To read.

I bought a new phone and promptly got hooked on Duolingo again (ID: corinnethespin). I’m enjoying recapturing a bit of long-lost French and Spanish, but decided to challenge myself by adding German to the mix. 

The German verb lesen (to read) threw me. I expected an English cognate, not a French/Spanish/Latin one. That is, I expected a verb with a common root to “read,” not “lire” or “leer.” 

So where the hell did “read” come from?

Online Etymology Dictionary to the rescue:

read (v.) 

Old English rædan (West Saxon), redan (Anglian) “to advise, counsel, persuade; discuss, deliberate; rule, guide; arrange, equip; forebode; read, explain; learn by reading; put in order” (related to ræd, red “advice”), from Proto-Germanic *redan (source also of Old Norse raða, Old Frisian reda, Dutch raden, Old High German ratan, German raten “to advise, counsel, guess”), from PIE root *re(i)- “to reason, count” (source also of Sanskrit radh- “to succeed, accomplish,” Greek arithmos “number, amount,” Old Church Slavonic raditi “to take thought, attend to,” Old Irish im-radim “to deliberate, consider”). Words from this root in most modern Germanic languages still mean “counsel, advise.”

To advise, counsel, assess–I think this is just amazing. What this little bit of word history reveals is that what we consider the figurative sense of “to read” in modern English is really closer to the original use of the word. Literal and figurative uses of the verb have traded places in English over time. 

Semantic saturation.

Ben Lerner’s Hatred of Poetry suggests that it’s really a mix of love, admiration, intimidation, and alienation that fuels this so-called hatred–that we all rightly lay some claim to poetry by being part of linguistic communities, which makes the distance between our skills & those deemed required–between the infinite humanistic potential of verse & its limitations in the physical world–that much more raw & intolerable (& really just asking for our scorn). 

Lerner devotes a good portion of his essay to exploring the burden of universality that we place on poetry and poets. Of course, our working definition of poetic universality cannot help but be shaped by social and cultural power, which can put non-male explorations of gender, non-white explorations of race (etc.) at a disadvantge in the discussion. Lerner fairly scrutinizes this by showing (via poignant samples of blustery critical outrage) how it’s one thing for an already-marginalized perspective to not be drawn in (we hardly knew ye), but if we neglect or alienate a voice that guards its position at the center of our Ptolemaic cultural universe? That just won’t do. The gatekeepers of universality will get their blustery backs up.

In a charming and resonant anecdote near the end of the book, Lerner approaches the universality he problematizes:

Remember how easily our games could break down or reform or redescribe reality? The magical procedure was always first and foremost repetition: Every kid knows the phenomenon that psychologists call “semantic saturation,” wherein a word is repeated until it feels emptied of sense and becomes mere sound–“to repeat, monotonously, some common word, until the sound, by dint of frequent repetition, ceased to convey any idea whatever to the mind,” as Poe describes it in the story “Berenice.” Your parents enforce a bedtime and, confined to your bed, you yell, “Bedtime” over and over again until whatever meaning seemed to dwell therein is banished along with all symbolic order, and you’re a little feral animal underneath the glowing plastic stars. Linguistic repetition, you learn from an early age, can give form or take it away, because it forces a confrontation with the malleability of language and the world we build with it, build upon it. Most horrifying was to do this or have it done to your own name, worst of all by some phalanx of chanting kids on the playground–to be reminded how easily you could be expelled from the human community, little innominate snot-nosed feral animal too upset even to tattle. And what would you say? “They broke my name.” The teacher would just instruct you to cast a weak spell back: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words…” (80-81)

It’s hard to imagine many folks of many stations in life not identifying with some aspect of that self-imposed or peer-imposed childhood linguistic, existential, tempest-in-a-teapot torture. But by making the claim (and even if I hadn’t, I suppose) I’ve guaranteed that it will be utterly unrelatable to someone out there. That’s the point: impossibility doesn’t make the project of  poetry any less worthwhile. It just means we may want to change our approach to help keep our heads screwed on straight & avoid losing touch with that unquenchable potential.

From Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. Toronto: M&S, 2016. Print.

The Book League of America

It sounds salt-of-the-earth, idealistic, barrel-chested. It somewhat was. The Book League of America, founded about 1930 by a former NYC Macmillan editor, was gobbled up by Doubleday in 1936 but didn’t fold until the ’50s. The League, really just a fancy excuse for a subscription service, offered a wholesome-sounding reading program via attractive hardbound classics and modern lit. Many volumes had irresistable (to me) art deco flourishes. 

