the end it consumed him, and he became Darth Vader.  Closing out the rest of the Galaxy, he is truly alone.

The other thing made explicit in this book, and I feel kind of dumb for not realizing this (perhaps as the Jedi themselves felt, those who survived at least,) was that the Clone War itself was the Revenge of the Sith, and the real arrogance and complacence of the Jedi was the idea that they could retain the ideals of the Jedi while also leading an army; that in the face of war they could prevent themselves from succumbing to the Dark Side.

This book was really well done, and does a much better job of illuminating Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side than the film, in my opinion.

(419 pages.)

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Book 11 of 100 – Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue – the Untold History of English by John McWhorter

Only 3 pages in and it’s already clear that the hypothesis of this book (or at least this part of it,) is that English is so different in structure and grammar from its Germanic brethren (I wanted to say cousins, but I couldn’t resist sticking brethren next to Germanic,) because of Celtic substrate influences.

I can accept this – it’s a good hypothesis to explain the rare case where a native language was replaced by the tongue of its barbarian conquerors in so short a time (cf. the Franks, Lombards, Visigoths in Spain, who all adopted forms of Latin, and later the Norse in Normandy as well.)

And now having finished the book, I can say his case is convincing indeed.  Evidently English is one of the only languages in the world where constructions like ‘meaningless ‘do’ and the formation of the present tense with the verbal noun (-ing forms in English) are required.  No other Germanic language has these constructions in such wide use; where they exist at all it is in very limited contexts.  Such grammar is common in one language family – the Celtic family, the only surviving examples of which are neighbors of English, and which was widespread in Britian before the Germanic invaders showed up.

A lot of McWhorter’s text is polemic against the ‘History of English’ crowd, as he calls it, mostly people he also admires.   But he castigates them for focusing on vocabulary rather than grammar.  Later on in the book he moves on to discuss other topics, including refuting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the notion that the way a language is constructed affects the perception and mental processes of those who use it.

(230 pages)

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Book 10 of 100 – Searching for the Sound: My Life with the Grateful Dead by Phil Lesh

First to give credit – this book is written by Phil Lesh, not Phil Lesh with etc., so props for being the rock star who writes his own book.  It’s not surprising, given what Grateful Dead fans know about Phil, nor was it a revelation that he drops the names of (relatively) obscure avant-garde composers and jazz improvisers throughout the book, usually after some anecdote of traveling or touring.

I enjoyed how Phil kept things to the perspective of himself and other band members, and kept a lot of the dirt out (cf. Rock Scully’s book.)  Like most Grateful Dead memoirs, this one seems to be at least 2/3s about 1965-75, and a little light on the rest.  I realize the two sentences I just wrote kind of go hand in hand, but I’ve been getting into the band’s shows from the 80s and there is plenty of musical creativity there, in spite of whatever hard times the band’s members were having (and it was not just Garcia.)

Anyway, it works very well as a parallel narrative to Kreutzmann’s book, and it’s kind of an unavoidable text for anyone with interest in the band’s history.  I was surprised to learn that they considered using their self-written pop tune (with Pigpen on lead vocals) on their psychedelic masterpiece Anthem of the Sun, it’s only known from a couple of recordings in late 66. (p.125)  One of my favorite anecdotes was the story of an oil heiress, Marina, who accompanied the band to Europe.  Being an heiress, she had the full panoply of luggage, and when she arrived at the hotel in London, she mistook Garcia for the bellhop and told him to fetch her bags.  Being the swell guy he was, he of course obliged. (p.204)

There are a couple of revelations, but nothing that should be earth-shattering for anyone who has kept up.  (Since I’m writing this a month or so after finishing the book, I can reveal that Phil’s book is used as a source in other Grateful Dead books.)



(338 pages.)

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State of Connecticut to consider ruining Halloween.

Since CT state legislators evidently have nothing better at all to do, they are considering a bill replacing October 31 with a yearly ‘Trick or Treat Day,’ observed on the last Saturday of October.

State legislator is basically a part-time job in this state (maybe in a lot of states, I don’t know,) so I’m glad there’s nothing else they could possibly be doing with their limited time in session instead of wasting it on a dumbass idea like this.

Does Halloween typically rage into the night in other parts of the state?  We had like 3 kids after 7PM, then we shut the lights at 730.  Are they going to consider a law mandating that all kids sporting events, band rehearsals etc. all shut down that early?  I actually kind of like the facts that the kids have school, it means the whole thing starts a little after dark and is over in a couple of hours.

I’m not one who thinks that government is always bad, but this kind of nanny state overreach just gives fuel to that argument.  Just let it be.

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Year of 100 Books – Notes and Addenda.

It’s March 3 – I only have 9 books listed here, so on the off chance anyone is actually paying attention, or even crazier, reading this, it may look like I’ve got no chance to succeed, or at best am falling way behind.

But times are not quite as dark as they seem – I’ve actually got 6 books completed but not written up, a couple in progress, and two I got a ways into but had to return to the library because time was running out.

My plan is to stand at 25-30 books completed by April 1, which seems very doable right now.  But the more time I spend writing them up is time not spent reading, so I may have to change my strategy on the writeups.  I intended to try to say something interesting about each title, but if I need to cut it down to a brief blurb to get them posted and done with, I may start doing that.  I don’t kid myself that anyone cares or is reading, this was more of a means of creating accountability for myself on this project.

Meanwhile it’s back to reading for now.


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Book 9 of 100 – The Discoverers of America by Howard Faber

I picked this up off the Library shelf hoping it was a book about Native Americans.  (It was in that section at the Library)  The first couple of chapters were, but this is basically a digest version of the encounters of Europeans, from Columbus to Captain Cook, with the various regions of the Americas, North and South. (Mostly North.)

It was a good read, with plenty of detailed anecdotes, and Faber pays more than lip service to a lot of the horrendous behavior of the European conquerors, which cannot be ignored in an honest account, though he gives at least as much print to cannibals and ‘hostile Indians’ as the depths of slavery and cruelty that the natives were subjected to.  He does make it clear how much the insanity of greed infected the Spanish, and how the natives played on the newcomers’ mad lust for gold to send them packing on wild goose chases.

None of it gets particularly in depth, and there were some things that seemed to contradict (more scholarly) texts I’d read previously. (Columbus’ bio, for instance, which I’d read was at best a series of hypotheses without much evidence, if not by and large fabrications.)

I knew the least about some of the French explorers, Champlain, La Salle, etc. so that part of the book was enlightening.

This was a good survey, and ultimately one hopes a gateway to further reading.  I plan to seek out a book on French Canada or the explorers of New France next.


(273 pages)

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