Highlights from Recent Reading

The British had always loved sugar, so much so that when they first got access to it, about the time of Henry VIII, they put it on or in almost everything from eggs to meat to wine. They scooped it onto potatoes, sprinkled it over greens, and at it straight off the spoon if they could afford to. Even though sugar was very expensive, people consumed it till their teeth turned black, and if their teeth didn’t turn black naturally, they blackened them artificially to show how wealthy and marvelously self-indulgent they were. — from At Home, by Bill Bryson

Dinner finally became an evening meal in the 1850s, influenced by Queen Victoria. As the distance between breakfast and dinner widened, it became necessary to create a smaller meal around the middle of the day, for which the word luncheon was appropriated. Luncheon originally signified a lump or portion (as in “a luncheon of cheese”). In that sense it was first recorded in English in 1580. In 1755, Samuel Johnson was still defining it as a quantity of food—”as much food as one’s hand can hold.” Only slowly over the next century did luncheon come to signify, in refined circles at least, the middle of the day. — from At Home, by Bill Bryson

Mrs. Loudon was even more successful than her husband thanks to a single work, Practical Instructions in Gardening for Ladies, published in 1841, which proved to be magnificently timely. It was the first book of any type ever to encourage women of elevated classes to get their hands dirty and even to take on a faint glow of perspiration. This was novel almost to the point of eroticism. Gardening for Ladies bravely insisted that women could manage gardening independent of male supervision if they simply observed a few sensible precautions—working steadily but not too vigorously, using only light tools, never standing on damp ground because of the unhealthful emanations that would rise up through their skirts. The book appeared to assume that the reader had scarcely ever been outdoors, much less laid hands on a gardening tool. Here, for instance, is Mrs. Loudon explaining what a spade does: “The operation of digging, as performed by a gardener, consists of thrusting the iron part of the spade, which acts as a wedge, perpendicularly into the ground by the application of the foot, and then using the long handle as a lever, to raise up the loosened earth and turn it over.” — from At Home, by Bill Bryson

The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches” was one of a series of poems by a German doctor named Heinrich Hoffman, who wrote them originally as a way of encouraging his own children to follow lives of rigid circumspection. Hoffmann’s books were highly popular and went through many translations (including one by Mark Twain). All followed the same patter, which was to present children with a temptation difficult to refuse, then show them how irreversibly painful were the consequences of succumbing. Almost no childhood activity escaped the possibility of corrective brutality in Hoffmann’s hands. In another of his poems, “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb,” a boy named Conrad is warned not to suck his thumbs because it will attract the attention of a ghoulish figure known as the great tall tailor, who always comes “To little boys that suck their thumbs.” The poem continues:

And ere they dream what he’s about
He takes his great sharp scissors out
And cuts their thumbs clean off—and then
You know, they never grow again

Alas, Little Suck-a-Thumb ignores the advice and discovers that punishment in Hoffmann’s world is swift and irreversible:

The door flew open, in he ran,
The great red-legged scissor-man
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught our little Suck-a-Thumb

Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out—Oh! Oh! Oh!
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast;
That both his thumbs are off at last.

Mamma comes home; there Conrad stands,
And looks quite sad, and shows his hands
“Ah!” said Mamma, “I knew he’d come
To naughty little Suck-a-Thumb.”

For older children such poems may have been amusing, but for smaller children they must often have been—as they were intended to be—terrifying, particularly as they were always accompanied by graphic illustrations showing dismayed youngsters irreversibly in flame or spouting blood where useful parts of their body used to be. — from At Home, by Bill Bryson

The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second per second, through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded a corner when his insouciant step caught my eye; there was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. — from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

Then the mosquitoes would come, the mosquitoes that could easily drive migrating caribou to a mad frenzy so that they trampled their newborn calves, the famous arctic mosquitoes of which it is said, “If there were any more of them, they’d have to be smaller.” — from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

Nonsense can be made to make sense by supposing some alternative context for it. At the start of his revolutionary work Syntactic Structures, Noam Chomsky cooked up a nonsense sentence in order to explain what he saw as the fundamental difference between a meaningful sentence and a grammatical one. “Colorles green ideas sleep furiously” was proposed as a fully grammatical sentence that had no possible meaning at all. Within a few months, witty students devised ways of proving Chomsky wrong, and at Stanford they were soon running competitions for texts in which “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” would be not just a grammatical sentence but a meaningful expression as well. Here’s one of the prizewinning entries:

It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a reate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously. — from Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, by David Bellos

However convinced we may be that different languages are different things and not to be confused with one another, in practice we never stop muddling them up. The borderline between, say, English and French is more ragged and foggy that grammars and dictionaries would have us believe. “Sayonara, amigo!” may not be an officially Enlgish way of saying farewell, but few English speakers have any trouble knowing what it means. — from Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, by David Bellos

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