This 1932 copy of Gulliver’s Travels floated across my desk last week: 


The font on the cover caught my eye, but it was the attention to design in the front matter that sent me to the stacks in search of every League book I could lay my hands on:

The three other volumes I found weren’t quite so impressively slick, but this Chekhov (produced before the League officially existed) comes pretty close:


That book erupting into a font (of knowledge, I presume, not water or Texas tea) was the League’s logo. 

Names and dates from Wikipedia; photos mine. 

A complicated, spectrum-like, highly variable phenomenon.

Today the Victorian era conjures the rigid gender roles of the ideology of separate domestic and public spheres, embodied in the sexual prudishness of Victorian women’s high-necked, floor-length black dresses. In striking contrast to this image, late nineteenth-century cell biologists and embryologists understood sex as a complicated, spectrum-like, and highly variable phenomenon. They were fascinated by the diversity of forms of sexual dimorphism and intersexuality in nature. (24)

From Richardson, Sarah. Sex Itself. Chicago: U Chicago P, 2013. Print.

Cold swimming pools.

We were better gods, incubating life in hot patches
of cold swimming pools, swelling up swimshorts with jets of
warm water and hot tubs and belly laughing, muscles contracting,
as the swelling of balloons like pockets emptied back into the
jelly-slick (25-29)

From Cooley, Kevin. “Simone & Sartre.” The Impressment Gang 1.3 (2015): 28-29. Print.

Watching the English.

So that summer we went to Devonshire, where he had a wonderful chateau which he had built after Versailles and the Petit Trianon, with many bedrooms and bathrooms, and suites, all to be at my disposition, with fourteen automobiles in the garage and a yacht in the harbour. But I had not reckoned on the rain. In an English summer it rains all day long. The English people do not seem to mind it at all. They rise and have an early breakfast of eggs and bacon, and ham and kidneys and porridge. Then they don mackintoshes and go forth into the humid country till lunch, when they eat many courses, ending with Devonshire cream.

From lunch to five o’clock, they are supposed to be busy with their correspondence, though I believe they really go to sleep. At five they descend to their tea, consisting of many kinds of cakes and bread and butter and tea and jam. After that they make a pretense of playing bridge, until it is time to proceed to the really important business of the day – dressing for dinner, at which they appear in full evening dress, the ladies very decollete and the gentlemen in starched shirts, to demolish a twenty-course dinner. When this is over they engage in some light political conversation, or touch upon philosophy until the time comes to retire.

You can imagine whether this life pleased me or not. In the course of a couple of weeks I was positively desperate. (221-22)

From Duncan, Isadora. Isadora: The Autobiography of Isadora Duncan. New York: Award Books, 1968. Print.

Not one practical.

My mother had four children. Perhaps by a system of coercion and education she might have turned us into practical citizens, and sometimes she lamented, “Why must all four be artists and not one practical?” But it was her own beautiful and restless spirit that made us artists. (26)

From Duncan, Isadora. Isadora: The Autobiography of Isadora Duncan. New York: Award Books, 1968. Print.

Any little outburst.

It was only to be expected that after a year or two Flinksy would have saved enough to buy some new clothes, and the natural consequence of being in style, or at least not altogether drab and shabby, was that she should start going out in the evening a little more. This was the period during which she was given the name Flinksy (“Wild One”), as pathetically undeserved a nickname as ever a sober-minded young puritan female was saddled with; but in our fiercely critical and self-righteous family, any little outburst of sociability or romance was always pounced on and rudely labelled by one or other of us as a major fault of character. (64-65)

From Janes, Percy. House of Hate. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970. Print.

A slightly anxious driver is a safer driver.

I gobbled up the rest of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic over the weekend. Every page was rapturously, jarringly fascinating – like, “kid with gleaming eyes and a new dinky car” fascinating. The moral of the story: there is nothing more hazardous than a comfortable driver. Traffic engineers are charged with the Sisyphean feat of integrating safety features into roadways… without giving drivers the impression that they’re on a padded go-kart course where nothing could possibly wrong. Guard rails? Okay, I’ll drive a little faster and maybe send a few text messages. Marked crosswalks? Guess I won’t bother looking for pedestrians anywhere else. Who knew that any branch of engineering was part psychology, part infrastructure? Not me.

