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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 10, 2010

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Quotes, Broken Grammar, and Fixing African History

Good new books of quotations are hard to find. Mostly because there are too many good quotations to put them all in a book that a person could lift without mechanical assistance.

So it's all about selection. Which has to do with the taste, attitude, and reading habits of the editor or editors. After all, they can't include a quotation they haven't read.

It was the title If Ignorance Is Bliss, Why Aren't There More Happy People?: Smart Quotes for Dumb Times that first drew me to the book (by editors John Lloyd & John Mitchinson). The cover included quotations from Alfred North Whitehead and Jimi Hendrix, suggesting that the editors might have quirky, eclectic tastes. So I bought it.

The result was several enjoyable nights of reading the quotes to myself and, occasionally, to my patient, long-suffering wife (each quote perforce causing an interruption in her reading).

I was going to write a cheerful recommendation of this book anyway. Before I ran across my own name. Naturally, I checked the index and found no other quotations from my work -- but, of all things, a quote from my grandfather!

He was cited as "Orson Rega Card, grandfather of Orson Scott Card," but they didn't get the quote from me. Years ago my father sent my grandpa's saying to Reader's Digest, and that is undoubtedly the channel that led to the editors of this book finding it.

So yes, my vanity was tickled. But if readers of this column want quotes from me, I have about fifty books available on Amazon.com, Audible.com, or in local bookstores.

It's the other quotations that make the book a genuine pleasure to own and browse through. So here's a smattering of quotes that appealed to me, listed by category, then the quote, then the author or speaker of it, just to give you an idea.

My own choices are sometimes because I agree with the quote, and sometimes because of who said it and what it tells us about that person.

Acting: It is not whether you really cry. It's whether the audience thinks you are crying. -- Ingrid Bergman

The part never calls for nudity, and I've never used that excuse. The box office calls for it. -- Helen Mirren

Chess: Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside of an advertising agency. -- Raymond Chandler

Children: Nothing is sweeter, nor more bitter, than one's own children. -- Macedonian proverb

He that will have his son have a respect for him and his orders, must himself have a great reverence for his son. -- John Locke

Chocolate: Strength is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands -- and then eat just one of the pieces. -- Judith Viorst

Christianity: I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. -- Thomas Jefferson

Civilization: Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry, and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is what happened on the banks. -- Will Durant

Committees: A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but together can decide that nothing can be done. -- Fred Allen

A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled. -- Sir Barnett Cocks

Composers: There is one god -- Bach -- and Mendelssohn is his prophet. -- Hector Berlioz

Berlioz is a regular freak, without a vestige of talent. -- Felix Mendelssohn

Democracy: Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything. -- Josef Stalin

Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve. -- George Bernard Shaw

Happiness: There are shortcuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them. -- Vicki Baum

If only we wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is difficult, since we think them happier than they are. -- Charles de Montesquieu

We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about -- Charles Kingsley

Hate: It is human nature to hate the one whom you have hurt. -- Tacitus

Hell: When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults and they enter society, one of the politer names of hell. -- Brian Aldiss

History: History is the sound of hobnailed boots ascending the staircase and of silk slippers coming down. -- Voltaire

Honesty: Honesty may be the best policy, but it's important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonest is the second-best policy. -- George Carlin

A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent. -- William Blake

Speak the truth, but leave immediately afterword. -- Slovenian proverb

Housework: Housework can kill you, if you do it right. -- Erma Bombeck

Human beings: A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. -- Robert A. Heinlein

Interestingness: I can think of nothing that an audience won't understand. The only problem is to interest them; once they are interested, they understand anything in the world. -- Orson Welles

Journalism: It is inexcusable for scientists to torture animals; let them make their experiments on journalists and politicians. -- Henrik Ibsen

Knowledge: If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger? -- T.H. Huxley

That which has been accepted by everyone, everywhere, is almost certain to be false. -- Paul Valery

Some drink deeply from the river of knowledge. Others only gargle. -- Woody Allen

Okay, that's enough. Probably more than enough. I suppose that in the process of giving you a sample of the book so you can see why I admire it so much, I have cherry-picked my own mini-collection of quotes. But unlike the editors, I did not go to original sources -- I just skimmed from their work.

In the process of looking through this book, I came to appreciate the fact that the editors actually read science fiction -- which includes some of the best writers and sharpest wits in recent literature. It's a shame that the bias of the literati in English Departments so thoroughly excludes science fiction that their minions remain ignorant of the genre whose readers consistently have the highest IQs of them all -- including li-fi (literary fiction).

Let me close this review with one last quotation, from Donald Rumsfeld, because it plays so well into the title of their book:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

This came (as the editors point out) from a Defense Department briefing on 12 February 2002, and it immediately was ridiculed by the "intellectuals" of the American press and received that year's Gobbledygook Award.

But Rumsfeld is a brilliant man, and that paragraph is an absolutely clear statement of some of the most basic distinctions in the philosophy of epistemology. And it was triggered, he said, by one of the constant tools of a deeply ignorant press: The reporting of what didn't happen.

What didn't happen? Everything didn't happen, except a very small subset of what might have happened, to wit: the things which actually did happen.

