I've just finished reading Lynne Truss' magnum opus, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I am a stickler for correct grammar and punctuation (though, as readers of this blog might have noticed, my grammar and spelling do slip, and my punctuation is usually used in the service of extending innocent sentences with absurdly long subordinate clauses such as this one- rather like unwitting travelers on a Procrustean bed). The book was given to me for Xmas by friend who had the insight to know that any acquaintance with a fellow stickler- especially one as witty, accomplished, and utterly taken with the magnificence of the properly written word's powers of expression as Truss- would delight me.
It delighted me so much, in fact, that I've prolonged over four-and-a-half months a process which normally takes two days (if that): the reading of a new book. The carefully rationed, drawn-out acquisition of knowledge of Truss' wonderfully, dottily brilliant obsession has been one of the most pleasurable of my occupations in the past few months; getting to know a fellow punctuation prude has been a simultaneously hilarious and soothing experience.
It's that acquaintance which prompts me to write. As explained in my post below, the past few weeks have been entirely occupied; and while there have been many things I have wished to (and still plan to) write on- Ann Coulter, Samuel Alito, the "missing link" fossil- none of them roused me enough to prompt my (metaphorical) pen to paper.
But meeting and getting to know a part of Lynn Truss- a woman to whom I will never speak- has moved me, because what she writes about and what she is infatuated and obsessed with are, to some extent, the same ideas which obsess me.
I speak of getting to know Ms. Truss, of meeting her, and in a very profound sense I have: I know parts of her ideas, her mind, her style of thinking and of expressing thought, and if I saw those things again I would recognize them as being as surely and distinctively hers as the tone of her voice (though I will probably never hear it), even without her name attached to the material. What is this if not intimate knowledge of at least some portion of her?
I have the same type, though a far deeper level, of knowledge of Mark Twain. I know his style, his cadence, the insurpassable ordering of his wit; I would know them anywhere, and though it is now rare, when I hear quoted some aphorism of his that I have not already read, I need not have it attributed to murmur to myself, with a private smile, "Twain".
Private, because I know him well. He is not a friend, because he does not know me; but I have the feeling- as do all those, I think, who read and love Twain- that if he had known me he'd have realized that I'm his kind of person. (Part of Twain's genius, of course, is that regardless of his rank as one of the most illustrious of America's sons, his voice is always an amused murmur in the ear, a quietly chuckled aside, rather than a wallop over the head with the mesmerizing mastery of his wordplay.)
The point I am belaboring but- as rereading this proves- somewhat failing to make is that the correctly written word is a window into the mind of its writer, a means of knowing and in some sense conversing with persons otherwise so far removed in time or space that physical contact is an impossibility. It is, in other words, the most profound kind of time travel we humans can ever experience.
I've written on this before, in a far more mystical sense (see Words Are the Soul's Ambassadors, December 2005), but never really made the point that properly written words are a form of immortality more potent than anything else humans have yet conceived.
They must be properly written, because absent a consistent, publicly acknowledged system of notation (Truss' beloved punctuation, my beloved grammar) no-one who doesn't already know the writer will be able to grasp the subtleties of his or her ideas, which makes the entire concept of immortal conversation or understanding moot before it ever gets off the ground.
It is also worth noting, in today's bare-all, show-all, tell-all melee of instant gratification, that measured, considered communication is still well worth the effort it takes, since the ridiculous ease of publishing one's thoughts in cyberspace is offset by the fact that once published, such thoughts float indefinitely and perhaps forever, irretrievable and unalterable by their authors. Such longevity of ideas is, if not immortal, certainly worth more than the shrug of dismissal- if one thinks long enough to shrug- that it earns now.
One more thing- the title of this post: it doesn't mean anything. I noticed the possible rearrangement of the letters in the aforementioned book's title and decided to publish under it- yet another example of the gratuitous tossing about of undisciplined ideas on this Web through which our thoughts crouch and creep.
I just thought it was rather clever.
4/17/2006 at 09:58
Seats, Loots, and Sheaves
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