Some of you may have wondered what my wife and I are reading in the evenings now that we’ve finished Life: A User’s Manual. We felt the need for something shorter and lighter, a sort of palate cleanser, so we decided to read Nabokov’s Pnin, about the travails of a bumbling but good-hearted Russian émigré teaching his native language at “Waindell College” (a stand-in for Cornell, where Nabokov himself taught). I last read it around four decades ago, so it’s practically new to me, and I get much more of a kick out of the Russian material than I could possibly have back then (I immediately recognized the pastiche of Akhmatova in the poem by Pnin’s appalling ex-wife, for example). I was vastly amused by the unfair but hilarious portrayal of linguistics in the book’s fifth paragraph, which I will pass on to you:
…nor did Pnin, as a teacher, ever presume to approach the lofty halls of modern scientific linguistics, that ascetic fraternity of phonemes, that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method; which method, like a waterfall splashing from rock to rock, ceases to be a medium of rational navigation but perhaps in some fabulous future may become instrumental in evolving esoteric dialects—Basic Basque and so forth—spoken only by certain elaborate machines.