Copernique Marshall's Essays

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No. 041 to 050

(From August 19, 2013 to March 3, 2014)

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050 - 2014-03-03 - Expressions and Quotes

In the third episode of Sherlock (an excellent Bristish series, by the way - see note 1), reference is made to the fact that Sherlock Holmes didn't know that the earth revolved around the sun when so informed by John Watson :

"Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes cross, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. - "What the deuce is it to me if you say that we go round the sun ? If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."

(See note 2)

It reminded me of a letter I read not too long ago, written by William Cobbett in 1829 in which he was complaining about the content of the newspapers of his time :

(You'll see where I'm going with this in a second.)

"What need we care about the tribes of Asia and Africa, the condition of which can affect us no more than we would be affected by any thing that is passing in the moon ?"

Poor Cobbett ! He would have gone ballistic had he foreseen what is published in today's newspapers.

I picked one up last week because somebody mentioned that there was an excellent article on English grammar and was appalled by its general content.

Yes, Cobbett, what need we care about what's going on in the Ukraine or Afraghanistan, why need we have to absolutely hear about a murder in Montréal-Nord or how many people disagree with some law about to be adopted anyway by politicians who follow party lines ? - On that, I agree wholeheartidly with Simon Popp who stopped reading newspapers years ago.

But that's beside the point.

The point is that I didn't even know there was such a thing as an English grammar. Always relied on Alphonse Allais for this, Allais who once wrote in his 900 or so articles that the existence of an English grammar was something that was highly improbable.

Anyway, what I wanted to say is that, if I had to start all over, I would become a linguist. Not really a linguist but a lexicologist, a collector, in fact, of obsolete quotations.

I had hundreds of them in a little black book recently but I forgot it somewhere and I can't find in anymore (note 3).

So I'll start all over. - I'm patient and I have all the time in the world.

The last one I heard was a bout an electrical gizmo invented by a quack in the 19th century, some sort of apparatus supposed to cure every ailment in the world. It was quickly abandonned "not that it was killing people : there was no money to be made out of it."

Copernique

Note 1 - Sherlock - A modern update finds the famous sleuth and his doctor partner solving crime in 21st century London. - A thrilling, funny, fast-paced contemporary reimagining of the Arthur Conan Doyle classic - Creators: Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat - Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman. - Official site : http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b018ttws.

Note 2 - This is the text as it appears in Conan Doyle's classic A Study in Scarlett, not as it has been dramatized in Gatiss and Moffat's screen adaptation, in the episode entitled The Great Game.

Note 3 - Monday, March 3, 13h15 - Found it ! - T'was at a place I hang out. - The owner knew I was to come back...

***

049 - 2014-02-03 - An open letter to my Canadian unilingual English-speaking friends :

Ever heard this ?

- The treatment he had had had had no effect...

- What ? Four " had"s , one after the other ?

- Makes sense doesn't it ?

- I guess so but you can't have more than four "had's" in the same sentence...

- Why not ? Why not a fifth and a sixth ? Something like this :

"Had the treatment he had had had had no effect, he would have had to ..."

(The Compleat Grammarist, Ferry & Ross, London, 1902)

In French and any other language, I guess, the equivalent exists. Here's one of them, in French precisely, but more on a rather unusual way of writing certain words :

"Mon veau vaut vos veaux."

... which, translated in English, means : "My calf is worth your calfs.", that is, if spelled correctly : "calves".

(Unknown origin)

And there's always this that always made me laugh when I was a kid :

"The witch to which I went was witchier than the whitch to which you went."

Three of the many examples of language curiosities. Try this fourth one, but seriously :

"A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; but after falling into a slough, he coughed."

Did you recognize the various ways "ough" had to be pronounced ?

Here are a few more examples (thank you, Marie) :

  • The bandage was wound around the wound.
  • A farm is used to produce produce.
  • The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
  • Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
  • When shot at it, the dove dove into the bushes.
  • I did not object to the object.
  • The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
  • They were too close to the door to close it.
  • Upon seeing the tear in the painting the painter shed a tear.
  • They had to subject the subject to a series of tests.

And :

There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England or French fries in France . Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat. Quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig...

Now the reason I brought all this up is to demonstrate to you, my unilingual English-speaking Canadians, how difficult it is to learn English when you hear and read it for the first time.

So here's my open letter to you :

I have heard your arguments over the years concerning French (as a language), the main one being that French Canadians ought to speak the language of the majority, that is yours or English. - I won't question that, culturally or otherwise, except to point out that, as a first language, 765 million people speak English throughout the world as opposed to 1 billion, 26 million who speak Mandarin Chinese or 846 million who speak either Spanish or Hindi (not to mention Urdu, Punjabi or Sindhi).

As a secondary language, I'll concede anytime that English is the most widely spoken language in the world, and the most widely taught foreign language which is why - I haven't found reliable statistics on this - there is between 34 and 49% of us, French Canadians, who do speak some form of English. - That sort of arguments, you will agree, could go on for days.

As for your second argument, the one I just briefly demonstrated in English, that French is a very difficult language to learn, you should be glad to have learned, or "learnt", it in your childhood because, to anybody who has had to speak or write in English (as a second language), say after their tenth birthday or so, it invariably appears to be a totally foreign language, particularly at the writing level.

Written English, compared to French tense sequencing ("concordance des temps") which most of us, French Canadians, again - and I'll add French speaking people as a whole - have difficulties to master, has similar absurd or totally senseless rules.

Take the plurals of your words :

The general rule is to add an "s" at the end of a word isn't it ? I.e. : cat becomes cats, screen becomes screens, cup becomes cups, etc..

How about adding "es" ? Glasses for glass, arches for arch...

Or "ies" ? Activities for activity, batteries for battery, dropping along the "y" while keeping in laneways, chimneys, boys and assorted 560 other words.

Unfortunately, to these three simple rules, there are hundred of exceptions : the plural of box might be boxes but for ox, it's oxen, that of  boot is boots but for foot, it's feet. House is simple : houses, but for mouse, it's mice. And then there is geese for goose... all the way down to the simplest of them all : men for man (same for woman) although the plural of pan is pan.

Try to learn that in four easy lessons.

I would venture to say this :

Speaking English or learning how to express your needs or emotions in English is, basically, less complicated than it is in French as long as you don't go into poetry. - My humble opinion -. It was explained to me, years ago, that contrarily to French and a lot of other languages, it does not combine words but groups of words.

