Anita Brookner & The Accidental Emperor: “Elizabeth Finch,” by Julian Barnes

Aficionados of Julian Barnes may have read his new novel,  Elizabeth Finch,  based loosely on the life of the subtle writer, Anita Brookner. (Both are Booker Prize winners.)  I read it in an afternoon,  completely absorbed but astonished.  I had expected an imitation of a Brookner novel, with a spinster heroine, afternoons at The National Gallery,  and unexpected friendships with surprising characters. 

Of course, Julian Barnes does not do the expected thing. This short book, divided into three parts, is part traditional novel, part essay, part biography. The narrator, Neil, a former student of Elizabeth Finch, takes her class “Culture and Civilization” in his thirties.  She warns the class that, though she does not pretend to be Socrates, she may not be the right teacher for all students:  they will engage in dialogue.  She speaks precisely, without notes, in  perfectly formed sentences, recounting the controversial history of Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor (362-363) who tried to save paganism by quashing the Christians.  Julian’s death in battle, in her view,  hastened the end of paganism and the rise of fanatical, book-burning Christianity.  History would have been different had Julian lived.   She gives equal time to the legends of Christian martyrs, among them St. George and St. Ursula.
Neil, a twice-divorced actor-turned-vegetable farmer, feels his mind expanding in response to her rigorous interpretations of history.  He idolizes and, indeed, loves EF, as he calls her, and at the end of the semester asks her out to lunch.  The two become lunch companions, but their relationship is never sexual. Barnes writes,

Our lunches continued for nearly twenty years, a still and radiant point in my life….  As she grew older – well, as we both got older -she was beset by the usual ailments and mishaps, of which she always made light.  But to me she was unchanged:  in dress, conversation, appetite (small), smoking (determined).

In an essay by Julian Barnes on Anita Brookner in The Guardian, Brookner seems very much like EF. Well, she is EF.  Barnes writes that he  knew her for thirty years – “not well” – and at their lunches, “Anita, who was always in situ, however early I arrived, greeting me with her usual unsettling opener: ‘So, what have you got for me?’”

Elizabeth is a charming, unknowable friend.  And she clearly loves Neil.  After her death, the novel takes an unexpected turn when Neil inherits her library and papers.  Poring over her short notes, he decides to write an essay on  Julian the Apostate, thinking this would please her.    And I loved this essay, which includes a short biography of Julian and a compendium of literary and political reactions by poets and essayists through the ages.

Neil writes, “Julian was a Roman emperor who never set foot in Rome.  He was an accidental emperor – though accidents led to imperial power more often in those days.  He spent his life as a scholar, far from court, far from military duty.”  

 I like that phrase, “accidental emperor.”

In the last part of the novel, Neil is still obsessed with EF.  He continues his investigation of her life by visiting his former lover, Anna, who had also been EF’s student, to pick her brain. But Anna, who startles him by admitting she was  a close friend of EF, does not give away much information. 

Do we get closer to EF in the process of Neil’s musings and writing?  We certainly get closer to Neil, who is desperate not to lose the memory of EF.  If our mentors had combined the best qualities of the Romantics and the Stoics, we, too, might have considered writing about Julian the Apostate. But then they were not Elizabeth Finch/Anita Brookner.

How I miss Brookner’s novels!

 Misheard Lyrics: Does The Strand Have Chairs?

I never fall into a stupor and sigh, “I belong in New York.” New York is glamorous and fun, if overwhelming, with an infinite number of things to see and do: art museums, concerts, plays, foreign film festivals, poetry readings, markets, grazing at gourmet restaurants, cozy cafes, ferry rides, and sight-seeing.

It is also ruinously expensive.
New York City is a magnet for young, ambitious people.  Years ago when I was starting out, I applied for a teaching job at a private school in Manhattan.  I declined the interview when I was told the salary was $8,000 a year. I tried to get my head around living in New York on that. Would I inhabit a homeless camp, getting up at 3 a.m. to rush to school to shower and don my one suitable outfit, a designer suit from a thrift shop? 