Rather than posting one particular excerpt that’s indicative of the whole, here are my favourite factoids:

  • “Pedestrians […] are told that making eye contact is essential to crossing the street at a marked crosswalk […], but at least one study has shown that drivers were more likely to let pedestrians cross when they did not look at the oncoming car.” (33)
  • Motorist-cyclist collisions may be more likely to occur when a cyclist uses arm signals because drivers tend to look for intention cues in the faces (not arms) of fleshy, out-of-car human cyclists. Adding a hand signal to the mix may increase the amount of information a motorist needs to process. (36)
  • Drivers tend to pass closer to cyclists wearing helmets, and further from cyclists who appear to be female. (38)
  • One of the risks motorcyclists face is that motorists driving cars and trucks simply aren’t looking for them – they’re looking [out] for other cars and trucks. (83)
  • In places with more pedestrians, pedestrian fatality rates tend to be lower, because the more pedestrians a driver sees, the more likely that driver is to drive cautiously. (85)
  • Drivers “seated at higher eye heights” tend to speed more than drivers in lower vehicles. A greater tendency to speed adds to rollover risk for drivers of SUVs and trucks. (94)
  • “If we were to drive at night in a way that ensured we could see every potential hazard in time to stop – what is legally called the “assured clear distance” – we would have to drive 20 miles per hour (32 kph). (99)
  • The California Highway Patrol uses codes “to disguise the presence of stalled female drivers, who might otherwise be preyed upon by unsavory men listening to police scanners.” (116)
  • “Many people are under the mistaken impression that roundabouts cause congestion. But a properly designed roundabout can reduce delays by up to 65 percent over an intersection with traffic signals or stop signs.” (124)
  • SUVs are about 14% longer than cars and take longer to accelerate, so they “can create up to 20 percent more lost time” at intersections. (125)
  • “Most people, the world over, spend roughly the same amount of time each day getting where they need to go. […] The daily round-trip commute clocks in at about 1.1 hours.” (131)
  • “‘If you look at trip rates by male versus female, and look at that by size of family,’ Pisarski says, ‘the women’s trip rates vary tremendously by size of family. Men’s trip rates look as if they didn’t even know they had a family. The men’s trip rates are almost independent of family size. What it obviously says is that the mother’s the one doing all the hauling.'” (135)
  • Continue reading A slightly anxious driver is a safer driver.

The more traffic changes, the more it stays the same.

Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic is pure brain candy for anyone with a bone or ten to pick about infrastructure and active transit. On our tendency to describe vehicular traffic as an amorphous blob:

[We] think of traffic as an abstraction, a grouping of things rather than a collection of individuals. We talk about “beating the traffic” or “getting stuck in traffic,” but we never talk – in polite company, at least – about “beating people” or “getting stuck in people.” The news lumps together “traffic and weather” as if they were both passive forces largely outside our control, even though whenever we complain about it, we do so because we’re part of the traffic. […] We say there is “too much traffic” without exactly knowing what we mean. Are we saying there are too many people? Or that there are not enough roads for the people who are there? Or that there is too much affluence, which has enabled too many people to own cars? (7)

On pedestrians, forever in the crosshairs:

In 1720, traffic fatalities from “furiously driven” carts and coaches were named the leading cause of death in London […] while commentators decried the “Controversies, Quarreling, and Disturbances” caused by drivers “contesting for the way.” Meanwhile, in the New York of 1867, horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week (a bit higher than today’s rate of traffic fatalities, although there were far fewer people and far fewer vehicles). Spooked runaways trampled pedestrians underfoot, “reckless drivers” paid little heed to the 5-mile-an-hour speed limit, and there was little concept of right-of-way. (9)

And on bicycles, forever vehicles without a home to call their own:

After a couple of false starts, the “bicycle boom” of the late nineteenth century created a social furor. Bicycles were too fast. They threatened the riders with strange ailments, like kyphosis bicyclistarum, or “bicycle stoop.” They spooked horses and caused accidents. Fisticuffs were exchanged between cyclists and noncyclists. Cities tried to ban them outright. They were restricted from streets because they were not coaches, and restricted from sidewalks because they were not pedestrians. (10)

From Vanderbilt, Tom. Traffic: Why We Drive the Way we Do (and What it Says About Us). Toronto: Knopf, 2008. Print.