Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 30, 2015
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Books, Language, Spoilers
I grew up in a house full of books, collected by parents who grew up in book-loving homes.
When my parents were young -- between the early 1920s and the mid-1940s -- mass-market
paperback books did not exist. Acquiring books was an expensive proposition. Hardcovers cost
a significant percentage of a worker's wages, which is why the "masses" tended to read "dime
novels," "pulp magazines," and comic books -- not because they didn't want books, but
because books were expensive, so the hoi polloi bought what they could afford.
Let me digress for a moment about the term "hoi polloi." Originally it meant (and to the
educated it still means) "the many," "the common people" -- but in a somewhat derogatory
sense. Nobody admits to being part of the hoi polloi; the hoi polloi are the many people unwise
enough not to agree with us, the special ones.
But in recent years, more and more people are starting to use "hoi polloi" as if it means "haute
couture," or "high culture." This is the exact opposite of the original and (for now) correct
meaning. But because very few of us speak old Greek, the parts of "hoi polloi" mean nothing to
us, and perhaps the new meaning is understandable.
After all, to speak of regular people as the "hoi polloi" is a snobbish way of viewing the world.
Those regular people, hearing the term, recognize the using of the term as a symptom of
snootiness and self-gratulation. Therefore, they processed the word as a derogatory term for
My guess is that before long, "hoi polloi" will come to always mean "the snobbish elite." It
would not be the first time that a word swapped meaning to become its own opposite. "Learn,"
for instance, used to mean "teach." When a person was "learnèd," it meant he had been taught.
Now, it means that he has acquired information by some means -- not necessarily by being
taught. And no one is bothered by the weird meaning switch.
This digression was deliberate; we'll call it back later. Meanwhile, back to the reason why I
grew up in a house full of books, but my parents grew up in houses where books were highly
valued, but more rare.
The cheap paperback book, aimed at the mass market, did not exist until after World War II.
Before that, when a book was published with paper covers, it was not in order to make the book
cheaper so the hoi polloi could afford to buy it. Instead, it was to make it more convenient for
rich book buyers to take it to their bookbinder and have it bound in leather, using the family
crest and other insignia.
I learned about this when buying books in Brazil, where book-buying is still generally a practice
of the well-to-do. Other Americans living in São Paulo told me about "encadernação" -- getting
your books rebound. I tagged along on a trip to a little book-binding shop, where I saw the most
gorgeous volumes I had ever seen, bound in new leather stamped with patterns and designs, with
the pages freshly trimmed and edged in gold or red or blue.
Imagine buying the newest book by your favorite author and, instead of its having a cover or
jacket with a full-color illustration and bold, clear type, it had simple tagboard covers designed to
protect the pages long enough for you to get it to your binder.
The binder would already know the way you liked to have your books bound. Perhaps you bind
everything with exactly the same patterns in the leather; perhaps you bind fiction books with
leather only at the spine and corners, and heavy cloth or board in between.
Maybe you give each author's work a special binding unique to that author -- I can't imagine
anything more flattering to a writer than a reader choosing to treat his or her work that way.
I had to have books rebound in this beautiful way. The trouble was that I had very few books
with me that weren't cheap mass-market paperbacks. Those were a waste of time to bind like
that, because in those days almost all mass-market books were printed on acidy paper that was
guaranteed to turn yellow and crisp and eventually crumble into dust. What's the point of
binding something that's designed to corrode?
But I had won a writing prize in a magazine contest, and I used the prize money to order some
nice books from the States. When they arrived, I trotted them down to be bound. I chose my
pattern; the encadernador did a beautiful job; they look gorgeous on my shelf ...
And they are a source of constant embarrassment to me, because almost none of those books was
worth being treated in that way.
Imagine if you had bought the first edition of Pride and Prejudice with paper covers, and had it
bound in fine leather. Today it would be a priceless heirloom.
But rebinding the first edition of Irving Wallace's The Seven Minutes or The Word would serve
more as an indication that you had money to burn. These monster bestsellers were much talked
about -- despised by snobs, but adored by common people and involving issues that were
seriously discussed in newsmagazines.
