A Year in Reading 2015.

Once again it’s time for the Year in Reading feature at The Millions, in which people write about books they’ve read and enjoyed during the previous year; my contribution is up, featuring my recommendations of Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD; Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928; and Leonid Livak’s How It Was Done In Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism, as well as a brief mention of some of my other favorites of the year. As always, I’m flattered that C. Max Magee chooses to lead off with my essay, and I’m already wondering what I’ll end up writing about next year.

Comments

  1. That reminds me of Peter Medawar’s refutation of the Marxist thesis of the predictability of history: we cannot predict what scientific breakthroughs will be made in the next ten years — if we knew them, they would already have been made — and since 1945 (if not sooner) it has been plain for all to see what effect the development of science has on history.

    I note that your article contains Recommended Links to itself (on the lower right) not once but twice.

  2. David Marjanović says:
  3. The big‐name company that invested most heavily in wearable Universal Translators went spectacularly bankrupt, while a simple King’s‐English/LOL­speak converter proved to be much easier and more saleable.

    Heh.

    There’s an sf story about a language that changes so fast people can’t keep up with it; John Cowan (recently JohnCowan) will remember the name.

  4. @John Cowan: I don’t believe in the predictability of history, myself, but I think that the argument you cite is pretty weak. For one thing, nuclear weapons were predicted beforehand; the ability to predict their potential was not equivalent to the ability to actually construct one. For another, it’s not necessarily obvious that nuclear weapons were a necessary element of all of the things that they seem to have caused. It’s not hard to imagine some parallel universe where the U.S. instead developed some sort of chemical or biological or something-else weapon instead that ended up playing the same roles in alternate-history. (For us non-Marxists, of course, it’s hard to imagine that any such parallel universe would have to end up the same way as our own world. But why should Marxists be convinced by our incredulity?)

  5. we cannot predict what scientific breakthroughs will be made in the next ten years

    On the contrary, predictions of safe nuclear fusion and strong AI within the next ten years have remained stable for some time now.

  6. “Make a prediction” is often confused with “made a prediction that has become true”, due to confusion about the temporal frame. Anybody can say, now, that a state of affairs X will obtain in the future. But only in that future, imagined as a present, can it be meaningfully and truthfully said that X obtains, in accordance with the claim that it will obtain, as made by someone in the past of that future present.

  7. Confusion is inherently stable. That helps to explain why “predictions of safe nuclear fusion and strong AI within the next ten years have remained stable for some time now”, as Matt neatly put it.

  8. Anybody can say, now, that a state of affairs X will obtain in the future. But only in that future, imagined as a present, can it be meaningfully and truthfully said that X obtains

    It’s interesting how rare it is, relatively speaking, for people to go back and check whether predictions came true or not. There are, off course, always “I told you so’s” lurking around to let us know they got it right, but for the most part people seem to prefer their predictions to be quietly forgotten.

  9. Hat: “Shall We Have a Little Talk?”, discussed here in 2014.

  10. Thanks!

  11. but for the most part people seem to prefer their predictions to be quietly forgotten.

    It would be rash for the people whose predictions have failed to issue new ones. I think the buck is passed to new generations of predictioners.

  12. My year in reading (mostly last three months) primarily concentrated on one concrete personal linguistic project. I was sort of fluent in French for almost ten years, but this level of fluency was no longer enough, so I decided to achieve passive vocabulary in French to equal my English within relatively short period of time.

    To this end, I read about thirty French policiers in a row – in total over three million words over just three months.

    The project had a mixed success.

    My passive French vocabulary by now is certainly greater than English. Unfortunately, I discovered that the French tend to use much larger vocabulary than authors writing in English.

    I am seriously awed not only by sophistication of French crime writers, but also of their readers.

    By now I reached a point when I am still encountering French words I don’t know yet with surprising frequency, but it is useless to look them up, because dictionaries would give English words which I don’t know and which I have never ever even seen in writing despite decades of reading in English.

    Perhaps I chose wrong language for acquiring rapid fluency. It looks like I would need reading at this pace for decades to catch up with size of vocabulary used by French authors (and I still can’t bring myself to believe that average French reader of crime novels really knows all these words. Do they?)

  13. Interesting, I had no idea — I would have said French vocabulary was not as extensive as English. I admire your determination!

  14. I would have said French vocabulary was not as extensive as English.
    Whatever is the case with the size of the overall vocabulary, it may well be that the average French detective novel writer uses a more high-brow style and a bigger lexicon than the average English-language detective novel writer. I must admit that the only French one I’ve read is Georges Simenon, who is head and shoulders in style and language complexity above, say, Agatha Christie, not to mention writers like Edgar Wallace, but I don’t know how typical he is.

  15. Yes, Simenon is my only experience of the French detective novel as well.

  16. My impression, as an emphatic non-francophone, is that although English may have bigger dictionaries, more of the words in them go unused compared to French counterparts, because it’s more common in French-as-it-is-used to make various fine distinctions in vocabulary. The stereotype of the French in the international auxiliary language community is that they tend to think that IALs don’t differentiate finely enough, and they want a separate word for everything.

  17. col. squiffy von bladet (ret.) says:

    It would be rash for the people whose predictions have failed to issue new ones.

    In a world with institutional memories of failed predictions and reputational consequences for making them. It turns out this isn’t one of those.

  18. col. squiffy von bladet (ret.) says:

    Yes, Simenon is my only experience of the French detective novel as well.

    Fred Vargas, with all due urgency! (I note in passing that I don’t care for her work in German translation and I wouldn’t stoop to reading it in Engleesh.)