Let me give you an example :

The two word expression "Sit down" can be incorporated in dozens of sentences with different meanings : "Sit down [here or there].", "You should sit down.", "We had to sit down.", "Why don't you sit down ?", etc. (not to mention Shakespeare's "Sit you down."),

In French, we not only have to use different words but, occasionally, we even have two varieties :

English French 1 French 2
     
Sit down
Assoyez-vous
Asseyez-vous
You should sit down
Vous devriez vous asseoir
Same as French 1
We had to sit down
Il fallait que nous nous assisions.
Same as French 1
Why don't you sit down ?
Pourquoi vous ne vous assoyez pas ?
Pourquoi vous ne vous asseyez pas ?

It explains why, within weeks, a foreigner can have gathered enough of these combinations to get along with less than a thousand words. - In French, I wouldn't be so sure, although I once meet a man whose vocabulary didn't extend beyond 500 words.

But, when it comes to writing in either French or English, things become very complicated. Let me illustrate this (in English of course) :

Words that are ends, verbally, in "tel", are sometimes written using "tle" : gentle and turtle.

"Ch", like in "church" sometimes are pronouced as a "k", no ? Try monarchy.

Words also have letters that are sometimes pronounced, sometimes not : "b" for example, in doubt and debt ; the "t" in : ought, thought (which rhymes with "taught") ; or the letter "l" : could, should, would (the later not to be confused with "wood").

Now, if you really want to go into real oddities, you should try names of UK villages and towns. Here are a few followed by their real pronunciation :

- Featherstonehaugh > Fenshaw (I mentioned that one before)
- Woolsfadisworthy > Woolsery
- Cholmondesley > Chumley
- Gloucester > Gloster
- Knaresborough > Nairsbruch.

But then, there are exception to this sort of rule which implies than long names have to be shortened :

- Edinburg, for example, is strechted into Edinborough

Which brings me to the Beauchamp tower (part of the London Tower) : a great one because it is French in origin, yet, it is pronounced "Beechamp".

And then "shire" which, if one is coming on from the North, is pronouced like "Shi-e-re" but, coming in from the South remains "sheer"...

All sorts of other curiosities :

- Why a "pair" of pants ? or a "pair" of scisors ?

- The past tense of "dream", which rymes with "reem" but also said to be "dreamt" which rhymes with attempt and contempt

- What about a word such as clip which has two opposite meanings : one clips things together, no ? Hence the word paperclips ? But we also also clips our nails, don't we ?

- Why do English Bibles, even in modern editions, insist on using "ye" and "thou" ?

- Musn't in Southern parts of the United Sates is a no-no but shouldn't isn't while most of the people living on the Northern Pacific coast rarely use contractions.

- When was the last time you heard shall ?

See what I mean by English not being an easy language ?

One last thing :

Ever heard of the "Oxford comma" or a the "serial comma". - It is a comma used before "and" in the last item in a sentence. For example: "I drink coffee, tea, and wine." - Perfect English : it is Oxfordian.

In other words, please don't use as an excuse the fact that French is a difficult language to learn.

You're insulting your own intelligence.

But do keep on filling those forms, as you have been doing for years, for your rights... by filling them out.

My usual meanderings

Learned a new expression last week. A rather unusual combination of words with a very contemporary cognotation. It, however, appeared in print in 1829. It is : "Literary pimps." - Yes : "pimps", the definition of which, according to most dictionaries is : "Men who control prostitutes and arrange clients for them, taking a percentage of their earnings in return." You'll find it in section number 80 of a second letter written by William Cobbett (1763-1835) as Advice(s) to Young Men and (incidentally) to Young Women in the Middle and Higher Ranks of Life, which he published in the aforementioned year and which is readdily available on Project Gutenberg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Gutenberg), an unbelievable source of books written by obscure or forgotten writers.

He, Corbett, used it in an unusual context wherein he encourage his yound read to stay "aloof" of literary critics who, in his opinion, were "debauching" (sic) the minds of people or endeavouring to do so by suggesting books which were vulgar (or words to that effect).

Copernique

P.-S. - Thanks to Frank T*** for remembering me the names of Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749-1827) and William Farr (1807–1883) in connection with statistics following my mentioning Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Pierre de Fermat (1601 or 1607-1665) and Chistiaan Huygens (1629-1695) in my previous column.

***

048 - 2013-12-02 - Fifty Years Old and Counting

I'm sure I've already mentioned in one of my previous columns that, with very little exceptions, I don't listen to, look at, nor read anything that hasn't been around for at least fifty years or more. The exceptions ? - BBC, PBS and occasionnaly Arte documentaries, science or history magazines (or books), plus two or three fiction writers whose first works were published more than 40 years ago.

Let me sound like Simon Popp for a moment :

My philosophy on this is very simple : if it's still available readily after fifty years, it is most likely worth listening to, looked at, or read. - Anything newer is possibly out of date the day it's published, maybe even out of fashion or in that purgatory state where only certain books (since this column is on reading) remain on sale. And if your favorite current author, composer or director, have to wait, like Bach, 200 years before he or she is rediscovered, well, tough luck.

One thing I'm convinced of :

The number of hours spent on reading Nobel, Goncourt, Femina or whatever books that have been the subject of a "prize", are for me, a total waste of human time and intelligence.

Who the hell reads, nowadays :

Sully Prudhomme (1902), Rudolf Christoph Eucken (1908), Jacinto Benavente (1922), Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931), Pearl S. Buck (1938), Pär Lagerkvist (1951), Salvatore Quasimodo (1959), Miguel Ángel Asturias (1967), Eugenio Montale (1975), Czesław Miłosz (1980), Kenzaburō Ōe (1994), Elfriede Jelinek (2004)... all Nobel Prize winners - and who do you think is gonna read Alice Munro (winner this year) 50 years from now ?

The Goncourt is even worst. Look up their list. It's been around for 110 years and studying it the other day, I found one Goncourt winner who made it to the top : Marcel Proust (1919) who, everybody knows, practically "bought" it. Question is : who else made it up there ? André Malraux (1933) ? Marguerite Dumas (1986) ? - Have you seen anybody, lately, reading one of their books in the subway ? - And while you're at it, count the numbers of authors who today are totally unknown, even by the most avid readers. I'm sure you'll find at least 80 or 90.

You might recognize a couple of names in the Pulitzer fiction category but not many. And that has been around for 66 years...

