Friday, February 05, 2010

Words and Books
My fascination with the English language occasionally leads me towards speculations for which I cannot find an answer.

For instance, is there a word for a word where you have a negative but no opposite positive? As an example, you might here the word "unkempt" but no one is ever "kempt." You might be told that you look disheveled, but nobody will ever call you sheveled. You get the idea. Couth and uncouth. Gruntled and disgruntled. Someone suggested that the concept can be described as "lost positives" which sounds great. But I think there needs to be a word for something where you only hear the negative and never the positive.

Another example. Is there a word for those two-word rhyming nonsense phrases like hocus-pocus or helter-skelter? If not, there should be.

I also have this weird thing where I cannot continue with a book if I come across a word I do not know. I have to put the book down, get the dictionary, and find out what the word is. Usually this is not a problem as I have quite a large vocabulary (no doubt because I am forever looking up words). But every so often I come across a book where there are so many words I do not know that it's disruptive to be forever putting it down. Such was the case with Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk. I read it many years ago and it is #2 on my all-time favorite fiction books of all time. (Number 1, for those of you who care, is Possession by A.S. Byatt. Rounding out my top three is Pride and Prejudice.)

Now, back to Lempriere's Dictionary. It is a dense and yet captivating story of John Lempriere, an actual 18th century mythologist who wrote about the stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The book follows his research and the weird parallels that occur in his life that seem to mirror the classic myths. It is most definitely not an easy read. And it is full of obscure and intricate words that were completely unfamiliar to me. Eventually I jotted down every word in a notebook and would look them all up at the end of the day, rather than having to constantly stop and lose the flow of the narrative. I picked up this book ages ago, and yet just the other day I ran across that notebook and knew instantly what this list of odd words referred to. Nobody I know has ever read this book. I can't even recommend it to them, as it's such an intimidating volume. You must love mythology, words, mysteries, and intricate plots. You have to be patient and willing to work for the outcome. But if you do, you will be highly rewarded.

In case you are even mildly interested, here are my favorite non-fiction books of all time:
1. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Taken from the diary she kept during WWI. She was a sheltered student who volunteered as a nurse on the front lines. During the course of the war she lost her only brother, her fiance, and her two best friends. The loss of all she loved is beautifully captured. It made her one of my heroes. The way she turned such a negative into such a positive. After the war she became committed to the cause of pacifism and worked for it the rest of her life. She's not an entirely likable person, but you cannot help but respect her courage and strength.
2. Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks. A fascinating look at British espionage during the second World War. Marks was one of the code-creators who came up with ways for British spies behind enemy lines to communicate information back to England. The fact that it's true only makes the nail-biting exploits of the brave men and women of the SOE more captivating.
3. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. On the surface, an odd topic for a book - a look at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair combined with the story of one of America's first serial killers. But it works. It's a well-researched, well-written tale about a changing world, an amazing event, and an evil mind. It's full of fascinating information about how the fairgrounds were built and what an effect the fair had on both American and international culture. The crime section is equally interesting and you read how one man planned and committed a series of horrendous crimes.

OK, now I want to go book shopping. Thank goodness for Amazon!


Duke said...

For cases where you hear only the negative and never the positive, talk to my old boss where I used to work.

Random Visitor said...

In case you haven't come across it before, you might like How I Met My Wife by Jack Winter, published July 25, 1994 in the New Yorker.