Bowdlerizing Huckleberry Finn: Cowardice does what Aunt Sally could not

bowdlerize
to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar; to modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content. An eponymous word referring to Thomas Bowdler, publisher in 1818 of
The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. [More on this helpful fellow in the notes at the end of the post.]

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[Cover painting from the HarperFestival 2005 edition of Huckleberry Finn.]

There has been a great deal of commentary this past week about NewSouth Books‘ plan to publish an edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which all the instances of nigger are replaced with slave (and Injun with Indian). It’s the work of Professor Alan Gribben at Auburn University, who says that “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” It’s not just some public school teachers motivating Gribben; he too shies at the word in the classroom: ”I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer,” he said. ”And I don’t think I’m alone… I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.”

What betrayal of a writer can be worse, than to change his words? And not just any words, but one particular word that occurs 219 times in Huckleberry Finn and is central to the book’s meaning. Twain shows Huckleberry Finn as an ignorant boy, a product of his time and place without pretense. He, and the other characters, speak as people of their age and place in life would have spoken; in fact, the second of Twain’s two short prefatory admonitions deals with speech quite firmly:

EXPLANATORY

IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro
dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the
ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last.
The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork;
but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of
personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would
suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not
succeeding.

THE AUTHOR.

The words used are carefully chosen to be authentic, and to show us the attitudes of the characters. When Jim first appears, Huck describes him as “Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim”. As the story goes along, with Jim a runaway slave rafting down the river with Huck Finn, the boy’s sense of Jim changes. This is plainly expressed in chapter 31, when Jim’s been caught; Huck is tempted to save him though he knows he’ll certainly go to hell for helping a runaway to escape his lawful master.

…I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and
I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then
says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”…

It’s a change of heart, not of mind; Huck doesn’t decide that slavery is wrong but that Jim is his friend. Jim’s still a slave but no longer a nigger, no longer some inferior being beyond the pale of friendship.

Professor Gribben has chosen to replace nigger with slave, but the two words aren’t at all equivalent. Slave is a legal term describing a human being who is legally deemed to be property of another. It might apply to a person of any race, and certainly has, historically. It is a condition, not an immutable element of identity. A slave can be freed, as some occasionally were by their masters, and the children born to freed slaves are free themselves. All slaves in the US were freed in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But to most whites in the 19th C. South, a nigger was a nigger, whether he was a slave or free. If some French white man who’d been captured and enslaved by the Turks (like Candide) had visited, he might have been described as a slave or ex-slave but never as a nigger.

Huck Finn’s evil father holds violent views on this very subject, and goes into them in detail when we first meet him.

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio–a mulatter, most as white as a white man. … And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me–I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger–why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?–that’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the State six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now–that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and–“

How will this “free nigger” be described in the new version of Huck Finn? As a “freed slave”, I suppose. Try making that substitution in this passage and see how much difference it makes. “Freed slave” is a neutral phrase compared to the repetitive angry utterance of nigger.

We must presume that Professor Gribben does understand the difference between race— defined by unchangeable color, and legal condition—alterable by legal action. But he thinks that current unease over the word nigger justifies removing this word which is in fact the center of the book. Huck Finn is about nigger, it’s about deciding a person’s worth and status based on his color.

Twain was no fan of the farrago of falsehoods, taboos, and blind spots that make up much of “civilization”. He chooses as his protagonist a shiftless superstitious barely educated boy, who hates the prospect of being “sivilized” and having to wear shoes and not curse, the son of a violent drunk (“He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard, but he hain’t been seen in these parts for a year or more,” says another boy about Huck’s father)—and then he shows us this boy weighing the evidence of his eyes and heart vs. what he’s been taught about niggers, and choosing to honor the former. Even if it means he’ll burn in Hell, even if he has to take serious personal risk to get Jim away from those who’ve captured him. They have the law, and local “civilization” on their side. Twain doesn’t exactly say what Huck has on his side, that’s for the reader to figure out.

Huck’s final words to us, with which the book ends, are “I reckon I got to light out for the
Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.“ I can imagine the bitter smile of Huck’s creator hearing that, 126 years after he was brave enough to publish a book about nigger, we aren’t brave enough to figure out how to teach something that contains that word. So we’re going to sivilize it to suit us.

