Have dog, will travel

John Steinbeck hits the road in ‘Travels With Charley’

In 1960 at the age of 58, Steinbeck had already published his last novel (although he didn’t know it), and had less than a decade to live (which he also didn’t know but probably suspected). He was restless, a feeling exacerbated by having spent the past 20 years living in New York and traveling widely in Europe, far from his native Northern California. As he says in the opening pages of Travels With Charley in Search of America (1962, Viking Press), he wondered if he really knew his own country after all that time. So he set out in a custom-built pickup-camper to find out.

The real star of the book, of course, is in the title: Charley Dog, a standard poodle, who Steinbeck clearly dotes on. Every anecdote affirms that Steinbeck is a dog person through and through, and his descriptions of his “conversations” with Charley will be familiar to dog companions everywhere.

It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, which he was now practicing, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?

John Steinbeck

The consensus among literary scholars is that Steinbeck’s account was heavily fictionalized, with inconsistencies in the timeline of his travels and dialogue that doesn’t quite ring true. Still, he seemed to capture, and brood about, many of the ways that America was changing in those decades after the end of World War II. Cultural homogenization, from music charts to chain stores and restaurants, was accelerating. Cities were sprawling, the environment was being plundered for profit, hard manual labor was being outsourced to immigrants. And of course the fight for racial equality was coming to a boil.

To that last point: Along the way, Steinbeck deals with bouts of illness, both his own and Charley’s, and automotive mishaps. But the only situation for which Steinbeck seems unable to find a wryly amusing observation is the segment of his journey that passes through the Deep South. He stops in New Orleans to witness in person a situation that made national news: The ugly crowds shouting slurs and profanity at a young black girl outside a white school that was being forcibly desegregated. During the rest of his trip through Louisiana and Alabama he presents conversations with a couple of white men and a couple of black men that serve to cover the gamut of emotions and opinions. The tidiness of encountering a prime example of each set of beliefs was one of the least believable bits of the book for me, but his intention to show the variety of viewpoints and the wide gulfs between them rings true.

Really, so many of the observations Steinbeck made over the course of his journey could be written today. In that sense, it’s a little depressing how little has changed. On the other hand, I had fun imagining how different his trip would have been if he had an iPhone in his pocket.

I’ll leave you with Steinbeck’s gentle skewering of the Lone Star State:

Texas is the only state that came into the Union by treaty. It retains the right to secede at will. We have heard them threaten to secede so often that I formed an enthusiastic organization — The American Friends for Texas Succession. This stops the subject. They want to be able to secede but they don’t want anyone to want them to.

John Steinbeck

A watery way of life

‘A Chesapeake Requiem’ takes the reader inside the endangered world of Tangier Island

There’s a romance that lingers around certain places in America. Usually they are places that to outside observers have been “left behind” by modernity. Those of us frantically trying to keep up with the blistering pace of technology fool ourselves into thinking that the “good old days” represent some platonic ideal of how life should be lived. Reality, of course, looks different when viewed from inside the bubble,

Such is the case with Tangier Island, a seemingly idyllic throwback to a simpler time when men supported their families by working the land (or in this case, water), when everyone in a small town knew everyone else, when the attractions of nature, board games, and books outweighed the allure of instant messaging, video games, and social media. Every summer, tourists flock to this Chesapeake Bay island (only reachable by ferry, and navigable on land via bicycle or golf cart) to briefly gawk at people whom time has seemingly passed by.

The subtitle of Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island (Harper Collins, 2018) offers the reader a clue that not all is what it seems, and as the pages turn the dilemma faced by the people of Tangier becomes more and more clear: Rising waters in the Chesapeake (caused by a number of factors including coastal erosion and climate change) have swallowed two-thirds of Tangier’s land mass in the past two centuries. The best-case scenario, if no man-made intervention is made, is that the island will be uninhabitable within 50 years. The math is not promising: The current population is fewer than 500 people. The cost of shoring up the island is measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

Swift, a longtime journalist in Virginia, who had visited Tangier earlier this millennium while reporting a story, felt compelled to return in 2015 and chronicle life on the island in depth. By living for a full year on the island, he was able to earn the trust of the islanders, who opened their lives to him in really moving ways. Swift shares with the reader not only the scientific and political ramifications of the island’s disappearing land mass, but the essential humanity of the people whose families have lived and worked on the island for generations. We learn about the island’s past glories as a preeminent source of the coveted blue crab, its difficult present as the watery bounty in the Bay and the land under their feet both become ever more scarce, and its grim future as its young people graduate from high school and most of them move off-island, never to return.