In the meantime :

One author I started reading about twenty years ago has managed to keep my interest up to this day. His real name is David John Cornwell and he was born in 1931. Better known under his pen name, John Le Carré published his first novel in 1961 which puts him into the fifty years and over category. He's into espionage novels but the way he organizes his stories is quite unusual. His first chapter, for example, might involve people in Prague, the second characters in Paris, then on to London, Bavaria, etc. and it is only after the fourth, fifth and even seventh chapter that he starts putting everything together like a giant puzzle. I wouldn't hesitate to classify his Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and Smiley's People (1979) in the perfect fiction category. - And I think he will last. - The British Mini TV Series made of both books (1979 and 1982) is as entertaining as can be. - And don't miss Richard Burton in the movie adaptation of his The Spy who came in From the Cold (1965), one of his best role and a great movie.

Another author of whom I have read practically everything that he wrote is Georges Perec (1936-1982) whose novel, La vie mode d'emploi, has got to be read slowly and preferably two or three times. I nearly meet him as he was a friend of a friend of mine but he died prematuraly.

And yes, I have read other contemporary writers, at the suggestion of friends, some of which gave me so despicable books that I should have called them ennemies.

But, as I was saying to one of my numerous girlfriends (so say my wife), there comes a time that it takes a very, very - and I mean very - good writer to keep one's attention. After all, once one has read  Proust and Céline, to name two French writers, where does one go from there ?

See you,

Copernique

***

047 - 2013-11-11 - Inutilemofola (i-nu-ti-lème-fo-li-a)

I wrote earlier this year, if I recall correctly, about my little notebooks in which, every hour, I seem to find something to write and which I referred to as containing "useless knowledge". They're 5,5x8 inches (14x21 cm.), have 250 pages and I fill one every two months or so. Sometimes, my notes are so concise (made up of abreviations, anagrams or page numbers of books of which I forgot to note the title), I don't even remember what they were all about.

Here's some of the stuff they contain. Slightly reorganized - make that completly reorganized -, of course.

In no particular order.

***

In one of the 500+ books he wrote, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) mentioned the title of the thesis with which he obtained his PhD in biochemistry, in 1948. - No, I didn't note the name of that thesis either. - "Boring like all thesis, he added, which nobody reads." To prove his point, he inserted a 100$ bill between its pages, once it had been catalogued and deposited in the Columbia University library where he had studied. He left it there, but went back every year, for ten years, and, sure enough, his money was still there. - Finally, he gave up, grabbed it and bought himself a nice diner. - Something I already mentioned before (Le Castor of May 7th, 2012) .

***

I found out through a documentary on Isaac Newton (1642-1727) that he did not discover gravity, that the word "gravity", in the sense we understand it today, was first used by Robert Hooke (1635-1703), an all-knowing, fingers-in-every-pie, poly-everything scientist who was an early proponent of biological evolution, the first to mention the wave theory of light, made remarkable observations on Mars and Jupiter, pioneered work in the field of surveying and map-making, etc., etc. - Look him up on Wikipedia ;

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Hooke

Fascinating man. Bad character however. Which is why he occupies such a little place in science history. Nobody liked him. - Let's however give credit where credit is due : Hooke did not formulate the inverse square law of gravity. That was done by Newton who couldn't explain exactly what was gravity but could describe its effect in wonderful equations. - Einstein came up with an explanation that is still a bit difficult to accept but makes sense.

And forget about the apple. Newton, who, by the way, spent years trying to discover the way to transform lead into gold (alchemy), invented that towards the end of his life. To make his theory more interesting, I guess.

And while you're at it, look up Francesco Algarotti (1712 – 1764), an Italian polymath, philosopher, poet, essayist, anglophile, art critic and a real expert on architecture, music and Newtonianism, who tried his hand at rewriting the works of Newton for woman. - He was also a friend of Frederick the Great and Voltaire. And why not ?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesco_Algarotti

***

Tit-bits :

Everybody knows Jane Austen (1775-1817) the writer of Pride and Prejudice. What is less known is that when Sir Walter Scott published his first novel Waverly (in 1814), she wrote the following in a letter to her niece:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.—It is not fair.—He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.—I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverly if I can help it—but fear I must.

*

Did you know that Georges Perec (1936-1982) wrote his 500+ page "La vie, mode d'emploi" on thousands of 10,5x14,8 Bristol cards ? Actually, he wrote most of his books on Bristol cards and mainly in restaurants or cafés.

*

Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), the Dutch religious leader and scholar, known for expanding the notion of classical history from Greek and ancient Roman history to include that of Persia, Babylon, the Jews and ancient Egypt, was the first to suggest, using the sun, lunar and a Roman taxation cycles, that the world was created in the six days that followed the first day of January 4713 B.C. - Unfortunately, that day was a Sunday

*

Who invented the pen that could write anything in duplicate ? Chistopher Wren (1632-1723). Yes, the architect that designed S-Paul's cathedral, in London. He also invented an odometer for carriages and all sort of other things as he was an expert in maths, barometer studies, acheology, scientific illustration and city planning. - He was such a devout Anglican that he was practically a Catholic.

*

Charles Lindberg (1902-1974) - remember him ? - and Alexis Carrel (1873-1944), the author of "L'Homme, cet inconnu", invented the first profusion pump which is now used world-wide during organ transplant surgery. - Both, because of their racial beliefs were, before, during and after the war, suspected of being Nazi collaborators.

Ever seen The Spirit of St-Louis ? - It hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. - It looks so fragile that I wouldn't have flown in it across small river even if my life had depended on it. Lindbergh flew it across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Smithsonian Institute ? It was founded with the money given to the United States Government by one James Smithson (1765-1829), who never set foot in North America, the illigitimate son of of the 1st Duke of Northumberland (1714-1786) who was one of the most important patrons of Giovanni Antonio Canal aka Canaletto (1697-1768)

*

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the great philosopher, was less than 5 feet tall and was a creature of habit : everyday, he took a walk at three p.m. sharp, so precisely that the town people of his beloved Köninsburg (from which he never traveled farther than 40 kms away) used to set their clocks and watches by his walk. It is believed that the only time he was late was the day he read Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) confusing everybody in the process

If he was anything like me, he must have fallen asleep while reading the author of "Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse". - Come to think of it, Kant puts me to sleep too.

*

And I'm sure you know that Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) invented, amongst other things, the Franklin stove. Why did you think they call them "Franklin" ?

Curious, ain't it, that all inventors cannot limit themselves to one invention...