New Jersey might be more affordable – but  it was quite expensive, too.  Perhaps Bruce Springsteen and his wife would let me rent a corner of their attic.  In return, I would recite lyrics I’ve misheard: “Your almost enemy has come to town” is my edgy version of “Your own worst enemy has come to town.” But perhaps it is tactless to admit I haven’t quite understood the lyrics.

In New York, the bookstores  ensorcell me.  About a decade ago, a friend sent me a picture postcard of The Strand, a famous four-story bookstore with 2.5 million new and used books.  I stared at it, saucer-eyed.  Where I live, the choice of bookstores is between Barnes and Noble…and Barnes and Noble.  

 I would love to go to New York to shop at The Strand. I have one question:  does The Strand have chairs?  After an hour (or a day), I like to flop in a cozy chair and sort my stack of books to decide which I’ll buy.

I’ll settle for a wooden chair.  Sitting must be done.

If they don’t have chairs, they must accompany me to a coffee shop where I can sit and sort the books.

Strange Encounter, or, Don’t Talk to Strangers!

In this photo, Susan Sarandon is in her 60s!

When Susan Sarandon was 50, the age of Bilbo Baggins when he embarked on his first adventure, or perhaps 60, an age that can engender panic in women, she had a croning ceremony.  Her then-partner, Tim Robbins, paid for Sarandon and friends to fly to an island for the croning.

Sarandon never looked like a crone, but rejected the stereotype of the aging woman and embraced her power. Good for her! For the rest of us, it may be slightly different.  Like the late Carrie Fisher, who admitted that she hadn’t aged well, and was annoyed by a movie critic who trashed her looks because he thought Princess Leia at 60 should be able to wear a gold bikini, I do not resemble my younger, pretty self.  

Change is inevitable, though we do not expect it. I am haggard, and yet I do not consider myself a crone, a hag, or any of the other sexist, ageist terms used to denigrate women. I spend so little time in front of mirrors that I refuse to be a crone!  My self-image has never depended on appearance.  As far as I go:  Did I comb my hair?  Fashion statement: Blue or brown jeans?  Reality check: Does this tiny stain on my sweater show?                      

  One day this fall, a strange woman approached me and belittled my appearance. She told me I had a hair growing out of my chin. 

I  responded with the horror of a teenage girl:  “No!  I didn’t know.  My husband didn’t tell me!”

“Maybe he didn’t see it,” she said.

Later, my husband said, “I didn’t see it, because there isn’t one.” 

And really, was it a complete stranger’s business to mention a hair on my chin?  I was so embarrassed.

It turns out that older women can make sexist, ageist assumptions about women’s priorities, too. Who knew?

A Neglected Tour de Force: D. H. Lawrence’s “The Captain’s Doll”

D. H. Lawrence’s short stories and novellas seem to hover outside the canon. Everyone has heard of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but who peruses “Tickets, Please” or The Ladybird? Yet the short works are superior to many of his later novels, among them The Plumed Serpent (1926), in which an English woman falls in love with a Mexican landowner who absurdly declares himself an Aztec god.

The Captain’s Doll, published in 1923, is a tour de force.  In this elegant novella, set in Germany, Lawrence expounds on his favorite theme, the sexual struggle between men and women. He writes with clarity, eloquence, brevity, and not without a tad of malice – a driving force in this novella.   

At the center is a handmade doll, or manikin, designed and sewn by an impoverished countess, Hannele, to distance herself from her lover. Her friend and business partner, Mitchka, is startled by her nerve in making a replica of Captain Hepburn.  The two women sell their handmade dolls in Hannele’s studio, along with embroidered cushions, scarves, and other decorative objects.   Lawrence writes, “The dolls were quite famous, so the two women did not starve.”

The description of the doll hints at the subtle irritation behind Hannele’s love of the captain.

