23 December 2008

Books I Wish I Had Written

Now here's a title for you:

Pantology; or, A Systematic Survey of Human Knowledge: Proposing a Classification of All Its Branches, and Illustrating Their History, Relations, Uses, and Objects: With a Synopsis of Their Leading Facts and Principles: And a Select Catalogue of Books on All Subjects, Suitable for a Cabinet Library.

I was planning to write my own systematic survey of human knowledge, but now that I see someone has beaten me to it, I don't see the point.

16 December 2008

Worst Ever?

Nothing very interesting in this piece from The Guardian:

The shoe attack on George Bush has added new urgency to a question that has been occupying American politicos for much of his second term. Has Bush been the worst US president ever? He was already challenging Richard Nixon for the title 18 months ago. His stock is now even lower. The Guardian's former US editor, Simon Tisdall, reckons Bush is possibly the worst in living memory.

The question is a source of increasing debate and blog chatter, as Bush's final day in office approaches – there are several blogs devoted to this subject alone, including The worst president ever and George W Bush is the worst president in US History. The footwear-throwing incident makes Bush a "shoe-in for worst president ever" a contributor quipped on the Huffington Post.

And it isn't just the usual-suspect bloggers and shoe-throwing journalists that rate Bush so poorly. In April, 61% of historians rated Bush the worst president ever.

Except, perhaps, for this ringing endorsement of the forty-third president:

The historians were accused of being "ax-grinding fools" by the conservative blogger Ross Douthat. He claims Bush is more likely to be forgotten than vilified by future historians.

With friends like these . . .

12 December 2008

'Tis the Season

A hearty thumbs-up to friend Frank, who catches Gretchen Carlson of Fox News generously volunteering to give the First Amendment a one-day vacation:

I'm all for free speech and free rights, just not on December 25th.

Before the Cock Crow Twice, Thou Shalt Deny Me Thrice

From Salon:

Don't blame me for Bush, I voted for, uh, the other guy

WASHINGTON -- There was a time, though admittedly it's hard to remember now, when George W. Bush was remarkably popular. So popular, in fact, that he easily won reelection four years ago, racking up what was the largest popular vote total for any presidential candidate until Barack Obama shattered it this year.

So it's a particularly amusing sign of how far the political climate has shifted that in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 33 percent of respondents admit to having voted for the guy twice, while 52 percent said they'd never voted for him at all. If that were actually true, of course, Bush would never have had the chance to run the country so firmly into the ground that people are now pretending they never liked him.

From Mark 14:
And as Peter was beneath in the palace, there cometh one of the maids of the high priest: And when she saw Peter warming himself, she looked upon him, and said, And thou also wast with Jesus of Nazareth. But he denied, saying, I know not, neither understand I what thou sayest. And he went out into the porch; and the cock crew. And a maid saw him again, and began to say to them that stood by, This is one of them. And he denied it again. And a little after, they that stood by said again to Peter, Surely thou art one of them: for thou art a Galilaean, and thy speech agreeth thereto. But he began to curse and to swear, saying, I know not this man of whom ye speak. And the second time the cock crew. And Peter called to mind the word that Jesus said unto him, Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. And when he thought thereon, he wept.

13 November 2008

My Gal Sarah

Palin on CNN:

Sitting here in these chairs that I'm going to be proposing but in working with these governors who again on the front lines are forced to and it's our privileged obligation to find solutions to the challenges facing our own states every day being held accountable, not being just one of many just casting votes or voting present every once in a while, we don't get away with that.

She's so right. I've been trying to get people to understand this for years.

11 November 2008

Not Quite So Many Moose

A few weeks ago, I wrote of a distinct up-side to Sarah Palin's campaign: that the word moose was appearing in the national media with unprecedented frequency. I noticed an increase of 327 percent in occurrences from August to September of 2008, and predicted — perfectly reasonably, I might add — that we could look forward to 327% increases every month from now on. That would have meant 2,472 occurrences of the word moose in October.

I now see, however, that the actual frequency of the word moose was a mere 444 times in October — less than 18 percent of my expected figure.

This leads me to conclude that the August-to-September increase was a statistical outlier. This proves, further, that the entire Sarah Palin phenomenon was nothing more than statistical noise — in other words, we now have mathematical proof that Sarah Palin never actually existed.

05 November 2008


So now we're stuck for the next four years with an inexperienced radical black nationalist Marxist Arab terrorist-coddling tax-and-spend defeatist Muslim vote-stealing illegal-immigrant-embracing elite Ivy League non-natural-born citizen who's determined to invite bin Laden into the white house and to show hardcore pornography to kindergartners.

Isn't it about time that an older rich white guy caught a break in this country?

04 November 2008

6 November 2012

Just 1,463 days until the next presidential election. About time to start campaigning, don't you think?

31 October 2008


One of the fringe-benefits of my profession is free books, which show up in my campus mailbox with increasing regularity. The most recent arrived a few days ago: Jeremy Butterfield's Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008). It bore a note — a form letter, of course, but at least one that makes an effort to look personal —

Dear Professor Lynch,

Jeremy Butterfield has asked me to send you a copy of his new book Damp Squid, publishing this month, as he thought it could be of interest to you and your students.

Awfully decent of him. And it is indeed of interest, to me and at least one of my students. On Wednesday one of the better students in my eighteenth-century novel class asked about the process by which new words enter the language and old words pick up new meanings, and I answered as well as I could. I left that class, took the elevator to the fifth floor, stopped in the mail room before heading to my office, and found this book in my mailbox, which is about just that question.

I've only just begun reading it, but so far it's a charming read. Butterfield has written a very accessible introduction to corpus linguistics for people who've never heard of such a thing. I hope to finish reading it over the weekend, but I was struck by one passage. Butterfield asks, "How are new words born? Which buzzwords are most productive?" He answers with an example:

Blog is extremely fertile, and the [Oxford] Corpus lists a staggering 214 derivatives. After blog (noun and verb) and blogger, the most common is blogosphere, denoting websites and weblogs collectively, with its adjectives blogospheric or, slightly tongue-in-cheek, blogospherical.

Blogrolls are the lists of other blogs which bloggers put on their sites, while big-cheese bloggers are bloggerati. English speakers' love of punning is obvious in the word bloggocks: "Think I'm talking bloggocks?", and in blogstipation, the blog equivalent of writer's block.

The last two were new by me, but very appealing. (I doubt bloggocks will catch on in the US, since bollocks is so little known here, but one can hope.)

It may seem I've been suffering from blogstipation recently, with only a few posts a month, but it's because I've been too busy with other kinds of writing to devote any time to blogging. I'm in fact suffering from logorrhea, an older word (first attested in 1902) that makes a neat paper-based antonym to blogstipation, but it's all being directed elsewhere. Mostly it's because I've working like a sumbitch to finish Proper Words in Proper Places, which officially becomes overdue in nine and a half hours. There's something liberating in admitting you've missed a deadline; for as long as it's theoretically possible to be on time, you feel bad that you're behind schedule, but once that deadline has passed, it somehow seems out of your control.

26 October 2008

I Am the Avenging Angel

The first big batch of papers was due in my classes last week. As the papers came in — or, more to the point, as they didn't — I noticed a disproportionate number of deaths of uncles and grandparents.

I'm beginning to fear that I may be responsible for these untimely deaths. In the future, in the interest of public health and safety, I may stop assigning papers, lest I depopulate an entire generation.

10 October 2008

A Headline for the Ages

Now here's a news headline to be proud of:

Palin pre-empts state report,
clears self in probe

The full story comes from the Associated Press.

05 October 2008

The Up-Side to Palin's Campaign

I'll confess I'm no great fan of Sarah Palin. There is, however, one clear advantage to a Palin candidacy: the word moose now appears more often than ever before in major newspapers. Here, for instance, is a month-by-month breakdown, from January through September 2008, of the word moose in the major newspapers and magazines in the LexisNexis database:

Particularly striking is the sharp increase, from 243 to 794 references, between August and September — an increase by a factor of 3.27.

