Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Seven years ago, Seth Grahame-Smith concocted a book called “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” You still don’t have a copy? I think you can find it in one of those stores that sells lumberjack soap and framed pictures of bacon. If you’re looking for his new book, well I’m afraid he’s had some trouble “writing” it.
Is the American Novel about America, or about an American?
Today, if a novel is accepted into the American canon, it is as a masterpiece of individualism that subsumes material and social being into the spirit of a lone genius. If a social world is present in a novel of repute, our critics gobble it up and excrete it as imagination. In the early twenty-first century, realism has come to be synonymous, in the blinkered American critical consensus, with a curiously antisocial novel. It never occurs to critics that realism could only seem real because of the dilapidation of collective dreams. Nor do critics worry that the “social issues” presented in our novels rarely attain the complexity of cable television. Or that a novel genuinely concerned with social life (or even the social role of a single person) could itself, against this backdrop, be idiosyncratic. It’s sad, in other words, that the novels of Jonathan Franzen register to most as sociopolitical literature. Freedom isn’t a social novel on the level of Wharton. It’s a decelerated twenty-four-hour news channel.
Strong Words, Weak Moderators
Are there any words that you strongly dislike? It makes for fun conversation, at least. The word “moist” comes up in conversations like those. For me, it’s the word “quaint.” But what’s the one word that is disliked the most? Are there regional patterns to these preferences? Oxford Dictionaries tried to find out, but the attempt failed, because people are trolls. Try better hands-on moderation next time, Oxford Dictionaries. You might have known better. Surely you noticed the recent invention of the phrase “Boaty McBoatface.”
Universal Grammar Isn’t?
This one made the rounds among the technology and science blogs much more than it did among the more humanities-inclined blogs that I follow, but it’s about the existential question of language itself, so I thought to include it here, as “literary.” Scientific American reports, “Evidence Rebuts Chomsky’s Theory of Language Learning.”
The idea that we have brains hardwired with a mental template for learning grammar—famously espoused by Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—has dominated linguistics for almost half a century. Recently, though, cognitive scientists and linguists have abandoned Chomsky’s “universal grammar” theory in droves because of new research examining many different languages—and the way young children learn to understand and speak the tongues of their communities. That work fails to support Chomsky’s assertions.
The research suggests a radically different view, in which learning of a child’s first language does not rely on an innate grammar module. Instead the new research shows that young children use various types of thinking that may not be specific to language at all—such as the ability to classify the world into categories (people or objects, for instance) and to understand the relations among things. These capabilities, coupled with a unique human ability to grasp what others intend to communicate, allow language to happen. The new findings indicate that if researchers truly want to understand how children, and others, learn languages, they need to look outside of Chomsky’s theory for guidance.
This conclusion is important because the study of language plays a central role in diverse disciplines—from poetry to artificial intelligence to linguistics itself; misguided methods lead to questionable results. Further, language is used by humans in ways no animal can match; if you understand what language is, you comprehend a little bit more about human nature.
Children’s Lit, Digitized
Speaking of the way we learn language… Do you like children’s books? If so, then I’ll leave you with this: a trove of 6,000 historical children’s books, all digitized and available for free. Enjoy.