***

In closing , let me introduce you, in my series on obscur writers, to :

Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt (1767-1835), a Prussian philosopher, government functionary, diplomat, education reformer, translator, and linguist. Amongst his major contributions to the human knowledge, he translated Pindar and Aeschylus in German, made and published Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain by the help of the Basque language but, unfortunately, did not have the time to finish, before he passed away, what would most likely have been his masterpiece which dealt with an obscur Javanese dialect : the Kawi. Its introduction however, was published in 1836 as The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind which greatly influenced (see the connection) Noam Chomsky, another winner.

You can read all about him in a captivating page on Wikipedia (*) :

(*) Before 8h00 p.m., otherwise, you'll fall asleep and wake up at three in the morning.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_von_Humboldt#Bibliography

And then there's the anagram-fodder, Connop Thirwall (1797-1875), a Welsh bishop who wrote a 3 vols. of charges, essays, sermons, speeches, etc. which he published under the title of Remains Litterary and Thelogical and an 8 vols. History of Greece which made its way into Dionysius Lardner (1793-1859)'s 133 vols. (sic) Cabinet Cyclopedia (sic, again).

Ditto :

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connop_Thirwall

But while I'm at it, ever heard of Karl August Varnhagen von Ense (1785-1858) who wrote the biographies of - brace yourself - General von Seydlitz, Field-Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Sophia Charlotte, queen of Prussia, Field-Marshal Schwerin, Field-Marshal Keith and General Bülow von Dennewitz ? Well, he also wrote a book on Friedrich Karl von Tettenborn's Campaigns wich did not become a best-seller.

Next time, I promise, I'll limit myself to one subject, two at the most. - How does Le Carré and Cole Porter sounds like ? - I'll leave Frankesnstein and Dracula for another essay.

See you,

Copernique

P.-S. : A bibliophile is a collector of rare books. A bibliopole is a seller of rare books. Makes me wonder what you would call a collecter of useless knowledge ; an "inutilemophile" ? (Which is why this colum is entitles "Inutilemfolia".) - Hope you're not "Inutilemphobe".

***

046 - 2013-10-28 - Unknown soldiers

Today, I'd like to talk about two famous scientists (and a bit more) : 1) Darwin, the unforgetable naturalist who bestowed, in his time, to a bewildered humanity, a completely revolutionary evolutionary theory, and 2)  Champollion, the all-time, bar none, greatest decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs. But not directly.

You'll find out why in a moment.

And then I'll mention another very well known scientist whose temperature scale has been replaced practically everywhere on earth by that of a swedish astronomer when it was finally read upside down by another scientist. - Let's make it four scientists, but I do have to mention two others : an all-rolled-into-one physicist-mathematician-astronomer who also happened to be a musician as well as sixth who was, at one point in his career, the Royal mathematician of Danemark and died while he was chief police of the city of Copenhagen.

So there but for the grace of God, go I :

Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)

I'm sure you have been waiting all your life to hear about Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the self-educated and somehow cheerful property surveyor who, in his lifetime, managed to collect 145,000 species, that's species, not multiples copies, of bugs, i.e. :  anything that crawled, moved about or stood still long enough for him to look at, particularly in the Amazon River basin and in the Malay Archipelago. - That's one hundred forty five thousands not one hundred forty five, comma, zero.

It sort of lead him to think about natural selection, the world-of-the-fittest, why Noah didn't have to bring fishes in his great arch, etc., etc. (Told you he was cheerful.)

Sometimes in 1857 or 1858, he wrote a letter to Darwin, who was then know for his archeological studies and essays, explaining what he thought about evolution, his views on why certain species survived and others not, why some of the creepy crawlers he had collected were different from one region to another, even across small rivers, adding what he thought about the living world as a whole and so on.

Didn't keep a copy and so didn't Darwin who, let's face it, was not a total idiot and certainly not incapable of having thoughts on his own, came out, less than a year after, with his "On the Origin of Species" which, as you know, hit fans everywhere, including the Vatican's, and is till the subject of continuing debates in Southern US schools and amongst scientists and religious fanatics around the world.

Questioned about the said letter, Darwin is said to have replied that he had received it after a considerable lenght of time (that is after his book had been published) due to... postal delays. And why not ?

That sort of hindsight information brought me back to the name of the inventor of radio broadcasting. I'm sure that if you asked a thousand people (except in the Ozarks) who invented radio transmission, you'll hear, either the name Marconi (99% of the time) or that of Nikola Testa (the other 1%). Both anwers, unfortunately, will be wrong. The radio we know today (the one that used to bring us news - remember ? - and now is used by preachers or sports experts on "hot lines") was actually invented by Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (1866-1932), a Canadian born in Quebec City, in the Province of Quebec. - Look him up on the WEB :

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reginald_Fessenden


Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (*)

(*) Source of the image : www.radiocommunications.ca

So much for Darwin. Now on to :

Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832)

Champollion ! Now there's the man, if you were educated in French, you will recognise as having been the first to decypher Egyptian hieroglyphs, in 1822.

Brings immediately to mind, a man whom, in his time, you wouldn't definitely have invited to any of your parties : Thomas Young, an eighteenth century propeller head who was the kind of fellow everybody liked to hate because he was a know-it-all s.o.b.

Born in 1773, he is said to have been able to read by the age of two, to have read the Bible twice by the age of four and, by the time he had reached the ripe old age of fourteeen, to have learned ancient Greek and Latin and had well acquainted himself with French, Italian, Hebrew, German, Chaldean, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Amharic - well enough to read and write.

At the age of 24, he was  teaching, at the Royal Institution in London, anything you could think of in connection with scientific matters : acoustics, optics, gravitation, astronomy, tides, electricity, hydrodynamics, measurements and so on, ad nauseam, an institution he left after a while because it interfeered with his real career but more about this in the next paragraph. ('Cuz, throughout his life, he dabbled in all sorts of stuff.)

He was, for example, the first to advance the wave theory of light ; he wrote about the characterization of elasticity, the capillary phenomena on the principle of surface tension, the contact angle of a liquid drop on a plane solid surface (as a function of the surface free energy) and on all sorts of similarly captivating subjects. He made an important contribution to "haemodynamics" (whatever that is) on the "Functions of the Heart and Arteries", discovered astigmatism, created Practical Nosology and further wrote "A Practical and Historical Treatise on Consumptive Diseases" because, in his real life, he was... a medical doctor.