If, then, we make the perfectly reasonable assumption that moose references will continue to rise by a factor of 3.27 a month from now on, we can look forward to something like this:

It now seems inevitable that we can look forward to an average of more than three million occurrences of the word moose by May 2009. By next September, it should be around 350 million references a month, or more than 10 million mentions in newspapers and magazines every day.

See? — not all bad.

22 September 2008

Even More Popularity

A few months ago I mentioned that Our Fearless Leader had achieved a 19 percent approval rating in an American Research Group poll. I noted that "presidential approval numbers below about 35% are very difficult to achieve," adding,

To get below 25%, you really need to be seen kicking nuns in the shins. To get below 20%, you need to be caught on camera raping puppies.
I suspected that result was an outlier, and noted at the time that "We're not likely to see such a low approval rating again in our lives."

But W surprised me yet again: the same polling organization reports that
Among all Americans, 19% approve of the way Bush is handling his job as president and 76% disapprove. When it comes to Bush's handling of the economy, 17% approve and 78% disapprove.
The same poll also achieves a number I've never seen before on a significant poll:
No Americans say that the national economy is getting better, 13% say it is staying the same, and 82% say the national economy is getting worse.
Get that: "No Americans." Zero percent. They spoke to eleven hundred people and couldn't find one. Zow.

04 September 2008


Oh, goodie — I was afraid that the level of discourse in the presidential race was getting dangerously high. No longer, thanks to Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga). Here's The Hill:

Westmoreland calls Obama 'uppity'

Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland used the racially-tinged term "uppity" to describe Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama Thursday.

Westmoreland was discussing vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's speech with reporters outside the House chamber and was asked to compare her with Michelle Obama.

"Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they're a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they're uppity," Westmoreland said.

Asked to clarify that he used the word "uppity," Westmoreland said, "Uppity, yeah."

'Nuff said.

10 August 2008

Dylan Covers

Frank Lynch — friend and namesake, but no relation — keeps an amusing blog called Really Not Worth Archiving. In a recent post, he sorted through the covers of songs by Bob Dylan on his iPod. It sounds like a fun game to play.

Like Frank, I have a playlist of Dylan covers, with a comparable number of songs — he's got 125, I'm at 148.

Frank tallied up the songs that were most covered, and found "I Shall Be Released" at the top of his list. I've gone easy on that one, with only two versions, but here are the songs I have in three or more versions (not counting any of Dylan's own recordings):

  • "All along the Watchtower," 5
  • "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," 4
  • "The Times They Are a Changin'," 4
  • "Just like a Woman," 4
  • "Mr. Tambourine Man," 4 (two of them by the Byrds, another by Roger McGuinn, so the count is inflated)
  • "Don't Think Twice," 3
  • "It Ain't Me Babe," 3
  • "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," 3
  • "When the Ship Comes In," 3
  • "Wicked Messenger," 3
  • "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," 3
No surprises there — they're mostly the greatest hits — except "Wicked Messenger," covered by the Faces, Patti Smith, and the Black Keys.

Frank also lists some off-the-beaten-track recordings. Here's a list of my faves that are little known, or at least little discussed, even among the cognoscenti:
  • "Born in Time," Eric Clapton, from Pilgrim
  • "Changing of the Guards," Patti Smith, from Twelve
  • "Emotionally Yours," the O'Jays, both in the studio recording and in the live version from the 30th Anniversary concert
  • "Gates of Eden," Arlo Guthrie, from Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys
  • "Lay Down Your Weary Tune," Steeleye Span, from The Guv'nor
  • "Like a Rolling Stone," Jimi Hendrix, from Monterey International Pop Festival (everyone knows his "Watchtower," but this one is too often overlooked)
  • "Mississippi," Sheryl Crow, from The Globe Sessions
There are also a few downright oddball recordings that I enjoy:
  • "Come una pietra scalciata," Articolo 31: an Italian hip-hop version of "Like a Rolling Stone"
  • "My Back Pages," the Magokoro Brothers: a caffeinated version of the song in Japanese
  • "Mama You've Been on My Mind/Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie," Jack Johnson
I'll add another category to the awards contest: bonus points for those who picked unexpected Dylan songs for covers, going beyond the obvious hits to find underappreciated gems from the back-catalogue:
  • "As I Went Out One Morning," Mira Bilotte
  • "Changing of the Guards," Patti Smith
  • "Dear Landlord," Janis Joplin
  • "Drifter's Escape," Jimi Hendrix
  • "Foot of Pride," Lou Reed
  • "Ring Them Bells," Sufjan Stevens
  • "Seven Days," Ron Wood
  • "Solid Rock," Sounds of Blackness
  • "Wallflower," David Bromberg
  • "Wedding Song," Maria Muldaur
  • "What Was It You Wanted," Willie Nelson (studio and live)
  • "When You Gonna Wake Up," Lee Williams & the Spiritual QC's
Now I have to check out some of the goodies Frank listed that I haven't heard yet.

04 July 2008

Miracles Wanted

I mentioned that the timely completion of Proper Words in Proper Places is contingent on a series of miracles happening between now and late October. I'll be glad for one of them now.

As a gimmick, I've decided the subtitle of each chapter will be a short declarative sentence starting with a proper name:

  • The Age in Which I Live: Dryden Revises His Works
  • Fixing the Language: Swift Demands an Academy
  • Enchaining Syllables, Lashing the Wind: Johnson Writes a Dictionary
  • The Art of Using Words Properly: Bishop Lowth Lays Down the Law
  • The People in These States: Webster Americanizes the Language
  • Words, Words, Words: Murray Surveys Anglicity
  • The Taste and Fancy of the Speller: Shaw Rewrites the ABCs
  • Tools of the Trade: Strunk & White Show the Way
  • Sacking the Citadel: Philip Gove Stokes the Flames
  • Grammar, and Nonsense, and Learning: We Look to the Future
(All are provisional, but you get the idea.)

Here's the trick: I'm planning a chapter on "bad language" — that is, naughty words — and want a good name for the subtitle. The chapter will focus on attempts to restrict offensive language, looking back to early laws on blasphemy and such, but dwelling mostly on C19 and C20 British and American concerns with obscenity on the one hand, and "political correctness" on the other. I'm dealing almost exclusively with verbal censorship, so visual stuff doesn't count.

The proposal for the book had "Expletive Deleted: Moralists Police the Borders," but since then I've decided to use personal names in every chapter. All the others have more or less fallen into place, but I'm stumped on this one.

Best one so far: "Expletive Deleted: Justice Stewart Knows It When He Sees It," alluding to Jacobellis v. Ohio, in which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart took up the definition of "hard-core pornography":

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.

Not bad, but I hope to do better — not least because Stewart was discussing a film, not literature, and because he argued that the film in question was not obscene. I'd rather have someone who's concerned with words. Ideally it'd be a name recognized throughout the Anglophone world but, if it's not universally known, it should at least be familiar in the US.

Another possibility, brought to mind by a much-lamented premature loss, is "George Carlin Can't Say Them on Television" or some such.

But I'll be glad for suggestions, and will count them toward my expected quota of miracles. So, smart and creative people: make with the suggestions already.

Reprieve from the Warden

I had agreed to teach a summer class, a World Literature Survey, to run from 7 July into the middle of August. I recently got word, though, that it was a few students shy of the limit, meaning it's been canceled.

(This isn't a problem I face often. I haven't taught a course that's been below the maximum limit in four or five years, and I'm usually stuck with more students than I'm supposed to have, as when I taught an intimate little graduate seminar with twenty-seven students. I've grown accustomed to teaching undergrad classes of sixty; in September I'll be teaching an upper-level undergrad class on the eighteenth-century novel to eighty, by gum. Don't these people know the eighteenth century is insufferably dull, unrelentingly boring, and irredeemably stultifying? And who knew it'd be hard to round up ten in a summer session?)

