Why do we read? To be entertained? – Sure. But equally, we read to leave the comfort zone of our thinking while in the safe cosyness of our couch.
“Only” two great books this month, but trust me: both incredibly relevant.
Enjoy them yourself, or choose them as a Christmas present for anyone who cares about humanitarianism (and German) or about writing and great style.
Book one discusses prejudices – book two discusses clarity of thought and verbal expression.
Book one is about the philosophy of the conscious – book two is about the science of language.
And book one, despite being written by a native English speaker, is only available in German.
Sir Peter Ustinov
Achtung, Vorurteile! (2003)
Ustinov wrote this essay in German, and as far as I could see, nobody has taken care of translating it. What a shame!
I highly recommend this autobiographic essay to whoever has mastered the German language and is able to swim through German sentences with a verb between their teeth 🙂 Or, if you’re a student of German, fasten right onto it and let Sir Peter’s peculiar sense of humour and his opinionated kindness carry you throughout his highly entertaining philosophic musings. Sometimes his views are idealistic, sometimes dreamy, but you can clearly see how they come from a place of genuine hope and love for, and faith in mankind. A hope/love/faith that’s hard to share on a green journey, if I may add.
Here are a few quotes to get your attention, translated on the fly:
Personally I value doubt greater than the perfect point of view. Even though you do need an occasional opinion, like I need my cane, in order not to tumble over. You can never know everything. If you know everything, it’s the end. Then you have nothing left to learn. Their imperfection makes humans more interesting than gods.”
While touring the world – I seriously can’t remember where it was – I suddenly stood in front of a wall. A cryptic prankster has sprayed a graffito: “I am perfec!” For a second I was irritated and thought to myself, the guy can’t speak English? Seconds later, the scales fell from my eyes: the graffiti-sprayer has left out the “t” on purpose.”
My life experience tells me that hating others is self-hatred, disguised self-hatred. Who loathes others, cannot like himself. They preach tolerance to fight contempt […] but is it truly the solution of the world’s problems, tolerance? Even though I want to be pragmatic: I don’t believe it’s enough. For tolerance means toleration.”
The Sense of Style. The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st century (2014)
[… The] mother tongues are a motherlode for the understanding of language and mind” is Pinker’s route, and he constantly takes the reader on a thrilling trip to the depths of the human language instinct (aka Noah Chomsky’s Universal Language). In his latest book, the cognitive linguist discusses how to write with clarity and with flair. Or, in his own words:
Style […] adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.”
Pinker compares standard advice for writers to boot camps, with “a sergeant barking at you”, and suggests to see it as a more pleasurable learning, like cooking or photography. This resonates incredibly with me. I see language – spoken or written, mother tongue and foreign language – as an adventure, a journey to myriads of new worlds. A picture is worth a thousand words? Well, not in my book.
In Chapter 1, Steven Pinker rocks your socks off with “reverse-engineering good prose”; in Chapter 2 he fights “academese, bureaucratese, corporatese…” with good style. Chapter 3 is all about getting your message across, and Chapter 4 and 5 follow with syntactic advice and the art of coherence to tackle your most intricate thoughts with words. Beautiful! And finally, in Chapter 6 Pinker addresses language purists and their Language Downfall of Doom fairy tale, explains why we laugh at LOLcats, ‘nucular’ and George W. Bush. The readers learn to tell proper grammar rules from bubbe meises and how the word automobile used to be a grammatic abomination.
In a way, the book boils down to “he who knows the rules can bend them” (my loose representation of a Goethe quote) in a very witty, clever and highly entertaining way. A fantastic writer himself, here the famous linguist clearly gives us some of what he’s having. Read and learn!