Friday, July 3, 2020

Polyglot: How I Learn Languages by Kató Lomb



Anecdotes and tips from a master multilinguist
Hungarian author Kató Lomb (1909-2003) has been called “the world’s most multilingual woman” and “possibly the most accomplished polyglot in the world.” After earning a PhD in chemistry, Lomb taught herself 16 languages well enough to work as a professional translator and interpreter in all of them, including Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. Lomb was also one of the world’s first simultaneous translators (like the ones who talk in the United Nations headphones). After achieving renown as a polyglot (master of many languages), Lomb wrote four books about languages and language learning. Her first book, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, was published in Hungarian in 1970. An English translation can be downloaded for free from the website of TESL-EJ: The Electronic Journal for English as a Second Language.

The intended audience for Polyglot includes those who teach themselves foreign languages, those who teach languages to others, and those thinking of becoming professional interpreters. I fit into the self-taught category, but nowhere near the level of Lomb’s achievements. This book can be read by language learners of any skill level, even beginners, but one must have an avid curiosity for languages to find it interesting and useful. This book is for people who want to do more than just learn travel phrases, but who actually wish to read texts, have meaningful conversations, and go beyond mere memorization to learn the actual mechanics of a foreign language.


Despite the subtitle, only a few of the chapters really function as a how-to manual for language learning. This book is really a combination of Lomb’s personal anecdotes, learning tips, and educated reflections on languages. Even so, there is still plenty of concrete practical advice for those wishing to learn foreign languages. In addition to her own expertise as a polyglot, Lomb draws upon the work of educators who have researched the most efficient and successful methods of language instruction. First and foremost, Lomb dispels the myth that language learning is easier for children and that adults are too psychologically immutable to learn foreign languages effectively. Not only is she herself living proof that this is incorrect, having acquired almost all of her languages as an adult, Lomb also cites research opposing this assumption. In discussing her personal methods of language learning, Lomb enumerates her “Ten Commandments of Language Learning,” as well as a list of ten “dont’s” of language study. In a brief nutshell, her methods promote the deciphering of books (fiction, for example) over textbook learning, thus emphasizing the acquiring of words and phrases in context rather than memorizing vocabulary lists. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but too much to summarize here. Lomb also offers advice to those thinking of pursuing a career as a translator or interpreter.


Not surprisingly, Lomb credits enthusiasm and time invested as the most important factors for success. She obviously made language learning the most important activity in her life, and one would have to do the same to achieve her level of success. Those wishing to learn one or two languages rather than 16, however, need not be intimidated by Lomb’s methods. There is no panacea for acquiring fluency in an unfamiliar tongue, but Lomb’s insights and practical knowledge will surely prove helpful to readers with more than a passing interest in foreign languages. The advice she offers here is more rational and realistic than so many of the “learn in 30 days” methods on the market. In addition to her linguistic erudition, Lomb writes with a charming personality and sense of humor that makes the book an enjoyable read. I look forward to reading more of her works.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Kallocain by Karin Boye



Dystopian swan song
Though best known as a poet in her native country of Sweden, author Karin Boye also wrote five novels, the last of which, Kallocain, was published in 1940. In 1966, Gustaf Lannestock translated the novel into English as part of the University of Wisconsin Press’s Nordic Translation Series. Kallocain and ten other Scandinavian novels in the Nordic Translation Series can be read for free online at the University of Wisconsin Libraries’ Digital Collections website.

Kallocain is the memoir of Leo Kall, a scientist living in a dystopian future. The world he describes is a highly militarized society in which every resource and every action is directed towards the might of the Worldstate, a draconian bureaucracy that strives for military supremacy over the rival states threatening its borders. The architectural structures of this civilization lie largely underground in the form of bunkers, tunnels, and subways, though one can venture surfaceward to a rooftop terrace if granted a permit. As in ancient Sparta, children are taken from their parents at a young age and groomed for military service. The citizens, who call each other “fellow-soldiers,” live under constant surveillance, though they don’t resent it much since their every thought and action is devoted to the almighty state.