One of my favorite descriptions was by Richard R. Lingeman, a New York Times critic who
recognized that elitists loved to kick Wallace around, but admitted that he was a reader of Irving
Wallace's books. He found himself "hooked, like watching casually an obscure late, late movie
and finding oneself unable to turn it off until the last plot has flipped its last flop and George
Brent is united with Sylvia Sidney and it is 3 o'clock in the morning." (Quoted in the New York
Times obituary of Irving Wallace on 30 June 1990.)
Another digression. I believe I may be of the last generation that knows by direct experience
what a "late late movie" is. This is a term that dates from pre-cable, pre-satellite, pre-internet
days, when local stations filled their airtime after the news and the talk shows by broadcasting
old movies. Because you couldn't just go out and buy (or download) movies, you pretty much
took whatever the three local channels decided to offer. The old movies were cheap to broadcast,
so the local stations could make a profit by selling commercial time to local businesses for very
Nowadays, almost every movie ever made seems to be available one way or another. (Except the
1950 movie that made Burt Lancaster an audience favorite: The Flame and the Arrow. For some
reason, it remained unavailable for decades after practically everything else was out on DVD,
though now Amazon.com seems to have used DVDs to sell and offers it for download, too.)
During my childhood, not only were these old movies shown so late at night that children never
had a chance to see them, but also there was no way of recording them for later viewing. We call
these "The Dark Ages," and we were shocked and grateful when the few Saturday afternoon
movies included something watchable.
(How well I remember when my mother caught us of a Saturday afternoon watching the
somewhat racy Ray Milland/Joan Collins movie The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, and ended
up sitting down with us to watch it to the end.)
So Lingeman praised Irving Wallace for his fluidity and readability but even in my late teens and
early twenties, when I briefly succumbed to Wallace's charms, I knew I was reading a reasonably
well-written story of almost complete emptiness. (As opposed to Robert Ludlum's fiction, which
was not only mostly empty, but also written with nearly impenetrable badness.)
Sold in the form of crumbling mass-market paperbacks or cheaply printed book-club editions,
Wallace's work was designed to crumble and disappear. But what if you found that your
grandparents had a beautiful library of leatherbound books ... all of them by writers like Wallace,
who had written stories without any lasting appeal?
And by "lasting appeal" I don't mean the kind of book that your English teacher assigns you
because it's an official (but wretched) "classic," like the silly drivel pretentiously over-written by
Nathaniel Hawthorne. I mean books like, say, Tom Sawyer or Little Women, which were very
popular but did not disappear, because readers loved the stories and passed them on to their
Younger readers, has anybody ever handed you an Irving Wallace book, saying, "You have to
read this, you'll love it"? People do hand you books like that -- they just aren't by Irving
None of those beautiful Brazilian-bound books on my shelf is by Irving Wallace (I think; better
check that ...), but they are books that were of only passing interest to me. They have since been
superseded by much better books. My taste, at age 21, was not sharp enough to select books to
be bound for the ages.
In Europe (as in Latin America) the paperbound "hardcover" meant for re-binding long endured
and still exists, but in America, the mass-market paperback became, for a time, the dominant way
that books were sold. A book might sell ten thousand hardcovers and become a "bestseller" on
the hardcover list; but it would then have to sell fifty thousand to be a mass-market
Oddly enough, however, very few of the books in my parents' house were mass-market
paperbacks. Instead, they seemed to have collected and treasured hardcovers. My mother had
her Williamsburg novels by Elswyth Thane, which prepared me to read Gone with the Wind
(which won a Pulitzer, remember, because it was a serious historical novel, not a "romance").
My father had works of theology and a few reference books -- including a much-tattered one-volume encyclopedia printed on onion-skin paper in tiny type, like a Bible, which is how I
read it: a treasure trove that was way more thrilling to my seven- and eight-year-old self than the
beautiful, highly readable, well-illustrated multi-volume World Book Encyclopedia that my
parents provided us with by the time I was ten.
So what I was exposed to, as a kid, was not "lots of books." It was highly selected books --
books that meant something to my parents, books that they could discuss with me after I read
them. I didn't see them reading all that much -- they didn't have a lot of disposable time. But I
knew that they were readers because they had these hardcover books and knew what was in them.
