»  National Review Online Diary

  April 2009

Parallels     A friend: "Wanna do word association? I'll say a sentence, and you say — quick, without thinking — which country I'm talking about. OK?"  Me: "Sure. Fire away."  He:  "OK, you ready? Here's the sentence: 'Without any proper rule of law, state-connected actors made billions gaming the system while ordinary citizens lost their savings in financial swindles.'"  Me:  "Um, Russia? … Oh, I see …"

Swan of Avon     April is of course the month of Shakespeare's birthday, reminding many of us — most of us, I'd venture to guess — how shamefully unacquainted we are with much of the Bard's work. I know the Tragedies pretty well, and could squeak through an exam on the Histories, I think; but the 12 Comedies and the 4 Romances — forget it. I've seem Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest performed. We "did" The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night in school, but I remember next to nothing of them except for the "quality of mercy" speech, which we all had to memorize. I've read a couple of the other Comedies/Romances out of curiosity, but without retaining much. Too late now, I suppose. The Shakespeare I've got will have to see me out.

There are quite a lot of people named Shakespeare. Here's one; and I briefly worked alongside a different one in 1980s London. "Related to the Bard?" I asked him. (Note: I couldn't say "Descended from …?" as William Shakespeare had no male issue that survived to adulthood.)

No, my colleague explained. In 19th-century England there was a pretty good supply of foundlings — orphans of unknown parentage — Oliver Twist being only the most famous one. They had to be named somehow. One system was to give a foundling some name of fame or distinction. Thus, most present-day Shakespeares have a foundling ancestor.

Oliver Twist was named on a different system, as Mr. Bumble explained:

We name our fondlings [sic] in alphabetical order. The last was a S, — Swubble, I named him. This was a T, — Twist, I named him. The next one comes will be Unwin, and the next Vilkins. I have got names ready made to the end of the alphabet, and all the way through it again, when we come to Z.

One indication that the world, at any rate the Western world, has actually improved somewhat is that the word "foundling" has pretty much fallen out of usage, to the disadvantage of no-one but novelists. The mathematician Jean d'Alembert was a foundling, but I can't think of any other famous examples (outside literature, which of course is thick with them because of the plot possibilites they offer).

WordStar     I thought Chris Buckley's memoir of his father, at least the extract in the New York Times magazine, was beautifully done. Our parent-child relationships have depths we are barely aware of — I still haven't plumbed to the bottom of mine, though my own parents have been dead for 24 (Dad) and 10 (Mum) years. I'm not sure I could write about them coherently and at length, as Chris has done.

One little detail that caught my eye was Bill's insistence on sticking with WordStar as his word processor of choice. I understand this perfectly. Once you've mastered a piece of software, why should you have to go to the trouble of ditching it to learn a new one? Bill actually out-conservatived me there. I am proud to tell anyone who asks that I write everything (including this diary) using KEDIT, a nifty text editor from the mid-1980s. KEDIT is modeled on XEDIT, which I used in my mainframe days in the early 1980s. I'm well into my third decade with KEDIT and see no reason to change. Still, KEDIT's first release was 1983; WordStar was already five years old at that point.

That was Bill for you:  Standing athwart software development yelling Stop!

Beginning of wisdom     Here's a story I heard many years ago. I've completely forgotten the provenance, if I ever knew it, and perhaps it's better known than I think; but I don't recall seeing it since I first heard it.

The story is in the form of an exchange between a famous philosopher and one of his disciples.

Disciple:  Master, one thing you have never spoken of is, how you came to be a philosopher. What was it that turned you to the study of wisdom?

Master:  It happened in this way. When I was a young man I fell in love, and had the good fortune to marry the woman I loved. Our families were both happy with the match. There was a great wedding feast, with much dancing and singing, and happiness unconfined. At last I retired with my new bride to our chamber. We caressed; then we made love. Afterwards I sat up in bed and looked down at her, at her dear face on the pillow. The moon was bright and a shaft of silver moonlight fell across her as she smiled up at me in joyful contentment. My heart overflowed with love for her. At that moment I would have done whatever she had asked of me, with all the life force at my command. If she had asked me to be a soldier, I would have become a great general. If she had asked me to go into politics, I would have become a great statesman. If she had asked me to be a poet, I would have written verses that people would still recite a thousand years from now.

