books out of mind

One of the bonuses of cataloging all our books is running into stories I haven’t thought about in a while. Today I came around a corner and there was Rebecca. Du Maurier’s Rebecca, of Manderley.

Now, there’s a well done first person narrative.

Question: How can I have gone so long without re-reading this novel? It feels like going to a class reunion and running into somebody who was once a wonderful friend, somebody you haven’t seen or really thought about for years. How sad, that long absence. How nice to see her again.

Of course with this lovely bonus comes a downside, and that is the height of my to be (re) read pile. Which reminds me of a panic dream I had when I was studying for my doctoral exams. A recurring panic/anxiety/holyshitexams dream.

In the basement of the main library at Princeton there are study carrels. Something like a walk-in closet, with a sliding door. Glass window in the door and next to it. Just enough room for a long desk-like slab, two chairs side by side (sometimes people actually had to share these closet-carrel thingies). Four long shelves for books, right to the ceiling.

Dead quiet in the bowels of Firestone Library. Florescent light that made everything seem slightly Brazil-like (I’m thinking of the movie, either you know it or you don’t). Studying sixteen plus hours at a go, you could forget what time of day it was, if it was day at all. People stumbled around at three in the morning, mostly so other people would see how studious and unkempt they were.

In this dream I was sitting in my carrel studying. Every surface covered with books. The door open, for fresh air (or what passed for fresh air down there). Suddenly I look up and realize that the sliding door has slid shut. And, what a lovely touch: there are now bars on the windows, and a slot in the door.

Footsteps coming down the hall, and the sound of a cart being pushed. Dinner, I think. The slot is pushed open, and books start coming in. Fast. So fast I can’t grab them, and they start to cascade across the floor. I’m up to my knees in books. I scream: STOP. I CAN’T KEEP UP.

The cascade stops.

From the other side of the door comes a woman’s voice. Calm, authoritarian, inflexible:
READ FASTER.

Now of course I don’t have to read faster, even though my pile of books is growing by leaps and bounds. Because nobody is going to sit me down in a chair and ask me to talk about the editorial history of Grimms Deutsches Woerterbuch or how to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European consonants or to outline the underpinnings of a theory of universal grammar. If I feel like it, I might tell you about Rebecca after I’ve re-read it. Maybe. If I feel like it. And you promise not to quiz me.

Back to work. And I just remembered an even better anxiety/panic dream. Tomorrow, maybe.

iesus nah, des git as noed

I don’t think I’ve ever said much here about the years I lived in the Alps. It was a long time ago, so long it’s almost hard for me to imagine. In the summer of 1973 I went to Austria with the American Field Service exchange program (which still exists, and functions) and stayed with a family in the village of Andelsbuch in the middle Bregenz Forest in the northern part of Vorarlberg, Austria’s western most province. I was hoping there would be a high rez map of Vorarlberg at Google Earth but a huge swatch of central Europe, including all of Vorarlberg and the entire country of Liechtenstein are still low rez. So here’s a dopey little map instead.

The short version of this story is that I got so interested in the dialect spoken in the Bregenzerwald that I ended up studying linguistics, writing a dissertation on variation and change in a specific dialect of a specific village (Grossdorf), getting a PhD, and going off to teach linguistics and German at the university level. Eventually I ended up writing Homestead. I guess it must be clear that along the way I learned both (what I think of as) book German and various dialects of Swiss German. Swiss German is a bit of a misnomer as this group of dialects (which I’ll start calling Alemannic at this point, to warn you) is spoken in south-western Germany, western Austria, and all of German speaking Switzerland.

Why am I telling you all this. Because today I was listening to dialect stories recorded by a woman from Mellau, really gorgeous stuff that simply could not be translated either into book German or English, which always makes me a little sad. You will never hear the story of how the Mellauer and the Auer, in their endless inventive taunting of one another, ended up inventing yodeling. It’s a good story. So I was listening and feeling a little homesick for the Bregenz Forest. As a result I went to look up the author (Reinhilde Hager) to see if she had a website. Which she does not (unless she married since the recording was made, in which case I don’t know how to look her up). But I did find something that made my jaw drop, and that that there is a wiki for Alemannic.

If you go look at the Alemannic wiki, you probably won’t get very far because it is actually written in Alemannic. The equivalent might be if there were a wiki written entirely in Chaucerian English, which would also most probably give you severe pause.

I almost got teary, reading through the Alemannic Wiki. Of course the dialect represented there is not exactly the one I speak; if you’re going to write down a language, you’ve got to take some steps toward standardizing spelling, at least. But it’s very close, and it felt like running into an old friend on the street.

I don’t get the opportunity to speak Waelderisch (my particular variety of Alemannic) very often, and I’m a little rusty — but not very. I can read it without a problem and when I listen to the recorded stories, I’m right back there, thinking in it. If I got on a plane tomorrow it would take me maybe three days to get back where I was. Which leads me to a linguistics topic which may be of interest. Anybody ever hear of the black box, universal grammar, the critical period, and the distinction between language learning and language acquisition? Because it’s interesting stuff.

unskilled & unaware of it

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. An article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (this is the abstract):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

Reading psychology is a useful activity for writers of fiction (as well as for any teacher, of course). I often read case studies of particular personality disorders when I’m trying to understand a character who is getting away from me. This unskilled/unaware personality type is particularly interesting to me for two reasons.

First, when I taught at the University of Michigan, every now and then I came across a particular mindset that was especially difficult to deal with. These students (a scattering of them every year) seemed to be unable to grasp the difference between an opinion and a demonstrable, observable, fact. Statements as diverse as the earth orbits around the sun and democracy is flawed got the same reaction: that’s your opinion; my opinion is just as right. It was hard work bringing them to the point where they understood that in the first case, it was possible to prove or disprove the statement while in the second, it was only possible to form arguments based on subjective evaluation and critical analysis.

In terms of fiction, the unskilled/unaware personality is damn hard to write, simply because it’s almost impossible to make such a character likeable or even sympathetic. An unskilled character — even a severely limited character — can be complex and interesting in a variety of ways, but as soon as you add in a lack of self awareness the tendency is to slide over the line into unlikable or ridiculous. Or both.

Mostly you run across this type in comedy — Ted in the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example, or some of the contestants on American Idol (and yes, I do watch it; it’s priceless in many ways). I can’t think of any unskilled/unaware characters outside of comedy, either in print or on film.