Besides his obligatory military duties, Kall works as a chemist in the Worldstate’s Chemistry City No. 4. With little material benefit to gain from his labors in such an austere society, Kall’s only aspiration is to gain respect by ascending to higher and higher rungs of the corporate-military ladder. He has developed a new type of truth serum that forces suspected criminals and traitors to reveal their innermost thoughts. Hoping to enshrine his name in history, he dubs his invention Kallocain. As a devoted servant of the state, Kall hopes that his chemical will be used to root out treasonous individualistic thoughts that poison the rigid communalism of the Worldstate. While questioning volunteer subjects during the testing phase, however, he exposes some contrary thoughts and opinions that cause him to question his values, his career, and his marriage.

Despite some similarities to Big Brother, Boye wrote Kallocain almost a decade before George Orwell published his novel 1984. The dystopia that Boye has conceived in Kallocain bears a closer resemblance to that of Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, published in 1924. Unlike We, however, Kallocain is more realistic, not at all satirical, and more authentic in its portrayal of human psychology and emotion. Published during the rise of the Nazis and Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union, Kallocain can rightly be considered a warning cry against totalitarian dictatorships and the military-industrial complex. Boye, however, emphasizes the personal over the political. This is not a science fiction adventure story of resistance and revolution, but rather a metaphorical investigation into issues of human nature: the need for love, the fear of intimacy, the allure of conformity, the poison of jealousy, the paranoia of betrayal, and the reluctance to acknowledge or reveal one’s true self. Though set far in the future, Boye’s empathetic insights apply to real lives in today’s world.

While writing the novel, Boye may have been dealing with some of these issues herself. She committed suicide less than a year after finishing Kallocain. Her feelings of melancholy and dread are palpable throughout the book, which remains as a tragic testimony to both her personal struggles and her immense literary talent.
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Monday, June 29, 2020

“The Tools of My Trade”: The Annotated Books in Jack London’s Library by David Mike Hamilton



A mind map of London’s marginalia
Jack London was not only a prolific author but also a voracious reader. As indicated by the title of David Mike Hamilton’s 1986 book “The Tools of My Trade,” London saw books as the raw materials and instruments by which he plied his literary craft. In this in-depth study of London’s personal library, Hamilton charts the lengths to which other writers’ books influenced London’s intellectual development and served as source material for his own writings.

The book opens with an excellent 47 page essay in which Hamilton traces London’s life as a reader. Based on books that London discussed in his letters, mentioned in his published writings, or noted in unpublished manuscripts, Hamilton is able to piece together in great detail which books London read at various points in his career and how those books influenced his thought and writings. Other London studies often touch upon major names like Darwin, Spencer, Nietzsche, and Jung, but Hamilton delves far deeper into London’s pool of influences.

At the time of London’s death, his library consisted of about 15,000 volumes. Of that impressive total, Hamilton has compiled a bibliography of almost 600 books, pamphlets, and periodicals that contain handwritten notes by London, inscriptions from authors and friends, and/or enclosures such as letters, articles, or news clippings. Depending on the degree to which London marked up his copy, Hamilton either summarizes London’s notations or quotes them verbatim. Because London died in 1916, all the books mentioned are in the public domain, and one can find digitzed editions of over 90 percent of these works at the HathiTrust website.

As one might expect, frequent topics in London’s library include socialism, Hawaii, sailing and navigation, Alaska and the Yukon, poetry, and evolution. The high quantity of titles in psychoanalysis and sexuality is more surprising. The contents of London’s library do not entirely reflect well on him, since the list does include books on white supremacy. Beyond his pet interests, browsing London’s shelves allows the reader to experience the breadth and depth of knowledge enjoyed by an early-twentieth-century American intellectual. It is always fascinating to browse through the legacy libraries of historic personages. Rarely, however, does a bibliographer make the kind of concrete connections that Hamilton establishes between the books an author has read and those he has written. Through exhaustive research of London’s library, correspondence, and literary oeuvre, Hamilton is able to draw these linkages, providing London aficionados with an exceptionally clear vision of the author’s intellectual development and working methods.