In most respects, this is a cause for rejoicing: I really need the time to work on my book-in-progress, Proper Words in Proper Places, which I'm supposed to deliver to the publisher in late October. (I should still be on track to finish on time — provided, of course, that a long and elaborate series of miracles happens in precisely the right order.)

In one respect, though, the cancelation is a cause for much wailing and gnashing of teeth, because we've now got a half-finished wall in our bedroom and construction going on everywhere. Last week, accounts payable went up by $3K and accounts receivable down by $5K. I may have to resort to wearing a placard reading, "Will Do Moose Stuff for Money."

30 June 2008

O Brave New World!

The Atlantic's on-line archive of articles includes one from 1982, James Fallows's "Living with a Computer." It includes this trip down memory lane:

When I sit down to write a letter or start the first draft of an article, I simply type on the keyboard and the words appear on the screen. . . . It is faster to type this way than with a normal typewriter, because you don't need to stop at the end of the line for a carriage return (the computer automatically "wraps" the words onto the next line when you reach the right-hand margin), and you never come to the end of the page, because the material on the screen keeps sliding up to make room for each new line. . .

My computer has a 48K memory. Since each K represents 1,024 bytes of information — each byte representing one character or digit — the machine can manipulate more than 49,000 items of information at a time. In practice, after allowing for the space that The Electric Pencil's programming instructions occupy in the computer's memory, the machine can handle documents 6,500 to 7,500 words long.
Very exciting. I look forward to upgrading my computer to 48K of RAM. But it's not just RAM: we've also got hundreds of kilobites of external storage:
When I've finished with such a chunk, I press another series of buttons and store what I have written on my disk drive. This is a cigar-box-shaped unit that sits next to my computer, connected through a shocking-pink ribbon cable containing thirty-four separate strands. Inside the drive is the floppy disk, which is essentially magnetic recording tape pressed into the shape of a small record and then enclosed in a square cardboard envelope, 5 1/4 inches on each side. . . . Each of the disks in my system can hold about 100K of information, or more than twice as much as a full load from the computer memory. If one disk is full, I pull it out and snap another in.
It dawns on me that my students have probably never touched a 5.25-inch diskette, have never measured the memory of anything in kilobytes, and have never handled tractor-feed paper. Damn punk kids — I've got socks older than they are.

11 June 2008

Intelligence [sic]

It's good to know our British friends are doing their best to make US intelligence operations look competent by comparison. Heaven knows we need it.

Secret al-Qaida report found on London train

Highly classified intelligence documents relating to two of the most sensitive issues involving Britain's security interests - al-Qaida in Pakistan and the situation in Iraq - have been found on a train near London, it was disclosed last night.

The documents, including one marked Top Secret, are believed to be detailed and up-to-date assessments by Whitehall's Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC).

They were found on Tuesday and handed to the BBC's security correspondent, Frank Gardner, who reported the loss. The BBC said the documents were left on the train by a senior intelligence officer.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said last night that the documents' high security classification meant they would have had a limited circulation. "There has been a security breach, the Metropolitan police are carrying out an investigation."

The Guardian

04 June 2008

Immortality through Inebriation

Good news from the New York Times:

Red wine may be much more potent than was thought in extending human lifespan, researchers say in a new report that is likely to give impetus to the rapidly growing search for longevity drugs. . . .

In earlier studies, like Dr. Auwerx's of mice on treadmills, the animals were fed such large amounts of resveratrol that to gain equivalent dosages people would have to drink more than 100 bottles of red wine a day.

The Wisconsin scientists used a dose on mice equivalent to just 35 bottles a day.
A mere thirty-five bottles every day? After following doctor's orders by trying to drink my recommended hundred bottles a day, I fear it won't be easy to cut back.

13 May 2008

Things They Don't Teach You in Perfesser School

What to do when you show up ten minutes before your scheduled final exam to find the classroom locked.

Bon Anniversaire, Soixante-Huitards!

It's the fortieth anniversary of the general strike in Paris in May 1968.

Deception & Detection

I know it's been weeks since I announced a new book of mine — so, lest I be accused of slacking, here's information on my latest.

It's called Deception and Detection in Eighteenth-Century Britain, and it has just appeared from Ashgate Publishing. It can be had from Amazon.com.

The book is described in the publisher's blurb:

In the first extended treatment of the debates surrounding public deception in eighteenth-century Britain, Jack Lynch contends that forgery, fakery, and fraud make explicit the usually unspoken grounds on which Britons made sense of their world. Confrontations with inauthenticity, in other words, bring tacitly understood conceptions of reality to the surface.

Drawing on a wide range of contemporary print and manuscript sources — not only books and pamphlets, but ballads, comic prints, legal proceedings, letters, and diaries — Lynch focuses on the debates they provoked, rather than the forgers themselves. He offers a comprehensive treatment of the criticism surrounding fraud in most of the noteworthy controversies of the long eighteenth century. To this end, his study is structured around topics related to the arguments over deception in Britain, whether they concerned George Psalmanazar's Formosan hoax at the beginning of the eighteenth century or William Henry Ireland's Shakespearean imposture at the end. Beginning with the question of what constitutes deception and ending with an illuminating chapter on what was at stake in these debates for eighteenth-century British thinkers, Lynch's accessibly written study takes the reader through the means — whether simple, sophisticated, or tortuously argued — by which partisans on both sides struggled to define which of the apparent contradictions were sufficient to disqualify a claim to authenticity. Fakery, Lynch persuasively argues, transports us to the heart of eighteenth-century notions of the value of evidence, of the mechanisms of perception and memory, of the relationship between art and life, of historicism, and of human motivation.

(For those who don't know how these things work, this blurb is the result of several back-and-forth exchanges between me and the publisher's marketing folks. I try to describe the project modestly; they drop in adjectives and adverbs they think will help sales.)

This book took a terribly long time to write: it has been the center of my attention since I finished my Ph.D. in 1998. The biggest frustration, I discovered, was figuring out how to organize all the material I collected. My first thought was to devote a chapter to each case study: a chapter on Psalmanazar, a chapter on Macpherson, a chapter on Chatterton, and so on. As I began writing the book, though, I discovered that chapter one had all the interesting material in it; chapter two read, more or less, "Remember all that stuff in chapter one? — it applies here, too." Chapter three then read, "Chapters one and two: ditto." And so on. To complicate matters, some case studies were big and complicated, requiring a huge amount of space; others deserved only a few paragraphs. The organization just wasn't working.

After much noggin-scratchin', I ended up with a more topical arrangement, which allows me to consider some stories from multiple points of view. The first chapter is about what "fake" means in an eighteenth-century British context; chapter two looks at the role of satire and sarcasm in attacking forgeries; chapter three is on changing notions of evidence; chapter four on internal consistency; chapter five on external consistency; chapter six on anachronism and historicist criticism; chapter seven on ways to get around the problems of imperfect memory; chapter eight on the need to understand the motivation behind deception; and chapter nine on why the detection of fakes was such an urgent task in eighteenth-century Britain.

And how much would you pay for a book like this? — three hundred dollars? — four hundred dollars? — well, it can be yours for just eighty-nine ninety-five! That's right, eighty-nine ninety-five! Buy before midnight tonight, and we'll throw in a set of steak knives, absolutely free.

02 May 2008

Why Didn't I Think of That?

Ever had the sensation when you wish you'd thought of something first?

Texas man arrested for trying to cash $360bn cheque

Charles Ray Fuller must have had big plans for his future record company.

The 21-year-old was arrested for trying to cash a $360bn (£182bn) cheque, saying he wanted to start a record business, authorities in Texas said.

Staff at the Fort Worth bank were immediately suspicious, according to investigators — perhaps it was the 10 zeros on a personal cheque that tipped them off.

From The Guardian.