Isn't that a chap you should read about ? Because Einstein admired him a lot. See this :

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Young_(scientist)#Biography

And... because, amongst his "other" achievements, beyond inventing a method for tuning musical instruments, writing on the grammar and vocabulary of 400 languages (for the Encyclopædia Britannica) etc., he was the first to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone six years before Champolion published his Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens (in 1824), the same Champollion who refused to acknowledge Young's previous essays on the subject. And this where the story gets a bit confusing :

Throughout his entire distinguished career, Champollion maintained that he alone had deciphered hieroglyphs. Unfortunately his understanding of its grammar repeated the same mistakes, down to crazy little rules Young had indicated...

Thomas Young (*)

(*) Source : www.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/db/PSM_V05_D270_Thomas_Young.jpg

By the way : if, as a child, you were given medecine, you owe something to Thomas Young, because he's the one that devised a rule of thumb for determining a child’s drug dosage which basicall states that a child dosage is equal to an adult dosage multiplied by the child’s age in years, divided by the sum of 12 plus the child’s age. - Remember that if you have chidren of your own.

And in closing :

If you think that one of the most famous glassblower of all times, Daniel Gabriel Farenheit (1686-1736), invented the thermometer, check up on Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Santorio Santorio (1561-1636) and the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand II (1621-1670) ; particularly on Santori Santorio who, amongst his inventions, you'll find a device which he called the pulsilogium for measuring the pulse of individuals, a weighing chair and a waterbed. - He also the one who, one of those off-morning, I suppose, when he had nothing to do, perfected the anemometer. - Oh, and you might want to check up on Ole Roemer (1644-1710), a talented amateur astronomer and mathematician who was the first to demonstrate that the speed of light was finite. He also gave the world its first thermometer scale and invented the meridian circle, the altazimuth and the passage Instrument. He's the one that was once mayor and chief of police of Copenhagen. - Farenheit was his assistant from 1708 to 1710. - Sounds like Ole he was ripped off, don't you think ? - Nah : just a coincidence.

The name of the Swedish astronomer I mentioned at the beginning of this column ? Anders Celsius(1701–1744). - Further reading will lead you to the Lyonnais physicist, mathematician, astronomer and musician I also mentioned : Jean-Pierre Christin (1683-1755) who gave us these two equations :

F = 9/5 C + 32   and   C - 5/9 F - 32.

Fascinating stuff.

Enough name dropping for today.

See you,

Copernique

***

045 - 2013-10-14 - How many books do you read ?

A few years ago, I meet the owner of an art gallery who said that, in his "library", he kept no more than a hundred CD's, a hundred books and a hundred films. "Anytime I want to add another, he said, I have to remove one." - Made some sort of sense at the time ; he did look and appeared very intelligent. Then a couple of years later, I happened to stumble upon a book written by Georges Perec (no relationship with our Mr. Pérec) the title of which was "Penser/classer" which dealt with the same "One has got to find a system..." to organize all the stuff that comes into one's house, be it books, CD's, films or whatever.

Perec, if memory serves correctly, based his thoughts on books and, specifically on a hundred books, as well. - A connection with my art gallery owner ? Maybe.

The reason I mentioned that up is that three times, last week, I was asked how many books I read in a week. I couldn't come up with an answer. Depends. Sometimes two, sometimes three, sometimes none. What is a "book" anyway ?

I remember reading three "detective" novels on a single one-way trip between Montreal and Paris but it took me an entire year to read "À la recherche du Temps perdu" by Proust, albeit reading something else, lotsa something else, at the same time.

A play, in a single pocket book, is a book isn't it ? What about two plays or Shakespeare's entire works in three volumes ? Would that count as two, three or many books ? What about four books, originally printed individually, but bound into a single volume by its previous owner ? I have one of those in front of me right now : four Victorian novels by two different authors (Thackeray and Thomas Hardy).

I suppose we could mention "pages" but that would depend strickly on formats and fonts, wouldn't it ? How about words ? Or sentences ? Or, in the case or poetry, "verses" ? Yeah, "verses"... but don't they have different numbers of syllabes ?

I'm sure we could agree on a certain format, a certain number of lines, a certain numbers of pages but how would you treat a book containing illustrations or photos ? A book of maps or country walks ?

Would we count out notes at the bottom of pages (which nobody reads) ? What about bibliographies, introductions and indexes ? 

Enough material to write an essay, a dissertation, a memoir, a thesis on the subject, which no one would read anyway. Which leads ne to another question :

Is an unread book still a book ?

But to answer my three friends :

About 400 pages of an ordinary pocket book, per week. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Depends on the subject, who wrote it, how well it is written and if it's interesting or not.

And at least three books at a time.

Will that satisfy their morbid curiosity ?

See you,

Copernique

***

044 - 2013-09-30 - Words and languages

So many ludicrous statements have been said about words and languages that one could probably fill two 400 page books that would easily demonstrate how prejudiced people are about their mother tongue ; more prejudiced, I believe than they are about sex, religion and politics, the three subjects one should never mention in polite society.

First, let me tell you a joke :

- Why do snakes don't have balls ?

- Because none of them know how to dance.

Got it ? - Ball : a formal dance, i.e. : charity ball, masquerade ball, graduation ball, St-Valentine ball...

I'm sure you thought of something else.

That is what is called an ambiguous or misleading word. They exist in every language. Take the word "hôte", in French, for example. It means both the person who welcomes guests in his or her house (it's both feminine and masculine) and the person who is a guess. And you know what a "gumshoe" is : a "dick" or a "detective" but a "dick" can also be something else.

And then, there are words that mean dozens of things.

The word with most meanings in English, I am told, would be the word "call". Out of context, it makes references to between 120 to 200 things, action or whatever ; from "saying something aloud" to a "decision made by an umpire" (in a game) including "demanding [the] repayment of a loan" and all sort of other absurdities. Check it out : http://www.thefreedictionary.com/call.

And how many time have I heard that French is the most precise language in the world  ! So how come we have so many lawyers ?

If it isn't, then it's gotta be English. Because of its extensive vocabulary. - Another falsity.

What I'm about to say is by no means the beginning of an essay on linguistics, not even an opinion on words and languages, just random thoughts that pops into my mind whenever, over a few "Perrier's" (thank you, Mr. Perec!), the languages of French and English seem, in cafés, bars, restaurants or soirées, to be the subject of the hour.

But vefore I really start, let me tell you something I heard the other day from one of our own columnists something that astonished me (no, I won't tell you his or her name). It seems he (or she) had an uncle whose vocabulary did not go beyond 500 words (rough estimate). Couldn't read, nor write and started all his sentences with the word "De" (ex. : "De... y'a eu gros feu sur la rue Dupont, à Québec, hier." and never went any further in his entire life than one city block from where he was born.  - Astonishing, n'est-ce pas ? Yet, recent studies indicate that there are still thousands of people like that, be it only on the island of Montréal. - That's not very encouraging, is it ?

