If you are or can become a patient reader, Rowan Williams’s The Edge of Words is then not like a dancer en pie spinning on a single ever-elusive “point,” but whirling like a dancer along a discursive path towards the destination announced in the title: towards the “edge of words.”
There’s a mistake I sometimes make in my close reading of literature. In the classroom work I’m doing, or in the essay I’m writing, I tend to interpret the words, lines, and sentences at the beginning and the middle from the vantage point of the end. I know where the poem or piece of prose has concluded, and I project what I have come to know into what I had earlier read.
The marvelous thing about the first paragraph of Mozart in Motion: His Work and His World in Pieces (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), by Patrick Mackie, is how carefully the narrator builds Mozart’s world in front of our eyes, as if it were being created sentence by sentence as we read about it.
Among my favorite activities are writing, reading, and knitting. So when my sister told me about an essay collection with the aptly punned title, Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, I of course bought it immediately. Here were three of my top pastimes all together: I could read what well-known writers wrote about their knitting experiences.
I can’t remember what moved me to pick up David Whyte’s recently revised Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words; but I’m having trouble putting it down. With the Table of Contents a list of common words in alphabetical order—and with a flip-through showing three to ten paragraphs per entry—you might think you’ve got in your hands a sort of dictionary. But you’ve got nothing of the sort.
Novels are my bedtime reading. I especially like very long novels—so that there’s an already familiar world I can re-enter each night. So when I decided to take Swann’s Way off my shelf and up to bed with me, I knew I was in for months of Proust’s unique world created in the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past.
My interior life often proves a struggle between Teutonic Ordnung and Gallic laissez-faire. I’ve seen my German roots on visits to the Vaterland: tidy vegetable gardens like the one my father kept, a measured propriety bordering on obsessive-compulsion, and a dreamy Romanticism often overlooked by outsiders for whom German history and culture is a monotonous succession of wurst and potatoes, oom-pah-pa bands and lederhosen, and—most of all—lust for power and unspeakable atrocities.
Some months ago I decided to read Vergil’s Aeneid, all of it, in Latin. A rash idea, given my spotty knowledge of the language. But curiosity and the uneasiness of having missed some essential wisdom by not having met the Aeneid in Latin drove me on.
Blake Lemoine, the now (in)famous engineer at Google, had a conversation last year with LaMDA, Google’s version of the now (in)famous new generation of chatbots. He released a transcript of some parts of the conversation as evidence that the machine learning tool had become effectively sentient. That was the first shot. Lemoine’s conclusion was mostly ridiculed.
I can’t remember exactly what my sister and I were talking about on the phone when she suggested that I might find it interesting to look into ChatGPT, which went public just this past November. It could have been when I was telling her about this blog, with its focus on literature and language—and she mentioned the OpenAI language models. Whatever the prompt was, I did open a ChatGPT account. I was curious to see what chatting with ChatGPT would be like.
I’ve lain or languished on various gurneys in our local hospital’s ED in recent days—cardiac and GI disorders brought me there. But I’m not thinking now about the medical issues involved. I’m thinking rather about what enabled me to find joy and solace in what was otherwise a painful, tedious, disorienting, frightening experience. It all has to do with sounds, beautiful sounds, sounds echoing across centuries. Sounds that I’ve managed to memorize over the years.
Dictionary: “a reference source containing words alphabetically arranged with information about…” (Merriam-Webster)
Lately I’ve been browsing in my 1906 Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia—not an easy task, since each volume weighs in at about ten pounds, so lifting one from the bottom shelf where the volumes reside could be literally back-breaking. Also, the typeface gets so tiny for encyclopedic details that I need a magnifying glass to read them.
There’s no question that O.K./okay is an American coinage, going back to the mid-nineteenth century. I’ll touch below on the various theories of its origin, but first I want to give some evidence of what Mencken calls its “success.” In fact, without intending any hyperbole, he claims that O.K. is “the most successful abbreviation ever coined, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere.”
Lately I’ve been interrogating some of the hundreds of books on my shelves. To ones I haven’t read in decades — or ever — I ask: Why do I keep you? This was my question to H. L. Mencken’s classic, The American Language. Mencken, a Baltimore journalist, published his first edition of this tome in 1919.