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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Myth, Legend, Umlauts

October 26, 2012 | by

A late-night note-to-self scribbled on the flyleaf of Rosemary Hill’s Stonehenge: “Why are you enraged by the idea of progress?” This short work of intellectual history—tracing theories of the megaliths from the seventeenth century to Spinal Tap—will have you reaching for the pencil on your own nightstand. It goes to the heart of English archaeology, architecture, religion, poetry, and politics, as various generations of eccentrics and savants struggle with the evidence of deep human time. By the end of the book, Stonehenge is more mysterious than ever, and so are the people who built it. In the words of David St. Hubbins, “No one knows who they were ... or what they were doing.” —Lorin Stein

Christine Schutt’s forthcoming novel, Prosperous Friends, is a story about marriage and sex and time in roughly the sense that Wheat Field with Cypress is a picture of a tree. Which is to say that execution is Schutt’s genius: I read her slowly, almost aurally, not out of any confusion or even by conscious choice but because her prose is the kind of euphonic I wish I could hum. —Samuel Fox

The Power of Myth, a 1988 PBS documentary comprising six hour-long interviews with the mythologist Joseph Campbell, is one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen all year. Campbell’s analysis of mythology from around the world gives an insight into just about every topic imaginable: death, religion, sex, art, jobs, semantics, history, feminism, storytelling, and nature, to name but a few. I struggled to pick just one quotation, as there was so much that I liked, but Campbell’s elucidation of his interest in mythology is one of my favorites: “I think of mythology as the homeland of the muses, the inspirers of art, the inspirers of poetry. To see life as a poem and yourself participating in a poem is what the myth does for you,” he explains. “By poem, I mean a vocabulary not in the form of words, but of acts and adventures which connotes something transcendent of the action here, and which yet informs the whole thing, so that you always feel in accord with the universal being.” —Charlotte Goldney

In 1879, a German cleric named Johann Schleyer received word from on high that he had to create a universal language heavy on the umlauts. The crazy part? Volapük caught on. Writes Arika Okrent in an engaging essay on the defunct tongue,

By the end of the 1880s there were more than 200 Volapük societies and clubs around the world and 25 Volapük journals. Over 1500 diplomas in Volapük had been awarded. In 1889, when the third international Volapük congress was held in Paris, the proceedings were entirely in Volapük. Everyone had at least heard of it. President Grover Cleveland’s wife even named her dog Volapük.

The craze died down and Volapük never gained the foothold that arch-rival Esperanto did. But its brief, glorious history makes for very good reading. —Sadie Stein

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