Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reading Comprehensions

Since you are visiting this blog, you are a Reader, someone who actively enjoys reading, and thereby reading comprehension. One of the great joys as a Reader is understanding subtleties of language, straight out, or the complicated systems of signs and signifiers to the signified as described by Ferdinand de Saussure, the venerable father of linguistics.

And so some potpourri thoughts on things I’ve read, or read about, recently.

Dan Brown. Yeah, We Need to Argue With Success

The long-awaited actual sequel to The Da Vinci Code went on sale last week. It sold 2 MILLION copies in that first week, combined hardcover, audio, and electronic in the U.S., U.K., and Canadian markets alone. That’s an astounding number of readers.

I have not read his prose, and only barely watched TDC on tv, but I’ve been reading a bit about the books and the phenomenon. Seems he likes to play with facts, beyond the legitimate fictional tale he is spinning. This site tracks some of his lapses in fact-checking, particularly resetting the Illuminati, which was an Enlightenment-era secret society, into the early 1500s. In my mind, if you want a secret society of scientists to vow revenge against the Church for “crimes against scientists like Galileo and Copernicus,” then you make one up. You don’t borrow an actual secret society from more than two centuries later that had no such agenda.

And then there is Dan’s prose. I ran across an article in the Telegraph where a young poet named Tom Chivers details 20 of the Brown’s worst sentences, with comments. It’s worth reading the whole list, but this is my favorite:

#10. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4:
“Five months ago, the kaleidoscope of power had been shaken, and Aringarosa was still reeling from the blow.”

Did they hit him with the kaleidoscope?

Tim Chivers, he's a Reader. His deadpan comment just made my day.

John Wells Just Didn’t Get The West Wing Fans

Reading extends to the semiotics of film and television. I’ve been watching the Bravo reruns of the exalted series The West Wing in the morning. Seeing the whole series compressed like this underscores the decline that set in when Aaron Sorkin left and John Wells took over as executive producer. In the episode “Gaza,” Wells tampered with a small detail that spoke volumes about how he thought the WW fans couldn’t “read” their own show.

TWW often played with time conventions, starting an episode at the end of a day, and then the next frame says 7:10 a.m., and you know they mean that morning and that you will see what led up to the first scene.

And then Aaron Sorkin left, and John Wells and company decided they needed to over-explain conventions that had worked well for 4 seasons. And so the "Gaza" episode. It starts in the settlement, with Fitz, Andy, and Donna on a fact-finding mission. In the intro before the credits, the SUV with Donna and Fitz blows up. It’s very dramatic.

The next frame is in the west wing, and the chyron says 7:00 a.m. BEFORE THE EXPLOSION. I remember people going crazy about this on TWOP when it was first on, and seeing it anew, I understand wherewith the outrage and the need to mock Wells.

Then, after the credits, and a scene back in Gaza, the action returns to the west wing, with a chyron 8:00 a.m., DAY OF THE EXPLOSION. OMG. Did Wells really think that no one could follow such simplistic playing with time? (Imagine what Wells would do if he took over Lost.) And even if we did get confused, he just told us it was the morning of the explosion. Clearly John Wells is not much of a Reader himself.

And Then There’s Grammar

Here’s a very problematic sentence in the current New Yorker, from no less than David Remnick, in his Talk of the Town about Rod Blagojevich.

“The American political memoir comes in many forms-—the magisterial catalogue of heroic achievement, the backward glance at a modest beginnings-—but none of these sub-genres have thrived with more repetition and variation than the cri de Coeur of the indicted-but-not-yet-convicted office-holding grandee.”

With only 2 examples set off by dashes, “none” should be “neither.” I wonder if Remnick had 3 examples when he wrote it, then one got cut for space and no one realized that the predicate subject of the next clause had to change.

More importantly, “have thrived” should be “has thrived,” no matter how you parse it. None is singular, “none has thrived” is the underlying sentence.

Whoever is copy editing this TOTT pieces isn’t a Reader, not as we here understand it.


Anonymous said...

I thought I would just share with you a post from Language Log on the "none" agreement question. It is not the only post on the question, but it is a representative post.

BTW, that may be a blog that you enjoy reading...


Anonymous said...

The word "lead" should be "led"

M.A.Peel said...

Kathy, thanks for the link. I agree that there are "none" sentences when the plural feels right, sounds right, makes the most sense. In this particular construction, the traditional singular for "none" is right from every angle.

Anon, I stared at that sentence myself, knew something was wrong, and just couldn't see it. Everyone needs an editor. Thanks for pointing it out.

Edward Copeland said...

I quit The West Wing early because all of Sorkin's dialogue sounded the same, so much so that it didn't matter which character spoke the lines. That annoying Donna didn't help.

kathleenmaher said...

Interesting post, M.A., comparing Brown with Remnick.
Once on a yoga retreat, when I wanted to retreat from the sun, I attempted the first 50 pages of "The Da Vinci Code."
Possibly a more intersting exercise than picking the worst sentences would be looking for an adequate or lucid one.
I also attempted 50 pages of "The Celestine Prophecy." To get through 50 pages of this piece of work required attempts at humorous out loud readings. My husband who made it through the entire book without comical recitations laughed politely at my dramatic presentations.
Remnick may be a different matter. Ordinarily, he doesn't dive toward the muckiest layer for readars' entertainment. He may have written in haste and as mentioned without an editor.
That said, bad grammar is always a strike against literacy, which grows dimmer every day. The exception here, at least one I make, perhaps too freely, appears in dialogue. People speak in slang and short hand, be they CEOs of mega-conglomerates or eighth graders.
Multicultural or borrowed folk phrases add color and personality to fictional characters if not real people. Or, so I like to think.
Big up, Nice up, and One Love