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[Undated photo of Samuel Clemens]

NOTES

According to some estimates, Huckleberry Finn is the fourth most banned book in the US. Mark Twain really had us pegged.

From the pen of Thomas Bowdler ((1754–1825):

“I acknowledge Shakespeare to be the world’s greatest dramatic poet, but regret that no parent could place the uncorrected book in the hands of his daughter, and therefore I have prepared the Family Shakespeare”

“Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased.”

‘”If any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed ; and, if printed, it ought to be erased.”

Sample “bowdlerizations” of the texts:

Ophelia’s death in Hamlet is referred to as an accidental drowning, not a possible suicide.
Lady Macbeth’s “Out, Damned spot.” is changed to “Out, Crimson spot.”

The prostitute Doll Tearsheet is completely written out of Henry IV, Part 1.

Mercutio’s “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” is changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”

Juliet’s “Spread thy close curtain, love performing night” is changed to “. . . and come civil night”.

And so on…

It is not commonly known that Bowdler also prepared “family” editions of parts of the Old Testament and of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, completing this edition just before his death in 1825. [this, quotations from Bowdler, and examples, from source]

Twain would have found confirmation for the hypocrisy of “civilization” in the fact that “[t]he editions were actually edited by Bowdler’s sister, Harriet, rather than by Thomas. However, they were published under Thomas Bowdler’s name, because a woman could not publicly admit that she understood Shakespeare’s racy passages.” [Wikipedia]

Comments on some books recently read

A Whole New Mind, why right-brainers will rule the future, by Daniel Pink
Silly, puffy, fuzzy, wrong. Because of Asia, Automation, and Abundance, we are all going to prosper by being artists, designers, musicians, gestalt-masters.

Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt
A fine book, powerful and honest and sometimes very hard to read. The author comes of generations who survived ranching in what must be one of the toughest spots in the US. She writes of her experiences growing up there, informed by her later insights. The privations, the endless work just to have a chance of doing the same next year, the way human beings grow into strange shapes to fit what is demanded of them.

A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright
Published a year before Jared Diamond’s Collapse, and follows a similar plan: by narrating the decline of earlier cultures due to hubris and systemic faults, the author hopes to convince 21st century homo sap to shape up and avoid disaster. Wright finds errors in Diamond’s earlier book Guns, Germs and Steel, and I found some things in Wright’s book to question. I would suggest that in general it’s very iffy to found a line of reasoning upon a particular cause for the decline of a premodern civilization. Historians of Sumer or Rome cannot agree upon causes; what hope has a non-specialist? Answer: make your case look good by cherry-picking arguments and data from authorities old and new. Give it up. But it does sell books. And yes, our civilization’s got one foot on a banana peel—conveying that message seems to be the raison d’etre for these books—and we love to read about it, witness all the sf dystopias, but I cannot believe that efforts to convince the intellect will help much, since little power is governed by that human faculty.

Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue
London, c. 1750: barely a teenager, the daughter of a desperately poor family becomes a prostitute. A hundred years earlier, Hobbes famously described the life of humans in a state of nature, without government, as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Such is the life of Mary Saunders, despite the existence of a government, because there were at the time few significant efforts to help the poor or restrain the depredations of the rich, while the legal system severely punished even small criminal acts. Rich in period flavor and well-drawn characters, though I felt that the protagonist was not as full as I’d wish: her behavior at the end seems abruptly imposed. A study in desperation. It is disgraceful to realize that one could write something not too different these days about a runaway on the streets of any large American city.

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William Hogarth (1697–1764), engraving of street life among the poor.

