Posted in book review, Miscellany

The Wings of Writing – on reading Samuel Johnson’s essay on writing

Suppose a brownie or a leprechaun I happen to rescue from a Gargamel lookalike wizard insists what my three wishes are as a quid pro quo (depending upon how friendly the fairy is). In that case, I will say forthwith one of them is the Marvel of Writing, which I have lost somewhere in the course of life. I can turn myself into a great writer with the magical pyramid of power from a hodge-podge reality of indigested letters of reality as black as Persian Night.

Johnson’s essay on the role of the scholar evolves from Francis Bacon’s adage: “Reading makes a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” It rings a bell with the Nietzschean idea of Superhuman, superseding any mortals known for their erudition perennially enshrined in the history of human civilizations. A truly knowledgeable person I principally associate with a great writer can digest what he reads, explain it to others in facile terms, and substantialize it in writing, a mental Osmotic process that nourishes the mind and invigorates the body.

Although I agree with Bacon as Johnson did, I am more with their ancient Greek teacher Socrates. Socrates warned his pupils about regurgitating what they heard from his lectures without putting it in their own words. That was one reason why the great philosopher disapproved of writing practice that had just emerged in his time. Copying letters of others without understanding them on his own would stun the cognitive powers rather than promote a broader and deeper range of cognition. Reading was not as popular in Socrates’ time as in ours because it was at the beginning of the new intellectual dawn of Greek Civilization. So, Socrates was a thinker, neither a reader of texts, nor a writer of tablets. Does this make him less of his students Plato and Aristotle?

Does the amount of reading necessitate that of writing? Wouldn’t too many words go undigested inside and clog the pipes of thoughts when writing? For example, an ambitious amateur writer wants to write as if she were possessed by the spirit of Patience Worth, who transformed an ordinary homemaker into a brilliant writer. She adheres to a writer’s gospel of “Read a lot. Write a lot,” but it is easy to be said than to be done. The more she reads, the worse she writes. She wants to reason the perplexing reason with frustration and disappointment. She feels lost in the middle of midtown Manhattan where there are many streets and avenues but nowhere is her niche. Yet once she gets out of town, the state, the coast, her mind becomes clear, imbued with a fresh breath of inspiration that moves her hands on the keyboards automatically. Contrary to Johnson’s opinion that grandstands with all other established writers and academics, the amateur writer feels liberated from a siege of letters that intimidated her army of thoughts equipped in her design of armors and shields with her coat of arms sovereign and beautiful. Her reasoning power was buried under a chaos of indigested learning.

Although Johnson’s magnanimous advice of the equilibrium of reading, writing, and speaking on a writer’s continuum is respectful and worth reading, its reality is subject to the individual aptitudes of learning, ways of reasoning, and natural dispositions. One may write better because of reading more, while the other has the opposite consequence. A hermit – let us say more realistically, an introvert – is not always an incompetent, anti-social, sullen loner whose airy petulance barricades against others whose intelligence may seem intimidating to be dealt with. I think to write more is far better critical than to read more because writing is a sovereign act of expressing an individual mind and spirit, free from the comparison of the florid words of others with the writer’s own that would dispirit the vivacity of the creative spirit. To conclude, I thank Thomas Mann for his affirmative saying:” Solitude produces originality, bold and astonishing beauty, poetry.” Truth is truth to the end of reckoning. Then it is yet another truth of others, not necessarily yours.

Posted in book review

‘Word On The Street: Debunking The Myth Of A Pure Standard English’, by John McWhorter – book essay

Word On The Street: Debunking The Myth Of A Pure Standard EnglishWord On The Street: Debunking The Myth Of A Pure Standard English by John McWhorter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Sometimes, the courage to express my thoughts in English as a second language meets with insidious challenges between the grammarian Scylla and fault-finding Charybdis, lurking in the safety of anonymity on social media to stalk the prey with perverted joy. So, it is only natural for me to find encouragement from the books reassuring me that the mastery of language does not equate with intelligence. So, it is no wonder that I have the pleasure of reading  Word on the Street, an invigorating narrative told in scholastic zeal and impressive erudition flavored with street-smart audacity. McWhorter, who belongs to the constellation of brilliant linguists, such as Samuel Johnson and Steven Pinker, talks about language in terms of social and cultural contexts, making the academic subject a hot topic of a Charlie Rose talk show.

McWhorter takes his view against language relativism that language shapes thoughts. The possession of words does not determine the thought process to contextualize the mentalese. Therefore, slang, idioms, and parlance outside the elite group of society and the educated middle class are not denigrated as improper English. In this sense, Pidgeon English, the quaintly charming admixture of scattered English words and a speaker’s native language, is not a corrupt version of pristine English but a hybrid of languages born out of the ingenuity of the human mind and changeability of language in nature. Isn’t English a living proof of the incredible amalgamation of languages still undergoing evolution? Who would have thought that English of the underclass would shine as a lingua franca?

What strikes me most about the book, which concurs to his fellow linguist Pinker’s point of view on language not as a touchstone for one’s cognitive ability, is that solecism in spoken and written language does not reflect the user’s less desirable trait of academic ineptitude. To put it more bluntly, just because your grammar is besotted with errors doesn’t mean you don’t know what you are saying, or forthright, you are less intelligent. Take Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance polymath, who had no fewer than six grammar books on Latin and Greek to grasp the syntax of the classical dead languages he was so hopeless to learn thanks to his lack of formal education. In fact, da Vinci’s writings are ridden with misspellings and amorphous sentence fragments, just as Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte showed in their manuscripts. So, did their imperfect language skills overrule their force of imagination and contextualizing it in words? Does this betray that language shapes thought? 

McWhorter can transcend the demarcation of race in the communication of this extensive knowledge about the subject drawn from a wealth of learning and scholastic industry with urban wit and debonair guy attitude to his readers, academic or general. His intelligence freely crosses over time gaps, chasms between class divide across continents and oceans with a universal theme of words that we, as human creatures, have spoken thus far. And he tells it using full of scintillating metaphors, examples, and anecdotes, which helps the reader comprehend otherwise monotonously academic subject without pressure and enjoyably. Samuel Johnson said that the possession of knowledge is to share it, and the possessor of the knowledge shines when he applies the knowledge to the crowd of life. Well, Word on the Street shows it all.






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Posted in book review, Miscellany

Puss in the Boots for Folklore Thursday

Puss in the Boots is an ingenious trickster of a good sort. Who helps his impecunious master left with none but the Cat himself bequeathed by his father. The Cat’s goodwill to help his good master launches a creative series of playing the Game of Fortune:

bagging rabbits and presenting them as gifts from his Marquis master, turning an Ogre into a mouse and eating it, and commandeering its castle to the marquis’s own, all of which lead to the blissful marriage of his master to the king’s lovely princess.

Of course, the brilliant booted puss becomes a great lord in dolce vita. Who knows? Your molly and tom at home may be a puss in the boots at night when you are asleep. So, be nice to them. They know who you are.