Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lee Konstantinou, author of Pop Apocalypse, has a review of Lightning Rods and slightly mad interview of me over at the LA Review of Books.  (Grappling with this interview meant that I lost a whole day that I could have spent hanging out with Joey Comeau, who did, admittedly,  use the time to write for his horror movie blog; there is also, admittedly, quite a lot in the interview about my longing to put the interview behind me and spend time with the writing half of A Softer World.)

The review is extremely funny (at least to me).  LK draws attention to the DeWitt fondness for the instructional, which to his mind is at odds with the cultural trend toward informality, relaxation. I don't know whether he is right about this alleged cultural trend -- he may well be, but then we now live in a culture where taking part in a marathon, or even triathlon, is commonplace.  At any rate, the thing I notice in myself is not so much this predilection as an inability to believe that other people don't really share it.

I like the sort of book whose introduction sounds like an induction to boot camp:

As regards the method he should follow, it is, of course, better if he can find an Arab or scholar of Arabic to direct him; but, failing this, I suggest that he adopt the following plan. Firstly, the Introduction on the writing of Arabic should be thoroughly assimilated before the actual lessons are tackled. Then each lesson should be worked through carefully and the student should not proceed from one lesson to the following before he is quite convinced that he has mastered the material in the first one. Although a full transcription has been given of all Arabic words and sentences in the first ten lessons this is a help which should be dispensed with as early as possible. The student should obtain from the outset two alphabetically indexed note books, one of which can be easily adapted for Arabic, and enter into these each new word he comes across. In another note book he should write out the paradigms of the verbs which are scattered throughout the book. These three note books should be his constant companions and referred to whenever he has a free moment. His exercises he must make for himself using the material he has worked with. All exercises and examples should be rewritten without the vowel marks so that the student becomes accustomed to reading Arabic without the vowels as it generally appears in print or in manuscript. If the above-mentioned plan of study is followed the student should acquire a sound knowledge of Arabic grammar in about six months.
    But that is only the beginning!

(David Cowan, Modern Literary Arabic)

The morphology of the verb is presented in a way that best exploits the underlying similarities of the various forms, regardless of the root type; this permits the introduction of the most common verbs at an appropriately early point in the grammar and also allows the discussions of the derived "conjugations" to be unhampered by restriction to examples from sound roots. As much space as possible has been given to the systematic treatment of noun morphology and to the verb with object suffixes; the simplification of this material attempted in many elementary grammars is actually a disservice to the student. When he turns to his first page of unsimplified reading, he finds that what he should have learned systematically must instead be learned at random, inefficiently and with no little difficulty.

(Thomas O. Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (1971) )

This sort of book is so seldom seen in schools that there is no way of knowing how many people would like it.  The one thing we can be sure of is that people inclined to like it are very unlikely to come across it.

At any rate, publishers were not wildly keen to have this sort of thing in a novel when first presented with The Seventh Samurai, so Lightning Rods and its brothers were written with a policy of deliberately eschewing; after Book A  had been published as The Last Samurai publishers who perceived the public as wanting more of the same were not wildly keen to publish LR.  It's tiring.


leoboiko said...

Have you seen Shirane’s books on Classical Japanese (A Grammar, & Essential Reader)? They’re delightfully boot-campy, & also excellent books to boot.

Helen DeWitt said...

No, but they look terrific.

Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said...

I would say it's a trend in literary publishing -- not necessarily in the broader culture. Major publishers seem to think that the only function of a novel is to give readers a way of connecting with characters while lying on a towel on the beach. Thanks for the interview!

languagehat said...

A great interview, and this should be placed prominently in the field of vision of anyone attempting to write an introductory grammar: "the simplification of this material attempted in many elementary grammars is actually a disservice to the student."