Darwinia, by Robert Charles Wilson
Science fiction, in that subset of alternative histories where some portion of the earth’s surface is suddenly switched out for the corresponding portion from another history or universe. Same topography, but everything else is different. Interesting, but I think it fell between two stools, to use an antiquated phrase (visualize someone beginning to sit down who can’t decide which of two stools to land on, and falls in the middle, to the bar-room floor). There’s the standard adventure/discovery plotline as characters from the “old world” (ours, interrupted prior to the first World War) explore the strangenesses of the apparently uninhabited “New World”. And then the New World turns out to have a connection to some sort of Lovecraftian Other Reality. Didn’t quite connect up for me, but nonetheless I’m currently reading this author’s Mysterium, which won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1994 and turns out to have a similar plot device. [Later. Yep, about the same. ]

Solar, by Ian McEwan
This guy sure can write, in one sense of the word, but I just could not care about the characters or the plot. Since the plot had to do with developing a revolutionary system of generating electricity from solar power, I should have wanted to see what happened. But the scientist protagonist was so unlikeable. Venal and boring. I was a third of the way through, with nothing much happening on the solar electricity front, and the main character still as clueless and mopey as ever…I gave up. Three demerits to me, but art (and my list of books to read) is long and life is short.

The Mount, by Carol Emshwiller
Recently I posted about how Young Adult books are sometimes well worth adult attention. Here’s one from the adult fiction shelves, that should have had the YA label; as an adult I found it simplistic and disappointing. The author is a Grand Old Lady of science fiction.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova
A woman discovers, at about age 50, that her increasing mental lapses are early onset Alzheimer’s, which progresses much more quickly than the Alzheimer’s of the elderly. Perhaps for the sake of irony, she’s a professor of psychology, specifically at the intersection of cognition and language. The author is a neuroscientist herself, who works with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. Moving and informative, but maybe you should wait to read it until you are past the age at which early-onset Alzheimer’s begins.

Ship Breaker , by Paolo Bacigalupi
and
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
See earlier post on YA fiction, the category of the first of these. Two looks into a post-oil, post-Big Crash future. Recommended. I liked Ship Breaker better, myself.

Platinum Pohl, by Frederik Pohl (1919- )
Short fiction by one of the masters at the top of his form. Sf.

Finding good fiction—a new place to look

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What is the difference between a book that libraries and bookstores shelve as “Young Adult” fiction, and one that goes into regular fiction?

This is a question that has occurred to me before. In the process of giving away kids’ books at the food pantry (described in a previous post) I also end up reading my stock which includes picture books, board books for infants, “chapter books”, and “YA” books. Most are ex-library, so Young Adult (defined as ages 13 – 18) books come bearing yellow “YA” tape markers on the spine. Some are as absorbing and satisfying as I could wish, and a few seem to defy their labels. “Yes, it’s a great book for a teenager, but also for adults,” I find myself thinking.

The most recent such experience was from a science fiction YA book by an author whose adult science fiction book I had just read. Searching for more of his work in the library I found the YA novel and checked it out. The author is Paolo Bacigalupi, and the books were The Windup Girl (2009, adult sf) and Ship Breaker (2010, YA). Mr. Bacigalupi is very hot in sf (see note 1), more than I realized; I think I read a story of his in Analog or Asimov’s, and off I went looking for more. That’s one of the good reasons for subscribing to fiction magazines, having new authors (or unfamiliar established authors) brought right to your door. And supporting the incubators of new writers, that’s important too.

Anyway, while his adult book is very good, I have to say that I enjoyed the YA novel just as much, and the writing, characterization, and plot were not inferior to the adult book.

So what does make the difference, why does one get a yellow YA label and the other not? Certainly it is not quality of writing.

Of course such formal classifications are not rigid, there is some overlap. They’re largely conveniences for marketing, and for the convenience of library patrons. Adults and teens do have some differences in taste, though, and those who stick on the labels must have some criteria. I listed some differences that I could think of:

YA fiction often includes
• a youthful protagonist
• the protagonist’s age as a defining factor: things are possible or not possible, things happen or do not happen, because the main character lacks the status, experience, privileges, that go with adulthood
• a “coming of age” story, either via a single event or a a longer period of growth; protagonist learns things that move her or him toward adulthood which may result in expansion of what’s possible for the character
• discovery of lessons or truths (appropriate to the culture): the value of the individual even if different from peers or expectations is a common one in our culture, along with the importance of loyalty, bravery, kindness; need for the young protagonist to strike out on his or her own, make difficult choices and make mistakes; learn that appearances are deceiving; find that one can sometimes master the unfamiliar, the formidable, through courage, persistence, hard work.
• following from the last two elements, there is often a moral structure to the book, making it clear that some choices are better than others and that choices bring consequences. I’m referring to a moral structure organic to the plot and characterizations, not something overt. (Preachy-ness turns off kids just as it does most adults, so it’s not going to be tolerated by most editors.) For myself, this added depth is high on my criteria for judging fiction, and a lot of adult fiction fails to deliver it.
• a less complex, more linear, plot than much—but not by any means all—adult fiction
• shorter length than many adult novels, although the Harry Potter series showed how even younger kids will read 700-page books if the book is good enough. And the extraordinary buzz among peers helped keep the enthusiasm up.

