What I’ve Been Reading – January 2009

Etymology: From the Greek for “the true sense of the word.” That goes back to what roots showed through a lot more than they do today. But just as you appreciate a vegetable more if you know how it grows, you have a better hold on a word if you use it in acknowledgment of its roots, its background, some of the soil still attached.

Books Acquired:

Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri

Home – Marilynne Robinson

ABC3D – Marion Bataille

Watchmen – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Liar’s Poker – Michael Lewis

Books Read:

Watchmen – Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons

Alphabet Juice – Roy Blount Jr.

I flagged this definition from Roy Blount Jr.’s Alphabet Juice because it summed up my thoughts about words themselves this month, both how they work in a literal sense and how they relate to the actions of our nation, to life, to all aspects of art – not simply literature, but graphic mediums as well.

Of course, I’m late in writing about these words. Again. To be honest, I haven’t finished Alphabet Juice – a book I began before 2008 was distant memory. There are excuses, which I’ll get into. Because that’s what I do. I get into my excuses.

My first excuse was a magazine. I received a subscription to The Atlantic for Christmas from my mother. A subscription that I asked for out of the blue, actually. It just kind of popped into my head, like Ralphie’s football in A Christmas Story. Yet, in my case, the instant thought was valuable.

I had always wanted a magazine like this – not simply Sports Illustrated or Time, but something with a little traction. Something I could look forward to reading every month, cover to cover, in an effort to become more knowledgeable about life.

I thought I had that magazine with The Believer. (I didn’t. In that case, I wanted a fiction magazine, but realized I couldn’t handle the weekly onslaught of New Yorkers.) Now, I see that I finally do with The Atlantic. It gives me a wider view of the world – one that isn’t digested into bite sized chunks.

I don’t trust magazines. I’ve written about that before. But here I am, reading The Atlantic, literally from cover to cover. “Is this it?” I thought. “Is this the death knell to my reading habits?” Given the opportunity to read a heavy, solid book or the flimsy magazine on my bedstand, I chose the magazine every night until it I had completed it.

I’m an adult. I enjoyed it. Every word. I learned. Like taking short catnaps all day long, my eyes were opened without the grogginess of eight hours of straight sleep.

What I found was, in this time of political rebirth, I’m more receptive to news – to the news cycle, to my place in its coverage and, even more, its effects. I’ve taken the words that crop up from each article – each in depth hearing and each critical analysis – and discovered that their strength comes from deep in the roots of democracy, that these words are important not just because they are information, sweet information, but also because they are the very foundation of what makes this country great. Communication. A free transfer of ideas about any aspect of life.

A lot to learn from some liberal pinko news rag.

So there’s one distraction. A week of magazine reading. The other, I’m afraid, was a comic book.

Watchmen, which many may recognize as a big-budget blockbuster on its way to theaters sometimes in the near future, is more than a comic book, to be honest, much in the way Chris Ware’s sprawling masterpieces are more than just circles and squares.

Drawn in what I consider to be typical superhero style (but, let’s be honest, what do I know – I snobbishly read these for the art), Watchmen didn’t impress me with its visual aspects. This is, no doubt, because I am unaware of the skill needed to render a comic book – especially one of this size.

Instead, it was the writing that moved me. It was superhero done with a realistic slant – realizing full well that superheroes don’t really exist, and that if they did it would occur with real life consequences. Think Fortress of Solitude without the magic ring – instead, these superheroes go all out with gadgets, a keen mind or genetic manipulation. They exist as society allows them to.

Society isn’t really crazy about them, though. “Who Watches the Watchmen?” they ask. Superheroes have been banned for years, and only a rash of violence on those who used to be masked brings them back together. For one goal.

Save themselves.

It’s a feat of writing to take a jaded anti-superhero mind like my own and convince it that superheroes can be a fascinating subject. I love that Watchmen reads like a philosophical and psychological assessment of what superheroes would be if, in fact, real. And, I love the suspense, the twists, the characters. I love the allusion of more famous superheroes. (Night Owl is most certainly Batman, by my estimation.)

Most of all, though: I may have simply enjoyed reading a comic book.

Of course, there was the book I actually read (am still reading): Alphabet Juice, Roy Blount Jr.’s amusing romp through the English language. It’s a look at why words matter; at why I love them so much, despite my utter hackery at times. It covers syntax in a way that seems so blatantly obvious, causing me to rethink everything I knew about how I write. It covers rare words that I’ve never heard, and will promptly forget, but feel all the more blessed to have knowledge of no matter how fleeting.

Above all, it covers the peculiarities of our language, and how those peculiarities are part of what makes it so wonderful. Words are sonicky; they are verbal interpretations of what we’re experiencing. And some songs just seem to have a sonic connection. Other times, the roots are weird, the roads they’ve traveled long and winding, until the word isn’t even aware of it’s original home, like a seventh generation immigrant who can no longer remember where his ancestors came from.

It’s a love letter to English, really. Blount Jr. takes his dry delivery and crafts it lovingly into a tribute, checking each pretension and putting forth an amazing display of honor at being associated with the language.

And all parts of language, too; what I love about this book is that the wit stretches across the landscape of language. ROFL, teh and other newfangled slang mixes with discussions about syntax and grammar and proper writing. It’s the entire span of English, good or not. Origins to usage to trends. Txt to Texan to Tennyson.

Which gives me hope for the future. I can butcher the language all I want, and I can put off the What I’ve Been Reading recaps to my heart’s desire, but English will always be there. Language and words – the roots of our verbal communication – will forge along, subtly changing, but always moving forward.

It gives visual masterpieces a unique voice. It gives us the basis of communication that helps build a free society. And, at times, it just stands on its own – a testament to its own strength and a tribute to every word that’s come before, either lost or passed from use.

Each word, I’ve learned, is sacred. And I should never consider letting one go unwritten.

This was lovingly handwritten on February 10th, 2009