What did my parents grow up with? My mother's mother, a widow since a year after I was born,
didn't carry a lot of books around with her when she moved from one apartment to another over
the years -- though I remember one birthday she gave me a book she had clearly owned and
read: Lloyd Douglas's Forgive Us Our Trespasses.
Now I understand the great compliment she was paying to a ten-year-old reader like me, but
because it wasn't a "new" book I didn't even try to read it until I was twelve. Then it swept me
away and I felt stupid for treating it with disdain at first. It was a gift of love and respect, wasted
on a young idiot like me.
That was the only real sample I got of that one grandmother's reading habits (though she must
have owned the copies of the Red Fairy Book and Blue Fairy Book from which an aunt read to
me when I was only four).
My father's parents, when we visited their home -- the same place on Harrison Avenue in Salt
Lake City that they lived in until they died -- there were lots of books, but most of them
represented their current reading. They had many Reader's Digest Condensed Books,
anthologies of three to six abridged novels that were popular at the time. These were only
published from 1950 to 1997, so they were definitely not what my father grew up on.
Still, I loved poring over those multi-novel books, reading into each novel to see if it interested
me. Usually they didn't, but now and then I'd spend a couple of spellbound hours, completely
oblivious to the fact that I was only getting a cut-down version.
There was one narrow built-in bookcase, though, which was full of a very different kind of book
-- serious books by serious authors, books by religious leaders signed personally to my
grandfather or grandmother, and ... here was the jewel ... The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.
I read it there in my grandfather's house and it became a formative experience in my life and,
quite possibly, in my writing.
But, once again, my father could not possibly have read Screwtape while he was growing up in
his parents' house, because The Screwtape Letters first appeared in England in 1942 -- when my
dad was already 21 years old.
Yet the overwhelming message I got, as a child, was that books mattered, and that reading
books was not a waste of time.
My parents sometimes worried that I read too much. I got warnings about eyestrain; my father
would come into the living room at dusk and find me in the same chair where I'd been reading
since noon. He would turn on the light that was within easy reach, and say, "Why make yourself
blind when there's a lamp right here?"
They would call me to dinner and I wouldn't hear. I didn't hear anything. I would finish a book
and find that my whole family was at the kitchen table playing games. "We did invite you," my
parents would say. "More than once."
But I knew, despite their teasing and their warnings, that they rather liked the fact that I could
get so immersed in a book that I wouldn't hear or see anything else.
Now I'm an old man (yes, 64 is officially "old" in my lexicon), and I look at my bookshelves and
wonder: What in the world will my kids make of all these books? I have a terrific collection of
mystery novels -- they wouldn't go wrong by picking up any of the hardcovers I've kept. I have
a very personal collection of mainstream and literary books -- the few that I didn't hate at first
glance -- and then a motley and unreliable selection of books I've read and reviewed, or was
given as gifts, or started to read but never finished.
The real jewels of my collection are the hundreds of resource books -- daily life in many
different times and cultures; histories and biographies; folklore; historical maps; and ... my pride
and joy ... a very nice collection of books about language.
Dictionaries of many languages, and of slang from various languages. Books about linguistics.
Etymologies and language history.
This is what my kids grew up with, because they grew up in a writer's house. They knew that
Dad collected a lot of really hard, incredibly boring (to young readers) books. And even
though my wife and I, from the very beginning of our marriage, also sought and collected
wonderful children's and young-adult literature, my kids prided themselves on finding their own
Still, when they left a research paper till the last minute and they needed to have sources in order
to complete the assignment that night, my wife would answer their pleas to be taken to the library
by saying, "Not till you check the books here in the house. We probably already have books that
will be good sources for your paper."
And we always did. I don't think they ever ended up going to the library.
Now, though, I'm getting old, and I'm discarding books that I know I'm never going to reread
and that are unlikely to matter to my kids.
What makes me a little sad, though, is that most of my current reading isn't on my shelves.
Because I downloaded the books from Audible.com, and when I die, nobody will be able to listen
to them without my passwords.
And that's a shame. Because I've got some great books, brilliantly performed. For instance,
there's a new recording of Pride and Prejudice, read by British actress Rosamund Pike, who
played the beautiful sister Jane in the Keira Knightley film (and the fascinating "missing wife" in
Gone Girl). The previous version was excellent, but Pike brings a new flavor to many scenes.