Disciple:  Oh, I see. She asked you to become a philosopher.

Master:  No. She said nothing.

Blurbs …     Book Hell, like actual Hell, has circles within it. I have been traversing two of those circles this month: the ones named Blurbs and Permissions.

Blurbs are the little scraps of praise put on the dust cover of a new book, usually on the back. (Though they tend to migrate to the front if the book goes into paperback.) Publishers gather them while a book is in the editing stage, i.e. on traditional production schedules, a few months before publication. They ask the author if he knows anyone with a famous name who might be inveigled into looking over galleys of the book and giving a friendly quote to be used as a blurb. The author then scours his address book for likely prospects, and sends out begging letters. (Nowadays, of course, emails.)

It's a grisly business, lightened somewhat by reciprocity. That is, if you blurb other people's books, they're more likely to blurb yours. (Compare Yogi Berra's well-known remark that "If you don't go to other people's wakes, they won't go to yours.")

Here are two blurb stories.

First blurb story (amusing):  For Prime Obsession I thought I'd shoot for the moon and try Martin Gardner, the greatest living pop-math author. We had some mutual slight acquaintances, and I'd reviewed a couple of his books, so I used those as "hooks." However, Martin's wife had died a couple of years before. He was still depressed, and also unwell. In his return note he apologized gracefully for this, and added: "Just write the blurb yourself. I'm sure it will be all right." So I did. Bless you, Martin.

Second blurb story (shameful):  Prime Obsession was translated into modern Greek by Tefcros Michaelides. Translating is ill-paid drudge work, but Tefcros took his task seriously and we had some email exchanges to clarify points in the text. Then last spring I got a note from him. He had written a novel. Would I blurb it? I said I would, and galleys duly arrived … and then somehow got lost in the piles and drifts of stuff that clutter my office. I completely forgot about it till it was too late to send in the blurb. This was just gross thoughtlessness and lack of organization on my part. If the Blurb Muse were to decide to punish me by making my own blurbers just as forgetful and inconsiderate, that would be nothing but divine justice.

I repent my sin. I urge everyone to buy a copy of Tefcros' clever little novel. Buy two, buy half a dozen, give them to friends! In a further effort of Muse-appeasement, I just did a blurb for Jim Franklin's forthcoming book What Science Knows (And How It Knows It), a brilliant romp through the philosophy and sociology of science. Buy Jim's book (out soon)! Buy Tefcros' book! I gotta get straight with that Muse.

… and permissions     Here is yet another circle of Book Hell, this one named Permissions. If, in your book, you quote someone at length, or if you quote anything more than a single line of some poet's verse, you need to get permission from whomever holds the rights to that person's work. And who is that? Try finding out!

This is a horrible chore, in which emails and letters pass echo-less into the void like stones dropped into a well; in which, when anyone does deign to reply to your queries, it is only to tell you that, no, it's not them you need to apply to, it's somebody else … and this chain of buck-passing goes on for ever and ever, world without end, until at last you find yourself having nightmares in which you are trudging on bleeding feet and racked with fever up to the top of a peak in the Hindu Kush seeking the one person in the world who can give you permission to quote a line from some wretched pop song, a hermit who lives in a cave near the summit. Your pilgrimage is observed only by yaks, hovering vultures, and sinister mountain-tribesman types fingering scimitars. Then one of the mountain men approaches you, and you see through your fog of terror that he is in fact, under the hood of his burnoose, your mild-mannered editor from the publishing house. He offers water for your parched lips from a goatskin bag, then murmurs "By the way, did you get permission for those lyrics yet?" and you wake screaming "NO I BLOODY DIDN'T AND I DON'T BELIEVE I EVER BLOODY SHALL BECAUSE NOBODY ON EARTH CAN TELL ME WHO OWNS THE BLOODY RIGHTS!"

