Friday, August 24, 2012

Homework, Since You Mention It

Rita Byrne Tull, over at The Dabbler, writes
I came to understand that my own children’s homework assignments were often being graded in competition with other parents, not other students.  Who can compete with an engineer father’s battery powered working model of a lung?  This was what my daughter’s painstakingly assembled plastic bag and tubing effort was up against.
Eventually I imagined that the "science projects" assigned in the primary grades were part of a meta-experiment, one to find out what middle-class parents would put up with. The answer, clearly, was "damned near anything." Fortunately, the primary grades do come to an end, and if you are lucky the science classes from then on may include actual science.

I find in Jacques Barzun's The House of Intellect (published 1959), chapter "Education Without Instruction", a footnote:
* A natural philosopher of my acquaintance, a house painter by trade, greeted me one morning a I was taking my young daughter to school; 'Say, are you familiar with the modern homework?'--'Why, yes. What are you thinking of especially?'--'It's for the parents.'

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Phantoms on the Bookshelves

After counting a shelf or two of most of our larger bookcases, I estimate that we have between 800 and 1000 books in this house. Many people would regard that as many books, yet after reading Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves, I am astonished at our moderation. M. Bonnet had, at the time of writing, about 40,000 books.

I don't know that I've read every word in the book, and certainly I did not read it straight through--doing so would seem contrary to the spirit of the book, which celebrates a library oddly arranged, first by category, then roughly by region of origin, and in which of course not every book has been read. Yet I'm confident that soon I will have browsed my way through anything I might have missed. And when I have shelf space, it will go onto the shelves, probably next to Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night (which is mentioned in it).

Perhaps it helps to have lived by the book trade to acquire so many books. Bonnet mentions a dinner with the Italian novelist Giuseppe Pontigia, who had a library running into the tens of thousands of books. Larry McMurtry, novelist and book dealer, wrote that his library amounted to about 25,000 books. I worked for a while on the edges of the publishing world, as copy editor, proofreader, and eventually techie. Was it my apostasy in becoming a systems administrator and programmer that cost me that order of magnitude in book acquisition? Probably not, for I can afford more books and more expensive ones now than I could then.

I noticed this book on the front shelves of  Reiter's Books at G and 20th Streets NW this week, and happened to have the cash in my pocket for it. Reiter's technical stock has fallen off from what it once was, but there is usually something worth looking at when I stop by. No doubt M. Bonnet would find something to acquire.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Rangers

In the United States, owning a sports franchise seems to be as sure a thing as owning a liquor store, only with revenues at least a couple of orders magnitude larger, and less chance of being robbed at gunpoint. Cities and states with more urgent needs will tax themselves to subsidize your stadium or arena, and if one refuses another will be ready. The rules are such that it is always a surprise when an ownership group, recently for example the McCourt family in Los Angeles, manages to run a franchise into the ground.

The most recent past owner of the Glasgow Rangers football club managed to do just that, as The New York Times reported last week. It was the team of Protestant Glasgow, rival of the Celtic, team of the Irish Catholic immigrants, a matter touched on in Seamus Heaney's "Whatever You Say Say Nothing":
As the man said when Celtic won, 'The Pope of Rome
's a happy man this night.' ...
Yet according to the Times, the old barriers are breaking down, and of the boys in a Catholic school perhaps 5% may be Rangers supporters--though I wonder how boldly they dare affirm this.

In any case, Rangers are threatened with relegation to a lower level of professional soccer, as if the New York Yankees were to be bumped down to Class AA minor league baseball. This is unlikely to do their traditional rivals, the Celtic included, any good, for the Rangers are a great draw for tickets and for broadcast money. Red Sox Nation might get a kick out of seeing the Yankees playing AA ball, but Red Sox management would experience it as a financial disaster.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Peck of Dirt

Twenty years ago, the University of Utah Press published Reading and Writing by Robertson Davies, volume 13 of the Tanner Lectures in Human Values. Unfortunately, volumes before 25 seem to be out of print, though the book is not hard to find used.