Whenever a reporter embeds themselves into a place there can be a temptation to over-identify with your subject matter, resulting in journalism that fails to cast an objective eye on the situation. Happily, that’s not the case with Swift. While it’s clear that he feels affection and respect for the people he meets and lives among on Tangier, he doesn’t shy away from detailing their shortcomings. In particular, the near-universal refusal to believe that climate change is real, let alone playing a role in their island’s peril, is frustrating to read about, as is their hostility to the environmentalists who want to help save the island but who are mistrusted as also wanting to regulate the fisheries that support the islanders. I felt the same about the people’s baffling passivity in the face of their problems; at one point, several of the old watermen are sitting around talking about a meeting on the mainland where decisions will be made that could seriously impact their ability to earn a living from crabbing. “Somebody should go down there and represent the island,” they all agree. But no one is willing to actually do it, and so the meeting takes place without any representation from the people whose lives will be affected.

Beyond the science and the politics, however, I found myself enthralled by Swift’s pellucid descriptions of everyday life. I felt as though I was on board the crabbing boat of Ooker Eskridge, mayor of Tangier and hard-working waterman, as he pulled up his catch and sorted it into pots of jimmies (males), sooks and sallies (females), and peelers (those about to shed their shell and become the coveted soft-shell crab). Late in the book, a sudden storm blows up and puts the lives of father-and-son crabbers in peril when they are caught in the squall far from shore. I could feel the sleet lashing my face and the desperation of the men as they fought to save themselves and their boat. And when word reaches land that they are in trouble, fishermen who had just fought through the same storm and thankfully reached the safety harbor don’t hesitate for an instant before turning around and heading back into the dangerous waters to try to save their friends. 

I didn’t come away from A Chesapeake Requiem with any brilliant ideas about what should be done. Should millions of dollars be spent to save what’s left of the island and its few hundred residents? Would the money be better spent to re-locate the people of Tangier to the mainland? What do we as a society lose when we lose places like Tangier — what value do you place on that sort of community benefit when you are calculating what saving the island is worth? Swift doesn’t pretend to have the answers, either, but his moving and enlightening work helped me understand just what’s at stake on this small patch of land so far away from me.

‘Yells for Ourselves’ gets up close and personal with the NY Mets

Sports stories — and especially baseball stories — are written at certain altitudes, as it were. Some are written from 30,000 feet, taking a wide overview of what’s happening across a broad span of time. Some cruise along at a lower altitude, focusing on a particular team or player but still encompassing a number of years, or vice versa. And still others, like Yells for Ourselves: A Story of New York City and the New York Mets at the Dawn of the Millennium (2019, Quill) do their best work at ground level, up close and personal with a particular team at a very specific point in time.

In the case of Matthew Callan’s historical recounting, the team is the New York Mets and the time is 1999 and 2000. Callan writes with the enthusiasm of a fan but the skill of a journalist. His primary source appears to be his personal observation of the seasons in question, and his only secondary sources are quotes from contemporary news accounts. As such, the book is somewhat lacking in the kind of historical grounding that I think Callan intended, that could only be achieved by revisiting the key figures in the story to get their perspective from today. He does do a good job of placing the team within the context of New York City’s history and its battle for the city’s affections with the New York Yankees, perhaps the most famous sports franchise in any sport. As Callan tells it, the Mets ascended in attention and affection when New York was going through tough times in the 1970s and 1980s, battling high crime and bad press. In those days, the Mets were symbolic of the scrappy blue-collar underdog identity to which the city’s residents related most strongly. As the city righted itself in the 1990s (albeit under somewhat questionable law enforcement policies) its identity tilted more toward Wall Street and the Yankees, with their illustrious history of world championships and timelessly “classic” look, once again leaving the Mets on the outside looking in.

Even more than those analogies between baseball and economics, however, Yells for Ourselves is primarily a nearly day-by-day accounting of two seasons of the New York Mets, with all the ups and downs that devout followers find so agonizing. The sheer detail might be overwhelming to any but the most avid Mets fans. More general baseball enthusiasts should find the reminders of familiar players and events a pleasant trip down memory lane, along with a glimpse behind the curtain of events they only viewed from afar. Casual fans and those who do not follow baseball at all may well find themselves turning instead to something a bit less meticulously detailed.

For all that Yells for Ourselves seems to be a labor of love by a lifelong Mets fan, the writing is professional and far from a slog. It is well written and edited, and does not suffer from a confusion of timeline or purpose. In that Callan has more than done his favorite team justice, even as he despairs at their foibles.

