December 2015 Media Round-up (Books)


Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language, Ruth Wajnryb


This was on display at the library and I picked it up on a whim because of the title, which is, like, an especially terrible way to select non-fiction books. This was such a fucking nothing of a book that at this point I’m not sure I can remember it well enough to specifically criticize it, but let’s try:

The topic implied by the title is obviously appealing to me, as someone who swears with great relish. There are a lot of specific angles an author could take that would be equally interesting, whether that’s taking a more etymological look at swear words—their origins and how their meanings have changed over time—or a more anthropological perspective—what type of person is using which words at what period in history and in what context—or a broader sociological view—how does swearing differ across societies and what does that say about the social norms at that time/place—or even just a collection of weird historical anecdotes involving swearing. And so what angle did Expletive Deleted take? I’m not even sure, because it felt so scattered; it dabbles a little in all of the above, but seemingly spent the most time doing some really basic explanation of the different connotations of the main terms—shit, fuck, bitch, etc.—and why people swear at all, which, like, pretty obvious.

I don’t think this was published as an academic linguistic book, so I’m not sure it’s right to criticize it on the front of not being sound in that regard. That said, even pop science/history/linguistics/etc. books should feel well-researched and thorough, right? When the author cites someone, the reader should feel confident that the person cited is an expert in their subject or specially relevant in some way to the matter at hand. In terms of the “experts” Wajnryb refers to throughout the book, she never really establishes their credentials or reminds the reader who they were if she quotes them again a few chapters later. She also uses a lot of anecdotal data (on the level of, “my friend’s Japanese wife says [whatever] about the swearing culture of Japan”) to draw general conclusions, which…is not good. It’s been a while, but I think Mary Roach’s books serve as a good comparison to this for how to establish credibility without feeling too dry.

Also, some of Wajnryb’s particular usage examples feel off, and this may be because she’s Australian. Which is fine, but in that case, she should be clear that she’s talking about swearing in Australian English; when it comes to such specific colloquial usage, I don’t think we can pretend that there’s one English. Swearing in American English, British English, Australian English, etc. is going to have enough variance in the specific usage and connotation of the words that it seems like it would be necessary to either narrow the range of your survey or point out the differences where they occur.

So, yeah, just: not good.

Selected quote:

Women were once excluded from the company of men, presumably to protect their supposedly finer sensibilities from the taint of swearing. This practice was exquisitely conveyed in the paternalistic line “We’d like to hire you, but we use too much foul language on the job.” Over the past hundred years, as more and more women have entered formerly male enclaves, this attitude has had to change.

For example, in World War II, women in the Allied nations were employed in large numbers in the war industries. An aircraft factory in Philadelphia boasted a sign that read: NO SWEARING. THERE MAY BE GENTLEMEN ABOUT.

A Passage to India, E.M. Forster


Not knowing anything about this particular book going in—other than the title and the fact that E.M. Forster was, you know, a white English guy—I assumed it would be a sort of “White Man’s burden” ordeal, and wow, was that not the case. Forster is, I assume, pro-Indian independence, but at the very least, super fucking cynical about colonialism. A Passage to India is often included in Top N Novels of All Times lists, so presumably there’s nothing new here: what felt noteworthy to me is that the characters all felt human—the English characters weren’t all mustache-twirling villains and the Indian characters weren’t all saints—which is often not the case in social novels, since it’s easier to make a point with extremes. And I mean, I don’t know if Forster even intended it to be a social novel—rather than a novel that just happens to be set in British India and reflect the social mores of the time/place without necessarily trying to further a movement—or if it only reads as such to a modern audience projecting modern views onto it.

In any case, solid book and I really enjoyed the protagonist, Dr. Aziz, who was just drawn so specifically. Two good passages in that regard:

Several surgical cases came in, and kept him busy. He ceased to be either outcaste or poet, and became the medical student, very gay, and full of details of operations, which he poured into the shrinking ears of his friends. His profession fascinated him at times, but he required it to be exciting, and it was his hand, not his mind, that was scientific. The knife he loved and used skillfully, and he also liked pumping in the latest serums. But the boredom of regime and hygiene repelled him, and after inoculating a man for enteric he would go away and drink unfiltered water himself

I relate to this in a way that I can’t yet explain, but let’s try after a few months of employment and see if an analogy becomes clearer.