Above all, she reads Mrs. Bennet exactly right -- instead of making her sound annoying and
horrible, like most who have portrayed her, we actually hear a strong hint of the coquettish,
flirty girl that Mr. Bennet foolishly married before realizing that she was an idiot.
This is the insight that I wish had been brought to any of the films based on the book, because
Mrs. Bennet, though not the character we're rooting for, is the protagonist of the novel. The
novel begins with her desperate concern with finding well-to-do husbands for her five daughters,
and it ends when three of them are reliably settled in marriage and all of them are assured of
having enough income for the rest of their lives. It is, in a word, Mrs. Bennet's story.
So if there's any character who should be understood and understandable, it's Mrs. Bennet --
and Rosamund Pike's interpretation of her is the first good one I've found.
Because I have so many books, and because my profession requires me to buy whatever book
promises to provide me with needful information or an exemplary literary experience, I have long
since told everyone who might feel a need to give me a gift that there is simply no point in
trying to give me a book: "I read Publisher's Weekly and pre-order books that look interesting.
Chances are that if I'm going to like a book, I already own it, and if I don't already own it, it's
because I decided not to."
Most people take me at my word -- a wise choice -- but I have a couple of people in my gift-giving circle who regard my advice as a challenge. Oh, so you think I can't find a book you'll
like that you don't already have, eh?
This Christmas, one of them hit paydirt with a book about language. Not about any particular
language, but about language in general.
I have long since realized that all the claims that language "shapes our thinking" is pretty
nonsensical, because humans are humans, and regardless of the forms of our particular language,
we're going to figure out ways to say whatever it is that human beings say.
You've heard the silly statement about how Eskimos have umpty-odd words for "snow,"
showing that snow is very important in their culture. Well, that's not a surprise, is it? What they
neglect to point out is that English has a lot of words for snow, too. Snow, sleet, slush, flakes,
freezing rain, snowdrift, icicle, snowpack, powder, wet snow, dirty snow, yellow snow, snowball,
snowman, snow fort, snowball fight ...
Sure, some of those are compounds -- "snow" plus an adjective or noun -- but so what? We
experience snow differently based on what we're doing with the snow, just like the Eskimos, and
when we want to communicate the differences, we have no trouble doing it.
That's John H. McWhorter's overall point in The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the
Same in Any Language, in which he takes on language-shapes-our-thinking pseudo-science.
What makes this book a joy is that besides being a thorough debunking of one of the most
unproductive ways to think about language, it is also a splendid example of what science looks
like when it's being done right.
First, McWhorter doesn't just fall in line with whatever language fad is declared to be all-important. ("Oh no! He's a language-shapes-our-thinking denier!") Instead, he looks at the
evidence presented in favor of a theory, and asks, Does this really show what they claim that it
Then he applies the tools of logic, the most devastating and entertaining being the reductio ad
absurdum. More than once he takes some claim about how language shapes culture and says,
No, things shape culture, and we make language serve our purposes.
Just because one language uses the same word for both eating and drinking (and smoking!)
doesn't mean that the people who speak that language can't tell which items should be put in a
glass and which should be slapped on a plate.
Are bridges in Spain and Germany somehow different because in one language the word
for "bridge" is masculine and in the other it's feminine?
Often the reasoning is as circular and backward as it would be to say, "The legless people have
no word for 'walk,' and that's why they can't walk." No, they can't walk because they have no
legs, and they have no word for "walk" because it's something they don't do.
Let me give you a personal example. When I grew up in California, Utah, and Arizona, I never
heard the term "ice storm." The term would have been nonsense to me if I ever heard it. How
could there be a storm of ice? Wouldn't that be a hailstorm?
Then I moved to North Carolina and I not only heard this novel term, I saw it happening and I did
what any sensible person does in and after an ice storm: I stayed inside the house.
I grew up speaking a language that had no word for "ice storm" because it did not happen
and there was no reason to talk about it. Now I speak a language that includes "ice storm"
because such things do happen.
McWhorter's point is that humans think about whatever they want to think about, and talk about
whatever they want to talk about -- regardless of the forms, structures, and patterns of our
In fact, most of the weird differences in languages -- and some of them are very weird, which is
half the entertainment value of The Language Hoax -- are the result of random chance.