You could look it up

Kory Stamper Shares Her Love For Language in the Delightful ‘Word by Word’

Every last syllable of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (Pantheon Books, 2017) is utterly delightful. You should seek it out and read it immediately. The End.

cover image for Word by Word book.

OK, that’s not much of a review. Let’s try again.

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, which means, essentially, that she and her colleagues write the dictionary. She’s long been one of my favorite word-nerd Twitter follows (@KoryStamper), because she is smart and profanely witty and even more in love with language than I am. More than once, as she has shared some wry observation about the lexicographical life, I’ve thought, “Man, that would be my dream job.” And now, she’s written a book for all of us who have ever wondered, “How on earth do you write a dictionary, exactly?”

Stamper cleverly constructed the book as a series of chapters, each focused on one particular dictionary word. But she uses a word’s story to tell her own, in the process highlighting all the aspects of lexicography that go far beyond writing definitions. The word “but” is the jumping-off point to discuss how grammar figures into dictionary writing, and the tremendous difficulty sometimes of pinning down just what part of speech a particular usage of a particular word actually is — and how none of that is what most people mean when they talk about grammar:

To them, “grammar” is a loose conglomeration of stylistic word choices that get codified into right and wrong, misspellings that every English speaker has made at some point in their life and yet are branded as “bad grammar,” half-remembered “rules” about usage shamed into them by their middle-school English teachers, and personal, sometimes irrational dislikes. This is the grammar that shows up on Internet memes about “your” and “you’re,” the sort of grammar people are referring to when they claim you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, the grammar that is invoked when people claim that the “10 items or less” sign at the grocery store is “bad grammar.”

Kory Stamper, Word by Word

That excerpt probably gives you a clue that Stamper is — as indeed are all lexicographers and the dictionaries they create — descriptionist rather than prescriptionist. Despite years of claims to the contrary (including the marketing materials of those self-same dictionaries!) the purpose of a dictionary is to describe and define language as it is being used by ordinary people right now, not to settle bets or teach anyone the One True Way. A similar message is conveyed in the chapter about “it’s,” wherein I learned that in fact the possessive and plural forms of that word were pretty much interchangeable for hundreds of years, including in the King James Bible and much of Shakespeare.

Other chapters use a specific word as the basis for illuminating the myriad tasks that a lexicographer performs every day: searching written materials to find new citations for new words as well as new ways of using old words; the tricky considerations that go into defining the word “surfboard,” which seems deceptively obvious until you try to pin it down; how small, ordinary words like “take” and “set” are the hardest to pin down because they have so many senses and subtleties of meaning (Stamper refers to them as “semantically oozy”). 

A chapter on revising the entry for “bitch” expands into a discussion of how dictionaries treat words that are considered vulgar or derogatory, and the problems that arise when not everyone agrees that certain words or sub-senses of words deserve to be labeled as such (including the problem that the majority of the people making those calls are still older white men of relative privilege who have not experienced having those words hurled at them in very personal ways).

But wait! There’s more! There are also chapters on the challenges of nailing down a word’s etymology, and how a good anecdote (“posh” is shorthand for “port out, starboard home”) is no substitute for actual documentation; the never-ending search to find the earliest known written use of each word; and the tricky business of conveying pronunciation that can accommodate dialect differences (this is why dictionaries use phonemic alphabets so that the letter i is pronounced like the vowel in pin, whatever that may sound like in your dialect). Again Stamper makes the point that the dictionary’s focus is on describing usage, not judging right and wrong.

The final chapter details how all hell broke loose in 2009, when some evangelicals noticed that the dictionary had added a sub-sense to the word “marriage” that described relationships between people of the same sex. (That the definition had changed six years earlier with no one noticing did not stem the outrage.) It’s a thoughtful intro to discussion of how people often get very angry about specific dictionary entries because they feel the dictionary is instigating societal changes that make them uncomfortable instead of simply describing how society has already changed. 

I no longer have any illusions that being a lexicographer is like getting to have ice cream for breakfast every day. It seems now to be a difficult, demanding, and rewarding endeavor that requires skills that go beyond just “loving words”. Loving words is definitely a prerequisite, though, and this book will give you an even greater appreciation of the nutty ways that English has developed and evolved over the centuries. If I had my life to live over, I could think of much worse ways to spend it than writing a dictionary.