The only problem with “The Tools of My Trade” is that it contains an inordinate number of typographical errors—an unforgiveable fault in the detail-oriented discipline of bibliography. While the author is very good about noting London’s spelling errors with [sic], the proofreading of Hamilton’s own text was not very thorough. What’s worse is that many of the errors occur in the titles of books and the names of authors. When compared to the actual title pages of the volumes he’s citing, Hamilton has authors listed as Grieg instead of Greig, Kish instead of Kisch, Mathe instead of Mather, Nedig instead of Neidig, Pennoll instead of Pennell, and those are just the few that I bothered to jot down. Errors occasionally occur in titles as well, such as “Human” instead of “Humane,” and also in Hamilton’s descriptive copy. One work described as a “small pamphlet” is listed as having 614 pages. Such inaccuracies make it difficult for researchers to track down and utilize the works that Hamilton has so thoroughly researched and compiled.

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Friday, June 26, 2020

The Wonder by J. D. Beresford



Half-baked tragedy of a child savant
English author J. D. Beresford’s novel The Hampdenshire Wonder was first published in 1911. For the American edition, the title was reduced to simply The Wonder. The story concerns a child of extraordinary intelligence. It is very loosely inspired by the life of Christian Heinrich Heinecken, an 18th-century German child prodigy, whom Beresford briefly mentions in the story.

The Wonder is ostensibly a science fiction novel, but it is very light on science. It delves a little into psychology, child development, and evolution, but the hypotheses it conjures are very sketchy at best. In an attempt to establish a hereditary basis for the child’s abnormal genius, the story begins with a detailed history of his parents. The Wonder’s father, Ginger Stott, is a famous cricket player. Beresford is obviously a fan of the sport because he chronicles Ginger’s cricket career in exhaustive detail, using terminology that will prove unintelligible to American readers with little knowledge of the sport. What’s worse, however, is that Beresford actually proposes a tenuous cause-and-effect relationship between the father’s cricket prowess and his son’s supreme intelligence. It is also suggested that the child’s parents were able to alter his development in the womb by merely willing certain characteristics upon him.


The Wonder himself, Victor Stott, is an interesting and tragic character. His premature intelligence has robbed him of any personality, and his physical appearance, with an abnormally large head and disturbingly penetrating gaze, gives people the creeps. He rarely speaks, because he simply doesn’t see the point of conversing with those whose minds are so far beneath his own. Nevertheless, a few adults strive to reach the boy and help him develop his intelligence. One of these is the narrator, a journalist who decides to write a book about the Wonder, that being the very book you are reading. The narrator talks way to much about himself, however, and Victor Stott is absent from much of the narrative as opposing camps of grown-ups argue about whether the boy is a savant or an abomination.


Unless you’re really an avid cricket fan, the first half of the book is a waste of time. The story of Victor Stott doesn’t really get started until half-time. From there the novel becomes considerably more interesting, and the reader really feels for the boy whose very giftedness renders him an outcast in society. The story is still very slow-moving, however, and the novel just doesn’t deliver enough time spent with the Wonder himself. Before you even really get to know the character, the book comes to an abrupt and rather pointless ending. Then Beresford feebly tires to draw profound philosophical conclusions from a story that is really too silly and half-baked to merit such pretensions of depth.


Though the premise upon which The Wonder is based is quite fascinating, Beresford barely scratches the surface of its narrative possibilities. The result is a novel about as dull and lifeless as Victor Stott’s conversational skills. The Wonder himself is a character that one will not soon forget, but he deserves a better book than this.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A Glance at Private Libraries by Luther Farnham



The state of New England’s book collections in 1855
A Glance at Private Libraries is an 80-page pamphlet published in 1855 by Luther Farnham, a church pastor, journalist, and theological librarian. The text was originally an address that Farnham gave to the New England Historic-Genealogical Society. He begins his essay by proclaiming that The United States has proven itself equal to Europe in industry, education, and natural beauty. He laments, however, America’s inability to compete with the Old World in one specific area: libraries. Farnham suggests that building up America’s libraries is a necessary step towards elevating the nation’s standards of learning and culture. The public libraries of the time, at least in Boston, could not boast sizable collections, but Farnham finds hope in the libraries of private collectors. In A Glance at Private Libraries, he briefly describes the holdings of many private book collectors in Boston and greater New England.

