The Bookshelf: The Grammarians.

My Kindle announced abruptly that it needed recharging, which will happen when you’re doing all your reading on it, so I plugged it in and wondered what dead-tree material I’d replace it with while it was absorbing its e-nourishment. My eye fell on a review copy of The Grammarians, the new novel by Cathleen Schine that the good people at Farrar, Straus and Giroux were kind enough to send me. All I knew about it was that it featured dictionary-obsessed identical twins, but that was certainly enough to intrigue me, so I decided to give it a try. Now, having spent a couple of days voraciously devouring it, I’m here to urge you to do the same.

Each section is prefaced by an entry from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, the twin sisters are constantly playing language games, there are quotes from English As She Is Spoke, and a major role is played by Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition; if that had been all, dayenu! But there’s also copyediting and alternative newspapers; there’s the East Village and Spain Restaurant; there’s subways and coffee shops and the Mets (there’s even a reference to that bitter parody all Mets fans sing in the bad years: “Meet the Mets, beat the Mets”): dayenu, dayenu, dayenu. And the writing is a sheer delight throughout, with clever allusions tickling your funny bone rather than smiting you about the head and shoulders, e.g.:

Whenever the wind blew outside, Laurel and Daphne could hear it whistling — like a phantom looking for its phantom dog, Laurel said. They named the phantom dog Mariah.

All that would certainly have been enough, but then one of the novel’s heroes turned out to be Charles Fries, that great linguist whom David Foster Wallace treated with such ignorant contempt; when I got to that I was like the horse who saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha! And I was utterly won over.

And there’s so much more. To take one example, there’s a reference to a LRB essay by Richard Rorty (I googled and discovered it’s “The Contingency of Selfhood” from the 8 May 1986 issue); Schine mentions it starts with a Larkin poem, and since you may well be as curious about it as I was, here’s the bit Rorty quotes:

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is as clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.

And what’s the profit? Only that, in time
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that one dying.

Isn’t that nice? And here’s the start of what Rorty has to say about it:

This poem is about the fear of dying, of extinction, to which Larkin confessed in interviews. But ‘fear of extinction’ is an unhelpful phrase, and needs unpacking. There is no such thing as fear of inexistence as such, but only fear of some concrete loss. It is not enough to say that poets, like everybody else, fear death, or that they fear nothingness. ‘Death’ and ‘nothingness’ are equally resounding, equally empty terms. To say one fears either is as unhelpful as Epicurus’s attempt to say why one should not fear them. Epicurus said, ‘When I am, death is not, and when death is, I am not,’ thus exchanging one vacuity for another. For the word ‘I’ is quite as hollow as the word ‘death’. To unpack such words one has to fill in the details about the ‘I’ in question, specify precisely what it is that will not be.

Larkin’s poem suggests a way of unpacking what Larkin feared. What he fears will be extinguished is his idiosyncratic lading-list, his individual sense of what was possible and important. That is what made his ‘I’ different from all the other ‘I’s’. To lose that difference is, I take it, what any poet – any maker, anyone who hoped to create something – fears. Anyone who spends his life trying to formulate an answer to the question of what is possible and important fears the extinction of that answer. But this does not mean simply that one fears that one’s poems may not be read. For that fear blends into the fear that, even if they are read, nobody will find anything distinctive in them. The words that were marshalled to one’s command may seem merely stock items, rearranged in routine ways. One will not have impressed one’s mark on the language, but rather have spent one’s life shoving about already-coined pieces. So one will not really have had an ‘I’ at all. One’s poems, and one’s self, will just be better or worse instances of familiar types. This is what Harold Bloom calls ‘the strong poet’s anxiety of influence’, his or her ‘horror of finding oneself to be only a copy or a replica’.

None of that is part of the novel, but it is in the penumbra of the novel and very relevant to it (an identical twin might well pause over “So one will not really have had an ‘I’ at all”); that kind of resonant allusion is part of what makes literature literature for me. Another Rorty sentence I couldn’t resist: “To create one’s mind is to create one’s own language, rather than letting the length of one’s mind be set by the language other human beings have left behind.​”

I may be making it sound like a difficult book that one would have to labor through; I assure you it’s the exact opposite, more of a chocolate mousse than a fruitcake, and one doesn’t have to delve into the penumbra unless one enjoys it, which of course I do. The characters are a pleasure to spend time with and the plot is cleverly arranged. And (as a copyeditor emeritus) I am happy to announce the book is remarkably free of typos.

