In late 2011 I decided, in the hopes of keeping my library down to a manageable size, to comb through the unread sections in alphabetical order. It was a naïve, Sisyphean project, and it will take forever—so I’d better get moving. Shelf Defense is my occasional notebook about what I dig up, from Alphabet Juice to Point Omega.
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ROY BLOUNT JR., ALPHABET JUICE (2008)
WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because Munro’s in Victoria had it remaindered in 2009, and because I enjoy little factoids about words and why they sound strange.
THOUGHTS: This is a tough thing to write about, because Blount’s project is to celebrate the elastic, plummy, sonicky (his word) qualities of language—so my sentences are feeling extra self-conscious today. Alphabet Juice is a direct retort to linguists who claim that the relationship between words and their meanings is arbitrary. As proof, Blount wades knee-deep into several dictionaries at once, taking us through the alphabet letter by letter and pointing out the ways in which certain ideas need certain kinds of words to describe them. This goes well beyond onomatopoeia. (Take the sphinx, a mythic, riddle-spouting creature that strangled its victims; saying the word sphinx physically makes your throat contract). It’s a joyous yet calming book, one that forced me to re-assess a bunch of my own lazy writing habits. It’s partly self-help, too. When introducing the word ipsilateral, Blount writes, “This is not a word that you’ll ever need, but I thought it might cheer you up.”
KEEP OR SELL: Keep.
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BOETHIUS, THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY (524, TRANS. VICTOR WATTS)
WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Because I thought it might help me in my Chaucer class in 2007. Who knows? Maybe it would have.
THOUGHTS: If I were about to be brutally executed for a bogus crime, I doubt I would sit down and write an elegant treatise on everything I’ve ever learned about philosophy. But thank goodness Boethius did—for a long time this was key connective tissue in the West’s understanding of some essential ancient myths and texts. The Canterbury Tales draws heavily on his modified wheel of fortune concept. (Later, so would Pat Sajak.) The bigger surprise, though, is that it’s mostly a treat to read, even now. Boethius imagines the personification of philosophy visiting him in jail, and methodically dismantling all of his fears and dilemmas about this mortal coil he was about to depart. Then, near the end, it goes into some pretty bland hair-splitting about God and free will and blah blah blah. Let’s do some quotes!
Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall.
What a splendid thing power is, when we find it insufficient even for its own preservation!
And my personal favourite:
Perhaps you think that beauty means being resplendent in clothing of every variety: but if the clothing catches my eye, my admiration will be directed at either the quality of the material or the skill of the tailor … If Nature gives them their beauty, how does it involve you?
KEEP OR SELL: Keep.