. A paragraph of "Reading" came to mind recently:

  How dull he is being, you may think, as I draw near to my conclusion. How like a Professor. He is simply parroting Matthew Arnold with his tedious adjuration that "Culture is the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world and thus with the history of the human spirit." But I assure you that I mean no such thing, and I have always had my reservations about Matthew Arnold., who was too cultured for his own good; he seems never to have listened to the voices which must, surely, have spoken to him in dreams or in moments when he was off his guard -- voices that spoke of the human longing for what is ordinary, what is commonplace, vulgar, possibly obscene or smutty. Our grandparents used to say that we must eat a peck of dirt before we die, and they were right. And  you must read a lot of rubbish before you die, as well, because an exclusive diet of masterpieces will give you spiritual dyspepsia. How can you know that a mountain peak is glorious if you have never scrambled through a dirty valley? How do you know that your gourmet meal is perfect in tis kind if you have never eaten a roadside hot dog? If you want to know what a masterpiece The Pilgrim's Progress is, read Bonfire of the Vanities, and if you have any taste--which of course may not be the case--you will quickly find out. So I advise you, as well as reading great books that I have been talking about, read some current books and some periodicals. They will help you to take the measure of the age in which you live.
 The mention of longing for the commonplace and vulgar recalls J.V. Cunningham's epigram on his book Doctor Drink, which concludes
The trivial, vulgar and exalted jostle
Each other in way to make the apostle
Of culture and right living shudder faintly.
It is a shudder that afflicts the saintly.
It is a shudder by which I am faulted.
I like the trivial, vulgar and exalted.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Newly Common Gesture?

Within about the last six months I have been noticing women walking with a small fold of skirt clasped in one hand. Usually, I think, it is the right hand. On some a few days there may have been wet pavement; on a few women a long skirt and tricky heels. Yet there are women who will hold a knee-length skirt. If there are common factors in the cut of the skirt, my eye is not trained enough to spot them.

The gesture is anything but ubiquitous. In a week of walking around the city, I might notice it twice. It is not local to Washington, for I noticed a woman walking so in Philadelphia yesterday, and my son, who had not previously noticed it, saw another later. Is it a trend, and will it take off as the female pedestrian's answer to the male driver's "gangsta lean"? Where did it come from--a movie? The royal wedding?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Rhododendron into Dogwood

In the postscript of his translation of The Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald writes
A word about "translation." The Odyssey, considered strictly as an aesthetic object, is to be appreciated only in Greek. It can no more be translated into English than rhododendron can be translated into dogwood.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Carmen Possum

A college friend recently sent me a link to the Wikipedia page on macaronic language. This, I was delighted to find, had a link to the page on Carmen Possum, which I had heard quoted in high school, but never, that I recall, seen in full. The rhyme begins
THE NOX was lit by lux of Luna,
And 'twas a nox most opportuna
To catch a possum or a coona;
For nix was scattered o'er this mundus,
A shallow nix, et non profundus.
and ends
Cruel possum! bestia vilest,
How the pueros thou beguilest!
Pueri think non plus of Caesar,
Go ad Orcum, Shalmanezer,
Take your laurels, cum the honor,
Since ista possum is a goner!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

At Great Expense

By way of comp.risks comes a mention of the dangers of trusting too much in on-line translations. The producers of a BBC comedy Episodes needed a headstone in Hebrew and English for a funeral scene. Somebody entered the English text into Google Translate, and dutifully copied the Hebrew letters out. Unfortunately, Google Translate had rendered them into the left-to-right order of English, rather than the right-to-left order of Hebrew. This means, it is said, that what should convey "dearly missed" instead says "pickled at great expense". According to The Guardian this has greatly entertained Israeli audiences that might never have heard of the show; Haaretz certainly seems amused.