    Also: it is usually marie-lucie who typically remarks that the word “chair” is almost intractably problematic to translate into French, but I’m jumping that gun this time.

  19. I just run unique words counter through the latest thriller by Jean-Christophe Grange.

    30,318 unique words in 200 thousand word document.

    It’s more than entire vocabulary used by Shakespeare (28 thousand unique words) in all of his work or in English translation of Anna Karenina (27 thousand unique words)!

  20. Run the counter through work of some popular fiction writers.

    Lee Child – 14 thousand, Jeff Lindsay – 10 thousand, Agatha Christie – 9 thousand unique words.

    Record goes to Stephen King – his oversized novel “The Stand” uses 41 thousand unique words.

    He should have been born in France!

  21. His real name is Étienne Leroi… 😉

  22. marie-lucie says:

    JC:My impression, as an emphatic non-francophone, is that although English may have bigger dictionaries, more of the words in them go unused compared to French counterparts, because it’s more common in French-as-it-is-used to make various fine distinctions in vocabulary

    You must be right. English dictionaries are full of borrowings from various languages, placed in the dictionary because a reader might need to know the meaning of words like baht (a unit of currency in Southeast Asia, I think). Even without considering words which belong to an “exotic” context, you have the near synonyms caused by different origins and registers, as in mistake and error, sin and peccadillo, and other twosomes and threesomes.

    X von bladet: it is usually marie-lucie who typically remarks that the word “chair” is almost intractably problematic to translate into French

    I vaguely remember such a discussion once. How can you possibly use the same word for une chaise, which has no arms at all, and un fauteuil which does have them (even if they are incorporated seamlessly in the design, as long as there is something you can rest your arms on). In written text, correct translation of ‘chair’ would have to rely on other clues, such as whether the chair was used at the dining or card table or was heavily padded with leather for comfort while reading by the fireplace. Un siège might do in a pinch, like ‘seat’, but would tend suggest a smaller, less comfortable piece of furniture, such as a stool or an ottoman.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    JC: The stereotype of the French in the international auxiliary language community is that they tend to think that IALs don’t differentiate finely enough, and they want a separate word for everything.

    I wonder if that is not because of the English two-part verbs, not just with concrete meanings (come in, go out, etc) but especially abstract and idiomatic ones turn out, etc. I mentioned some time ago that that feature was what I found strangest when I started to learn English. The tendency of French speakers with limited English is to ignore the second half, and therefore to find the verb part often lacking in originality.

    Some time ago I read a book by a French writer who spent a couple of years as a student in an American university in the South (probably in the 50’s or early 60’s at most). Among other reminiscences he recalled a relationship with a very attractive black girl at a time when such a relationship would be at least strongly discouraged. Some time after they meet she says something he translates as “Est-ce qu’on fait?” which did not make sense to me. Later I realized that she must have said Shall we make out?, but (apart from not being familiar with the meaning of “make out”) he only recognized “make” and translated it as faire, perhaps the most common French verb apart from the auxiliaries.

  24. My surgeon’s waiting room is filled with chairs of basically identical color and pattern, except that some have arms and some do not. When I was much heavier than I am now, I was very grateful for the armless ones, as they didn’t pinch me, but now I can sit in either kind with ease. I have no idea, however, how many there were of each kind or even if there were more armed than armless chairs or vice versa. It’s interesting to think that a francophone would automatically notice this, at least if they noticed the chairs at all.

  25. Marie-Lucie, but this faire thing works well in English too. Under the right circumstances, question “Shall we do it?” is pretty much unambiguous.

  26. Most recently, Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Edmund Backhouse, by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The preface is the best beginning of a biography that I have ever read. It relentlessly draws you into the book, by tantalizingly stepping around why its subject is worthy of a biography.

    Backhouse was a sinologist (in a way) and a fantasist (in a way). The biographer often compares him to another writer and fantasist, Baron Corvo, whose biography I have yet to read. What struck me most was the similarity to the fictional annotator of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, (arguably) an academic, a gay man, and (perhaps) a fantasist as well. Pale Fire predates this book by decades. Was Nabokov inspired by another biography of that type?

  27. At least when and where I grew up, an offer to do it went way beyond an offer to make out.

  28. Yes, “making it” and “doing it” are three bases apart.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    It would be rash for the people whose predictions have failed to issue new ones. I think the buck is passed to new generations of predictioners.

    Unless they follow the example of Robert Heinlein and double down.

    Retro‐futurology is the study of retro futures, from the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction – or to be specific, the study of attempts by major SF authors to predict the future, taking advantage of hindsight to evaluate exactly how wrong they were. Well, I came up with the word, and that’s what I’ve decided to use it for.”

  30. marie-lucie says:

    make/do (it) : The French equivalent of transitive “do it” would have had a pronoun object too. Given the specific context, I persist in my translation.

  31. Un siège might do in a pinch
    Is it another transatlantic split: at a pinch vs in a pinch?

  32. The ODO agrees with you, and my own usage is in a pinch, but the OED3 shows that both forms were in use well before the AmE-BrE split, along with the now-obsolete (up)on a pinch.

  33. The word I heard was that Simenon limited his vocabulary to 2,000 words. trussel.com is on the case!

    Ditto thumbs up on Hermit of Peking.

  34. Some time after they meet she says something he translates as “Est-ce qu’on fait?” which did not make sense to me. Later I realized that she must have said Shall we make out?

    On reflection, I think she may have said “Shall we make it?”, which was a Sixties-ism for the more common and persistent “Shall we do it?”

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