I tell you, it's a man's life here in the literary world.

Literary extracts     In some exchanges on The Corner I mentioned "readers" as being the best kind of thing for high-schoolers to be given. This followed some comments about books that high-school students should read. Rather than getting them to read entire books, I'd rather they be given "readers" — books of extracts from classic works of literature. If an extract catches a student's fancy, by all means let him try the full original. I had some of these readers in my own education, but that was so long ago I've forgotten the titles. If anyone knows a good reader of this kind, let me know and I'll pass it on. These are among the best things to give to inquiring young minds.

All that stirred the thought:  What are my own favorite extracts?  Well, there are a lot.  Somewhere at the top of the list is Chapter 56 of Pride and Prejudice, the scene where the clever and spirited Elizabeth Bennet, well on the way to accepting a proposal of marriage from Mr. Darcy, confronts Darcy's aunt, the shallow and snobbish Lady Catherine, who objects to the match on grounds of class. Sample, with Lady Catherine speaking first:

"You are then resolved to have him?"

"I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me."

"It is well. You refuse, then, to oblige me. You refuse to obey the claims of duty, honour, and gratitude. You are determined to ruin him in the opinion of all his friends, and make him the contempt of the world."

"Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude," replied Elizabeth, "have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment's concern — and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn."

One can reasonably doubt whether any human being ever spoke like that, in those exquisitely balanced syllogisms freighted with Enlightenment rationalism. We'd all like to, though; and we all do in our imaginations, in our esprit d'escalier, our "wit of the staircase," when, as we descend the stairs going out, we think of what we should have said in the room, if only we'd had the presence of mind to do so.

When curs attack     Trauma of the month was the savage April 9 attack on poor Toby Derbyshire by two unleashed curs from the yard of an irresponsible hippie. NRO readers were extremely helpful, and this is a generic "thank you!" to anyone I didn't reply to personally. Advice ranged all the way from actions involving shotguns and carry permits to detailed information about law and insurance. Polite requests having got nothing from the curs' owner, we are headed to Small Claims Court, with a date set for June 15. I shall report back.

Classical corner     In the May 4 issue of National Review I recorded a brief engagement with the Roman author Juvenal. This aroused considerable reader interest, and some information.

Dear Mr. Derbyshire — After reading your piece "Juvenal Delinquent" in the May 4 issue of National Review, I wanted to comment on the Loeb Classical Library edition of Juvenal you mentioned. The 1918 Loeb text by G.G. Ramsay has in fact been superseded. In 2004 a new Loeb Juvenal and Persius volume, edited and translated by Susanna Morton Braund, was brought out to replace Ramsay's; details here.

Not being conversant in Latin, I am in no way competent to report on the merit of Prof. Braund's translation vis-a-vis the original text. On the plus side, though, it does translate all those bits that Ramsay indicated with ellipses and omitted from his English text. (To your comment "I thought the Loebs were franker than that," I have noticed that the earlier imprints, which are slowly being replaced by newer ones, are a bit more squeamish than the newer; the edition of Catullus, for example, was thoroughly revised by G.P. Goold in 1988, in part to reverse extensive bowlderization of both Latin and English texts in the 1913 Loeb.)

Thank you, Sir. For the amusement and listening pleasure of anyone else who liked that piece, I have put up three pages on the "Readings" section of my website:  one for Juvenal's Tenth in the original Latin, one for Dryden's 1693 translation, and one for Dr. Johnson's splendid gloomy 1749 "imitation," which he titled The Vanity of Human Wishes.

Lord Byron (who knew his classics):  "The 10th Satire has always been my favorite, as I suppose indeed of every body's. It is the finest recipe for making one miserable with his life, & content to walk out of it, in any language." 