It was a perfect portrait of an officer of a Scottish regiment, slender, delicately made, with a slight, elegant stoop of the shoulders and close-fitting tartan trousers.  The face was beautifully modelled, and a wonderful portrait, dark-skinned, with a little, close-cut, dark moustache, and wide-open dark eyes, and that air of aloofness and perfect diffidence which marks an officer and a gentleman.

Lawrence writes brilliant dialogue, a vehicle for expression of the tension between men and women. In The Captain’s Doll, the dialogue captures Hannele’s hesitancy and and the charming captain’s confidence. Captain Hepburn laughs at the doll – “You’ve got me” – but explains he is late because his wife has been writing letters to the Major-General about rumors of his infidelity. His colonel has advised him to take a month’s home leave.  The captain is unsure if he will go, but has no desire to visit England.

Hannele forgets the doll in her relief.

A glad, half-frightened look came on her face.  
“You mean you don’t want to leave me?” she asked, breathless.

When a marriage is in jeopardy, the wife of course must act. Mrs. Hepburn makes a surprise trip to  Germany and visits Hannele’s studio.  She is utterly crushed when she sees the doll. She wants the doll, but cannot have it.

The real struggle, however, is not between the captain and his wife, but between the captain and Hannele. And like many of Lawrence’s male characters, he harbors cold, unemotional ideas about love: he hates the expression of emotions, and feels divided from humanity. Yet he doesn’t want to be alone. Hannele captured his image in the doll, but is mesmerized by the man.

Parts remind me of Lawrence’s novel, Women in Love,  though Rupert is truly in love and more flexible in his philosophy than Captain Hepburn. Ursula, his lover, ignores Rupert’s notions, focusing on love itself.  But can Hannele do the same?

Lawrence’s philosophy of love and sex dominates his work – The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were banned because of eroticism – but in each book the the characters’ relationships are worked out differently.

I do think The Captain’s Doll would make a good film!

Off the Grid on $168,548: Jonathan Dee’s “Sugar Street”

“You must make it smaller, scale it down:  maybe that was the answer all along.” – Sugar Street, by Jonathan Dee

 In Jonathan Dee’s eerie new novel, Sugar Street, the fanatical unnamed narrator plots his disappearance off the grid. On his drive across the country to a city where no one will look for him, he dares not stop at a motel to sleep and shower, because his picture would be captured on security cameras. He carries all his worldly goods, $168,548, in an envelope – a sum of money which is not entirely his, we gather. Nonetheless, he plans to finance the rest of his life with this cash. 

Written in exquisite vignettes, philosophical observations, and  sharply-drawn scenes, this novel has a Dostoevskian vibe. As I read, I thought of Notes from the Underground, whose alienated narrator rants against society – from the safety of his room. In the beginning, Dee’s narrator is calmer than Dostoevsksy’s, but  he is incensed that human lives have been reduced to data on the internet.  He has dropped out of society to live a more human, even a more humane, life.  And yet he hints that he is not quite legit.

I’ve done some harm.  I’ve hurt people. And I’ve done it while priding myself on being kind, unselfish, a good person, which only makes it worse, because it suggests how little self-awareness I have, how unreal my will is, how pointless my intent.  I left it worse than I found it. I’ve committed some crimes.

The novel is partly didactic, telling us step-by-step how to drop out of the electronic surveillance culture.  He puts a  drill through the motherboard of his computer and runs over his phone with the car, disables Siri and buys paper maps.  He avoids highways because of security cameras, ditto corporate gas stations, ditto convenience stores, ditto chain stores and chain motels.  He shreds his credit cards and drivers’ license.  He does not buy a TV, because the signal goes two ways.  And he ditches his car – because the VIN numbers on the steering wheel and motor identify the owner.

His frightening treatise on facial recognition technology makes one want to go off-grid.