20 April 2008

Publishing Update

The UK-and-Commonwealth edition of my Becoming Shakespeare (sporting a new subtitle and a new jacket, but otherwise unchanged) has just appeared from Constable & Robinson. The book received a very gratifying write-up in The Express, though it doesn't seem to be available on-line. Here's hoping for some overseas sales, since the US dollar is worth little more than Monopoly money these days.

18 April 2008

And a Strange Day It Was

Yesterday was one of the more surreal days I've had in a while.

I headed into New York for lunch with two friends at AOC on Bleecker Street. We sat in the outdoor patio area in the back, enjoying the loveliest day so far in 2008. As lunch was winding down, though, the exceedingly polite waiter came up to us and said, "Excuse me, but we're having a fire."

We did what any reasonable people would do in such a situation: we sat still and blinked at him uncomprehendingly.

Then, with a teensie bit more urgency in his voice: "I'm sorry, but we're having a fire, and everyone will have to leave."

We grudgingly gathered up our belongings and shuffled out, thinking that perhaps a pot in the kitchen had boiled over. Once we got out, though, we looked back at the building, and saw great tongues of flame leaping from the roof. Some of them were ten or fifteen feet high. And when someone tried to douse the fire by pouring something on it, the flames just leapt higher and windows exploded.

So we stood across the street, glasses of wine in hand, watching the blaze on a lovely spring afternoon. We got to see firemen breaking down doors and all kinds o' fun stuff. Who knew the restaurant threw in an entertainment package at no extra charge?

Then we strolled up a few blocks to an outdoor café to chat and sip wine. Across the street were perhaps ten uncommonly predatory paparazzi, all of them aiming cameras very close to our table. Once we figured out that we weren't the reason for their fascination, we discovered that, two tables away, sat the fetching Jenna Jameson, star of such cinematic masterpieces as Up and Cummers 11, I Love Lesbians, and who could forget Philmore Butts: Taking Care of Business? I did my best not to think about the fact that the café was located in the Meatpacking District, which seemed too appropriate a location.

It would have been a lovely day even without a fire and a porn impresario, but together they really did make for a memorable afternoon.

12 April 2008

Making Enemies among the Feminists

My review of Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife has just appeared in the Los Angeles Times on-line; it should appear in the print version tomorrow. It's a book I wanted very much to like, but it ultimately left me cold. Here's (most of) my final paragraph, which sums up my take on the book as a whole:

The real problem with "Shakespeare's Wife" is that it says more about fantasies than about the real world — both the fantasies of the old-fashioned misogynists and of the modern feminist. Greer does valuable work when she blasts such fantasies, but it's hard not to be disappointed when she does her own fantasizing. ... Though Greer refuses to believe it, many would be delighted to find that the Shakespeares were a model couple, he an enlightened, loving husband, she an intelligent, empowered woman. But wishing won't make it so.
A last-minute scramble for space meant one paragraph had to be omitted. I was sorry to see it go, so I've made room for it here:
Greer also ignores mountains of scholarship when she finds it inconvenient. The poem “Venus and Adonis,” for instance, is called “the one work of Shakespeare’s for which scholars feel almost as much distaste as they do for his wife.” Those clueless scholars, we gather, have never so much as glanced at the poem: “Year after year of multifarious shakespeareanising,” she complains, “goes by without producing a single discussion of the work.” And yet in the last decade alone at least 98 articles, 59 books and 5 doctoral dissertations have discussed the poem in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Dutch, Ukranian and Romanian. That’s a strange kind of neglect.

09 April 2008

Life Imitates &c.

From today's Guardian:

A German orchestra has dropped a composition from its programme after its members claimed the music was so loud that it gave them ear problems and headaches.

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BR) said it had little choice but to drop the world premiere of Swedish-Israeli composer Dror Feiler's Halat Hisar (State of Siege), from a concert because it was "adverse to the health" of its musicians.

Members of the 100-strong orchestra said they could only contemplate playing the piece wearing headphones, after several suffered buzzing in the ears for hours after rehearsals. The 20-minute composition starts with the rattle of machine-gun fire and gets louder.

From Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy notes that Disaster Area, a plutonium rock band from the Gagrakacka Mind Zones, are generally held to be not only the loudest rock band in the Galaxy, but in fact the loudest noise of any kind at all. Regular concert-goers judge that the best sound balance is usually to be heard from within large concrete bunkers some thirty-seven miles from the stage, whilst the musicians themselves play their instruments by remote control from within a heavily insulated spaceship which stays in orbit around the planet — or more frequently around a completely different planet.

07 April 2008


Weidenfeld & Nicolson has long been one of the most impressive trade publishers in the UK, turning out some of the smartest history books on the market. That's why it's a bleedin' shame to see this:

One of Britain's most distinguished publishers has been condemned for turning its back on serious history books in favour of 'crappy' celebrity biographies and TV spin-offs.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, whose authors have included Harold Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger and Pope John Paul II, has culled a number of planned titles at a cost said to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds in advance payments to authors.

The Orion Publishing Group, which bought the firm from co-founder George Weidenfeld in 1991, is aiming to reduce W&N's non-fiction output from 100 to 50 books a year.

Far too much of that going on, say I. I've even seen some hints of it at Walker & Co., my trade publisher, which has done a remarkably good job of publishing smart books in a tight market. Here's hoping W&N sees the light.

Damn I'm Good

I'm coming — at least I hope I'm coming — out the other end of my busy, busy, busy month, which included trips to New Orleans, Portland, and most recently DC.

Contrary to expectations, and perhaps to the laws of physics, I managed to do everything I needed to do. (Except sleep.) Still have to put the finishing touches on the report on the book proposal, and the proposal for the Cambridge volume, but they're nearly there.

Meanwhile, Ashgate Publishing (publishers of my forthcoming Deception and Detection in Eighteenth-Century Britain, for which they've prepared a swell flyer) has asked me to consider being the editor of a new book series. We're still working on the exact rubric — something to do with eighteenth-century British literature — but I've been considering a few possibilities. Such as:

  • The Ashgate Series of Books Jack Likes
  • Ashgate Books by People Jack Likes
  • Ashgate Studies in the Kinds of Things Jack Would Write About If He Had the Time, But He Probably Doesn't.
I'll work out the technicalities later, but I think I'm on the right track. And a book publisher in the vast EBSCO empire has asked me to edit — I think edit is too grand a word, but who am I to argue? — a series of collections of previously published essays on major works and authors. (First up: Stoker's Dracula.)

So it may be busy, busy, busy for the foreseeable future.

19 March 2008

Busy, Busy, Busy

Too long without a message — harrumph. This is our spring break, and I had hoped to do some writing here while I had some time away from teaching. But in this week, I have to:

  1. Finish an embarrassingly overdue essay called "Tristram Shandy and the Rise of the Novel" for Eighteenth-Century Novel;
  2. Finish an even more embarrassingly overdue essay called "The Life of Johnson, the Life of Johnson, the Lives of Johnson" for a collection scheduled to come out on the Johnson tercentenary in 2009;
  3. Read Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife and review it for the Los Angeles Times;
  4. Evaluate a book proposal for Broadview Press;
  5. Write the entire comprehensive exam for the students in our MA program;
  6. Prepare a conference paper for the following week;
  7. And, just in case the week was looking too leisurely, I was just asked by Cambridge University Press to edit a collection of essays, for which I have to write a long prospectus.
Gack. So much for my fantasy of 168 blissfully uninterrupted hours of gentlemanly leisure. And now I have to start thinking about a conference trip to Portland, Oregon, in a week, and a few days at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC the week after that.

28 February 2008

Melancholy Matters

Last night I had the painful honor of speaking at a memorial service for my friend Lana Schwebel, killed at the age of thirty-five in an auto accident in summer 2007. My recollection is nothing special, but those who knew Lana may enjoy being reminded of some of her charms.

