Archive for August, 2015

A number of people

Despite some ridiculous practices at the BBC, the grammar of English allows for apparent subject-verb disagreement on occasion: A number of people are unhappy, for example, is grammatically correct. This is because the statement refers to a situation where it is the people who are unhappy, not the number that is unhappy. The correct grammar is derived from the meaning (ie, the semantics), not merely the syntax. Geoffrey Pullum has an explanation here.

Some of the people, all of the time

Writer Colm Toibin has an article in praise of Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors, here.

Did Toibin not notice the words of the text as he read it? That novel is appallingly badly written. James’ long, rambling, discursive sentences reflect not subtlety and nuance, but long, rambling, muddled thought. The prose is often hard to comprehend, due to this muddle. An irritating widespread quirk of his style are sentences containing multiple pronouns, each pointing to different people – or perhaps to the same people. There is no consistency. Sometimes a pronoun in one sentence refers to the subject of the previous sentence, and sometimes to the object. Sometimes, indeed, one pronoun in a sentence may refer to the subject in an earlier sentence, while another pronoun refers to the object in another sentence. I lost count of the number of times I encountered this deictic ambiguity: eventually I concluded that either James was deliberately aiming to make it impossible for the reader to parse his text, or else it was he himself who was muddled, following no consistent rule in his pronoun assignments; in either case, I should feel no shame at abandoning such poor prose. James is justly neglected, and long may he remain so.

Why read?

Why do we read? Many people seem to assume that the only reason for reading is to obtain information about the world. With this view, reading fiction is perhaps hard to justify. But if one only reads to learn new facts, then one’s life is impoverished and Gradgrindian. Indeed, this reason strikes me as like learning to play the trumpet in order to have a means to practice circular breathing.

In fact, we read for many other reasons than just this one. One could say we primarily read novels for the pleasure that reading them provides:

  • the pleasure of reading poetic text (as in the novels of Hardy, Joyce or Faulkner, for instance)
  • the pleasure of reading elegant, finely-crafted prose (eg, Burney, Doris Lessing, Perec, Brautigan)
  • the pleasure of engaging in deductive reasoning (any detective or espionage novel)
  • the pleasure of imagining alternative societal futures (scifi), presents (political thrillers, espionage novels), or pasts (historical fiction)
  • the pleasure of being scared (crime thrillers, horror stories)
  • or the pleasure of parsing an intricate narrative structure (eg, Calvino, Fowles, Murnane, Pynchon).

These various pleasures are very distinct, and are orthogonal to the desire to gain information about the world. And some of these pleasures may also be gained from reading non-fiction, for example the finely-honed journalism of AJ Liebling or Christopher Hitchens, or the writing of Oliver Sacks, who passed on today.