Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Wednesday's Idea: The list

Now and again you'll see a journalist attempt this: the expansive list that defines a given universe by the breadth of its contents.

A couple of weeks ago, Stacy Schiff had a decent piece in the New Yorker about Wikipedia, a vast universe if ever there was one. (And, in our humble opinion, mostly rubbish. But we're the last of the credentialists, apparently.)

Apparently, no traditional encyclopedia has ever suspected that someone might wonder about Sudoku or about prostitution in China. Or, for that matter, about Capgras delusion (the unnerving sensation that an impostor is sitting in for a close relative), the Boston molasses disaster, the Rhinoceros Party of Canada, Bill Gates’s house, the forty-five-minute Anglo-Zanzibar War, or Islam in Iceland. Wikipedia includes fine entries on Kafka and the War of the Spanish Succession, and also a complete guide to the ships of the U.S. Navy, a definition of Philadelphia cheesesteak, a masterly page on Scrabble, a list of historical cats (celebrity cats, a cat millionaire, the first feline to circumnavigate Australia), a survey of invented expletives in fiction (“bippie,” “cakesniffer,” “furgle”), instructions for curing hiccups, and an article that describes, with schematic diagrams, how to build a stove from a discarded soda can.

This is difficult. The task is not, as some assume, to choose the ten items with the very least in common; doing so would fail to give a reader any stiff sense of unity or character. It is rather to concoct a string of items that, though disparate, is capable of suggesting some pattern while simultaneously remaining diverse.

(Note from the English major: For a good example, see the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story “Big Mama’s Funeral.”)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Tuesday's Bonus: The Declaration of Style

Sabrina Tavernise had a wonderful and devasting piece in this morning's Times about a Lebanese man picking up the pieces of his life after an airstrike killed his wife, daughter, and granddaughter.

It begins: "After a bomb hits, the remains of a life are modest."

It's tricky territory, writing with that kind of certainty. So easily dost the ground beneath you erupt into an earthen soapbox. The best ones are simple, quiet and austere. Like this one.

And bonus: Why, Post, Why? We're not categorically opposed to puns, but for the love of God, make them clever.

Tuesday's Passage: Attack of the Killer Sundaes

"Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae."
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Monday's Word: Theomania

We'll own up to this one immediately: We think it might have been included on one of the umpteen "word of the day" emails we get between us, but no one can remember exactly when. But it's too good to pass up:

Theomania: The belief that one is god.

Needless to say, there are more than a few theomaniacs here in Washington.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Friday's Voice: Animate London

Another old favorite, this one from the beginning of Book the Third of Dickens' last novel, Our Mutual Friend.

It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. Gaslights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblest air, as knowing themselves to be night- creatures that had no business abroad under the sun; while the sun itself when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out and were collapsing flat and cold. Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was grey, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, and then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City-- which call Saint Mary Axe--it was rusty-black. From any point of the high ridge of land northward, it might have been discerned that the loftiest buildings made an occasional struggle to get their heads above the foggy sea, and especially that the great dome of Saint Paul's seemed to die hard; but this was not perceivable in the streets at their feet, where the whole metropolis was a heap of vapour charged with muffled sound of wheels, and enfolding a gigantic catarrh.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Thursday's Bonus: In Rowling We Trust

We admit it: We worship at the church of J. K. Rowling too. So we appreciated Segal's lede this morning on her visit to New York:

"J.K. Rowling does not resemble a traditional deity."

No, we suppose she doesn't, yet.

Thursday's Usage: Beknighted

Here's an interesting one, in part because it's not, technically speaking, a real word. At least, no dictionary that we could locate in under five minutes turned it up. But we're of the fervent belief that if a series of letters gets a point across, and that point is reasonably similar among a majority of the people who take it in, then it might as well be a word, the dusty authorities be damned.

There is a word, "benighted," which is in the dictionary. Literally, it is the coming of darkness; figuratively, unenlightened. (The Times editorial page used it this morning in reference to the "benighted science standards" of the anti-evolution Kansas school board.)

If "beknighted" ever does become a word, it will probably owe its existence to people who misspelled "benighted." But what an opportunity! To us, it means a person who has knighted himself, or a topic that holds itself in a hallowed light.

May we have this one, oh editors, guardians of the gate of language? The barbarians are knocking.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Wednesday's Term: Categories Two

The way we see, there are two types of people in the world: those who read this web site, and those who don't. It's a lonely existence, but we all knew it was coming...

The "two types of people in the world" gimmick is undoubtedly overplayed, but when the author devises a good one -- and one that places people in categories based on a figurative quality rather than on some action -- it works, and works well.

Times columnist David Brooks had a good one over the weekend:

In the world of public policy, there are ecologists and engineers. The ecologists believe human beings are formed amid a web of relationships. Behavior is shaped by the weave of expectations and motivations that we pick up from the people around us every day.

Again, we would like to the article, but it would only be shipping you into the oblivion of the firewall.

We seem to recall that physicist Freeman Dyson had a famous one, resurrected from the purgatory of our eleventh grade memories by that impish knave, Google:

In everything we undertake, either on earth or in the sky, we have a choice of two styles, which I call the gray and the green. 'I'he distinction between the gray and the green is not sharp. Only at the extremes of the spectrum can we say without qualification, this is green and that is gray. The difference between green and gray is better explained by examples than by definitions. Factories are gray, gardens are green. Physics is gray, biology is green. Plutonium is gray, horse manure is green. Bureaucracy is gray, pioneer communities are green. Self-reproducing machines are gray, trees and children are green. Human technology is gray, God's technology is green. Clones are gray, clades are green. Army field manuals are gray, poems are green.

From "Disturbing the Universe."

As always, this technique survives on the force of example.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Tuesday's Bonus: Down with the lingo

We all have parents, so we clearly remember those agonizing moments when they attempted to co-opt the slang of the hour -- usually about two years behind the vogue. But we're "down with that," as it were. Journalists regularly commit the same sin.

But the Post's Peter Carlson had a decent go at it this weekend.

His daddy was doing time for armed robbery, and Jacob Ferguson grew up on the streets of New York, sleeping on sidewalks, squatting in abandoned buildings, stealing cars, selling heroin and ripping off suburban kids who came into the big city to score dope.

Article here.

Stuever had a good piece on MTV with a mindblowingly stupid lede, so most of us didn't read it. But the parenthetical remark in the second paragraph almost atoned for that unatonable invocation of JT.

MTV turns 25 today, which is still a few months younger than Justin Timberlake.

The typical way to go from that sentence would be to bemoan -- in snarkabratory fashion -- what MTV has become since it first transfixed some lucky cable-ready teenagers on Aug. 1, 1981. (Those of us first labeled "the MTV Generation" would now like to apologize to all the parents with basic cable who hired us as babysitters in those days. You should know this: Your small children went unsupervised, unless they happened to pass between our eyeballs and Adam Ant's.)

Article here.

Tuesday's Quote: Chances to deceive

"It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive." -Mark Twain

(Note: It is no small irony that the eminently quotable Mark Twain didn't say half the things that are attributed to him. There is a very good website that parses out those he actually said and those he didn't -- or at least never wrote down for us to find.)