So what the reporters are really reporting is their own set of expectations, desires, or fears, and the fact that they were not fulfilled.

In short, they are reporting nothing at all. It was that to which Rumsfeld was responding. The reporters who ridiculed him for it didn't know the first thing about the theory of knowledge, and didn't even know that they didn't know it, thus demonstrating his third category.

So, when I think about those reporters, I wonder, paraphrasing the title of the book, "If ignorance is bliss, why aren't there more happy reporters?"

*

Sometimes, when you write to a deadline (and usually crammed right up against it), you find yourself making outrageous mistakes that nobody notices until the printed version appears.

So it was last week as I was writing a snippy little aside about Jason Reitman, the writer and director of the excellent Up in the Air. I had IMDBpro open on my screen beside WordPerfect (because I'm a professional writer, and MS Word will not do).

I had already scanned Reitman's filmography and was going to refer to his films Juno and Thank You for Smoking. But in the process of actually writing the paragraph, my eye went up from Juno instead of down, and therefore what I typed into my column was Zack and Miri Make a Porno instead of Thank You for Smoking.

When a few readers challenged me on that, I looked and realized that Zack and Miri is on Reitman's filmography only because he was credited with a "special thanks" in that film. I had even seen that when I read through his filmography.

Which just goes to show you: There's nothing wrong with my eye-hand coordination. My eye saw Zack and Miri and my fingers dutifully typed it.

Unfortunately, it might have been useful for there to be a short detour to my brain, where my mind might have said, "What? Reitman didn't direct Zack and Miri." But no -- that late at night, up against the deadline, my brain was already moving on to the next thought, leaving my eyes and fingers to do whatever they wanted with the paragraph I was no longer thinking about.

Ah, what a marvelous machine is the human body. Not only does it dutifully make all my careless mistakes, it can even introduce new mistakes where I'm actually trying to be careful.

*

But there are cases were mistakes really have no excuse. I speak of consistent grammatical errors in books published by reputable publishers, who, by professional standards, should have subjected the book to a rigorous edit by a trained copy editor.

I used to work as a copy editor and proofreader at a book publishing company; I learned the Chicago Manual of Style backward and forward, and so did every other editor and proofreader there.

One thing I learned was that no editor catches everything. In fact, you are most likely to miss an error in the lines immediately following a mistake you did catch. That's why we put two proofreaders on every book, and the second reader knew to be especially alert in the lines right after errors fixed by the first reader.

Yet errors still got through. That's human nature.

But what do you do with a case like Ken Scholes, the brilliant writer of the brilliant novels Lamentation and Canticle, the first two volumes of The Psalms of Isaak.

I'm in the midst of listening to the audiobook of Canticle, and because you can't skim, grammatical errors stick out. I realized very quickly that Scholes has a very bad problem with transitive/intransitive verb pairs.

I speak of the difference between raise and rise, lay and lie, and set and sit. Scholes has apparently resolved these tricky verbs by using the transitive in all cases. So when he should say "rise" he says "raise," and when he should use a form of "lie" he uses a form of "lay" -- every time. ("Sit" he usually gets right.)

When an occasional mistake sneaks through, that just shows that editors are imperfect.

But when words are misused with absolute consistency, that means one of two things: The editor is incompetent, or the author is deliberately obtuse.

The editor might have "corrected" the book to make it universally wrong or might have missed all the errors. In either case, a new profession is advised.

But it's also possible that the editor caught all the errors and tried to fix them, but the author wrote "stet" beside all the corrections (stet means "let it stand," and in publishing it tells the typesetter to ignore the correction and go with what was originally written).

It's one thing for an author never to have mastered some rule or another, though I tell my writing students, Before you dare to break rules of grammar, make very sure that you know what they are.

Just as a sculptor has to know the stone, and an orchestrator needs to understand all the instruments, so also the writer needs to know the language down to the bone.

Nevertheless, it's quite possible to be a great storyteller and even a very good writer just because you can feel the music of the language -- and Scholes may well be in this category. I'd rather read his books now, errors and all, rather than wait for him to learn the language.

And if the errors were introduced by an incompetent editor, I can understand a young writer being so timid as to think that the editor must know. Still, it's the author's job to know the language better than the editor, so that the editor's mistakes can be eliminated.

Scholes's books are worth reading -- they're some of the best fantasy-cum-science fiction in this past decade. But in hearing these almost unbearably obvious errors, I can't help but hear the echoes of the death of some very useful distinctions in the English language.

We've already almost entirely lost the verb-noun-distinction-through-accent that used to make us say CONtract for the noun and conTRACT for the verb, as also with INcrease and inCREASE, DEcrease and deCREASE, and several others. Now the noun form is prevailing in every case.

But to lose the difference between lay and lie, raise and rise, is even more outrageous. These are different words and it baffles me that either a writer or an editor could lose all sense of the distinction. To me, it's like being unable to tell black from white -- how can you even claim you can see?

I can just hear most readers saying, "Who cares?" (Though those who really don't care have already stopped reading my column and are now looking at all the pictures of women with an overly optimistic body image in the club ads.)