Doing Shockingly Well;
This Is Not a Eulogy

I was traveling in the south of France when I heard the grim news. I gave a moment's thought to cutting the trip short and flying home for the levaya service, but word reached me too late — I couldn't possibly make it to New York in time. A few days later, though, I made the melancholy trip to pay my respects to Lana's family, still sitting shiva. There Lana's father told me that, when she was a child, she didn't speak at all for a very long time. Even after she was able to speak, she rarely said a word.

I felt a strong temptation to stick my head out the front door and look for the name "Schwebel" on the mailbox, because I was pretty sure I had wandered into the wrong shiva. Someone who didn't speak? — that's not the Lana Schwebel I knew. There must have been two bereaved families in Queens, because the Lana I remember could hardly be persuaded to stop talking.

I knew Lana for nearly fourteen years, beginning when we started in the graduate program at Penn, and for much of that time she was my closest friend. This makes speaking today one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. It's difficult for the obvious reasons, of course; it's hard to say anything without breaking down. But it's also hard to reduce fourteen years into fourteen minutes. I was asked to say a bit about Lana Schwebel as a scholar, but I'm no expert on her area of expertise, medieval literature; even if I were, I couldn't hope to explain her insights into traditions of purgatory in the Middle Ages with the same clarity she could. We'd talked to each other over the years about our work, but only recently did I read her doctoral dissertation, a learned work of 261 pages, drawing on history, literature, theology, and economics with ease and authority. What came through to me as I read the dissertation, though, wasn't the research into late-medieval culture, but Lana's distinct voice. I hope you've never had to fight your way through doctoral dissertations; they're dryasdust ordeals barely preferable to undergoing root canal. But not Lana's. In turning the pages of her dissertation I found myself laughing aloud in the library. Others might have said similar things about pardons and indulgences, but no one else could have said them so wittily.

So I'll talk not about her research, but about her writing — or, more egocentrically, about my writing. Lana was, and is, always present to me when I write; she's what many writers call an "ideal audience," especially for a writing guide I compiled in grad school, which appeared in print last month. She'd made countless suggestions, and often nagged me about publishing the thing, which is what prompted me to write the following dedication:
Finally I have to express a debt to Lana Schwebel, one of the finest writers, best teachers, quickest wits, and dearest friends I've ever known. She taught me a great deal about writing, about teaching, and about how to use the language, and I've shamelessly filched many of her ideas in my own writing, here and elsewhere. Over nearly a decade and a half she helped me in more ways than I can tally, and it pains me that she's not around to read this book and tell me how to make it even better. All that's left is for me to dedicate it to her memory.

For me, to talk about her memory is to talk about her voice. Stories are the usual way we remember departed friends, but my years with Lana don't resolve into many narratives. What I remember instead is a voice, a long series of conversations. Sometimes it seems like a single conversation, one that happened to take place over the course of years, with only momentary interruptions. It began as soon as we met. We must have been introduced at some mixer, but were more or less anonymous for the first few weeks of grad school. We became aware of each other one evening in the library — I was carrying a stack of eight or nine books, she was hunting down some obscure reference. We passed, kinda recognized each other, tried to recall names, asked about classes taken, all the usual beginning-of-the-school-year stuff. Before I knew it, we were talking up a storm on more subjects than I can count — and, I feel obliged to note for the record, drawing nasty looks from people studying in library carrels. (We'd lower our voices for a few minutes and then allow them to swell again, renewing the dirty stares.) It was maybe ten minutes into the conversation that I realized my arms just weren't going to bear that stack of books much longer, so we found somewhere to set them down. Ninety minutes later I realized I'd already missed two buses home. Over the years we made a habit of that: after a day of visiting museums, I'd head back to New Jersey, and we'd say our goodbyes at the subway station. Oh, wait — that reminds me of something else, and something else, and we'd stand there at the entrance to the Number 6, often in bitter cold or sweltering heat, as I silently noted one missed train after another. Eventually I'd tear myself away. But when we'd get together again — even after being out of touch for weeks — Lana would begin almost mid-sentence, as if not a moment had passed. And when we were unable to stay in touch in person, we carried on an E-mail correspondence that stretches to more than 800,000 words, more than 50 percent longer than War and Peace. If Baby Lana had little to say, Grown-Up Lana more than made up for the silent years.

One of the things I like most about those hundreds of thousands of words is that you can read them for days without finding a single cliché. I don't mean cliché in just the narrow, conventional sense. The novelist and critic Martin Amis declared a "war against cliché," reminding us that there are clichés not only of the pen, but also of the mind, the heart, the spirit. Not in Lana's writing. Cliché is simply laziness, and she was never lazy — notwithstanding the many mornings she decided to skip the gym in favor of pancakes with me. Her life was one of constant intellectual adventure: she studied art and English and history and philosophy and classics and religion. In an age of narrow academic specializations she taught nearly as many subjects: medieval doctrines of redemption, Latin ablative absolutes, twentieth-century sacred music. She was a regular at half the cultural institutions in New York, to the point where coat-check agents at the Metropolitan Museum of Art knew her by sight. She also thrived when visiting obscure corners of the planet — a little summer jaunt to Iceland or a weekend in Mongolia. And of course there was her love of languages. Not many people would go to the trouble of studying Chinese for a month before heading to China, and she had just finished a series of Russian lessons when she set out for her final trip. (In languages, I was always the lazy one. "Yo, Schwebel," I'd E-mail. "Translate this Latin, Greek, Hebrew for me. I can't be bothered to look it up.") She even decided to start a blog of her travels — but, concerned that blogging was itself becoming a cliché, she subtitled it, "This Is Not a Blog." She needn't have worried about blending in with the crowd: who else would have noticed that St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum was bright green, and dubbed it "a veritable Kermitage"? I suspect it's the first time Catherine the Great's Winter Palace has been likened to an amphibious Muppet.

Lana's whole life was a struggle against cliché, which is to say a struggle for originality and distinctiveness. It was evident even in the shape of her whole academic career — on the one hand, she was a woman of faith in an aggressively secular profession; on the other, she was an Orthodox Jew studying the Christian Middle Ages. Those who didn't know her were baffled by those choices, and twisted themselves into strange shapes trying to accommodate her without giving offense. She was never quick to take offense, though she'd sometimes roll her eyes in exasperation at good-intentioned boneheads who took it for granted that she was following a more obvious career path.

I was honored to be invited to the memorial organized by Lana's students in September, and one thing in particular struck me that night. I expected to hear "life-changing teacher," "challenged me," "showed me what I was capable of," all the usual praise for a good teacher. But "usual praise" seemed unfitting for her, precisely because it was usual — and therefore a cliché. I was delighted to hear almost none of that. Not that her students didn't declare Dr. Schwebel life-changing, challenging, and all the rest. It's just that they didn't fall into the conventional forms of praise. I like to think Lana had something to do with that. The writer I've studied most, Samuel Johnson, had a lovely zinger about a despised rival author: "He is not only dull himself," Johnson said, "but the cause of dullness in others." Lana was not only fresh and original herself, but the cause of freshness and originality in others. I felt, as I listened to each speaker that bittersweet evening, that it really was Lana Schwebel who was being memorialized, not some generic teacher. It wouldn't have fit anyone else. May we all be remembered so well.

It was that liveliness of voice, that refusal to lapse into hollow pieties and empty phrases, that haunted my mind as I tried to compose my talk for today. Memorial services are usually an opportunity to extract some larger meaning from horrible events, to try to make sense of what happened, to deliver some hard-won wisdom. But I have nothing profound to offer, other than profound sadness that she's gone and profound joy that I knew her as long as I did. It's almost impossible, at least for the likes of me, to talk about life's big questions without falling into mental, emotional, or spiritual laziness. I could start spouting mindless commonplaces, but I'm sure Lana would have none of it. She'd be gentle in her chastisement, but she'd roll her eyes and put me in my place. In such cases, I think it's best to follow the lead of young Lana, who hardly said a thing — sometimes silence is better than empty words.