YA fiction almost never includes
• explicit sex
• graphic violence, pleasure from violence
• insanity or “perversity”
• the protagonist’s entire life history, birth to old age. Generally the book ends with adulthood or before.
• lengthy passages of description
• complex narrative devices such as multiple points of view
• politics or religion (except in denominational literature for youth)

You see that I didn’t make any of these rules absolute, though the first three under each heading probably come close. (The absolutism of the negatives—sex, violence, insanity—would be mostly for marketing purposes, not because books with these aspects wouldn’t appeal to teenagers!) The entire body of fiction published in a year is best viewed as a spectrum, with outright children’s books at one end, shading into YA fiction, then a range of books that can be enjoyed by adult or YA readers, shading into more and more adult fare.

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Unlike this graphic, the distribution isn’t uniform, but would follow a reverse bell curve with a dip in the middle representing a relatively small fraction of published books which would be enjoyed by both teens and adults.

What’s the point of all this?

Aside from my personal urge to define and clarify, there’s the significant news for serious adult readers that the YA shelves hold some books well worth reading. When YA recommendation lists include Treasure Island, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Rings, it’s clear that the YA label can cover a lot of ground. All of these works were published before labelling came along, so we think of them as adult books. But now, a book like Ship Breaker may get a yellow tape label as a marketing decision because someone thinks it will sell more copies that way, not because it’s judged too simple or not interesting for older readers.

How do we find these books, other than by word of mouth and chance?

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) has a website with lists of its awardwinners and recommendations. Lists include an annual Teens’ Top Ten determined by teenagers’ votes, Great Graphic Novels for Teens, Outstanding Books for the College Bound, and Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults. (Since I am such a promoter or reading by kids, I have to mention another list, for adults concerned about a teen who doesn’t read, called Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.) On the lists of award-winning authors there appear some familiar names such as Ursula Le Guin and Orson Scott Card, but more to the point there are lots of authors I’ve never heard of, and the net makes it easy to find out more about their books, maybe read a few pages on Amazon, and see if they’re at my library.

Easier yet, stop by the teen section of your library and sample some new fiction right there.

Give it a try, and I predict you’ll be rewarded with good books you’d otherwise have missed. And you’ll have more to talk about with the teenagers in your life!

Note 1: In fact, I see that The Windup Girl has won the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Awards for best sf novel and is a 2010 Hugo Award nominee, in the same category. Winning all three is the Triple Crown of science fiction. Bacigalupi has also received one of the awards named for science fiction masters, the Theodore Sturgeon Award. It also won the 2010 Compton Crook Award for best first novel. If I were Paolo, I’d be hunching my head into my shoulders anticipating some blow from fate after all this acclaim.

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Joost Swarte’s Summer Reading issue cover for The Walrus, “Canada’s Best Magazine”.

Ways in which print is superior to digital, part 1

NOTE: Which are better, fish or birds? Silly question, right? We must ask, “better for what?” I’m not maintaining that print is inherently a “better” medium than digital media, nor the reverse. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. We should maintain both.

1. Permanence

Information on the web can vanish overnight. Maybe your webhost suddenly shuts down.

I once hosted a site that talked more about this idea at http://mind.blazingfast.net/TheRaft, but it seems that google nor the wayback machine are able to help me reclaim that page. source

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Or someone controlling the content decides on a change…

Last week, President-elect Barack Obama launched a Web site with detailed information about his plans for technology, Iraq, and health care policies.

Now they’re gone. source.

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Image source.

In my own computer files I have the complete text of a book published in 1976, which was made available online by the author. It had to be downloaded one chapter at a time, and as I did so I was thinking “Oh this is silly, I can come back to this whenever I want.” But recently when I tried to go back to the link, it was gone, and the text is nowhere to be found as far as Google can tell.

