Friday, August 25, 2006

It's not you, it's me

(Anyone else see that Seinfeld episode?)

After attempting and setting aside four novels in rapid succession, I've come to the conclusion that the problem is neither the novels, nor the authors' skills - it's me. Yikes. This is the first time in maybe 7-8 years that I haven't had a novel on the coffeetable, nightstand, etc., waiting to be picked up and read. I have several thousand sitting on my bookshelves, but they don't appeal at the moment. It's a weird feeling.

Basically, I think I need to read something besides fiction for a short time (if I read anything at all). Fiction in general, that is, not just historical fiction - as one of the four was a contemporary chick lit/mystery that I read 3/4 of the way through before skimming to the end. (As an aside, the one novel that managed to hold my attention within the last week and a half was Megan Abbott's excellent Die a Little, a crime/noir set in 1950s LA. I'll write up a summary of that one for my next NoveList column.)

What have I been reading instead, you ask. The answer is - linguistics essays. This may seem like the most boring topic in the world to you, but au contraire, they're fascinating reading for anyone interested in how language works, and is used. Back when I was in grad school, I bought a book of essays by Geoffrey K. Pullum called The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. I read a few of them back then, but am reading the rest of them now.

The essays are hilarious, if you enjoy dry humor as well as the author's successful attempts at making fun of stuffy people. (Linguists are not snobs.) For the title essay, Pullum explains why the myth of Eskimos having countless (200? 400? how many really?) words for snow is completely false. And why writers should stop using that cliché in trying to describe quantities that are, quite simply, indescribable.

Pullum's also a contributor to the lively and popular Language Log, a collaborative blog hosted at the University of Pennsylvania. (One of my former profs is another contributor, but I won't name drop... too much.) If you enjoy writing, or words in general, it's worth checking out and bookmarking.

But bringing the topic back to historical fiction and other writerly stuff: here are some entries from the Language Log that may appeal.

Novelist Frank Delaney (the multi-period epic Ireland) says that the Irish language has no word for sex. The linguists prove him wrong.

The bane of the author's life, copy editors, and their false claims about what is and isn't grammatical.

Dorothy Dunnett has been cleared of anachronism. Ditto for Patrick O'Brian. (Not surprising.)

Ever try to analyze Dan Brown's writing style? They've done it for you, and it's not pretty.

TGIF and all that. I'm going to read another of those essays now. (BTW, the Cookson and Lewis novels - that wasn't just me. I don't think.)


  1. Hehe, Dan Brown makes my writing look good.

    But I don't have a contrived mystery pot with Church bashing and some stupid clues, so I won't make it on the bestseller list. ;)

  2. I've never read Da Vinci Code, I'll admit. After that analysis, I'm not likely to, unless it's for the humor factor. Angels and Demons was quite enough for me.

  3. Ok, well, this I've GOT to see. The only thing DB's writing has going for it, IMHO, is his pacing. He does know how, at least in DVC, to keep the reader turning pages. Other than that...

    Thanks for the link :-)

    And, like you, I sometimes find I need to read non-fiction.

  4. I love Language Log too! I didn't know you were connected with them. I am suitably overawed. I do like the copy-editing post. The company I work for spends many, many hours doing just that sort of thing. I used to argue but now I just shrug.

    I read the first chapter of DVC in a station bookshop, laughed for all the wrong reasons, and decided it would be more fun to look for typos in page proofs.

  5. Connected only very loosely - I have an MA in linguistics from the early 1990s which I never really use in the workplace, though I write the occasional review of linguistics reference books.

    (If I were to believe the copy editor in that LL post, I would have said "that" instead of "which" in the sentence above.)

  6. I've not read Da Vinci Code either, and have no plans to do so. Or any other Brown product. But Dan, a "local author" is a decent chap. Really and truly.

    Hope your reading slump is short-lived!

  7. Thanks, Margaret! I've begun another novel, but am proceeding warily at the moment.