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Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

The Indescribable Frankenstein: A Short History of the Spectacular Failure of Words

March 5, 2013 | by

frankenstein-jj-001Mrs. Chesser taught me that there is never any reason to use the word indescribable. Invoking the indescribability of something does no work except to tell everyone, quite explicitly, that you are incapable of describing. Indescribable is not a quality something can possess, only a failure that can overwhelm a writer. Even now, years later, I can practically hear Mrs. Chesser, her voice languid with existential weariness, pleading with all of us in third-period English: “For the love of God, ask ourselves why a thing is indescribable and then write that down. Never be so lazy as to just dash off, ‘It was indescribable.’ It’s a waste of everyone’s time.” I remember her making profound eye contact with me just as the words “waste of everyone’s time” escaped her lips. Chastened, and most likely the prime offender, I made a note to myself, much of it capitalized, and have since made all-out war on the indescribable in my life.

But the indescribable has a history, and a distinguished one at that. In her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” or some version of it, twenty-one times. Of those twenty-one, fourteen are coupled with a negation. Which means that approximately 66 percent of the time Mary Shelley uses the word “describe,” it is to describe how she, in fact, cannot describe something. “I cannot describe to you my sensations,” or, “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe,” or, “I cannot pretend to describe what I then felt,” or, “a hell of intense tortures such as no language can describe.” But these romantic, brain-feverish testimonies to descriptive incompetence are often immediately paired with very precise descriptions, as in, “Over him hung a form which I cannot find words to describe—gigantic stature, yet uncouth and distorted in its proportions,” or when the explorer Robert Walton writes his sister, “I cannot describe to you my sensations on the near prospect of my undertaking. It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart.” What is that indescribable sensation? Well, trembling, half-pleasurable, half-fearful, which is actually quite descriptive. Read More »

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Literary Valentines

February 14, 2013 | by

 Valentines_Taranto

Timothy Leo Taranto is an illustrator of pictures and a writer of stories living in Brooklyn. He hails from the frozen reaches of Upstate New York.

 

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Book Shopping with the Best-Read Man in America

December 28, 2012 | by

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

I was dragging my five-year-old daughter through the musty stacks of my favorite used bookstore last spring when a middle-aged man, squatting in the Sci-Fi section next to a brimming cardboard box, caught my eye and reminded me of someone.

“Excuse me,” I asked, “are you a writer?”

“I am,” he said, standing up and straightening his glasses. His eyes were deep set and hard to read. He was bashful.

“Are you Michael Dirda?” I asked.

“I am.”

It was him: the book critic and author, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, known apocryphally as the best-read man in America, whose essays had enticed me to read everything from Little, Big to Three Men in a Boat—and here he was, squinting his way through the lowest shelves in the same crusty bargain dungeon I came to all the time.

“Amazing. Nina, this is the man who wrote that little letter that we have in your George and Martha,” I told my daughter. Nina was nonplussed.

“When I was eight, in 1992,” I explained, “I wrote a letter to the Washington Post when James Marshall died and you printed it in the Book World section and even wrote a sweet little response. And her grandpa put a photocopy of that letter in The Complete George and Martha for her.”

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A Man Walks into a Voting Booth, and Other News

November 7, 2012 | by

  • This.
  • Election-themed poetry, whatever your mood.
  • Teams anyone can get behind: author-editor pairings.
  • The epic Moby-Dick marathon reading is nigh. Paul Dano, who kicks it off, obviously gets the money line.
  • As Sandy aftermath continues, a list of more ways you can help.
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    007, Moby-Dick, Literates

    October 19, 2012 | by

  • The handwritten contract for Moby-Dick.
  • The top ten literary parodies! (Warning: highly subjective and skews very British. But then, it would.)
  • Watch the trailer for Midnight’s Children. In the words of one YouTube commenter, “can b a gud movie for literates.”
  • In news that will shock no one, Swedish researchers find writers are unusually prone to depression, mood disorders, and substance abuse.
  • The Economist charts the kills, conquests, and tipples of the various James Bonds.
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    Mimes, Tattoos, and Whales

    October 18, 2012 | by

  • The Mime Alphabet Book and other odd titles.
  • Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: Man Booker Prize winners and now BBC miniseries and stage plays, too.
  • This children’s librarian has perhaps the ultimate children’s librarian tattoo.
  • A slide show of Robert Frost’s Vermont home.
  • Moby-Dick gets the Google treatment.
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