Remember at the beginning of this essay, when I talked about how hoi polloi is shifting to mean
the opposite of its original meaning, a path that learn has already followed? That's exactly the
kind of random change that happens, not because our culture "needs" our language to be that
way, but because people hear and regularize words with slight differences.
Language is full of absurdities. Why do we spell the word train with a t when we pronounce
it with a ch? Why do we write "letter" when we say something much closer to "ledder"? When
did people stop pronouncing buoy as an almost perfect homophone of boy, and start pronouncing
it as if it were the name of Jim Bowie? Why do we still pronounce sew to rhyme with so, but
now pronounce strew to rhyme with true? Why did Shakespeare end third person singular verbs
with "th" while we now end them with "s"? Who decided on these changes?
Nobody decided. We heard people speak one way or another, and we picked up whatever we
wanted. Then we made fun of people who didn't choose the same way we did, until they stopped
-- or they started punching.
The thing we have to keep in mind is that at no point is language creation or language change
rational. And that's a good thing, because we're supposed to use language as a tool, not become
a tool of the language.
Communication is clearer and easier when our written or spoken communications reach the
widest number of people who will understand us and all our shades of meaning. There is a
difference between effective and ineffective language.
But no particular language is inherently more or less effective. If a language doesn't have
words for things that need to be expressed, then somebody will coin a term or come up with a
phrase that conveys the meaning. Now the language is different.
But for every change in language that reflects change in the culture, there are hundreds of
changes that make no sense and respond to no need whatsoever. Why did our ancestors stop
pronouncing "boil" to rhyme with "file"? Why did they stop pronouncing "blood" to rhyme with
"code" and change it to rhyme with "mud"? Did these changes respond to some deep cultural
need? Did they transform us so that we found new ways of being human?
No. They are just random relics, like the boulders, stones, gravel, and dirt left behind when
glaciers stopped pushing south and melted away. The deposit patterns were definitely caused,
but the results were not intended and they are not significant.
Yeah, this book was the perfect gift for me. But how could my gift-giver have known this?
McWhorter is one of my favorite authors. I've reviewed him and talked about him many times.
This book was published in 2014, more than a year ago. Yet somehow I never heard of it, and
somehow the gift-giver guessed that this McWhorter book would be the one I had overlooked.
So in this one case, yeah, thanks for ignoring my rule against giving me books.
But most of the time, when people give me books, I have to send the copy I already owned to
Goodwill, so I can put the nicely inscribed gift book in its place on the shelf.
Gift-giving is so hard. And at least people who give me books I already bought and read have
proven that they know me well enough to pick a book that would interest me. In such a
case, it is, quite literally, the thought that counts.
People have asked me why I haven't reviewed the new Star Wars movie. The answer is simple: I
haven't seen it. And why haven't I seen it? Because even if it's really good (formerly rhymed
with "load"), even if it's brilliant, it's still the seventh installment in a series in which exactly two
movies were good and at least three were appallingly bad.
A brilliant seventh movie isn't going to unstupid the four stupid ones. And since it isn't a
reboot, like the unstupid Star Trek movies, it has to include all the history from the stupid
installments as if they "actually happened" in this childishly absurd future history.
So I'll see the movie when I feel like it, and because of the comments of the few people who
weren't afraid to "spoil" the movie by talking about it, I'm optimistic that it might be enjoyable.
As for those of you who ranted and whined about how nobody better say or post any "spoilers,"
here's a clue: If you don't care enough to see it when it first comes out, then you've already made
your choice. Don't try to control other people's behavior just because you weren't willing to
make the sacrifices necessary to see it in the first showing.
Besides, it wasn't an athletic event or an awards show or even a puzzle movie that led to
one big reveal. I mean, come on! What's to spoil?
A good movie, like a good book, can't be spoiled by knowing the story before you see or read it.
Every Greek tragedy told a story that was completely familiar to every member of the audience.
The routines of good comedians are still funny on the second, third, or tenth hearing.
So my plea to all the people who were ranting and howling about "no spoilers" is a simple one:
If you didn't care enough to quit your job or abandon your dying pony or cancel your cruise
or induce labor early in order to attend the opening show, don't try to make the whole world
compensate for your remorse.