What’s online may be altered too: the writer can undergo a complete turnaround, or merely make edits to what is posted, so that it’s difficult or impossible to recover the original. Rather like the drastic re-writing of history in 1984. With a printed book, such changes are additive rather than subtractive: an author publishes a “revised second edition” for example, but the first edition still exists and can be consulted. This means you can recover specific details lacking in the revised form (citations, turns of phrase, pronouncements, data, whatever it might be), as well as track the writer’s alterations.

As with other differences between print and online material, this lack of permanence shows how what’s considered an advantage can have a flip side, a drawback that is the consequence of a valued feature. Things have the “vices of their virtues”. Something that is easily updated cannot remain constant.

Even if digital data isn’t altered, it may become unreadable. We have found many examples of the earliest known writing, from 4600 years ago. And its glyphs are all visible to the human eye, able to be widely studied via photos so that languages are reconstructed and unknown forms of writing are deciphered. The pre-cuneiform writing below is part of a list of “gifts from the High and Mighty of Adab to the High Priestess, on the occasion of her election to the temple” about 2600 BC. (Wikipedia)

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Yet digital records less than a decade old may become unreadable because of physical deterioration or hard to access because of the adoption of new systems and hardware. The Wikipedia article on CDs shows a CD recorded in 2000 which by 2008 had lost part of its data due to physical degradation. And any computer user who is old enough, and is conscientious about making back-ups, probably has a stack of old floppy disks bearing data that didn’t get transferred before the old machine went out the door. If you find a ribbon-bound bundle of letters written in 1810 you can open and read them easily, but your own material stored 8 or 10 years ago on floppies—getting at that will take considerable effort, and each year that goes by will increase the difficulty of finding compatible equipment (as well as the likelihood that the disks themselves may be damaged or degraded).

When works exist only in digital form, there is reason to be concerned about how long they will endure, and be accessible. A shelf of books and movies on DVD may be about as hard to play in 2025 as a box of 8-track tapes is today. Software and hardware will have moved on. Where does that leave an author, if demand doesn’t support a re-issuance in new media? How do you share or re-read a book you liked or found important, when the computers that could read it are all in the landfill? What about historians, will they all have to congregate in museums of carefully-maintained antique computers, trying to coax words from deteriorated storage media? Print books, on the other hand, won’t become obsolete until the human eyeball evolves into something else (a barcode reader?).

So, if you want text or other material to be accessible to you in ten years, or to posterity in a hundred years, print it. On archival-quality paper.

Longlasting media

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Above, one tablet of the earliest known dictionary (about 2,300 BC). Source is the fascinating HistoryofScience.com, which has timelines of short articles for various aspects of science, medicine, and technology. Some of their articles (including this one) are based on Wikipedia, but not all. Being able to scan through them by topic is great. “It consists of Sumerian and Akkadian lexical lists ordered by topic. … One bilingual version from Ugarit [RS2.(23)+] is Sumerian/Hurrian rather than Sumerian/Akkadian. Tablets 4 and 5 list naval and terrestrial vehicles, respectively. Tablets 13 to 15 contain a systematic enumeration of animal names, tablet 16 [the one pictured] lists stones and tablet 17 plants. Tablet 22 lists star names.”

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Here’s a piece of thin paper 1300 years old: part of the earliest known complete star map, the Dunhuang Star Atlas. It was drawn in China about 650 AD. The paper survived being stored in a cave for an unknown period, and was found in 1907. Image source. More on this and another early Chinese star atlas here.

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This book, printed in 1543, is a first edition of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus. No data loss in nearly 500 years! Copernicus wrote it in Latin, which was then the international language of science, and is now called a “dead” language because it has no living native speakers. But due to its historical and religious importance, there are far more people alive today who can read Latin than can read 16th century Polish, the language Copernicus grew up speaking.

