Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fictional Fiction

Like every other American student, in my senior year of high school I had to take a course called “Current World Problems.” One assignment in the class was to read a book of historical fiction that related to issues still being resolved today, then write an 8-page review. Plagued with senioritis and not a small dose of defiant attitude, I decided not to read a book, and instead make one up completely. In the end, writing a review of a fake book was almost certainly more work that writing a review of a real book would have been, but it turns out challenges are fun! The book I invented was about the city of Berlin and how it was recovering a decade after the fall of the Wall. I think my mother still has a copy of paper I wrote tucked away in a box somewhere. As I recall I got a 95/100 on the assignment. The only comment from my teacher, Mr. Mitchell, was that I had used a few too many direct quotes from the book.

I tell that story as an introduction to an author I’m just discovering, Jorge Luis Borges. Borges lived from 1899 to 1986 and was incredibly well-known and well-received. He wrote essays, novels, short stories, and poetry. I became interested in Borges’ work because I am traveling to Argentina soon and Borges is a much-beloved native son. I’m working my way through his entire collection of poetry at the moment (and loving it!), and will soon delve into his short stories. He is especially known for his reflections on PorteƱo culture, for fostering the beginnings of magical realism in Latin American novels, and for the spiritual and existential dilemmas explored in his work.

What I like best about him, though, are his hoaxes and forgeries. Along with publishing numerous legitimate translations, he also published original works and claimed them to be translations of works he had chanced upon. In one case, he added three falsely-attributed pieces into an otherwise legitimate anthology. He also wrote reviews of non-existent works. The best-known example is his “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” which tells the tale of a modern Frenchman attempting to write Cervantes’s Don Quixote verbatim, but without looking at the original text. Borges’ review of the imaginary Menard’s imaginary work, is glowing—he discusses how much richer Menard’s work is than that of Cervantes, even though the text is exactly the same. Of this unusual hobby of his, Borges wrote, “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books, setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them…A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.”

Also, incidentally, today would have been Borges' 112th birthday.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Last Will and Testament

I grew up in a sweet little farming and orcharding community where were death was accepted as a regular part of life and no one seemed to get too worked up about it. Attending the local Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), death was never presented as something to fear, so I developed what I believe to be a healthy outlook on life and death. As much as I love life, I’m not overly worried about ceasing to exist someday. My parents, too, are at peace with the eventuality of death. They keep a file containing ideas for their own funeral services, including favorite hymns and scriptures. The file is fairly regularly updated and is discussed openly by the family.

Yesterday I made a will; a first for me. I’ve always meant to make one, as it’s fairly well accepted that even if you have very little wealth to leave behind, it’s good to have a written document outlining any special bequests and your preferences regarding your remains. Of course, it’s mostly moot if my husband survives me. But on the off chance we die together (not a terribly unlikely scenario, given our propensity for adventure), this should make things pretty clear.

Wills are an interesting subject. It’s the only way, save ghosting and spooking, that the dead can affect the living, change behavior, make demands, or get a last word in. As you can imagine, there have been some pretty unusual bequests throughout history:

*Mark Gruenwald, executive editor of Captain American and Iron Man comics (Marvel), requested that his ashes be mixed with ink and then used to print coming books. He got his wish.

*Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, successfully requested that his ashes be rocketed into space to orbit the earth (the capsule has since burned in the atmosphere).

*Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, had a friend who always felt cheated that her birthday coincided with Christmas. In his will, he willed her his own birthday to use for the remainder of her life.

*Painter JMW Turner left his paintings to the nation of England and his fortune ‘for the support of the poor and decayed artists born in England.’ His relatives fought this will in court and were able to keep the money for themselves.

*Jeremy Bentham, philosopher of utilitarianism, offered his body for use and study. It remains on display at the University College London.

As for my own will, it’s boring legalese for the most part. Although I did have a little fun with the disposal of my remains:

“In addition to the items granted above, I would like to specify disposition instructions for my remains. I would like my physical remains to be cremated. I would like my ashes to be scattered by my natural-born sisters, Jaima and Caitlin. The ashes are to be scattered as follows: 50% in Riga Latvia, 50% on the island of La Digue in the Seychelles. Feel free to skimp on the Memorial Service so there are more funds for ash-scattering. Feel free to skip having a service at all and just drink whiskey and tell stories and talk about how awesome it was to know me. Possibly around a campfire.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I (heart) Words

I've recently become addicted to a language/grammar/style blog over at The Economist , called "Johnson" (after Samuel, beloved dictionary-maker). The blog has multiple writers and is a wonderful haven for wordnerds such as myself. Saw this there and had to share:

Some other favorite posts are linked below, but I suggest just starting at the current post and reading on indefinitely. : )


Changes in Meaning

Presidential Pronouns