… in China, police officers are issued special eyeglasses capable of locating designated individuals in crowds.  One man was pinpointed – and arrested – at a pop concert with sixty thousand fans in attendance.  The software’s algorithms run not just on what you look like but what you used to look like.  On what you will look like.  People love to talk about how dangerously inaccurate it is.  But which is scarier, really?  When it makes a mistake, or when it doesn’t?

Yet this novel is more than an off-the-grid manual. After the narrator rents a dumpy room on run-down Sugar Street, he does have occasional human interactions and human concerns.  He hangs out at a tumbledown neighborhood public library where a Black man befriends him:  since the narrator cannot use the computer without an ID, the Black man offers his.  At one point, the narrator’s new friend lends/buys him a saw, so he can cut two branches fallen from a tree in his landlady’s yard to the precise size required for garbage pick-up. And then the puritanical librarian gets rid of most of the chairs, because she doesn’t want to provide hospitality for rumpled middle-aged and older men.

At home, the narrator has explosive interactions with  his angry, mean-spirited, thirty-something landlady, who treats him with suspicion, though it is she who is caught illicitly in his room one day.  He pays the rent six months in advance so she will leave him alone.   And then she disappears for a long time.  He pays her electric bill when they threaten to cut it off.  When she finally returns, looking ill and weak, she offers no explanation.  It is none of his business.

This is also a novel about the refugee population in a troubled city: sometimes their houses are torched; sometimes they are deported.  At one point, the narrator becomes a leftist Boo Radley who rescues a refugee kid’s notebook from the sidewalk by propping it on a branch where she will find it on her way to school.  He does care about the refugees’ problems, but when he tries to volunteer at a refugee center an ID is required. 

And then, out of loneliness and boredom, he makes some bad decisions.  Things spiral out of control.

A fascinating look at the crisis of trying to live humanely (and humanly) off the grid in American cities in the 21st century.


Tacky Covers: Books from Our Shelves

I was discouraged when I searched our shelves for books with tacky covers to find mostly Penguins, Viragos, and other beautifully-designed books. We have great taste.

That was not always the case: there used to be cheap mass market paperbacks. For instance, my dad’s copy of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 featured a scantily-clad woman on the cover, probably modeled after Elizabeth Taylor, who stars in the film.  (We have a Modern Library hardback of O’Hara’s short novels!)  And a green-haired woman adorned the cover of my first copy of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

I did find a few books with ridiculous covers, though. Tacky, tacky!

These quasi-pornographic covers bear no relation to the content of Jane Gaskell’s books.  In 1979, Ms. magazine praised the English fantasy writer’s five-book Atlan saga.   I have read these whimsical feminist novels twice:  the narrator, Cija, a cranky princess raised in a tower, has been told erroneously that men are extinct.  When she is taken  hostage by the Dragon-General Zerd, her nurse exhorts her to seduce and assassinate him.  Well, Cija is just out of the tower! She is not an assassin. Throughout the saga, Cija remains his enemy, though, and later tries to protect an Edenic continent, Atlan, from Zerd’s invasion.

Gaskell is a compelling, entertaining writer, with an eye for detail and a talent for witty dialogue.  The hardcovers have perfectly tasteful covers, by the way. 

Julian Barnes once wrote in the  London Review of Books that we don’t need more translations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.  He suggested that publishers commission new translations of Balzac’s lesser-known works, including the neglected novel, Seraphita

I  tracked down a Dedalus European Classic paperback of Seraphita with a hideous cover and an awkward 1901 translation by Clara Bell. The book jacket avers that it is the story of “the angelic and mysterious hermaphrodite Seraphita, who seems to inspire love in all she meets.” 
I did not enjoy it.  Was it the translation?

The cover illustration of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Rigadoon, “Wounded Soldier,”by Otto Dix, horrifies me. According to the jacket copy, the novel “re-creates a nightmarish trek through Germany in the last days of World War II.” I would be more likely to read this if the cover were less repulsive, but I would have to be in a dark mood. 