Luckily for me, I've got no shortage of Lana's words in my head, including some of her last words. Three weeks after I got home from France, a long-delayed postcard arrived, sent from Irkutsk the morning of the accident. It must have been among the very last things she wrote. "Doing shockingly well," she said, and I don't doubt it. I'm terribly sorry to have lost her but, as another long-time friend put it, "I can't stop smiling when I think of her, or even do any wishing she hadn't been on that bus. That bus is where she belonged." I think that's true, however strange, even heretical, it sounds to say it. To wish she had been somewhere else is to wish she had been someone else, and I'm sure that someone else would have been much less interesting. Hollow commonplaces aren't for Lana Schwebel. I prefer to remember an unfailingly lively friend making me miss train after train, a dedicated teacher pushing her students to the same liveliness of mind she showed, a witty writer composing a blog that wasn't a blog, and a vivacious traveler going to new places — all the while doing shockingly well.

20 February 2008

Mr. Popularity

I've occasionally passed on the results of polls on GWB's job approval, as approval figures fell from the 90s, to the 70s, to the 50s, then to the 30s, and even into the high 20s. After a while, though, it began to seem too easy — fish-in-a-barrel stuff — so I laid off.

Today, though, American Research Group released a new nationwide poll of 1,100 American adults. Here's the highlight:

Among all Americans, 19% approve of the way Bush is handling his job as president and 77% disapprove.

To put that in perspective, Richard Nixon on the eve of his impeachment was in the mid-20s, with disapproval only in the 60s. (Nixon's lowest approval rating in any poll was 24%, though other polls put his nadir at 27.5%.) Carter dipped as low as the high 20s. I've never seen a reputable nationwide poll putting a sitting president below 20%.

Mind you, presidential approval numbers below about 35% are very difficult to achieve. (Ditto for individual members of Congress — while "Congress" rates appallingly low, most people give their own Representative and Senators high marks.) To get below 25%, you really need to be seen kicking nuns in the shins. To get below 20%, you need to be caught on camera raping puppies.

We're not likely to see such a low approval rating again in our lives.

The whole poll result is at http://americanresearchgroup.com/economy/.

17 February 2008

Shakespeare & Modern Politics

I'm just back from a lecture before the English Speaking Union of Monmouth County (two days after addressing the ESU in Greenwich, Conn., on my beloved William Henry Ireland). In Red Bank I gave a talk called "The Politics of Shakespeare, the Shakespeare of Politics." It touches on many of the themes in Becoming Shakespeare, and even steals a few paragraphs from the book (with minor adaptations). It's not at all scholarly, but it seemed to go over well enough. The opening few paragraphs:

There are few questions on which the supporters and the detractors of our president can agree, but I've managed to find one: George W. Bush is King Henry V. Not necessarily the real president, but the one who shows up in the work of a thousand spinmeisters. And not necessarily the real king, but the one who showed up in three of the plays of Shakespeare nearly four centuries ago. I'm not the first to think it up — it's the work of more journalists and critics than I can count. So common has this association become that some scholars refer to the connection between Bush and Henry as "W=V." In my talk today, though, I'd like to put this political use of Shakespeare's play in a historical context, looking both backwards and forwards.

For those who haven't read the Henry plays
in a long time, a quick refresher. The two parts of Henry IV focus on the king whose name provides the title to the play, but all the most memorable scenes focus on the king's son and his rowdy chums. That son is Prince Hal, a party animal addicted to bad company and given to playing wicked tricks on his friends, especially the fat and jolly Falstaff. Most of the time we see Hal as roisterer and ne'er-do-well. But Falstaff and the other ruffians have a serious change of fortune at the end of Part II, as the prince realizes it's time to grow up. In the most powerful scene, Hal banishes Falstaff from his presence as a sign of his new maturity. The follow-up play, Henry V, focuses almost exclusively on Prince Hal, now King Henry. There we see him standing up to the bullying French, rallying his English troops to action, himself leading his "band of brothers" against a dangerous foreign enemy.

It's not difficult to see why George W. Bush's supporters would find much in this story to appeal to them. As a young man, Bush was universally allowed to be unruly. We've never heard the details, but the president admits frankly to being an alcoholic, and rumors of serious drug use have never been denied. But, for the president's supporters, that irresponsible youth gave way to impressive maturity as it came time for him to assume the mantle of national office. As early as Halloween 1998, when there were hints that a second Bush might occupy the White House, Julian Borger wrote in London's Guardian about "The Making of a Dynasty," and saw "a sort of Texan Prince Hal putting aside his debauched youth in preparation for his ascent to power."

Not all the early allusions, of course, were quite so complimentary. In 1999 — by which time the comparison had become almost de rigueur for journalists who fancied themselves literary — the Washington Post worried, "Just how shallow is the frontrunner?" They pointed out that "Prince Hal is only charming if you know he'll ditch Falstaff and morph into King Henry V." And in December 1999, the libertarian columnist Howard Troxler criticized Bush's raucous past. Calling Bush "the Prince Hal of our time," he impatiently wondered, "How long do we indulge" him? The title of his piece leaves no doubt where he stands: "A Mighty Big Office; a Mighty Small Mind."

But the story of the shallow Hal gave way to the profound Henry V after September 11, 2001. As the nation rallied behind the president — even likening Bush on the ruins of the World Trade Center to Henry giving his stirring speech on St. Swithin's Day — the comparisons became inescapable. Probably the most famous was Michael Kramer's story for the New York Daily News on 21 September 2001. Under the headline "Prince Hal Now Henry V," Kramer declared that "George W. Bush became a leader a great nation will follow into battle with confidence." And as the "battle" changed from a metaphor to actual war — first with Afghanistan, then with Iraq — Bush's supporters returned over and over again to a plucky young man made good, a reformed wastrel, now the focus of national pride. (And it certainly didn't hurt that, in Shakespeare's play, the enemy was the arrogant French.)

But what had been a favorite comparison on the political right soon got adopted by the political left and turned against its inventors, especially as the fighting in Iraq began to strike people as less heroic than a blunder of world-historical magnitude. As the New York Daily News put it in May 2003, "This year's Shakespeare in Central Park production is about the leader of a country who diverts the people's attention away from the dubious way he came to power by invading another country. President George W. Bush? No, Henry V." The story critics like this took from Shakespeare was not about a callow young man turned into a national hero, but about a drunken and irresponsible lout thrust into a position he was unprepared for.

They also turned their attention to parts of Shakespeare's text that Bush's supporters had ignored. Henry IV stole the throne from Richard II — the thought of a ruler who owed his power to the extra-constitutional meddling by his father and his supporters began to take on a new resonance on the left after the Florida fiasco. Henry V's justification of his war with France — based on a very tenuous reading of the old Salic Law, backed up by legal scholars paid to tell the king what he wanted to hear — reminded some critics of the arguments in favor of invading Iraq. As reports of cruelty came in from Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, some began to think about Henry's speech outside the gates of the French city of Harfleur, in which he vows that "The gates of mercy shall be all shut up," and the English troops

       shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring infants.

Henry also notoriously orders the execution of all the prisoners of war at Agincourt, a shocking violation of the laws of war. And one of the most widely quoted bits of political Shakespeareana during the Iraq War was the exchange between Henry and one of his soldiers. Henry, traveling among his troops in disguise, muses, "I could not die any where so contented as in the king's company"; clearly looking for positive feedback from his soldiers, he adds, "his cause being just and his quarrel honourable." Just and honorable? "That's more than we know," says one of the soldiers, who goes on to worry that "if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day." This is the scene that prompted London's Observer to say, of a National Theatre production of the play in 2003, "if there is any topical resonance in Shakespeare's play, it comes from the story of a national leader going to war on highly dubious grounds and who, in the play's best scene on the night before the battle, is put on the spot by one of his common soldiers: 'The king hath a heavy reckoning to make if his cause be not good.'"

