Saturday, June 26, 2004

Marginalia

People who write in the margins of library books are, I think, crazy. I have never, in all the myriads of library books I have checked out (I average about five a week when I'm busy and ten to fifteen a week when I'm not), come across any sign of a sane marginaliast. I am exaggerating a bit; mostly marginaliasts are stupid, not insane.

I've been reading Chesterton's Heretics, and the marginaliast (I hereby christen him 'Marginaliaster') is one of those unfortunate people who think they understand the English language but do not.

* In the margin beside Chesterton's sentence, "At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down" (in the Introductory Remarks), Marginaliaster writes: "G.K.C.'s great weakness." Since "somewhat excusably" is underlined, I suppose it has something to do with that phrase. It is, of course, perfectly legitimate. Consider Milton's Lycidas, which has a parallel construction: "Begin, and somwhat loudly sweep the string." There is a bit of awkwardness in the sentence, of course; I suspect it is deliberate, since it is the sort of chummy awkwardness that arises in ordinary conversation when joking among friends, but I might be wrong. In any case, the awkwardness does not seem to be what Marginaliaster is judging, since "somewhat excusably" is not the source: the source is the combination of that with the passive form of a complex verb.

* Beside Chesterton's phrase "set forward" in "On the Negative Spirit" Marginaliaster writes: "put forward or set forth." But, of course, "set forward, while less common and less standard than "put forward" or "set forth" is perfectly legitimate, too.

* Marginaliaster crosses out "in the least" in Chesterton's phrase, "the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress" (in the same essay). This is clearly a detrimental move, since 'in the least' is actually pulling double duty here. First, it is an emphatic; removing it changes the emphasis of the sentence. Second, it is parallelistic, since "in the least [degree] doubtful about the direction" is intended to balance "in the same degree doubtful about the progress." This is one of those utterly idiotic moves made by people who have been taught that good English style means never using more words than absolutely necessary. If we did that, we would never be able to say anything stylishly. There is good wordiness and bad wordiness; the mark of good writing is knowing the difference. (It is an immensely difficult skill to acquire, and even the best occasionally fail in its application.)

* Marginaliaster, on the same page, changes "the direction may have been a good or a bad one" to "the direction may have been good or bad." This is not unreasonable, but "a good or a bad one" is just as good as "good or bad" even in most contexts. In this context, I have to decide for Chesterton yet again, because "a good or a bad one" puts the emphasis of the phrase where it should be. Chesteron is in the middle of an argument that you can only have a genuine idea of progress if you first have a direction of progress. It is reasonable, then, to say "a good or a bad one" because it puts the weight of thought on what is good or bad, namely, direction, thus keeping the flow of thought circulating around the topic under discussion. (Marginaliaster does this one a lot; Chesterton, in fact, is very good at only using the construction when it makes the sentence better.)

* Marginaliaster is shocked by Chesterton's phrase (in the essay on Rudyard Kipling) "the grocer and the cobbler are not poetic," saying "Oh!!?" and something I can't quite read. This is, I suspect, inexcusable reading. He is not claiming that grocers and cobblers are not poetic (Chesterton would be the last to claim such a thing) but arguing that the last name 'Smith' is poetic because it evokes the smithy. In arguing this, he says, "Even the village children feel that in some dim way the smith is poetic, as the grocer and the cobbler are not poetic, when they feast on the dancing sparks and deafening blows in the cavern of that creative violence." Nothing in this implies that the grocer and the cobbler are not in any way poetic, but only that the smith is poetic in a way the grocer and cobbler are not. It's a fair enough claim; compare how many times smiths are found in great poetry with how many times grocers or cobblers are found.

* At the end of the Rudyard Kipling essay, he comments on the following passage:

And under all this vast illusion of the cosmopolitan planet, with its empires and its Reuter's agency, the real life of man goes on concerned with this tree or that temple, with this harvest or that drinking-song, totally uncomprehended, totally untouched. And it watches from its splendid parochialism, possibly with a smile of amusement, motor-car civilization going its triumphant way, outstripping time, consuming space, seeing all and seeing nothing, roaring on at last to the capture of the solar system, only to find the sun cockney and the stars suburban.

