Sunday, January 4, 2009

Books, reading, and language

I wrote a couple of posts several months ago (this one and this one) about linguistics and and reading, and I've been thinking about the relationships among language, books, and reading a lot lately. What makes a good book? What makes a great book? What makes a book that becomes a classic? Why are we still reading Shakespeare after 400 years? What makes a bad book? Is there a difference between a book that's fun to read and a book that's good to read? Some classics are hard to read and, frankly, boring--so why are they classics? I honestly think that to some extent some books are considered classics because we've always been told that they are. (Moby Dick, anyone? Not to disparage Melville--well, okay, I hate Melville and I would prefer not to read any of his work ever again)

It's subjective of course, but I have my theories about reading. Some of the "boring" classics are still good reads (okay, I'll admit that Moby Dick might be worth reading. If you have the stamina. And the ability to skim large passages.) because of the insight into language that they provide (and the brain exercise!). The reason that Moby Dick feels boring to me is because it uses the language of its day, and mid-19th century English tends to be very...well, drawn-out might be a good description. Some of the sentences last for pages, and in a story as detailed, involved, and long as Moby Dick, that can be intimidating. I'm all for reading modernized versions, summaries, and so on, but you lose a lot of the flavor of the original piece that's integral to why it became a classic in the first place. (My technique is usually to read the summary/modern version/whatever first, then read the original. That way I actually understand what the story is about and I get the edifying effect of reading the original classic. More work, but more benefit to me.) Think about reading the King James Version of the Bible. The language is beautiful, but it's hard to understand! So, if I read the same passage in the Message version and in the KJV, I get more out of both; the beauty of language and understanding.

One note--in the era in which the KJV and Moby Dick were written, there wasn't anything special about the language--it was the standard of the day. People talked and wrote like that. Heck, read some Chaucer in the original Middle English--it's not even the same language we speak today--it's largely unintelligible to us. Some of the benefit of reading them comes from seeing where our language has been.

I'll write more about all this later, because I have more considering to do...


Anonymous said...


Kate said...

Hi Thankful Paul,
I just read your blog, and your story is amazing! I'm so glad you shared it with the world. I'll keep you in my prayers.


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