It enraged him that he had been accused by a woman who had no personal beauty; sexually, he was a snob.

Kind of delightful, and again, indicative of Forster humanizing all of his characters. Like, dude is definitely a victim in this scenario—he’s been falsely accused of assault by an English woman and, well, you can imagine how awful the consequences of that are—but he’s still allowed to be a bit of an asshole (as humans are), and that doesn’t and shouldn’t change the injustice of the situation.

Selected quote:

Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim ‘I do enjoy myself’ or ‘I am horrified’ we are insincere. ‘As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror’—it’s no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.

The Longest Journey, E.M. Forster


Okay, with this, I’ve completed E.M. Forster’s novelistic output, and my main takeaway of what Forster is trying to get across in his novels is probably summed up by this line from The Longest Journey:

He stood behind things at last, and knew that conventions are not majestic, and that they will not claim us in the end.

It’s interesting, because I feel in some ways The Longest Journey must have served as a prototype for Maurice. Rickie, the Cambridge-educated main character comes to the realization above after he’s left his wife (and the stifling society she represents) to run off with his recently discovered half-brother, Stephen, who is belligerent and less educated, but super in touch with nature. Seems very similar to the Maurice/Alec dynamic, albeit without the sexual aspect, probably. And without the happy ending—a few pages after that revelation, Rickie dies saving a drunken Stephen from an oncoming train. And Rickie’s relationship with his college friend, Ansell, feels similar in some ways to the Maurice/Clive relationship, but again, with a less explicit romantic aspect. I don’t know, we’ll have to see if we care enough to try to find out anything about this in Forster scholarship.

Also just the structural similarities between the novels, in terms of the plot development being like aggressively left-skewed, if that makes sense? For basically all of Forster’s books, the build-up for is pretty slow—not necessarily boring, but nothing super unusual happens—and then very near the end a shitload of big things happen to the extent that it feels like the genre has shifted. Maybe this isn’t that unusual a structure for a novel, but the severity of the skewedness feels like it is? At least for Howards End, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and The Longest Journey, we have shocking violent deaths occurring in the 41st of 44 chapters, 8th of 10 chapters, and 34th of 35 chapters, respectively, of books in which little to no violent action has occurred previously. The whole Maurice/Alec plot happens pretty late on in Maurice as well, I think, and the development from the museum trip to Maurice trying to catch Alec before he sails off to the two men deciding to run away together is pretty rapid and concentrated, in terms of the book as a whole. Similarly for Lucy breaking off her engagement and planning a trip abroad before finally, fully realizing her feelings for George in A Room with a ViewA Passage to India is maybe more evenly paced, but still has the weird boat collision near the end that feels sort of tonally different.

Taken apart from the Forster canon, The Longest Journey is, like, fine, but I don’t think I have anything to say about it. There is sort of an interesting juxtaposition in reading these books that are essentially saying “FUCK SOCIETY” but are written in early 20th century literary English and thus automatically feel like very, well, Society, to the modern reader.

Shall we do a ranking?

A Semi-ordered Ranking of E.M. Forster’s Novelistic Output:

1. Maurice
2. A Room with a View
2 (tied). Howards End
2 (tied). A Passage to India
5. The Longest Journey
6. Where Angels Fear to Tread

Selected quote:

Rickie had a young man’s reticence. He generally spoke of “a friend,” “a person I know,” “a place I was at.” When the book of life is opening, our readings are secret, and we are unwilling to give chapter and verse. Mr. Pembroke, who was half way through the volume, and had skipped or forgotten the earlier pages, could not understand Rickie’s hesitation, nor why with such awkwardness he should pronounce the harmless dissyllable “Ansell.”


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