This week's reads are a bit off the beaten path for me. I picked up Bennett and Self because I'd learned about the authors from their nominations for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse
prize for comic writing (and from Julian Gough's hysterical video
about pig-napping, in the finest Wodehousian tradition). I learned about Harrison's book on the importance of recording and understanding languages faced with extinction on NPR, and yes, I'll admit it, Stephen Colbert.Alan Bennett
, The Uncommon Reader
What happens when Queen Elizabeth II stumbles into a mobile library and begins to read, widely and deeply, for the first time? Bennett interweaves the progression of a love affair with books and reading that many of us would recognize, but has drastic consequences for one of the busiest and most recognizable public figures in the world. In addition to the social conundrums (it's even harder to talk to your favorite writer if he is struck dumb by your presence), what I enjoyed most about the novella was its use of language: so lovely that you can't help but notice (and yet aren't ever distracted from the story).K. David Harrison
, When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge
Nearly 7,000 languages are spoken in the world today; it is likely that half of them will be extinct within the next century. The rate of language extinction is higher than that for plants and animals. While only 80 languages account for the vast majority of the world's speakers, the loss of any language means not only a loss of cultural identity, but also history, folklore, environmental and zoological information, and even clues to the way the human mind works.
Harrison makes an urgent and compelling argument for importance of preserving languages in which only a handful of native speakers are fluent or partially fluent. When the speakers die, unless steps are taken to record the language in the cultural context in which they are spoken, the equivalent of a library and a museum is lost forever.
As an archaeologist, I understand that no one source of data adequately describes a culture; as a writer, it is sobering to imagine the limitations of writing (vs. oral traditions).
, The Book of DaveThe Book of Dave
was not the book
nominated for the Wodehouse prize, but the first book by Self I happened across. Dave is a cab driver, filled with the Knowledge that cabbies have of the London streets and human nature, and distraught by what he perceives as the unfairness of custody laws and the perfidiousness of women. As he descends into madness, he transcribes his thoughts onto metal tablets. The tablets survive and are treated as holy scripture, defining a harsh and misogynistic society 500 years later. The violence and the pages of dialogue in Mokney (derived from Cockney slang) reminded me of A Clockwork Orange
; the satire on culture and religion cut a little close to the bone for present times. The book was hard to get through (I like dystopian satire as much as the next girl, but found I wanted a few more ray of sunshine in the future story), but I couldn't put it down.