Second, there are groups, in the Province of Québec, who say that one individual, per six inhabitants, is functionally illiterate. - I wish they could explain themselves further because there's a difference between someone who can't read the headline of a newspaper (which I occasionally I don't undertstand myself) and someone who can't understand the fine print on an Aspirin bottle (which I can't either). - Does that make me functionally illiterate to some degree ? - Because, to think of it, we're all illiterate...

When it comes to decipher an Insurance policy or when it comes to understand some of the help features of Words or Excel, I certainly am. - Lawyers are supposed to be good at deciphering anything. - Well, they should : they go trials for a misplaced comma in a six hundred page document... - Did you know, by the way that there are more lawyers in the 100 square miles of the District of Columbia than there are in the entire country of Japan ?

But I'm digressing. Let's go back to words and languages :

I just read this : apparently, in our day-to-day conversations, we use no more than 1 000 to 1 500 words. In very "heated" discussions, whatever they are, we can go up to 3 000 but rarely beyond 5 000 words and all of that depends on a series of caracteristiscs : the subject about which were talking, whether it is very specific or technical (or not) and it all has to do with our educational background and whom we're talking to.

And then, there's the number of words we can recognize when we read.

For a normal, college educated person, it would range anywhere between 7 000 and 15 000. For university graduates, thesis masters and the likes, that number can go up to 30 000.

So the big question is ; how many words exist in all languages ?

Well, when I was a kid, it used to be about 500 000 in English and 300 000 in French but that was very misleading because, in English, whose sources vary from the Celtic, Latin and German, several words were used to say the same thing, ex. : "Tempest" (Latin) and "Storm" (German) or "Maternity" (Latin) and "Motherhood" (German, again), and then the same word had several meanings. French, on the other hand, had two things working for it : a full set of prepositions (words placed typically before a substantive and indicating the relation of that substantive to a verb, an adjective, or another substantive) - and in its use, and occasionally, its non-use, of its famous, and so difficult to master, "concordance des temps" ("prepositionausage and tense sequencing" - see what I mean ? I don't even understand what the man who wrote this was trying to say.)

Time seem to have changed that. Apparently, the quantity of English words would now be over a million and French words might be up to about 500 000. - Very far from the 60 000 to 75 000, one can find in school (and even university) dictionaries.

But then English speaking people can invent words as they please. Take the word "francophobe" ; it doesn't exist in either French or English dictionaries, yet I have seen it countless times in recent newspapers. French speaking people do the same but it's frowned upon. Every new word has to go (more or less) through a committee before it is accepted. - Please don't write to me about this.

Anyway, it seems that no more than 3 000 words would cover about 99% of everything that was ever written in either language ; and it wouldn't vary much in any other language. - I even heard that half of the words listed in either French or English dictionaries are obsolete or antiquated.

I take a note, as I mentioned in one of my previous columns, of every new word I read even though, I'd say, I know the meaning of two thirds which I can deduct form the context in which I read them. Which is why, generally speaking, we don't rush to our dictionaries when we across words like "chastise", "wayfarers", "insuperable", "prosolyte", "approbrium", "entrancingly" or even "promontories".

You can read about all of this in numerous articles published in countless of WEB sites. I was just quoting some of them from memory. - You must admit it's a fascinating subject.

But let me leave you with a puzzle :

Do you know the difference between "un pauvre homme" and "un homme pauvre" ?

And would you translate both expressions into English ?

Hint : depending, in French, on where a word is placed in a sentence, it changes the meaning of that sentence.

Anyone can quote me an English version ?

See you,

Copernique

***

043 - 2013-09-16 - Anachronisms anyone ?

I started reading a book the other day and nearly dropped it after 20 pages. I won't tell you its title, nor its author, just in case you might have heard about it and had put it on your list of books to read because what I'm about to say might make you think twice about it, notwithstanding the fact that it is very well written, has a good plot and interesting characters. Unfortunately, its author seems to have a penchant to write 1,000 page books and the occasional trilogy of 3,500 pages, not unlike a French female writer (1908-1986) who wrote 400 page essays that could have fitted into 16.

It is set in the early thirteenth century and, at about the page I just mentioned, I read the word "stirrups". Sorry but stirrups weren't introduced in the country where the action takes place until the early fourteenth century and that bugged me.

It reminded me of James Burke :

"With all the academic research available these days about what it was really like, back in the Dark Ages when the European cultural lights went out (or maybe not), it’s a pity Hollywood continues to churn out all that anachronistic garbage about King Arthur. You know: characters using terminology from 900 years later, knights in fancy armor from 700 years later, coats of arms and chivalry from 600 years later, turreted castles with drawbridges from 600 years later and so on."

But he adds :

"Mind you, clearing up these anachronisms would probably go over like a lead balloon at the box office."

(Circles : 50 Round Trips through History, Technology, Science, Culture. New York : Simon & Schuster, 2000)

So, okay, the people who make films about King Arthur or what went on during some other period are not making documentaries but still, it would be nice if they paid a bit more attention as 99% of movie goers get their information about the past from these money makers. - I say so because, in not so a distant past, if you will allow me that anachronism, while I was still a kid, I went to see, with hundreds of other kids, a movie that had astronauts on the planet Mars. - "Very exciting, would have said W.C. Fields. Many people were killed..." - At one point (in the movie), Martians appeared, belligerent, of course, and you know what ? I heard a ten or twelve year old boy, behind me, say to his friend : "Hey, they look like us !" - See what I mean ?

One film that should have gone like a lead balloon at the box office was Rollan Emerich's 10,000 B.C. (2008), the scenario of which he co-wrote with Harald Kloser. - Somebody should have told these two idiots that horses weren't domesticated until about 6,000 BC ; that the first pyramids to appear in Egypt was about 2,300 B.C. and that the attacking birds in their epic had been extinct for something like a million years before (take or leave 100,000 years).

Wanna read more about this sort of stuff ? Try this site :

http://www.totalfilm.com/features/15-dumb-movie-anachronisms

But talking about anachronism, the most famous one isn't part of a film, it is in Shakespeare's Julius Cesar where a clock is heard ringing in the distance. There are several others (in the same play) but that one beats them all :

Brutus :

Alas, good Cassius, do not think of him:
If he love Caesar, all that he can do
Is to himself, take thought and die for Caesar:
And that were much he should; for he is given
To sports, to wildness and much company.

