Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Futile Attempt at Comparative Literature

In a later Simpsons episode, Lisa says, "My interests include music, science, justice, animals, shapes, feelings," and the teacher who wants her to choose a passion and specialize says, "You see yourself more as a buffet-style intellectual. Picking and nibbling until one day you're 38 and managing a Barnes & Noble." Since this is clearly what I've done wrong with my life, today is about consolidating four seemingly different books into a useful whole: Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door by Hilary McKay, Medieval Children by Nicholas Orme, The Lovells of Arden by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care by John McWhorter.

How are these books similar? Which one is the longest? Why doesn't The Lovells of Arden have pictures like the rest of them? Which book is sexiest? Clearly, Doing Our Own Thing by John McWhorter is because I have an academic crush on him. The only other contender is The Lovells of Arden. Is The Lovells of Arden sexy? No, it's as unsexy as Fifty Shades of Chicken. Issues of consent mar its whisper of romance.

Culled for musical theater anecdotes, Doing Our Own Thing could be a sizable essay on one heterosexual man's love of show tunes. In intention and result, it's a discussion of American English's transition from a written to an oral language, a change that's been happening gradually from the early part of the last century. It's an upsetting book, actually. John (we've left off formal titles) quotes a sixth grade textbook dating up to the 1920s, "When I am in a serious humor, I often walk by myself in WestminsterAbbey," from 1960, "I decided, after my first voyage, to spend the rest of my days at Bagdad," and 1996, "Tachawin had packed the parfleche cases with clothing and food and strapped them to a travois." John says, "We read it thankful that we are too old to bother with a text so dingdong dull," and then he translates the passage without the vocabulary words, "Justin had packed the leather cases with clothing and food and strapped them to two trailing poles with a skin stretched between them." Dingdong dull is an awesome and apt description of a passive construction written for diversity not content. That is the thesis of Doing Our Own Thing, that American English (and British) is being written in less elegant, less complex ways; that people no longer care for (or acknowledge) rhetoric; that they do not use formal English in, for example, letters (which they don't write anymore) or books (which would never sell) or schools (where English is suspect as a tool of oppression); that adults today (including me) have never known a world where a command of English was explicitly valued (blame the Baby Boomers); and that formal, written English will continue to be replaced by an informal, oral idiom. And English will not be valued for its own beauty and craft. Terrible, right? In a long chapter on the death of poetry, John points out that no culture has ever had less national poetry than the US today, and that people eat up, say, Annie Proulx's prose poetics because they are so starved of poetry in its own terms; poetry today has thrown off its suspectly artful language to become that arrhythmic, clunky, difficult to digest prose we all make fun of. Reading to the end, I felt like I was standing at Fort Snelling looking over the Minnesota River, with the man dressed as Josiah Snelling saying, "Everything from here west to the Rockies was prairie," and you look out past the freeway and know that no matter what happens, that prairie will never come back. Doing Our Own Thing, bleak as it can be, is fun. John's a polyglot, and the area he covers is vast and comic. Read this book.

But you're asking, "Why isn't The Lovells of Arden sexy? It's a romantic Victorian novel, isn't it?" Well, yes, but when were the Victorians sexy? In brothels and back alleys and India, for the men, and never for the women. So a Victorian romance is as a sexy as Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door, except Lulu ends with genuine love between a boy and his rabbit, and Clarissa Lovell just Gets Used to It. Poor young girl. She thinks she has a choice, and she double regrets choosing wrong. Clarissa's profligate father, Lord Lovell, sold the ancient family estate of Arden to Mr. Granger, a wealthy, fifty-year-old industrialist and Hermione's great-great grandfather. Lord Lovell says something to Clarissa like, "I won't pressure you to marry Mr. Granger, I'll just die penniless somewhere unfashionable in Belgium to avoid disgracing our ancient name," which causes Mr. Granger, comfortably ensconced in Arden, to say to his daughter, "Surprise! Your step-mother will be two years younger than you! Won't that be fun?" Clarissa, meanwhile, is beating herself up for the love of George Fairfax, the only man who's ever paid attention to her. When George Fairfax helps Clarissa find her disinherited brother, can she be forgiven for talking to Mr. Fairfax occasionally in well-supervised social situations? Um... yes, but barely, and she almost dies. It's good to know there's a floor on death by indiscretion. As we know, the consequence of adultery is death. The consequence of fornication is death. The consequence of light socializing is six weeks of hysteria and brain fever. The internet says The Lovells of Arden is like East Lynne, but East Lynne has higher drama and funny bits. Mary Elizabeth Braddon wrote thirty-some novels, so The Lovells might be one of her also-rans.

In a broader definition of sexy, one that awkwardly squashes in two books about children, which is sexier, Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door or Medieval Children? Well, Medieval Children. Beautiful reproductions of illustrations, paintings and manuscripts make Medieval Children a treasure of a reference book, which is why I shouldn't have read it straight through. Generally interesting, but looooong and so carefully chronicled that Mr. Orme needs to explain that medieval mothers probably used baby talk when speaking to their medieval infants, as it's a general human trait, but he cannot prove this due to lack of documentation. More interesting is the chapter on baptism and the benefits of nominal kinship between children and their three godparents, or the discussion of literacy explaining that, while most people could not read, all communities had literate members and relied on writing for religious and legal reasons. I picked up Medieval Children because I read Growing Up in Medieval London by Barbara Hanawalt several years ago and remember it fondly.

So we've established that comparatively, Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door, is the least sexy book I've read lately, but is it the best? Yes. And does it have the most rabbits? Yes. Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door wins the rabbit-having competition, which, at the end of the day, is more important in a book than sexy. I've been really excited about Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door for a long time, and could've ordered it from the UK last year, but that's expensive for a book one can read in forty five minutes. As we all know, Lulu has five rabbits of her own (like me, almost), and one of them doesn't get along with the other four, because rabbits can be jerks. Lulu houses her rabbits outdoors and feeds them sweet potato, so she's not a champ on following House Rabbit Association recommendations, but she does what British rabbit owners do and we can't all be perfect.

A little boy, Arthur, moves in next door to Lulu and he has a rabbit in a hutch. Arthur feeds George the rabbit and waters him everyday, but never gives him any fun or exercise and when Lulu comes over to talk bunny rabbits, Arthur says he's only keeping the rabbit because it was a gift from his grandpa, but he's boring. Lulu's says of course George is boring if you leave him in a rabbit cage that's like jail all the time, but Arthur ignores her until he goes on holiday and has to ask Lulu to mind George. Lulu introduces George to her loner bun, Thumper, and they hit it off, which is not unrealistic in the world of bunny rabbits, and frolic and play and do mutual grooming all week until Arthur comes back from holiday and puts George back in bunny jail. Then Lulu hits on an idea: she and Mellie will write fake letters from Thumper to George and send activity presents. They send a crinkly paper package and a carrot mobile and pile of dandelions and Arthur sees George playing with these things and getting excited and learns that George is not boring when he isn't forced to stare at a wall all day. Then Lulu holds a rabbit party, but not the kind of party where you don't bring presents. Flapping fantastic.

To conclude my foray into comparative literature: synthesizing these books in terms of sexy and rabbit value does not lead me to a honing of interests suitable for reemployment.  Pity.


  1. By calling him "John," instead of "Mcworter," you are not following English inthe journalistic style. Why John?


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  2. Because in our new informal idiom we've left off titles as a tool of oppression.