The book collectors that Farnham profiles include William H. Prescott, author of The History of the Conquest of Mexico; Charles F. Adams, the son of John Quincy Adams; Theodore Parker, the Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist author; and a number of Massachusetts congressmen. The purpose of Farnham’s address seems to be to introduce the gentlemen of the Historic Society to the private libraries of the region, thus facilitating introductions between collectors, readers, and researchers with similar interests. One gets the feeling that, just as in ancient Rome, the only people who really got to enjoy or utilize these libraries are rich white men and perhaps their wives. Eventually, however, most of the materials in these collections likely ended up in the research libraries of America’s colleges and universities, thus fulfilling Farnham’s goal of building robust libraries accessible to the public.


Farnham gives a run-down of the categorical strengths in each library: One collector is big on American antiquity, another collects volumes on medical science, and so forth. At times Farnham also singles out a few of a collector’s most valuable holdings for special attention. If you are a lover of old books and libraries, you’ll find many details of interest, but, like a lot of books on this subject, the writing often reads like a catalog of assorted highlights that can only partially convey the wealth of knowledge contained in these collections. Farnham is acquainted with some of the collectors he profiles and has obviously spent a fair amount of time in their libraries. He also corresponded with other library owners he never met, who responded with written descriptions of their collections. As a result, the libraries that get the most coverage don’t necessarily have the best collections. They’re just the ones with which Farnham has a greater degree of familiarity. Hence, most of the book focuses on Boston libraries, with only brief accounts given of outliers in greater Massachusetts or Connecticut. New Haven’s George Brinley, for example, one of history’s greatest collectors of Americana, only receives a single sentence of mention.


Though limited in scope to New England, Farnham’s pamphlet serves as a sort of state-of-the-union assessment of America’s libraries in the mid-19th century. By importing historic European books and preserving early American texts, private collectors like those Farnham profiles laid the groundwork for America’s great research libraries, thus enriching education, scholarship, and research in the United States. A Glance at Private Libraries may not be the most gripping of reads, but it stands as a valuable historical document of these collectors’ achievements

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin



Dadaist dystopia
What do Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Ayn Rand’s Anthem all have in common? They all to some extent built upon ideas previously envisioned in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We. Although the history of utopian and dystopian fiction in Western literature stretches all the way back to ancient Greece, Zamyatin’s We may very well be the first work of dystopian fiction to critique the modern technological age. Zamyatin, a Russian, had to smuggle the novel out of his native land to get it published. The first edition was printed in New York in 1924. Publication of We was not allowed in the Soviet Union until 1988.

In We, Zamyatin depicts a society in which almost every of iota of individuality has been stripped from the populace. Mankind’s every action is regulated by the state in the name of cooperative efficiency, and for the most part the citizens seem to enjoy their lack of freedom. Following a catastrophic war, the remaining human race is confined to a walled city governed by the United State (not the United States, but rather an exaggerated caricature of Communist Russia). The dictator of this regime is The Well-Doer (names may vary in different translations), who is a metal machine man of some kind, never very specifically described. The lives of the numbers (citizens) are regulated under a strict time table, inspired by the industrial efficiency experiments of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915). Their sex lives are also regimented by a system of government-issued tryst vouchers. The novel is narrated by D-503, a mathematician and engineer who is leading the construction of a spaceship called the Integral. He is one of the most faithful and content devotees of the United State until he meets an unusual woman, I-330, who displays a shocking disregard for conformity. Though appalled by her independence, D-503 is irresistibly drawn to her, which causes him much emotional turmoil and shakes his faith in the state.

