Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Description of the World - Part 27

Robert and Mary Collison, Dictionary of Foreign Quotations (I’ve been addicted to one-liners all my life. Reading them in their original languages makes ‘em more attractive to me. Most of these quotations are so short; they are more like idioms than quotations.)

Marcella Ottolenghi Buxhaum, 1001 Most Useful French Words (I’ve never taken a French course, but I managed to pass a French exam for my Masters by dint of memorizing one of those plastic cheat sheets that summarizes French grammar and leveraging my knowledge of Latin. This little item was a further help in learning some French without really trying. Of course actual French people suffer profoundly when I attempt to speak their language; and the verb tenses utterly flummox me, which isn’t much of a problem when you’re decoding technical stuff but rules out the enjoyment of fiction and poetry.)
Florian Coulmas, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems (Like many reference books, this encyclopedia is pleasurable to read. It’s like looking out the window at the scenery on a long train trip. I marvel that anybody could manage to decipher the Mongolian script. There are some absolutely fundamental facts about writing explained here along with the descriptive material. “Duality of Patterning: A universal structural characteristic which distinguishes human languages from less complex sign systems. Also known as ‘double articulation,’ it means that language is structured on two different levels: the units of the ‘lower’ level of phonology are arranged to form units of the ‘higher’ level of grammar.” Pretty simple, but it’s the gimmick that makes writing systems work, even the non-alphabetic ones. It was ignoring double articulation that confused people about Egyptian hieroglyphics for hundreds of years. There was a stubborn belief that hieroglyphics stand for ideas when the actually stand for words. Hieroglyphics are a way of writing Egyptian, not a transcription of thoughts. Same error delayed figuring out how to read Mayan.)

Eugene Ehrlich, Ammo, Amas, Amat and More (William Buckley, Jr. wrote a very brief preface for this little book. He’s the right guy to pick to explain the advantages of knowing a few Latin phrases for he was a master at appearing more erudite than he actually was. I understand his approach. As I’ve often said (probably too often), I feel a kinship with Buckley since we both use a lot of big words and know the meaning of some of them. The phrases in this book are short and the explanations perfunctory. The great, supremely witty phrasebook was the Adages, written long ago by Erasmus.)

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, The Territory of the Historian (French intellectuals certainly aren’t all maniacs for theory. They aren’t all latter day Descartes, who expect to figure it all out by pure thought provided they’re allowed to sleep in. In fact, at least in history, but also in other subjects, quite a few of the big names have a decidedly quantitative orientation. That’s certainly true of Braudel, but also of Le Roy Ladurie, whose interest in the effects of climate on history required him to resort to a large-scale program of data gathering. Emmanuel Todd, who famously predicted the fall of the Soviet Union back in 1976 on the basis of demographic trends, is another example of hard-boiled Frenchman. Le Roy Ladurie encouraged him to become a historian.)

Baron de Jomini, The Art of War (Jomini’s name is commonly brought up in connection with his more famous contemporary Clausewitz. I kept hearing about him so I rather pedantically found a copy of his book, which I found rather pedantic. Though he served in both the French and then the Russian armies during the Napoleonic wars, his system has an 18th Century flavor with all the talk of lines of advance and strategic points. I think he was somewhat nostalgic for the cabinet wars of Frederic the Great’s time. “National wars are the most formidable of all” he writes. The nation in arms frightened him.)

Christopher Kendris, French the Easy Way (I call foul on the title of this book. There may be a royal road to geometry, but there is no royal road to languages, unless all you have to do is pass an SAT exam. Some of us are better at guessing than others, but I have it on good advice that le pamplemousse isn’t actually Mickey’s first cousin.)

Howard Rheingold, They Have a Word for It (At least two words entered into my active vocabulary from reading this book: Korinthenkacker and biritilulo. The former is a German term for somebody so obsessed with minutia, he shits raisins. The latter is a New Guinea word that refers to settling disputes by comparing yams in lieu of a duel—more sanitary than a pissing contest.)

Norman Davies, Europe, a History (Reading an immense work like this one gives an intellectual tourist like me the occasional moment of pedantic triumph as I catch the author in an error. (The three Sophocles plays about Thebes aren’t a trilogy crows the Korinthenkacker.) Well, you’re entitled to a few lapses in 1250 pages. Davies is especially good at finding room for significant events, people, and ideas that are usually left out—he wrote a whole book, Vanished Kingdoms, that centers on the marginal places that weren’t marginal in their day. The evenness of tone of this effort is impressive, though I finally detected a joke on page 944: “The Vatican State, which was almost as papist as Eire, was created in 1929…” I find myself consulting the book’s appendix quite often for its tables, maps, and lists.)

Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 7th edition (This was a gift. Somebody thought I’d appreciate a grammar + anthology of Anglo-Saxon, though they were unrealistic if they thought a 62-year old was going to learn how to read the Battle of Malden. I have read at this book, though, in part because it simply looks inviting. It’s a pleasure to let yourself imagine you’ve got mind enough to learn another language.)
G.G. Coulton, Medieval Faith and Symbolism, Part I of Art and the Reformation (I may have inherited or swiped this book from my sister. It may have been a text for the medieval history course at Pomona that bored her so thoroughly you’d have to say it was memorable. The book appears to be a bit specialized for an undergraduate course. Its subject matter is narrower than the title suggests, the art and architecture of late Medieval England. I probably looked at the pictures at some point. If this tome is one of the reasons my sister disliked the course, you can understand why.)

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