The award-winning Clifford D. Simak is one of my favorite science fiction writers.  I loved his novel, City, a charming story of talking dogs, left behind on Earth by humans as archivists of the human experience.  His later books are uneven:  he has gone astray in Shakespeare’s Planet (1979). And what a cover!            

In the 1980s, Frederick Barthelme was a critically- acclaimed novelist, but most of his books are out-of-print. The Baltimore Sun said of his novel, Tracer:  “He does for 7-Eleven what Edward Hopper did for the all-night diner.”  

Nonetheless, this cover is completely off:  what is that yellow thing with the pink crest?   

I love Frederick Barthelme’s books, though.

Tasteless: Would You Read Books with These Covers?

You might hesitate to read the classics if you came across these paperback editions. I cannot believe these covers sell books!

  1. Oh, dear, have these women had lip jobs? Penguin, Penguin, you are letting us down.

2. This vamp on the cover of this Wordsworth Classic is certainly not Mrs. Dalloway!

3. What a terrifying cover! I would never buy this Harvest paperback edition of Katherine Anne Porter’s elegant short stories! The old cover features a rose in the left-hand corner. Wonder why they changed it…

4. For Whom the Bell Tolls is a terrible novel – Cornelia Otis Skinner wrote a brilliant satire of it – but I do not actually dislike this 1951 cover.

5. Dearest Madame Bovary, you look a bit slutty . I pictured you as pretty and fashionable but less like a 1960s model – and is that a Regency gown? No, I would not buy this 1965 Airmont edition.

6. Wuthering Heights is one of my favorites, but it’s all too easy to go wrong with the cover art. I cannot say Penguin was having a good day in 2009 when the design team approved this.

And that’s all for the present.

Portico: The Comfort of Porches

On the Porch, by Justin Smith, 1934

 The porch is a symbol of American coziness.  If you grew up in an old house, you spent the summer on the porch reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Women in Love, drinking Diet soda and laughing with dieting friends, and waiting for your favorite song to come on the radio. Over the years, I have perched on milk boxes, swings and rocking chairs on porches.  Porch-sitters used to chat with passers-by.  By the time I was born, though, people whooshed by in cars rather than on foot.  

Although the concept of the porch goes back to the ancient Greek – the stoa, a portico, was a place where Stoic philosophers gathered – the English word porch is derived from the Latin word, portico, which means porch but also refers to the colonnade, arcade, or piazza.  

The ghosts of philosophers linger on the empty porches in towns and cities.  I am surprised to pass old houses in prosperous neighborhoods where the front and side porches are perpetually deserted.  I love the beautiful houses but wonder about people who pay for chemically-produced weedless green lawns, yet don’t use their porches:  these might of course be cozier if the lawn weren’t toxic. 

There is a movement in architecture away from cozy houses.  In new suburban developments,  the middle-class dream houses look stark and inhospitable.  The developers’ by-the-number house kits seem not to include the porch as an optional add-on.   A porch might provide a little shade until the trees grow. 

Judging from the newspaper, which runs full-page features on million-dollar houses that resemble Osama bin Laden’s compound before it was bombed, the nouveau riche owners go in for open-floor plans, spas, and outbuildings, not porches. They are prepared to fend off a militia or Martian on their lonely acreages and gated communities, but there are no porches and very few trees. 

There are porches in American literature to remind us of porch culture. 

Southern literature is rich in porches. The Southern writer Caroline Gordon was partial to the image of the porch, which appears in her short story, “The Brilliant Leaves,” and the novel, The Women on the Porch.  In William Faulkner’s novels, characters lounge on the porch (or in the parlor behind closed curtains). And in the first chapter of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara sits on the porch, courted by the Tarleton twins, but before the end of the picnic, she will have moved into the yard, where she attracts other girls’ boyfriends.  

