Monday, November 16, 2015

 Description of the World - Part 2

Russian Word Collocations (Showed up at garage sale, I think. I probably picked it up because I had a similar book for Latin. Collocations are lists of how native speakers say particular things—business letter, affairs of state, etc. You can’t just assume that you can combine words following your own commonsense because commonsense is not the same everywhere. Which reminds me of the time I convinced somebody that the German expression for bra was literally tit holster.)

Diane Wolff, An Easy Guide to Everyday Chinese (Alas, it wasn’t.)

Tony Augarde, The Oxford Guide to Word Games (A later day Menocchio, I operate with the blue cheese model of the world. We’ve got a drastically distorted view of the true volume of things because we are like cheese mites who preferentially dwell in the veins of the cheese and little fathom the vast expanses between the veins. Word games and other arbitrary combinatoric exercises don’t get you far into the matrix of the cheese, but they help a bit, especially if, like me, you’re especially interested in the regions between Borges Universal Library and the Ten Known Undergraduate Ideas, i.e., the miniature immensities adjacent to our little phone booth of a mind.  (Unfortunately that particular Tardis is smaller on the inside.))

Carlo Graziano, Italian Verbs and Essentials of Grammar (Continuing the thought from the previous parenthesis: it’s either devastating or exhilarating to realize that you not only aren’t going to learn Italian but that Italian isn’t even the language that most of the Italians have been speaking over the last thousand years.)

Donald J. Mastronardem, Introduction to Attic Greek (Not another one of my many exercises in futility. I actually used this this handy reference to brush on my Greek, which, like my Latin, is just good enough to come in handy if only to manage the footnotes in scholarly books.)

John Nist, A Structural History of English (As soon as you finish reading a book, indeed while you are reading it, you begin to forget it. What I remember of this book, like so many others, is simply that I found it illuminating at the time. Leafing through it, I had the crazy impulse to start reading it again.)

William Dwight Whitney, Sanskrit Grammar (This was the standard Sanskrit grammar for some time and I acquired it simply because I like classics, even classics I can’t very well use, though I did learn a little Sanskrit thirty years ago or so from a modern textbook on Vedic Sanskrit. My copy of Whitney—as it is often called—is the fifteenth issue (1981) of the second edition (1889). The book is a residue of the heroic or at least dogged efforts of Nineteenth Century scholars to figure out the world. I like to memorialize these forgotten achievements, which were accomplished long before word processors, let alone the Internet.)

Sir Ronald Syme, Tacitus, two volumes (I read works written by people with penetrating minds even if I don’t give a damn about the subject of their investigations. In this case, though, I also have a particular interest in Tacitus over and beyond my abiding respect for Syme. When I was seventeen or so I wrote a blank verse tragedy based on an episode from Tacitus. I think it was called the Death of Nero or some such. If there really is a God, the play doesn’t survive in some old suitcase. Tacitus seems particular relevant now because his writings address a problem common to many of us today: how to act decently in an imperium. He was, famously, nostalgic for the Republic, but he was well aware that it was gone for good and deserved to be gone. The empire was as inevitable—and regrettable—for the emperors as it was for the senators. There’s a sort of civic Stoicism that recurs, not because people read old books, but as a function of circumstances. The old books get reread because its time for them again. Tacitus was widely read and discussed in the late 16th Century, and he seems back in focus now. If democracy really is finished, members of the elite need to figure out how to be decent oligarchs and imperial functionaries in the neoliberal order.)

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