At the Food Pantry: Boy and books

There was a gangly boy, perhaps 14 years old, looking through the “Free Books for Kids” at the Food Pantry as I walked over. “Hi, finding anything you like?” I asked. “Well…” he said, ”do you have any comic books? like Spiderman vs. …” “No, the place where I get most of the books doesn’t have any comics, I’m sorry.” He picked up a thick hardback. “This is Harry Potter in Spanish?” “Yes, pretty good way to learn a language once you have some basics.” He made a polite noise and put the book back, but kept looking, telling me that he was moving to North Dakota this summer. That could be real soon, I thought, since tomorrow was the last day of school. “Whoa, that’s going to be a big change from Oregon. Have you ever been there?” “Oh, yeah, a bunch of times, we kinda go back and forth.”

He was a serious young man, with a good smile and a clear gaze. The other two people who’d gotten out of the small car were an older youth, brother I figured—same reddish-blond hair and very fair skin, and a woman who was being “head of household” over at the Food Pantry dock. She looked old enough to be their mom, barely, but then lately everyone seems too young to me.

I rummaged among the books for teens, looking for something he might like. I got few bookseekers his age, mostly my customers were under twelve. At a certain age reading tastes become more individualized, much harder to satisfy from my small stock of secondhand books and library discards. Here, among the chapter books, a fat paperback with a boy hero and “wizard” in the title. And an S.E. Hinton book, Tex, about a boy on his own on a ranch with his siblings after his mother dies and his father leaves to find work. I remembered a line, “I just went on spreading mustard on the baloney and eating it. We were out of bread.” On the cover were a motorcycle, which featured largely in the story, and a rawboned young man wearing a sheepskin jacket and a battered cowboy hat. I put it on the table near him, and looked for more. The (fictional) journal of a boy in the Union Army. One or two more.

The boy bound for North Dakota was still working through the books behind me, arranged in the open back of the car. “What’s this?” he asked, holding out an old grey hardback, a book club edition of Collected Stories of Mowgli. I’d just added it today. “It’s about a boy who’s raised by wolves,” I said, watching his face for signs of recognition. Nothing. “In India,” I added, “and he goes on living in the jungle with the animals. The stories are about his adventures and what he learns from them.” One of my favorite books as a child, I thought to myself, I really should be able to say something more about it. But he was interested. “How much is it?” he asked diffidently. “Oh, it’s free, they’re all free.” His face lightened, and his hand took a firmer hold upon the book. He looked at a few others without choosing any, then turned to the table. The book with “wizard” in the title made the cut, and another. “I’m getting some books for friends,” he said. “Good, that’s good.”

After a bit I ventured to say that he had a long drive ahead of him. “Yeah, three days,” with an air of remembering just how long those days were. “I have some other books to read too, though. Ice Fire and Dark Fire, it’s a series. There’s these two people, they live in a house with a bunch of dragons made out of clay. And a boy comes to live with them, they’re not his family, but he comes to live with them and the clay dragons start speaking to him, they’re not just clay…” Inner voices, not yet silenced, I thought, nodding as he spoke. His head turned quickly, he’d heard his name called though I hadn’t heard. “I’ve got to go now, thanks.” A lot of my interchanges with kids ended this way. “Sure, you’re welcome.”

He made several trips back to the small car with boxes of food, half-gallons of milk, and his brother groaned in a comic fashion under the weight of a large bag of dog kibble. Oh good, they’ve got a dog, hope the dog gets to go, but I won’t ask. Finally they were done, all three coming smiling back to the car; the mother gave me a friendly look, the grey-haired woman with the second-hand books who’d been talking to her son. He veered my way and said, with his open face, “Thanks for the books.” “You’re welcome, I hope you all have a good journey. And good luck in North Dakota.” They smiled and waved and off they went.

Reading and the brain, and “brain scans”

There’s a new book out about what happens in our brains when we read, which may appeal to people interested in accessible accounts of neuroscience, as well as to those of us who are watching the shift from paper to electronic reading.

Reading in the brain : the science and evolution of a human invention
Stanislas Dehaene. (New York : Viking, 2009)
ISBN: 9780670021109 – Description: xi, 388 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm.