We also associate Midwestern towns with porches. Characters sit on porches in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead tetralogy, set in Iowa.  Willa Cather’s magnificent novels and short stories, often set in Nebraska, also feature women on the porch: in her novel, A Lost Lady, the Forrester’s house is “encircled by porches, too narrow for modern notions of comfort, and supported by the fussy, fragile pillars of that time.” In Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Mars Is Heaven,” astronauts land on a mysterious green lawn on Mars, where there is a Victorian house with a porch, its swing moving in the breeze…  That can’t be right!

Do let me know about your favorite porches, literary, architectural, or other. 

Meat Is Politics: A Memoir of Steak

It was actually p0litical science!

In our tiny kitchen, with bright yellow walls, a yellow formica table, and a hopscotch of a green-and-white-tiled floor, my parents debated the merits of hamburger and steak – a transparent ploy to persuade me to eat steak. There was plenty of beef in the freezer: it came from a meat locker on the edge of town, where Mom drove to select packages of beef, wrapped in white paper, marked with our grandfather’s last name.  He owned a farm, where he raised crops, cows, pigs, and chickens, and kept a pony for us (named Frisky), whom we sometimes rode, despite Mom’s conviction that we would be thrown and killed.  

“We love Frisky! We have to ride Frisky!” 

Let me admit that the farm was not entirely hospitable.  The savage children of the people who rented the farmhouse, who were rather like the Snopes in Faulkner’s novels and deemed improper companions for us, jeered at our beloved equine and called him “Pony Meat.” 

“Your grampa’s going to kill him and make him meat.” 

My retort was, “Nincompoops!” I wasn’t too bothered: they were just so mean!

Bu back to the kitchen: meat was politics. 

Mom asked, “Why don’t you try steak?”

“I like hamburger.” I was wearing a bib, eating a burger with my tiny hands.

“If you eat steak, you’re for Kennedy.”

“I don’t vote.”

Sighs from Mom. I placidly knew I would not be forced to eat steak, but I wonder in retrospect, Was it too difficult for me to eat?  Was it too chewy?

Ten or fifteen years later, chain steakhouses popped up and flourished across the nation.  They had names like Bonanza and Western Sizzlin’: there was a buffet where you could pile your plates with potato salad, cole slaw, green bean salad, and other side dishes, and then go back for soft-serve ice cream, chocolate pudding, or cake.  Our parents dragged us to such restaurants. Even as adults, we had to accompany them.

Independent steakhouses had a more celebratory appeal, I learned later. One Christmas, when my husband and I were staying at a hotel, the only restaurant open in town was the Greek steakhouse.  All the rebellious urchins, some ponytailed, some punk, others with impossibly big hair, still others long-haired and bearded, as I pictured hobbits before the Peter Jackson films, poured in for a convivial breakfast.  We devoured eggs, bacon, sausages, pancakes and hash-browns, our sole meal of the day. We toasted one another with orange juice.  It was so much fun! 

When was the last time we ate steak?  I don’t remember.  The politics of meat have overtaken the glamour of steak. What we didn’t know when we were growing up:  cows, pigs, and chickens are a major source of air pollution, because their farts and manure emit methane gas.  Some studies calculate that this accounts for 18 percent of emissions of greenhouse gases.  According to study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization,  a half pound of ground beef is the equivalent of driving an SUV ten miles. 

These statistics are daunting, and put my husband and me off fast food, at least.  One less half-pounder at McDonald’s… cheers! Of course we realize that many independent farmers struggle to make a living, while the factory farms that have replaced small farms are based on so ugly a premise – raising animals in a tiny enclosure, then on to the slaughterhouse – that we struggle not to think about it.  

Do we eat meat?  We do.  Not often, but we do.