Trebonius :

There is no fear in him; let him not die;
For he will live, and laugh at this hereafter.

[Clock strikes]

Brutus :

Peace! count the clock.

Cassius :

The clock hath stricken three.

Trebonius :

‘Tis time to part.

The earliest clock on record was, of course, about 200 years before Shakespeare, like 1,400 years after Julius.

Aparté :

Anyone remembers film director, screenwriter and producer Sam Taylor (1895 – 1958) ? The man who asked that"additional dialogue by Sam Taylor" appeared on the screen credit of his 1929 adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew ? Too bad he isn't around anymore, we could have asked him to correct Bill's anachronism but then most Shakespeare's fans all seem to agree on one point : that the bard's words should be kept intact. - Until nobody on this planet will be able to understand them, I guess. - I'm sure, however, that if Sam had been allowed to modify Shakespeare's Julius Cesar, it wouldn't have gone over like - last time, I promise -  a lead balloon.

But, anachronism is just a form of what, today, some people would call film or literary bloopers (which they aren't) but on the subject of literary "bloopers", the honor has to go to Ponson du Terrail , the unbelievable French feuilleton writer who was notoriously known for his countless improbabilities and blunders. He had, for example, characters either killed, locked up in jail or in Russia reappear a few chapters down the line, alive, free or in another country at the same time they were supposed to be still dead, still in jail or still in Russia.

The most interesting story about him, however, has nothing to do with his "bloopers" but a laugh-out-loud trick he played with one of his editors. It can be found on this page, which, translated, goes like this :

"One day, estimating himself poorly paid, Ponson du Terrail asked an increase from the director of one of the newspapers in which he published his wild stories. - The director found his request highly exaggerated and decided on the spot to dispense with his services. He then appealed to various ghostwriters whose mission would be to continue where Ponson had left off. - Unfortunately the hero of the story, Rocambole [*], had been left locked in a safe at the end of the last intallment. The problem was to have him escape. - The director, his editor, his ghostwriters, the whole team of the newspaper could not find a solution to this unfortunate situation. - Ponson du Terrail was recalled, he was given the increase, and, on the very the next day, the story continued with :

"Having escaped from the vault, Rocambole..."

Couldn't be simpler, could it ?

"All's well that ends well" would have said our aforementioned bard. Actually, he did.

Next time I'll talk about vocabularies with, I believe, statistics that will astonish you.

See you,

Copernique

[*] So outrageous were Rocambole's adventures that it gave the world the word "rocambolesque".

***

042 - 2013-09-02 - So ruddely interrupted...

One :

I like Monty Python's brand of humour. Seldom vulgar, most of the time intellectually challenging and often on the fringe of absurdity. I was thinking about them the other day trying to figure out how to start this column (you'll see why in a moment) when John Cleese's opening lines in their Cheese Shop sketch popped into my mind :

"I was sitting in the public library on Thurmon Street just now, skimming through Rogue Herrys by Hugh Walpole, and I suddenly became peckish. I thought to myself, 'a little fermented curd will do the trick', so, I curtailed my Walpoling activites, sallied forth, and infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some cheesy comestibles."

To which, the cheese shop owner (played by Michael Palin) replies, of course : "Huh ?" (I quoted this sometimes ago (*))

So, here it goes :

I was sitting at my favourite spot in the Burgundy Lion Pub on Notre-Dame street in Montreal, last week, reading, on my Kobo Glo - unsollicited advert -, the Preface (sic) of The Crown of Wild Olive by John Ruskin when all of sudden I fell upon a word I'd never heard before :

"grenouillette".

In its context, I knew that it had to be some kind of a flower (which I later found to be an aquatic plant known as "frogbit" in English) but that wasn't the point : the point was that the dictionaries contained in readers such my Kobo, or that in a Kindle or a Sony Reader, or any other (I've tried all the three I've just quoted. - If you have to buy one, stick to the Kobo.), are contemporary and totally useless when reading books written in the 19th or previous centuries with words having, over the years, changed meanings or fell into total oblivion which is why I prefer to read my e-books on a portable computer whenever possible (with an Internet connection) because I can open up another window and look up in old dictionaries the meaning of certain words or expressions. Problem is that portable computers have limited battery lifes as opposed to e-readers who can (in my case) last as long as two, three weeks on a single charge. So, whenever I'm somewhere with no access to the Internet, I carry little books, about the size of my reader, in which, like a total maniac, I keep noting unusual words or expressions such as that "grenouillette", "reposing wayfarers", "sidereal shenanigans", "ne'er-do-well", "hugger-mugger" and so on, with the result that I now have dozens of these notebooks filled with incomprehensible stuff to anyone else but me (and even me, at times, because my handwriting is a disaster waiting to happen). - See Le Castor™ October 1st, 2012 for a few samples of what I collect.)

Two :

I was about to continue along the above line of thoughts when I was ruddely interrupted by an e-mail which nearly knocked me off my chair. Hence the title of this column.

It started this way : "You pompous windbag. Who the h*** (the actual word started of with an "f") do you think you are, with your boring subjects using words nobody understands ? Do you honestly believe people care about your stupid scribbles ?" (I'll spare you the rest which suggested that I : a) perform an unatural act on myself, and b) write about real matters such as : the war in Syria, children dying of malnutrition, sports (sic) and other similar important subjects.)

Four pages it went on with words and insults to keep me going for several days. I was even asked to confirm that I had received the damned thing !

The answer to your question, my good man (I'm using the word "good" haphazardly), was given by Jeff Bollinger a while back (Le Castor™ - Jul 22, 2013) : writing allows one to live again events that occur in one's life. I'll grant you that some writers do write to be read but most I've known write for themselves. The fact that people out there might read what they will have written is undeniable but it's a secondary aspect of l'écriture :

Writing is primarly, I think, a method to organize one's thoughts ; it is also an excellent way of understanding oneself. At least that's what my father thaught me and his father thaught him before that.

As to your opinion that my useless prose is not worth the paper it's not written on, I assure you that it is useful to me and I have no desire to invite you nor encourage you to dwell on the trivialities of my studies. I suggest than, instead of frustrating yourself in reading what you consider insignificant, you do what you do when you're watching besetting stuff on TV  : change channel or close your computer and go out for a walk.