But language is something we all own in common. Knowing a language does no good to anyone if nobody else speaks the same language. And while we never mean quite exactly the same thing as the next person even when we use the same words, we do need to know and use the rules in order to achieve comprehension.

A certain amount of variation is acceptable, mostly in oral statements, because it's so common to talk our way into a sentence from which there is no grammatical escape. Plus, we often interrupt our statements as new thoughts occur to us. Oral speech is a mess (and immoral reporters use this to destroy those they despise, by reporting their oral lapses word for word instead of cleaning them up the way they always do with their friends).

When someone misuses the language, breaking rules or dissolving semantic distinctions, the language becomes debased for everybody. As fewer and fewer people know and understand the difference between "lain" and "laid," or between "raised" and "risen," eventually the distinction disappears entirely for everyone. It is no longer available, because there is no one to understand it.

Thou knowest this to be true, because thou art confused by the use of the second-person singular, and ye are irritated by the second-person plural subject form, all of which have disappeared from common use.

And when, for comic effect, people drop into the old London dialect that used th where now we use s, they always get it wrong, by using absurdities like "they always getteth it wrong," which is idiotic; the th ending is not used with plural verbs, but only with the third person singular: "He getteth it wrong," but never "They/you/I/we getteth."

These dead forms are no longer useful in our language except for extravagant effects, though once they carried useful information. The fact that we really need a second-person singular pronoun is testified to by the fact that "you all" and "you guys" are used in different regions and age groups to provide a plural, leaving the old plural, "you," to be the new singular.

In other words, it is possible for language to lose forms that are useful and necessary -- whereupon they simply have to be invented again in a different form.

Writers are the protectors of language, even as we are also the innovators. We're supposed to coin new words when they're useful, and even invent new usages and new twists to old rules.

But we are also supposed to polish the tools we were given by those who wrote and spoke before us, and not leave them out to rust merely because we're too lazy and careless to learn how to take care of them properly.

Everyone who read Ken Scholes will get a wonderful story by a wonderful writer -- but they will also become just that much more used to hearing raise, rise, lay, and lie used incorrectly, so that they're less likely to correct their own mistakes. The errors become more acceptable and, eventually, more expected. The distinction is gone, and the language is poorer for it.

*

Chinua Achebe is the author of the seminal African novel, Things Fall Apart, which for decades has been the quintessential introduction to African literature.

Now he has a book of essays and speeches called The Education of a British-Protected Child.

The title is ironic. When the British ruled in Nigeria, they called themselves the "protectors" of the Nigerian people.

And it is true that some British officials sometimes acted in ways they genuinely believed were to the benefit of the people they ruled over in Africa.

But mostly they didn't -- the acted for the benefit of the British themselves. And the legacy they left behind is brutal.

Yes, the Nigerians got the English language, and as Achebe points out eloquently, it is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it allows educated Africans to speak and write to and for each other from Nairobi to Accra, from Abuja to Capetown. Without the legacy of the English language, the African intelligentsia would be hopelessly fragmented among hundreds or thousands of languages.

But there is also a hunger to tell stories in one's native language. Some African writers do this -- but with few exceptions their work is seen by few, has little influence, and wins them scant respect. Achebe received great international acclaim because Things Fall Apart was published in English; if it had only appeared in Ibo, it would not have been seen or read by anyone outside of a region in Nigeria.

On the other hand, the British, in order to rule, divided the very "nations" they arbitrarily created on the map. The vicious, genocidal war that has raged for generations between the Tutsi and the Hutu in Rwanda and Burundi was exacerbated by the fact that the British picked the Tutsi as their tools for governing, preferring that ethnic group over its rivals.

They did the same in Nigeria, giving power to the Muslim Hausas of the north, who now govern non-Muslim and vastly more populous southern Nigeria with one of the most vicious, corrupt, deceptive, and discriminatory regimes in the world.

As you might guess, Achebe's attitude is, "Thanks so much for your 'protection,' O Brits, but how much better our world would have been without it."

Achebe documents the fact that the Europeans did not come to a land of savages living in anarchy. Instead they deliberately subverted existing governments that they could have entered into trade agreements with, as they did with other nations.

And that myth about how Africans were already trading in slaves and the Europeans merely bought them? What nonsense. The Europeans, it is true, did not often send raiding parties to capture slaves for themselves, once they got their system up and running -- after all, African diseases were so destructive of Europeans that there was no profit in actually getting off the ships.

But does anyone imagine that Africans used to capture each other in slave raids, bring their captives to the coast, and then stand there pouting, saying to each other, "Doggone! All these slaves, and no one to sell them to!"

It was European demand that made slave-raiding the scourge and destruction of African civilization. It was in the interest of every tribe to capture people from other tribes and sell them to the Europeans, to preempt their own capture and sale. In such a climate, all rules of civilization break down -- it's the unregulated free market at work.

And yes, let's give the British Christians who fought against slavery full credit for bringing an end to the Atlantic slave trade -- but Achebe refuses to forget that their consciences only came into play after millions were captured and sold, and then transported or killed in the process.

Even if you haven't read Achebe's fiction, The Education of a British-Protected Child is fascinating for anyone with any interest in Africa.


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