Zamyatin is not as good a writer as Huxley, Orwell, or Rand, but he certainly deserves an A for originality. Not only is his depiction of the future quite groundbreaking, the language in which he expresses it is equally avant garde. The prose of the novel is just as unhinged as its protagonist. D-503’s narration is a modernist stream of consciousness mingled with dream imagery and hints of mental illness. One of the more annoying aspects of Zamyatin’s writing is his repetitive use of nonsensical metaphors. D-503 denotes one character as being shaped like a letter S. Another has a head like a valise, a woman has jowls that look like gills, and a doctor reminds him of a pair of scissors. These silly descriptions are repeated tediously and are more disorienting and boring than humorous. A better example of Zamyatin’s innovation is his use of mathematical terminology to describe human behavior and emotions in a manner totally appropriate to the narrator. The mechanistic imagery and blind devotion to the machine, combined with Zamyatin’s satirical sense of humor, amounts to a literary exemplar of the Dadaist art movement.

Perhaps the least satisfying aspect of We is its love story. Though I-330 is an audacious example of an independent woman, she is depicted as a cold femme fatale, as if feminine independence were a fearfully dangerous development of the modern age. Her doormat treatment of the timid D-503 renders her unsympathetic, and one suspects she is just using him to forward her own agenda. That agenda, however, does lead the story in some exciting directions. Despite its faults, We is a truly groundbreaking work of science fiction, and one that is admirably bolder and more thought-provoking than many of its later imitators.
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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order, edited by James Gilreath and Douglas L. Wilson



Browsing the polymath’s shelves
Thomas Jefferson, an avid lover of books, amassed one of the largest libraries in the early American republic, a collection of 6,700 volumes. Jefferson sold his library to the U.S. government in 1815, and the Library of Congress was born. At that time, he asked his private secretary Nicholas P. Trist to prepare a catalog of his library that lists the books in the exact order in which Jefferson himself had arranged them. This handwritten manuscript was also deposited in the Library of Congress, but no one discovered it until the 1980s. In 1989, the Library of Congress published the Trist manuscript in the book Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order. The Library of Congress has an html version of this book on its website, and a scanned copy can be downloaded for free from HathiTrust.

As one would expect from Jefferson’s polymathic pursuits as statesman, lawyer, diplomat, architect, scientist, philosopher, and farmer, his library covers a wide breadth of knowledge. Using a method proposed by Francis Bacon in his book The Advancement of Learning, Jefferson divided his books into three main kingdoms: Memory (history, including natural history), Reason (philosophy, law, and mathematics), and Imagination (fine arts and literature). These main headings are further divided into multiple categories and subcategories. Not surprisingly, the sections on law and government are the most extensive, but Jefferson’s collections of history, geography, and natural history are also well developed. Though a slaveholder, Jefferson owned at least a dozen books on slavery, the titles of which indicate an unmanifested philosophical leaning towards abolition. Besides the ancient scholars of Greece and Rome, Jefferson’s catalog contains the familiar names of many of his intellectual contemporaries and philosophical predecessors: Franklin, Adams, Humboldt, Linnaeus, Darwin (Erasmus, not Charles), Locke, Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire. It is fascinating to browse through the list and see what this Enlightenment genius had on his mind.

After purchasing the collection in 1915, the Library of Congress altered Jefferson’s catalog, retaining his original categories but listing the books within those categories in alphabetical order. This was obviously done to make the books easier to find, but Jefferson wasn’t happy about it. The editors stress that what makes this volume important is that it lists Jefferson’s books in the exact order he intended. Depending on which of Jefferson’s categories the books fall under, the volumes might be ordered chronologically, thematically, by nationality of origin, or from the general to the specific. By reading Jefferson’s original catalog, the editors insist, one gets an understanding of how Jefferson classified information, and therefore “a blueprint of his own mind.” For me, knowing what books Jefferson owned and read is far more important than knowing what order he put them in. His original shelving pattern is interesting but not essential.

Jefferson, being intimately familiar with his own library, only noted each book with a one-line description of its title, author, language, size, shelf location, and sometimes date. Such scant description will leave bibliophiles wanting more information. Fortunately, those curious for more information on each entry can consult the annotated bibliography Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson compiled by E. Millicent Sowerby. It was published by the Library of Congress in 1952 as five volumes, scanned copies of which can be read and downloaded for free from HathiTrust.
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