Have a Carrot

Lucidity and the Low Shelf of the Bookcase


I like words. I like sentences, essays and books. I like reading and writing, which turned out to be quite handy in graduate school. I still like writing and find it a good way to spend my free hours. And I still like reading, which is a good way to spend my un-free hours with my kids. Obviously the focus of my reading and writing has changed. Instead of brilliantly insightful essays on Locke's Second Treatise of Government, I write offhandedly witty parodies of PTA meetings. And Plato and Parmenides have been replaced by Sendak and Seuss. 

When I think about this change I often let out a hollow gasp, "Good God! what has become of me?! What circle of intellectual hell have I sunk to?"


I miss the seriousness, the intellectual rigor of academia. 

I miss living among the big questions: Is the virtue of a great man the same as that of a great citizen? If there is a god, exactly how screwed are the Democrats? 

At times like these I long to be back in the library leafing through the academic journals like some self-satisfied debutante looking for her picture in Town and Country. But because it's nap time and I can't leave the house, I do the next best thing, troll the internet for free access to academic databases. 
I come across something like this:  

"In the speculative, exploratory endeavor that follows, I foreground the most important manifestation of the imbrication of technological advance and the capacity for emotive expression, and attempt to establish a coherent theory of assemblage and affect."



?!??!! To be fair, this is just one sentence, taken completely out of context, from the beginning of a carefully constructed argument. In defense of her work, the author would say that once you get to the end everything becomes clear and makes perfect sense. And she would be right; truly, the bibliography is extremely lucid and well-typed.

Cross my heart--this was written by a real professor, from a real university, in a peer-reviewed journal.
The best part? It's from a lecture sponsored by the Department of Comparative Literature (the tarted-up name for the English department) at the University of Pennsylvania. Yup, the ivy league one. Yup, the English department. Yup, the same English you and I speak. No doubt the professor was a gifted child. 

All academics, me included, have their linguistic vices. Bad ones. The combination of impressive-sounding jargon and sympathetic colleagues is too much to resist. But the offenses committed by
 English professors seem to be the most egregious. You would think that all that exposure to great English prose would encourage them to write intelligibly. But you would be wrong. 
ome of my best friends are English professors who write very well; the ones teaching your children probably aren't. My bet is they outsource their writing to 
a dyslexic Indian, who starts the essay in Hindi, translates it into French, then Ancient Greek, maybe Fortran, back into French, and finally into English. If
Professor Speculative Exploratory Endeavor (her friends in the Central American Studies department call her "Essay") were my son or daughter's professor,
I'd ask for a tuition discount.  

Reading stuff like this leaves me nauseated and a little itchy. I take a deep breath, put away the internet, go wake the kids up from their nap, and then start searching for something to reassure me that our language has not been damaged beyond repair, that words and coherent ideas are still on speaking terms. I go to the low shelf in the bookcase.
There's no ugly "theorizing narratology" rash that can't be soothed with a little Runaway Bunny

The best children's books (-please write in with your favorites-) are true marvels of the English language. The writing is so finely honed that nothing can be added or taken away. They flow with a rhythm and harmony that has the power to pull you off the ledge, again and again and again! again! again! A little Fox in Socks on autopilot will realign your neurons quicker than the new meditation app on your iPhone.

Even more impressive is how the best authors can take the most tired cliches and commonplace literary formulas and create something entirely fresh and beautiful. From page one we all know the the damn bunny isn't really going to run away from home. (Never too early to talk to your kids about hawks.) But when he takes the carrot his mom offers, doesn't it feel like the earth tilts a few degrees closer to the sun? 

And let's not overlook the clarity with which the best books render the emotional complexity of existence. Even a stupid three-year-old gets it when Virginia Lee Burton tells us how
along came the new gasoline shovels and the new electric shovels and the new Diesel motor shovels and took all the jobs away from the steam shovels, and this made Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne very, VERY SAD.

The illustrations are absolutely essential. Mary Anne without a face is just another tired old steam shovel. And Where the Wild Things Are on audio book is about as satisfying as fat-free mayo on an unsalted cracker. Ultimately, however
, it is the language that gives the book life. Even the best illustrations cannot compensate for bad text. Botticelli descended from heaven on a shimmering silver cloud carried by rosy-cheeked putti could not redeem the "cacophony of informational flows" coming from the pages of the Journal for the American Society of Critical Narratological Theory.  

Copyright 2013 Paul J. Rasmussen