Except. I am truly sorry to end with a grumpy complaint, however minor, but Daphne would have it no other way: in the latter part of the book, those epigraphs from Johnson’s Dictionary are a mess. Did nobody wind up taking responsibility for checking them? I will cite them here with page numbers, in the hope that they will get corrected for a future edition:
163 s.v. ONE: ἒυ should be ἕν (epsilon with rough breathing and acute; what I have in the mistaken form as ἒ is actually an epsilon with double grave marks — I have no idea how they produced it, and I couldn’t reproduce it).
169 s.v. To WORK: peoρcan s/b ƿeoꞃcan (the first letter is Old English wynn, which represents the sound /w/, and the fourth is “insular r”; you can see the original entry in the left column here)
175 s.v. MOʹTHER: moðon s/b moðor
211 s.v. LAʹTED: late: s/b late. (period, not colon; as you can see in the right column here, there’s a smudge on the page that kind of makes it look like a colon if you’re not paying attention)
255 s.v. To will: pillan s/b ƿillan (with wynn)

But never mind that quibble. I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a book more, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in language and/or siblings.


  1. January First-of-May says

    the fourth is a peculiar form of r which I have approximated with Gothic ᚱ but which could perfectly well be given as r

    The character is in fact ꞃ – the so-called “insular r” (U+A783).

  2. Thanks very much indeed! I’ve emended the emendation accordingly.

  3. “Mariah” is wrong too. It’s Maria who blows the stars around and sets the clouds a-flyin’—although confusion about the spelling seems to be just as old as the song (Paint Your Wagon, 1951—although apparently based on the 1941 novel Storm by George R. Stewart, who is better known for the nonfiction book Pickett’s Charge and the science fiction novel Earth Abides).

  4. “Mariah” is wrong too. It’s Maria who blows the stars around and sets the clouds a-flyin’—although confusion about the spelling seems to be just as old as the song

    In that case, there’s no “right” or “wrong,” just alternatives. (The YouTube clip I linked to has “Mariah.”) And a couple of pages later she spells it Maria, perhaps in a nod to the confusion.

  5. s/b… For a moment I thought you were cursing.

  6. Put the book on hold in my library (no copies has arrived, but they’ve ordered 10). LH provides actionable intelligence.

  7. And I thought I was the only person prejudiced against David Foster Wallace! A few years ago a selection of his syllabi was published online, and you’ll find it useful if you ever need an extended example of the adjective hectoring. But only if.

  8. Interesting. I enjoyed several of Cathleen Schine’s early novels, but she’d dropped completely off my radar since the 90s, though I see from WP she’s continued to publish at regular intervals. Will have to give this new one a look-see.

  9. an epsilon with double grave marks — I have no idea how they produced it

    Maybe ε + [U+030F = combining double grave accent] → ε̏

  10. John Cowan says

    It’s not prejudice when you have experience with the guy’s work and know how bad it is. It’s postjudice.

  11. Frank Lloyd Crown says

    Nothing about David Foster Wallace for years, and then two comments sections come at once. And surely “David Wallace” would be enough especially now he’s being reduced to DFW.

  12. That would be like saying “John Dulles” — utterly Wrong.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    Or Edgar Poe (though that is indeed what the French call him.)

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    Talking of whom, I was in a bookshop in France last week (they still have them there) and saw a French translation of some of the stories of Edogawa Rampo. Wish I’d bought it now. I’ll have to look for it on evil Amazon.

  15. John Cowan says

    In any case, “David Wallace” was the birth name of the popularizing historian David Wallichensky, whose father was the novelist Irving Wallace and whose sister Amy Wallace was the Chief List-maker (though the other two got author credit as well) and a Carlos Castaneda witch. Wallichensky reverted his name after being mistaken for a Scotsman.

  16. But John Foster Dulles’s brother was just “Allan Dulles.”

  17. And thus clearly a less distinguished individual.

  18. Jen in Edinburgh says

    after being mistaken for a Scotsman

    Although the name Wallace indicates a foreigner of some kind, anyway!

  19. John Cowan says

    Perhaps we should say, one who has less need to be distinguished. There is no evidence that the great Carol Burnett ever made a fool of herself over Alan.

    (Dulles’s publicist’s response was to ask Burnett to go back on the Jack Paar show the following week and sing it again, as Dulles had missed it (she then did it on Ed Sullivan). Dulles’s response when asked about it by a reporter: “I make it a policy never to discuss matters of the heart in public.”)

    Foster was the surname of J.F.D.’s maternal grandfather, the Secretary of State under Benjamin Harrison.