 M grandparents, who were raised on farms and farmed, tired of living in the country and moved to town, but continued to enjoy the fresh food from their farm.  They survived two World Wars, the Depression,  the Korean War, and vehemently opposed  the Vietnam War, but then things became even bleaker: their golden wedding anniversary party coincided with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Despite so many tragedies, the lives of women improved in the twentieth century, I think.  My grandparents and Mom moved happily from the farm to a house in town, where they enjoyed modern conveniences, grocery-store delivery, restaurants, stores, and the proximity of friends and Bridge clubs.  My grandmother continued to cook delicious country food, but neither she nor my mother were sentimental about the country. 

I romanticized living in the country, but that was the result of reading Thomas Hardy and seeing the movie Far from the Madding Crowd.  The farms I knew did not look like Bathsheba  Everdene’s farm. When I visited friends in the country, the fields were scrubby, their houses were freezing, and huddling around a wood-burning stove (another source of pollution) was overrated.  I could not have survived one winter night in the attic where Willa Cather slept in Red Cloud, Nebraska, which I saw on a tour of her house. As for that dugout in My Antonia – I will never reread that book!

Perhaps I was lucky not to grow up on a farm, but to enjoy fresh food and good meat from a farm.  This was the time of the organic food movement, and the revival of Adele Davis’s cookbooks. But in 2022, we do not belong to a food co-op, nor do we buy organic food unless it is on sale. (Whole Foods is in the suburbs, and my husband thinks it’s a rip-off!)  We do eat lots of fresh vegetables, though.

 I fondly remember my mother’s politics of meat:  only a former political science major would have tried to coax her child to eat steak by mentioning the Democrats!  There were so many comic moments back then.  It was a good time to grow up, and Mom loved it, too – though she mysteriously blamed The Graduate, a movie banned by the Catholic church, for changing mores and morals. 

Odds, Ends and Errors: Folly at Barnes & Noble

Errare est humanum (“to err is human”) is a favorite Latin saying. Life is full of ridiculous errors we strive to  conceal or overcome.  My comic errors as a tourist in London included getting off the tube at Covent Garden, which would have been fine if that had been my stop, stumbling on the steps at a museum because I was entranced by a sign for a future exhibition  (I made a quick, if ungraceful, recovery), and grudgingly backtracking three tube stops to retrieve shopping bags I had left behind – absolutely mortifying! 

But today I want to talk about errors in print and on the internet.  I have an obsessed acquaintance who collects typos and errors in posh magazines, then shoots off postcards to the editors.  He says he just wants “the editors to do their work.” 

I, too, am irritated by such errors, especially Latin errors in quotations in books and novels.  Perhaps interns believe that Spellcheck or an app can correct Latin errors, but they are wrong. Perhaps they have a smattering of  Latin and edit the errors into the text.  The best way to avoid such folly is to hire a Latinist to proofread Latin.

This afternoon I opened a book promotion email from Barnes & Noble.  My face fell when I found an error so egregious that  I TRIED READING THE EMAIL UPSIDE DOWN AND BACKWARDS before I accepted the fact that it wasn’t a “Paul is dead” situation.   B&N actually has a podcast called POURED OVER.

I assure you, this is not a podcast about a wet book t-shirt contest, which is what you might despairingly conclude.  The learned  podcasters at the last chain bookstore in America have confused two homonyms, the verb pour and the verb pore.

Here is the definition of pore: 1.  to read or study with  steady attention or application (a scholar poring over an old manuscript). 2. to gaze earnestly (to pore over a painting).  3. to meditate or ponder intently (He pored over the strange events of the preceding evening).

And here’s a definition of the verb pour: 1. to send a liquid, fluid, or anything in loose particles flowing or falling, as from one container to another.  (She poured a glass of milk.)
I do believe Barnes and Noble owes me an apology for distress caused by this evidence of corporate booksellers’ illiteracy. 

Perhaps a year of free books wouldn’t be amiss.  After all, I have saved the bookstore from future pore/pour folly.

By the way, B&N has improved under the auspices of CEO James Daunt, who is also the founder of Daunt Books and the CEO of Waterstones in the UK.  

But Poured Over is the sheerest folly.

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