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I put a reserve on it at the library and am waiting for it to arrive. In the meantime, I found that the author has put all the color figures online along with short chapter summaries. The imbalance on the webpage between text, and the diagrams and brain maps, makes the book look more forbiddingly technical than it is, I hope. Unfortunately the book on Amazon doesn’t have the LookInside feature, so we can’t look at more of the text. Reviews have been mostly positive (links to several, on author’s page; Barnes and Noble review) though one was critical of the book’s accessibility for us “interested lay readers”:

Unfortunately, he needs to lay a lot of groundwork. This makes the first 100 pages of the book an excruciating slog. While it picks up after the first two chapters, the book still sometimes slips back into detailed explanations of neurophysiology. Dehaene is first and foremost an academic, and he seems to want to make his work defensible to his peers even as he tries to explain it to laymen. This is especially problematic in his diagrams. Rather than helping to clarify points, his visual presentations are almost always overly technical, presenting formulas and pictures of the brain that are difficult to decipher. Part of the problem is that images are all black-and-white. While he offers up full color versions on the book’s website, that’s only useful to readers who are also regularly consulting their computers. …The result is a work that requires focus to read, but rewards the effort.

It is disappointing that, according to this reviewer, the images in the book are not in color like those on the web. This reminds me of a book I looked at recently on the various branches of our early human-ish ancestors, in which maps to locate the various hominid species were poorly done or not there at all. Publishers try to cut corners and end up crippling the book. But I hope that won’t be the case here, and even if parts of it are over my head I look forward to the exploration.

I’m expecting a stimulating mix of actual established neuroscience, conclusions based on new research still open to interpretation, and informed speculation. After discussing how, he believes, reading (including our writing systems) developed in response to our neurological structures—“over time, scribes developed increasingly efficient notations that fitted the organization of our brains”, Dehaene applies the same theory to other areas of human culture: “Mathematics, art, and religion may also be construed as constrained devices, adjusted to our primate brains by millennia of cultural evolution.”

Cautions about fMRI (brain scan) studies: What a fish can tell us

I don’t know how much of Reading in the Brain relies on fMRI data, but many of the popularized “this-is-how-your-brain-works” revelations do rely heavily on brain scans, including fMRI, and we’re seeing some push-back from other scientists. A study at Dartmouth (reported by Wired, and Science News) found that a salmon’s brain had “a beautiful, red-hot area of activity that lit up during emotional scenes [photos put before the salmon’s eyes]”. Wow! Unfortunately for all but the spiritualists among us, the fish in question was dead. Apparently the neural activity that showed up was random, and more rigorous statistical analysis of the data revealed this. While many popularizers, especially in the general media, give the impression that brain scan interpretation is cut and dried, the truth is quite the opposite.

Less dramatic studies have also called attention to flawed statistical methods in fMRI studies. Some such methods, in fact, practically guarantee that researchers will seem to find exactly what they’re looking for in the tangle of fMRI data. Other new research raises questions about one of the most basic assumptions of fMRI — that blood flow is a sign of increased neural activity. At least in some situations, the link between blood flow and nerve action appears to be absent. Still other papers point out insufficient attention to insidious pitfalls in interpreting the complex enigmatic relationship between an active brain region and an emotion or task. (Science News)

Michael Shermer, founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American, gives an excellent presentation of how fMRI works and why “bright spots” in the brain don’t necessarily tell us much of anything. His article (pdf) , “Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us”, is as technical as it needs to be but won’t give you a headache. A more technical but still readable article by Edward Vul et al., “Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition” examines one major source of errors in brain scan analyses. [There’s a short summary here at mindhacks.com, if you want to skip the technical details, and an interview with Edward Vul at scientificamerican.com.]

So while the area known as “social cognitive neuroscience” is fascinating, and we all love quick and easy explanations, remember that much of what you read in this area is, like the lottery, best used “for entertainment purposes only”.

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Home Ground: Words of our native land

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez. Trinity University Press, San Antonio Texas, 2006.

One of the language byways I find fascinating is that of terms for landforms; they’re often based on metaphors (oxbow bend in a river, neck of land), some have ancient linguistic roots, others reflect the cultural history of an area with words from the language of indigenous people or early explorers. Those who share my interest will love this book, but it also has appeal for those who enjoy American regional writing or history, or are interested in how the landforms we see come into being.