Fred Reed peaks     Fred Reed, writing in The American Conservative about being eleven years old in Alabama in an age now as remote and dead as the Akkadian Empire:

This iron footbridge went over a little creek in the marshes … It was rusted, and the creek was full of minners glittering and shining when something chased them … I'd go there alone with my BB gun and lean over the rail and wait. Sooner or later, a cottonmouth, just a little one, would park itself against a rock as a breakwater, and I'd draw a bead, that that would be that. One summer I got 13. We kids could shoot, I'll say that. It was the high point of my life. I peaked early, and it's been downhill since.

No, Fred, you didn't peak early, you peaked normal. I peaked around the same age, at the same time, riding my Dad's old bicycle along traffic-free country lanes to the canal lock at Rothersthorpe with Peter Starmer, to race home-made wooden boats down the sluice channel — or, if we were feeling really daring, to strip off and drop into the icy canal water under the bridge, out of sight from the road. I couldn't tell you how to work the dome light in my wife's car, but I can recall every last detail of those locks. When not out in the countryside I was at home reading, always reading. I can still remember whole passages, the exact location of unfamiliar words on the page, whole books, and their feel and their smell. Now I can read even a good book, and remember nothing about it a week later.

Be firm with your kids, but kind and understanding. They're living in a way you haven't for decades, a way you can access only through occasional flickering memories awakened by something like Fred's piece. The world for them is new and bright and full of wonders. Plenty of time later for the dull joyless grind and shoddy compromises of adult life. Let them enjoy

The peace, before the dreadful daylight starts,
Of unkept promises and broken hearts.

Let them find out about all that after they've peaked, around age 11.

Personality Parade     My Sunday newspaper, like yours probably, comes with that Parade pull-out supplement, full of bland-as-water uplift and ads for patent medicine. Inside the front cover there's a page titled "Personality Parade," a sort of little wayside shrine to the cult of celebrity. Readers supposedly write in with questions about their favorite stars, though of course one should not rule out the possibility that the whole thing is stitched together from whole cloth by the Parade staff, like the letters columns of the original Penthouse and at least one, to my certain knowledge, Fleet Street daily newspaper.

QBones star David Boreanaz has a tattoo on his right wrist. What does it mean?
Q:  What's going on with my favorite TV star, The Office's Melora Hardin?
Q:  Why don't we see more of Catherine Zeta-Jones?

It's tempting to offer up a sneer at all this vicarious celebrity-ogling. Given what I've just been thinking, and writing, about the boring shabbiness of adult life, though, I'm in the mood to give a pass to anything anyone can do to distract themselves, to find a scrap of magic somewhere. I bet there are no 11-year-olds writing in to "Personality Parade." Too busy living.

And to be perfectly fair, "Personality Parade" once in a while snags the attention with something halfway interesting, though very rarely anything to do with a celebrity.

Q:  Why is baseball the only sport in which managers wear uniforms?

That a pretty darn good question, to which I did not know the answer before perusing my March 15 copy of Parade. Look, it was lying around the house. I'm clutching at straws here. Oh hell — where's my Juvenal?

Math Corner     I'm afraid last month's puzzle was a bit of a bust — much more difficult than I supposed, and breezily implied, when I set it. The solution is here.

Thus chastened, I shall go for something easier. The other day I got talking to a fellow in a bar. This wasn't just any bar, it was the Sly Fox, a Ukrainian place down on Second Avenue, frequented by the staff of The New Criterion and by anyone who wants to hang out with them. This fellow was one such (Hi, Sam!) He knew I'd written about math so he tried me out with a math puzzle, the one shown here. (He actually drew it on a cocktail napkin, though it took a couple of tries.)

There are three circles in a plane, different sizes, none contained within either of the others. Each pair of circles has two common tangents that meet in a point. Prove that these three points lie on a straight line.

This is Monge's Theorem, one of those wonderful results that, with a little effort of imagination, you can "see." Instead of grinding your way through a page of Euclidean argument to get the proof, you can just say it in a few plain English sentences, without needing to put pencil to paper.

[Hint:  Think three-dimensionally. Some results are easier to prove in three dimensions than in two. (This is by no means the only one such.) H.S.M. Coxeter's book Regular Polytopes includes a theorem that is easier to prove in four dimensions than in three!]