Now, it's not for me to settle the questions about the president's character and the wisdom of the war in Iraq. For one thing, I'm no more qualified to have opinions on these than anyone else here. More to the point, offering my own opinions on any of these subjects to strangers would be sure to alienate someone in this crowd, and savvy lecturers know it's foolish to offend the people who feed and transport them: it's a long walk home to Lawrenceville. I can, however, discuss the use that both the political left and the political right have made of Shakespeare's texts, starting with the obvious question: is this a fair thing to do to Shakespeare's works? When we invoke him to back up our political positions, it's as if we're claiming his authority. The question, then, might be — which position would William Shakespeare back if he were alive today? I'll be glad to tell you in detail everything that we know about Shakespeare's politics: exactly nothing. As the critic Paul Fussell writes, with only slight exaggeration, "What we actually know about Shakespeare as a person can go on a 3 x 5 card without crowding. But the writings confidently telling his life story and delineating his personality, morals, temper, and character would fill moving vans."

The problem is that almost all we have from Shakespeare is plays, and every sentiment, radical or reactionary, Protestant or Catholic, is put in the mouth of some character or other. "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," for example, wasn't spoken by Shakespeare to posterity but by Dick to Jack Cade. References to Purgatory and prayer for the dead have led many people to think Shakespeare had Catholic sympathies, but again, Shakespeare himself doesn't say these things; his characters do. And because the playwright gives us brilliant and compelling speeches on almost every side of every question, it's easy to find evidence that Shakespeare agreed with your own positions — just read long enough and you'll find something that seems to agree with you.

I can't claim to settle the question of whether this kind of appropriation or co-opting is fair, then, but even during his lifetime, Shakespeare found himself thrust into political debates, his authority being used to sell political programs that he may have admired or may have despised. He's been treated as a spokesman for every position you can imagine, and from the very beginning. Look, for instance, at his Richard II...

If you're curious, the full paper is available here.

12 February 2008

Mr Justice Bauer

Oh, goodie — we've got a Supreme Court Justice who's a fan of 24.

Justice Scalia argued that courts could take stronger measures when a witness refused to answer questions.

"I suppose it's the same thing about so-called torture. Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to determine where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited in the constitution?" he asked.

"It would be absurd to say you couldn't do that. And once you acknowledge that, we're into a different game.

That's from the so-called BBC.

09 February 2008

A Modern Spiritual

This may be the most wonderful piece of video I've seen in the last decade or two.

The Age of Johnson, vol. 18

When I started grad school in 1993, my dissertation director, Paul Korshin, asked me to come on board as editorial assistant to the journal he founded in 1987, The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual. I spent most of my grad career taking care of the grunt-work of scholarly editing — scanning typescripts, translating word processing formats, copyediting, proofreading, printing camera-ready copy, all that fun stuff.

I finished my Ph.D. in 1998, and Paul was gracious enough to ask me to come on board as co-editor. He said he had considered calling a halt to the journal after ten volumes in 2007 — being essentially the entire staff on a 500-page annual can wear you down — but he thought that, if we shared the work, it would be easier for both of us. He said that he'd step down someday and hand it over to me, but we continued to work on it together for a few years.

In March 2005, though, Paul succumbed to lymphoma — which, quite aside from the shock of losing someone who'd been a mentor and good friend for just under twenty years, left me with all the work on The Age of Johnson. I finished vol. 16, for which he was reading page proof in his hospital bed, and I finished vol. 17, which we had begun together. (I also had the good sense to ask a pal, and a distinguished scholar in his own right, to serve as review editor. John Scanlan of Providence College has been handling the entire review section for the last few years, and has been keeping up the high standard set by Paul in the early years.)

Volume 18 has just appeared; it's one of our biggest volumes yet. (Vols. 12 and 13 have more pages, but they were in a smaller trim size. I haven't done the calculation, but I suspect vol. 18 contains more words.) It's also the first-ever special issue of the journal: apart from the review section, which John has managed as well as ever, it consists entirely of contributions from Paul Korshin's friends, colleagues, and former students. Most of the volume consists of scholarly essays on eighteenth-century topics, though it also contains a special section of more personal recollections.

Here's most of the text of the Preface, which offers more details on the volume. Anyone interested in a copy can get it from AMS Press, but call them and ask for the individual subscribers' price — it's much less than the $182.50 they list on their Web site, for institutional subscribers.

Volume 18 is the first special issue of The Age of Johnson, and bears the volume title Korshin Memorial Essays. The articles in this volume have been solicited from friends, colleagues, and former students of the founding editor of the journal, Paul J. Korshin, who died in March 2005.

Previous volumes have featured special sections and occasional solicited essays, but the bulk of every annual number has been devoted to refereed scholarly articles. It would not be wise to abandon the standard of peer-reviewed publication altogether, but the strength of the contributions to this volume justify the exception in this case. The articles show a degree of coherence that excuses a one-time departure from the professional norm.

Paul Korshin always valued broad and deep learning above all. I remember praising one critic’s writing, but Paul’s question was, “Yes, Jack, but does he know things?” It’s therefore appropriate that this volume should open with Robert Folkenflik, one of our most learned Johnsonians, who knows plenty. Here he turns his attention to the politics implicit in the Dictionary, offering new insights in an ongoing conversation on the nature of that endlessly rich book—one that Folkenflik describes as “an encyclopedia, an anthology, a commonplace book, a collection of aphorisms.” And Thomas M. Curley, whose knowledge of the Ossian affair has no rivals, documents Johnson’s friendship with William Shaw, one of the more prominent combatants in the debate over Macpherson’s putative translations.

In John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty, Arthur H. Cash disavows any claims to having written the definitive biography of his subject, but anyone who has read the book will disagree with his modest self-assessment. In his contribution to this volume he provides further details on Wilkes and his relationship with Johnson—not only from their famous dinner at the Dilly brothers’ table (perhaps the most famous single scene in Boswell’s Life), but also the disagreements over political principles that made Boswell so keen to stage their meeting. Another kind of highly charged meeting is the subject of Howard D. Weinbrot’s article, the first account of a hitherto neglected genre—“meeting the monarch.” The form has even twenty-first-century exemplars, but Johnson offers one of the most important eighteenth-century royal encounters.

Paul’s career-long fascination with the difficulties of interpretation is evident in a series of contributions. Paul’s own scholarship was regarded as traditionally historicist, but he went out of his way to invite theoretically informed contributions to The Age of Johnson. It’s therefore fitting that Philip Smallwood’s article on Johnson’s place in global studies offers a consideration of a major figure from English literature in the wider field of world literature, as “world” is being redefined around us. James Cruise’s learned and wide-ranging meditation on hieroglyphics in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain is informed by Paul’s interest in secret languages. In “Novel or Fictional Memoir,” Maximilian Novak explores the publication history of Robinson Crusoe and its relationship to the line between truth and fiction. Truth and fiction are at the heart of my own contribution, on the problems of identifying forgery, which grew out of a series of discussions with Paul.

James Gray not only accounts for differences between the acting theories of Diderot and Garrick, but also offers to English readers extracts from Diderot’s often neglected Paradoxe sur le comédien. Lisa Berglund, sorting through a shelf of editions of Hester Thrale Piozzi’s Anecdotes, demonstrates in the process that “Piozzi’s reconstructive and critical editors have supplied new narrative contexts for Anecdotes, structures that discount her psychological insights and artistic preferences.” In “Truths Universally Acknowledged,” Mona Scheuermann gives an incisive reading of the place of social class in Austen’s Mansfield Park. George Justice revisits Paul’s fascination with the history of education in his commentary on John Gibson Lockhart’s early nineteenth-century novel, Reginald Dalton. Gloria Sybil Gross rounds out the essay section with the first systematic account of Stanley Kubrick’s interest in the eighteenth century.