A window into a isolated world

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books, 2010)

book cover of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I’ve lost my notes on which friend first recommended this to me many years ago, but I owe them my thanks. The first time you pick it up, you might think you will speed through this lovely little (just 120 pages) book, but if you are like me you will find yourself deliberately slowing down to savor Bailey’s luminous prose and gentle but keen insights into the natural world — as exemplified by the common woodland snail who takes up residence alongside the author during a year of her life when illness keeps her completely bedridden. Here’s a sample:

Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

The little snail who so preoccupies Bailey’s attention is first brought to her inside a pot of wild violets from a friend. At first, she frets about being responsible for the snail when she cannot care for herself without help. It doesn’t take her long to realize that when you are so ill that even sitting up in bed is an impossible task without help, being able to focus attention on something that lives at a similar pace can distract you from your own loneliness and isolation.

Along the way, Bailey turns her attention to exploring the changes — physical, mental, emotional — her illness has wrought in her.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats and whens and their impossibly distant kin, how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive.

I’ll be the first to admit that I never gave much thought at all to snails beyond the restaurant scene in the movie Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts sends an escargot flying across a posh dining room. Bailey provides a surprising amount of factual data about snails in her little book; you might think it would be too much except that in Bailey’s hands it becomes compelling. (One of the first things I did when finishing the book was to fire up the internets and check out some images of snails, since I don’t think I had ever really looked at one before. They really are quite interesting little critters.)

The final jewels in the book’s crown are the epigrams that open each chapter. It turns out that the most astonishing variety of writers have contemplated the lowly snail far more than I ever had. Charles Darwin was not a surprise, of course, but Patricia Highsmith?! It turns out the masterful author of psychological thrillers like The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels wrote not one but two short stories about snails! (Of course, being Patricia Highsmith, one of the stories is about giant carnivorous snails.) I’m tempted to raid the library in hopes of discovering more literary gold carried on the backs of this unassuming creature.

Abe Lincoln had the write stuff

From the start, he needed to overcome internal and external opposition by willful acts of self-definition, the ambitious farm boy autodidact becoming a splitter of words and ideas rather than fence rails.

Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer

I’m having trouble writing this review because I have so much to say. I tried channeling the 16th President by asking myself WWAW (What Would Abe Write)? That didn’t help much, so I’ll just boil it down to one sentence: This book (published by HarperCollins in 2008) is fantastic.

OK, maybe a few more sentences. As the title declares, Kaplan examines Lincoln’s life through the prism of the writings he left behind. Those writings include not only published essays and speeches but also letters and fragments of letters he wrote to friends. Kaplan begins in Lincoln’s childhood, looking at the books that we know young Abe had access to at home, especially once his stepmother joined the household. Some of them are familiar and unsurprising — Shakespeare, the Bible — and others raised my eyebrows. Lord Byron was a favorite source of inspiration for Lincoln, as was … Scottish poet Robert Burns?! Apparently Lincoln often quoted entire poems or long passages of Burns’ poems from memory, even the saucy bits.

cover image of book

It was fascinating to learn that Lincoln wrote on all sorts of topics, not just political events and issues of the day. Following a trip in 1844 to his childhood home in Indiana, he wrote what appears to have been intended as a four-canto poem in the tradition of Thomas Gray, whose “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was a favorite of Lincoln. Kaplan also cites influences from Wordsworth, Burns and Chaucer in the poem, only three cantos of which have survived. The excerpts that Kaplan quotes are melancholic and humorous in turn, reflecting on memories that gave him both pain and pleasure.

Lincoln also used writing as a way to explore his thinking on subjects of the day. He wrote and re-wrote, constantly refining his thoughts. He used writing as a way to help him clarify his own beliefs and political opinions. And he seldom spoke extemporaneously — at a minimum he worked from a set of notes for each speech he gave, in order to ensure that he could lay out his thoughts and positions in a coherent way. Kaplan describes Lincoln’s writing in a speech given to a temperance society as “a prose so lucid to read it is like looking a hundred feet through clear water.”

Kaplan expends most of his energy and analysis to the years before Lincoln became president; in an eight-chapter book the presidency is entirely confined to the final chapter. That’s one reason I can’t view this book as the end-all and be-all of exploring Lincoln’s life or his genius for language. The other reason is that while partial quotations of Lincoln’s writing to illustrate specific points are plentiful, Kaplan does not include any speech or essay in its entirety to allow us to fully absorb Lincoln’s genius. Perhaps there are limitations on the amount of text that can legally be quoted? At any rate, it was a loss I felt keenly.

I probably don’t need to say that I highly recommend this book. While there’s a fair amount of detail about Lincoln’s life beyond his writing, some readers will find value in also reading a more comprehensive biography, especially one that focuses on his presidency. As for me, I now feel a great deal of affinity for the man who declared:

Writing — the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye — is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it — great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. … Its utility may be conceived by the reflection that to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it.

Abraham Lincoln