OUP, bless them, keeps sending me review copies of language-related books, and even though I haven’t had time to actually read these with the thoroughness they deserve, I can tell from the introductions and from dipping into them that they are well worth it, and I thought I’d provide a timely alert here, with the likelihood of further posts later:
1) Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy, by Simon Goldhill. I suspect the more classics-minded of you are rolling your eyes based on the title alone—Christ, not another book on Sophocles as master tragedian? Well, for one thing, Sophocles is like Shakespeare (even if we don’t have nearly as many of his plays): there’s always room for another well-written book on him. And for another, this really is (as far as I, a non-expert, can tell) a new approach, an attempt to combine traditional detailed analysis of language and themes with the more modern historical approach, for which “reception theory” is the usual tag, on a more or less equal basis. Goldhill says in his introduction: “Yet to a surprising and remarkably blinkered degree these two strands of work have continued without significant interaction. So—to take two seminal and, to my mind, outstanding studies as my examples—George Steiner’s ground-breaking study of how Antigone has been read over time […] only very rarely actually engages with the Greek of Sophocles’ play […]. From another angle, Charlie Segal’s long and detailed investigation of the texts of Sophocles proved to be one of the most influential studies of what has become the dominant contemporary critical tradition; yet for all Segal’s extensive and incisive critical reading, his book barely looks forward to see how his understanding relates to—or is influenced by—the long history of criticism that Steiner outlines.” He says of his own work, “The book’s structure sets out—instantiates—the question of how historical an engagement with Sophocles is or must be. This structure is an attempt to lay out what I believe to be the most pressing question facing classics as a discipline today: the tension between historical self-consciousness and the values invested in classical texts. This is a question which goes to the heart of the status and authority of the field of classics itself[…].” I find this an attractive approach; of course, it would be useless without a close reading of the texts, and I am happy to say his first chapter is a detailed analysis of the word lysis ‘release’ and its relatives in the context of the much abused notion of “tragic irony,” and it left me eager to read the rest of the book.
2) Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, by Peter Elbow. Elbow is the author of a number of books on writing with which I am not familiar, but I was immediately grabbed by the way his introduction begins: “The obsession that has kept me energized for the many years of writing this book takes the form of both anger and excitement. I’ve long been angry at how our present culture of ‘proper literacy’ tells us that we are not supposed to do our serious writing in the mother tongue we know best and possess in our bones—but rather only in the prestige, correct, edited version of standardized English or what I will sometimes call ‘correct writing.’ This helps explain a lot that we see about serious writing in the world. Many people have learned to manage or handle adequately ‘correct English,’ but in doing so, they muffle or clog their thoughts into language that’s far less clear and interesting than they could have used in the language of their talking. Many other people don’t even feel that writing is an option for them and feel excluded—yet they speak smart, eloquent, interesting things.” This guy’s singing my song, I thought, and read on. No, he’s not saying anything so simplistic as “just write the way you talk”; he’s suggesting ways in which you can use the sound of your words to improve your writing, at both the composing and revising stages. His index includes multiple page references for linguists like Wallace Chafe, Roy Harris, Nicholas Ostler, and John McWhorter, other scholars like John DeFrancis (LH post), Eric Havelock, and Walter Ong, and just plain interesting writers like Adam Gopnik. And I love this passage from page 7:
In the last section, I’ll try to show that we are moving with surprising speed toward a different culture of literacy—”vernacular literacy.” We’re already well into a culture that invites spoken language into correct writing—as long as it is mainstream speech (“White”) and also avoids “grammar mistakes.” But we’re on our way, I’ll argue, toward a culture of literacy in which all spoken vernaculars of English will be considered valid for serious writing. Writing will no longer be judged against two standards as it is now: correctness and quality. The only standard for both writers and readers will be the primal one: is the writing any good?
May that day come soon!