Home Ground’s entries are in alphabetical order but it’s far richer than a dictionary. Entries are signed by their authors, who are mostly American writers with particular regional roots––novelists, poets, nature writers, scientists. From them we hear not just the definition and history of the term but also more diverse notes: political (the drowning of Celilo Falls in the Columbia River, by a dam, comes up in the entry for dalles), ecological, personal, and literary (quotations from hundreds of writers including Thoreau, Jack London, T.S. Eliot, Joel Chandler Harris, Pablo Neruda, Louis L’Amour, Joyce Carol Oates).

There are no fewer than three indexes: one for authors so quoted, one for terms (with cross-references), and one for specific place names mentioned: the San Andreas Fault, Satans Slab, South Dakota. And there are short biographies of the writers who produced the entries. With all this, you can browse the book or look for something specific like every mention of the Mississippi River, all the terms relating to ice, or mentions of Herman Melville.

If you have ever wondered what the difference is between a hill and a mountain, or among the words canyon/cleft/coulee/gorge/gully/ravine, you can find out right here. Terms run the gamut of languages––ronde, tseghiizi (Navajo), névé, krummholz, cuesta, gumbo (probably from a Central Bantu dialect), nunatuk, eddy (possbily Norse), erg (Arabic) and so on (although etymology is not always included). And they vary from the words of Western science (imbricated rock) to those of other observers (coyote well, paternoster lake).

And now, a few sample entries:

tule land

Tule land is a term recorded as early as 1856, just after gold rush. It usually refers to the flats of bulrushes and other reeds along the rivers of the West Coast. In the muddy shallows along the Sacramento, for example, as the river takes its time joining the San Joaquin and approaching the San Pablo and San Francisco Bays, there are vast thickets of reeds, home to waterfowl and fur-bearing animals. Tule lands are especially common at the junctures of rivers, where the slightest breeze will set the rushes whispering and rasping over the mud and standing water. The Wintu Indians called tule land “the storehouse of instant tools” because the rushes could be used to make so many things: mats, clothes, baskets, lodges, boats, and cradles, sandals, brooms, fish traps, and talismanic images. ROBERT MORGAN

nivation hollow

In A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,
Bill Bryson wrote: “I never met a hiker with a good word to say about
the trail in Pennsylvania. It is, as someone told a National Geographic reporter in 1987, the place ‘where boots go to die.’…Mile upon mile of ragged, oddly angled slabs of stone strewn about in wobbly piles…These require constant attentiveness if you are not to twist an ankle or sprawl on your face––not a pleasant experience with fifty pounds of momentum on your back.” Such a hiker on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania might just as well have been complaining about nivation hollows. A bowl-shaped depression in the ground, a nivation hollow begins to take shape when ice forms over a shallow rock basin beneath a snow bank. The ice freezes and thaws over time. During the warm period, melted snow seeps into the bottom of the hollow. During the cooler period, the seep water freezes. The rock breaks up, weathers, and erodes. Meltwater carries away the finer rock particles and the hollow becomes larger and deeper. MARY SWANDER

fil du courant

A Cajun French term meaning “thread of the current,” fil du courant is used to describe the optimal navigation course within a bayou or river. The fil is often visible as a glassy-smooth pathway through the otherwise ripping water. Louisiana shrimpers follow the fil du courant to avoid underwater obstructions and to secure sufficient depth for skim nets that extend winglike from either side of the vessel. MIKE TIDWELL

fall line

Fall line is a phrase both metaphoric and literal. In broader terms, it means the zone where the Piedmont foothills level out into the coastal plain, where sandy soil derived from marine deposits replaces rocky rolling land. On some southeastern rivers, such as in the Carolinas and Virginia, the Fall Line is a specific place where shoals and rapids once stopped navigation from the coast because ships couldn’t pass through. Cities such as Richmond, Fayetteville, and Columbia sprang up at the head of navigation, and mills and factories were built to take advantage of the water power at the falls and rapids. The abrupt change of elevation caused industry and commerce, courts and seats of government, to take root in those areas. ROBERT MORGAN

Line drawings, by Molly O’Halloran, illustrate some of the terms, such as this one for “Quaking Bog” which shows how peat, sphagnum, geologic forms, plants and water all combine to form this floating vegetative structure that will seem solid until stepped on. [The scan is much reduced, and for some reason tinted beige, unlike the original.]

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