Marginaliaster underlines "possibly with a smile of amusement" and comments, "It doesn't: another huge weakness of GKC." I confess myself utterly perplexed by this comment; for a "huge weakness" it is in no way obvious what it is. My best guess is that he doesn't like the metonymy, but I'm not sure.

* In the essay on Bernard Shaw, he manages three hits on one page; and, surprisingly, there is something to each of them, although none of them are bad enough to justify a margin-writer's time. Chesterton says:

They go out against a bird with nets and against a fish with arrows. There are several modern examples of this situation. Mr. Chamberlain, for instance, is a very good one. He constantly eludes or vanquishes his opponents because his real powers and deficiencies are quite different to those with which he is credited, both by friends and foes.

Marginaliaster underlines "birds with nets" and writes "bad". It is true that there are birds that can be caught with nets, but there are birds that cannot. Chesterton would have been better writing "hawk" (or somesuch) rather than "bird," but everyone knows what he means anyway. Marginaliaster writes "poor" beside "examples and "instance" bracketed together; there is unnecessary repetition here, but it is barely noticeable, the sort of thing that might accidentally slip out and not be noticed by anyone. The third note Marginaliaster makes is to change "to" to "from" in the phrase "different to." "Different to" is one of those phrases that are impossible to eliminate from the English language. "Different from" and "different than" are much better. Chesterton, however, is consistent throughout Heretics in using "different to"; it's perhaps too colloquial, but it doesn't harm the meaning.

Note on "Different than": I was once told that John McDowell, the British philosopher, called the phrase "different than" (as opposed to "different from") "an American barbarism." Sorry, but like most American barbarisms it was invented by the best British minds; the OED mentions some of the writers who use it: "Fuller, Addison, Steele, De Foe, Richardson, Goldsmith, Miss Burney, Coleridge, Southey, De Quincey, Carlyle, Thackeray, Newman, Trench, and Dasent, among others." This is good company. So much for linguistic snobbishness. Both "different from" and "different than" are excellent constructions.

* He writes "Rot" beside Chesterton's claim (in the essay on H. G. Wells) that "there never was a man in love who did not delcare also that he ought not to have it," that is, his desire. Apparently Marginaliaster had never been in love.

* He changes "obtain" to "achieve" in the phrase "we'll obtain it," that is, success. Either, of course, would work.

* He diligently corrects the spelling of every mention of "Dionysius" to "Dionysus." Either spelling is OK in English.

* He does correctly change "statu quo" to "status quo" on the two occasions Chesterton uses it. "Statu quo" should in general only be used in the phrase "in statu quo"; otherwise, status quo is better. Again, it is a quibble with which no good reader would bother, or, if a good reader, would not fuss over (as Marginaliaster does, since he writes "again!" by the second correction).

* He seems to have difficulty wrapping his mind around the idea that Richardson might be considered a literary great; he puts one exclamation mark by Chesterton's listing him as one of "the most typically English men of letters" along with Shakespeare and Dickens. I see nothing particularly surprising about this judgment. He puts three exclamation points beside the phrase, a page or two later, "the great Richardson." Again, I see nothing surprising about this; "the great Richardson" makes a good pairing with "the great Fielding."

* He writes "bosh" beside the claim that Johnson was "all the more healthy because he was morbid." I see no "bosh" here; indeed, it strikes me as a clever formulation of the paradox that is Samuel Johnson.

* He writes "bad idiom" beside the phrase "an exception that proves the rule." There is nothing bad about this idiom. The original meaning of the phrase "the exception proves the rule" is perhaps better than ours (it originally meant "the exception puts the rule to the test"), but it identifies an important unit of rational discourse, namely, the exception that shows the rule to be a fairly good one. That is, sometimes the only exception to a rule is so odd or unique or peculiar that it means the rule is a good one for most purposes. The best example of this I've ever run across is Hume's 'missing shade of blue', which he admits would form an exception to his general rule that all ideas derive from impressions that they copy; but the conditions under which the exception could arise are so rare and unlikely that the 'missing shade of blue' is in effect a good argument for accepting the rule. (I could go off now on a tangent about the stupidity of certain sorts of 'counterexamples' in analytic philosophy that exhibit a failure to understand this basic point of reasoning, but I won't.)

Looking back over the list, what is it? A lot of quibble, and most of it is wrong or doubtful. This seems about par for the course, given other marginalia in library books that I have seen. So why do people spend so much time writing in the margins of library books?

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