Which reminds me of a former editor of La Gazette de Saint-Romuald d'Etchemin (et d'Esch-sur-Sûr) who, one day, having received a letter such as yours, replied that he didn't give a hoot because, with its advertizing revenues, eventually, his Gazette wouldn't need readers !

Three :

So much for that. but to go back to what I was saying a few minutes ago, I understand that the publishers of the French Larousse dictionary have a commitee whose purpose is to remove, on an annual basis, words that have become obsolete or are about to. I wonder what they do with them (**). Just like I wonder how much work the three or four employees at the Vatican have to do in a year, creating (inventing) latin words for stuff that didn't exist at the time of the Romans (computers, airplanes, electricity, etc.) ; because Latin is still the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. How many hours do they work per week ? Do they punch in every morning ? Who supervises them ?

Food for thoughts.

Maybe I should ask Cardinal Spitzman.

Copernique

[*] Le Castor™ - November 26, 2012 edition. (Editor's note)

[**] They publish them in another dictionary under the name of "Dictionnaire des mots obsolètes". (Editor's note)

***

041 - 2013-08-19 - Book covers

These little pre-publication meetings we have, sort of irregularly, for the Castor™, are very interesting, particularly afterwards when we all wind up having a drink (Perrier for Mr. Perec, Vodka for Paul, anything [so he says] for Simon Popp, gin-and-tonic for George, a (small) glass of white wine for Jeff and Scotch for me.). We talk about shoes and ships and cabbages and sealing wax and kings. We're all from "différents milieux" and it is uncanny to discover, in a way, how prejudiced we are. I mean how we have a tendency of limiting people to what we know about them, like what would a janitor know about Dostoievski or a banker know about Mozart ? Well I know lotsa people whose interests lie miles away from their day-to-day job.

You know our disk jockey, Paul ? Knows a lot about music doesn't he ? - He's the one that helped me out when I was writing about jazz recordings but, at our last little get-together, I heard him quote an entire section of Finnegans' Wake (James Joyce) to George who, like me, was very surprised to learn that Paul was a Joyce fan and more than that, a, for all intents and purposes, a profound Proust expert. And then he started talking about a - today - totally unknown poet who Proust knew, laughingly quoting (again) some of his verses that were so precious, they were ridiculous.

Ever heard anything like this before ?

O fils d'Anabaxare ou d'Anacyndaraxe
Tu sentis tes pouvoirs osciller sur leur axe
Lorsque Parameizes le traître introduisait
Arbacès devant qui ta face reluisait
...

or:

À te voir commander sous tes folles perruques,
Dans tes robes de femme au milieu des eunuques

And this guy, Paul swore to God, was for real.

Seems like we had a page dedicated to him on our site : http://www.udenap.org/groupe_de_pages_02/montesquiou.htm. Never had heard about it or him.

You know how much I like obscure poets and writers ? Well Paul promised me to lend me his copy of "Les chauves-souris" (from which the above verses are excerpts). "A two-pound 'bibelot' (trinquet)", he said, first edition, one of the 100 copies published by the author for friends (and perhaps foes), all numbered, with a jacket designed by Whistler and printed on paper watermarked with bats. Dedicated, of course. To one of Proust's doctors. Can't wait to lay my hands on it.

And then I heard that our distinguished cardinal (Spitzman) was no amateur when it came to sculpt and paint duck decoys. That he actually had won a first prize in a seven states competition some years back.

And so on, and so forth :

Mr. Perec is, I heard, a great connoisseur of food and is a good cook. George knits. Roger V. Landry is a compleat gardener. And you must know by now that Jeff is an accomplished cabinet maker.

Speaking of Jeff, I discovered yesterday that he was the first to bring to our attention the original or real meaning of the word "pathétique", practically a year ago. - See his column entitled "Pathétique, formidable, écoeurant..." in the September the third, 2012 edition of Le Castor. (More comments in P.-S. below.)

Oh, and that janitor I mentioned at the start of this column ? The one who knows everything you want to know about Dostoievski ? Add to his list, Tolstoi, Gogol and anybody who wrote, sang or, was arrested and deported in Russia from 1850 to 1920. But he's not a janitor : he's a plumber. Works at the ETS (École de Technologie Supérieure) in downtown Montréal. His name is Guilbault. André Guilbault. - Do you think I would invent this. - Turns out that Paul knows him very well.

Question : how many people do you know who have read "Les mémoires de Saint-Simon" (a 7 000 page booklet) ? I know two : one works in the Insurance Industry (he read it when he was twenty and currently, fifty years later, he's reading again !) - "Takes about a year" he says. Sure : 20 pages a day...) and one is a security guard at Le printemps, in Paris. - I'm no slouch, but 7 000 pages ?

And what about Voltaire's correspondence ? 23 000 letters ! 11 volumes (La Pléiade). - Over 21 years of reading if you stick to 3 letters a day.

Ever heard of Barbara Cartland (1901-2000) ? 722 books including 23 novels written in a single year. - Or Rolf Kalmuczak (1938-2007) and his 2 900 books (under 100+ pseudonyms). Or still better, Corin Tellado (1927-2009) : 4 000 novellas.


Corin Tellado
(C) Unknown

One has to wonder if these readers and writers ever sleep.

Anyway, we should never, never ever, judge a book by its cover.

Have a good week.

Copernique

P.-S. : On words :

I said a few words on "pathetic" in my last column and, to my surprise, I found it, in one of John Ruskin'essays, used to depict exactly what I had meant a few weeks before when a friend of mine had described a very touching situation. Seems like, 150 years ago (or so), the word was used in its original sense of "touching the heart or having a capacity to move one". Here it is. It's in the first sentence of "The Crown of Wild Olive" (three lectures on "Work, Traffic and War") published in 1866 and enlarged in 1873 :

"Twenty years ago, there was no lovelier piece of lowland scenery in South England, nor any more pathetic in the world, by its expression of sweet human character and life, than that immediately bordering on the sources of the Wandle, and including the lower moors of Addington, and the villages of Beddington and Carshalton, with all their pools and streams."

I aslo found, in the same preface (sic), words like "ghastly", "chastise", "efface", "insuperable", "waft"... all used in their original sense... T'was Paul Dubé who mentioned to me, the other day, that one of Gide's last words was: "J'ai peur que mes phrases deviennent, un jour, grammaticalement incorrectes." - Imagine how quaint (when, really was the last time you read or heard a word like that ?), how démodé... we shall sound two hundred years from now !

(See also, as I mentioned in my last column, Jeff's - Sept. 3rd, 2012)

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