After the essays comes a bibliography of Paul’s writings, which is followed by a special section. “No Writer nor Scholar Need Be Dull” collects personal reminiscences from a wide variety of friends, colleagues, and former students, who together offer a composite portrait of Paul Korshin the scholar, the teacher, the mentor, the colleague, the man, and above all the friend.

08 February 2008

More for the User's Guide

It's been a few weeks since I've posted anything — a symptom, I'm afraid, of the beginning of the semester, about which more as I find time to write.

Meanwhile, though, I'm already making notes toward a future edition of The English Language: A User's Guide, which appeared only a few weeks ago. It'll be a while before a new edition sees the light of day, but I'm already thinking of new entries on these subjects:

  • -able versus -ible
  • among, amongst; amid, amidst
  • analysis, analyses
  • anymore v. any more
  • at the end of the day
  • author as a verb
  • brackets
  • Notes on "colloquial"
  • deconstruct
  • dependant, dependent
  • diagnosis, diagnoses
  • "going forward" as future tense marker ("We don't know what the prices will be going forward")
  • have went, must have went, and other past participle goofs
  • heroin v. heroine
  • ideology as a loose term for "thoughts" or "ideas"
  • Is all you ever ...
  • more perfect
  • not prefixes (in-, a-, un-, de-, dis-); uncomfortable but discomfort; unstable but instability
  • "philosophy" (for auto makers, &c.)
  • portray
  • quotation marks for emphasis, &c. (as in Dave Barry's example, try "our" hot dog's)
  • reference as a verb
  • sentence adverbs
  • sometime, some time, sometimes
  • takeaway (for important points)
  • 'til, till, until
  • tired metaphors:

    • from baseball: step up to the plate, eye on the ball
    • from cards: show your hand, &c.
    • from politics: fig leaf, litmus test, olive branch, send a message

Haven't figured out what I'll be saying about them, but I trust something brilliant will come to me if I just open my mind to the cosmic vibrations.

16 January 2008

Proper Words in Proper Places

Although I have a scrillion other things competing for my attention — several overdue articles and reviews, a few conference papers, and an encroaching semester for which I really have to prepare — today I'm turning my attention to my next trade book, provisionally called Proper Words in Proper Places: Correct English from Shakespeare to Safire. If all goes according to plan, it'll appear in autumn 2009 from Walker & Co., the folks who published Becoming Shakespeare, my abridgment of Johnson's Dictionary, and Samuel Johnson's Insults.

Here's how I describe Proper Words in the prospectus:

Many are passionate about proper English; few know the idea of proper English itself has a history. But today’s debates over the state of the language—whether about Ebonics in schools or dangling participles in the Times—make much more sense in a historical context. Proper Words therefore looks back over the history of Modern English and traces the notion that some versions of the language are “correct” and others “wrong.” It tells the story of the people who tried to “fix” or “improve” this messy language of ours.

My plan is to trace some of the history of the idea of proper English from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. No one has written a book like this for a popular audience — there are scholarly books like The Doctrine of Correctness in English Usage, and most histories of the English language spend a chapter or two grousing about the evil "eighteenth-century grammarians" who made a hash of things. In fact things are more complicated than most writers would make it seem. (An amusing way to pass a few minutes is to do a Google search for "18th-century grammarians" and to count the occurrences of words like prejudice, ignorance, and arbitrary.)

Proper Words is my attempt to tell the story with the richness it deserves, and to try to put the idea of correctness in a context. To that end, I'm planning an introduction followed by eleven chapters, as follows:
  • The Age in Which I Live: Dryden Revises His Works
  • Fixing the Language: Swift Demands an Academy
  • Enchaining Syllables, Lashing the Wind: Johnson Writes a Dictionary
  • The Art of Using Words Properly: Lowth and Priestley Lay Down the Law
  • The People in These States: Webster Americanizes the Language
  • Words, Words, Words: Murray Surveys Anglicity
  • The Taste and Fancy of the Speller: Shaw Rewrites the ABCs
  • Tools of the Trade: Strunk & White Show the Way
  • Sacking the Citadel?: Webster's Third Stokes the Flames
  • Expletive Deleted: Moralists Police the Borders
  • Grammar, and Nonsense, and Learning: We Look to the Future
Since I'll be teaching a course on the history of the language this semester at Ruckers-Nork, the subject will be much on my mind. I'll occasionally provide updates here, as I work on individual chapters. Meanwhile, I'll be glad to hear from people who have ideas about the topic.

14 January 2008

Best Party Ever

What's not to love about a story that begins this way?

Youth, 16, faces £10,000 bill - and livid parents - after 'best party ever'
It caused almost £10,000 of damage, involved mass underage drinking and required 30 police officers, a police helicopter and the police dog squad to break up. But it was still "the best party ever", according to the Australian teenager currently under investigation for throwing a raucous bash when his parents went away on holiday.

11 January 2008

Absurd, Depressing, Disheartening, Dumb

The smartest comment I've seen to date on Hillary Clinton's near-tears moment:

How absurd. How depressing and disheartening and just plain dumb this whole business is. — Judith Warner, New York Times.

Yeah, that's about right.

09 January 2008

User's Guide Available

My latest book, The English Language: A User's Guide, is now available from Amazon.com. It's a revised and much expanded version of the guide I've had on-line for donkey's years — nearly as long as there's been a World Wide Web.

I originally wrote the thing for students in my own classes, and university students are still my most important audience. But I've also written it for business writers, people who find themselves expected to write but not confident about grammar, style, usage, mechanics and so on. Here's how one reviewer describes it:

Anyone who spends time at all reading or writing, whether for purpose or pleasure, will delight in The English Language: A Users Guide. Lynch’s book is not just informative and gracefully written but also it’s downright fun to read. I learned more in ten minutes grazing Lynch’s book than I would have in an hour plodding through just about any other writers’ guide, plus I found myself laughing out loud in the process! It’s a pleasure to recommend this wonderful book."
— James Lake, Louisiana State University

So, just in case my expected $1.2 billion doesn't materialize, perhaps I'll be able to make a buck or two on the guide. If you teach, bully your students into buying it. Hell, make 'em buy two — it's good for 'em. Builds character.

04 January 2008

God Bless Britney

When I teach eighteenth-century literature, I often find myself glossing terms modern students don't know. This past semester I came across the word dissolute in one of the readings, and was grasping for a suitable definition: "Leading a wild life, without much regard for morality, seeming to have his or her life falling apart...." It was clear I wasn't really helping anyone understand the word.

And then inspiration struck: "Y'know — like Britney Spears." All of a sudden it made perfect sense to my undergrads.

God bless Britney.

02 January 2008

The Sky Is Falling

My old pal Al Filreis has been writing a smart blog for the last six months or so. He's recently written a post titled "Is E-mail Ruining Writing?" Some choice extracts:

Perhaps a dozen times in the past four years I've been asked by radio shows (among them Day to Day and a live talk-radio show in Seattle) and print journalists ... to talk about why and how email and other digital writing forms (they especially want me to talk about IM) have ruined writing and reading for the new generations. ... They never assume that I might disagree with the premise. I tell them that they really don't want to talk to me because it's my view that writing has improved since the rise of electronic mail and since typing at our keyboards, of all sizes (even the tiniest), has become one of the two or three activities we do most often daily. ... The folks who want an English professor to comment on this expect me to whinge and express fear of writing's demise. Instead I express excitement about hope about the immediate future of writing.

I think that's right. Plenty of electronic communication is rotten and subliterate, but such has always been the way. The good news is that people who would never have put pen to paper in the days of hard copy, and who never owned a typewriter, now spend hours every day trying to communicate through the written word.

Beginners are rarely eloquent, and many have a long way to go before they write powerful or graceful prose. But I can only rejoice to see so many people getting practical experience in writing. Rather than lamenting the disappearance of the good old days, I'd like to see those concerned about young people's writing try to take advantage of students' passion for putting things in words, even when they're abbreviated and misspelled.