  20. January First-of-May says

    Or Edgar Poe (though that is indeed what the French call him.)

    The Russians as well: Эдгар По.

    Incidentally, the name Edogawa Rampo is actually a slightly deeper pun than it looks like at first glance: Edogawa is Japanese for “Edo river” (and consequently the name of a ward of Tokyo that is located along said river), and, IIRC, a real Japanese family name (or, if not, at least in the right pattern to be one).

    Edogawa Rampo, in turn, inspired Edogawa Conan (the “Conan” part comes from Conan Doyle) – the titular Detective Conan from the respective anime.

  21. He should have been named Kamogawa Conan for variety.

  22. AJP de Vere Hartley McCrown says

    Foster was the surname of Dulles’s maternal grandfather
    I suppose you’re going to tell me James Jesus Angleton was named after his great-great-great-whatever, Jesus.

    I Made A Fool Of Myself Over Allan Dulles wouldn’t scan, duh. She was left with no choice.

    No one is going to mistake you for a Scot because of your name, look at Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan. If they did so, you’d change your name because of it? That’s a bit rude. I’d be thrilled to be mistaken for a Scot.

  23. John Cowan says

    Although the name Wallace indicates a foreigner of some kind, anyway!

    A Welshman to be precise: Wallace, like Walsh and Waugh, is a variant of Welsh.

  24. There does not seem to be any information online about where Angleton’s middle name came from, apart from the fact that his mother, nee Carmen Mercedes Moreno, who was from Sonora, Mexico. His parents met when Angleton’s father was serving under Black Jack Pershing, during the 1916 U. S. incursion across the Mexican border. Information online about Miss Moreno’s family is scant, so “Jesus” might have been a family name, or it might just have been a name characteristic of her native culture.

  25. John Cowan says

    Well, Wallichensky said that he was welcomed home as a native son by a British customs officer after looking at his passport, so yes, it can happen. Not to mention all the people who call me Cohen. I used to correct them all (my wife still does), but when I corrected one fellow he gave me a baleful glare, as much as to say “I know you’re a Cohen, you self-hating Jew.”

  26. Great post, Steve! Can’t wait till I can get the book on Kindle. I’m gonna have to read Richard Rorty’s essay in full for my novel. (One character, peculiar to say the least, is given some personality through its–yes, it’s an it–attitude toward Epicurus, Leucippus, and Democritus, to give a good sample of the ancient Greeks, along with founding members of the Japanese Kyoto School and those who’ve carried on their work to this day, i.e., any philosopher who took seriously the concept of nothingness.) What a delightful chore, reading the Rorty essay! I pick up Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature every few weeks, my other books of his either packed or in a mammoth pile of books and magazines on the couch in my office; he’s so great on literature, though I understand that instead of Richard Rorty philosophers and critics in the seventies tried to reduce him to “philosophy’s enfant terrible”–a title he earned (unlike James Wood, who’s just literary criticism’s terrible infant)–but it’s still not his name.

    Worse, I hear William Shakespeare has been reduced to “the Bard,” George Berkeley to “the Bishop,” Elvis Presly to “the King,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt to “FDR,” Bruce Springsteen to “the Boss,” and George W. Bush to “Dubya.” That’s one dangerous slippery slope, covering six centuries. And before that all rulers had to give up the bulk of their names, melding a small part of it with the title, and those were the lucky ones (most lords were known by their titles alone!). To think of how these men would be regarded today if people only had the decency to call them by their God given names!

  27. George Berkeley reduced to “the Bishop,” Elvis Presley to “the King,”

    Aretha Franklin, “the Queen”. The Knight of Glynn (a neighbour when I was a child) used to be called “the Knight”. Soon it’s a board game. Doris Pawn was an actress.

  28. I didn’t know about Angleton’s mother. That makes more sense. He should have used
    Mexican diacritic Jesús.

    Jesús = gesundheit (said after a sneeze)

    JAMES! Jesús Angleton.

  29. I think an accent on the o of Angleton would have been stylish: Jesús Angletón.

  30. John Cowan says

    unlike James Wood, who’s just literary criticism’s terrible infant

    Last line of a book review (I actually saw it, it’s not made up): “The author plainly intended [this book] to be his magnum opus; unfortunately, it’s only a big book.”

  31. John Cowan says

    Great post, Steve! Can’t wait till I can get the book on Kindle. I’m gonna have to read Richard Rorty’s essay in full for my novel.

    James Salant’s Last Comment.

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