The History of English

Since I’m teaching at the faculty of philology, I usually try to give my students some insight into history. Brigit Viney’s The History of English (OUP, Stage 4, 1400 words, appropriate for pre-int) is very nice and clear. It summarizes the history of English without stuffing up the readers with long scientific words, which is sooo valuable when teaching young adults:)

This documentary, on the other hand, does tend to be a little boring, but it’s got landscapes, ancient scrolls, and attempts to speak in Old English, so, could be a great material for a cosy and sleepy follow-up lesson if you lack preparation time:)

Books about Town

Okay, I’m supertired from the psychological questionnaires for my research, I’m just gonna watch some cute pictures for a while.

For example, this supercool project for all tourists and book-lovers and, again, Londoners (oh lucky bastards): you take a route and not merely wander around but look for the bench painted with a scene from your favorite book set in London. Isn’t it great? Marvellous fun for those who want to go if not off the beaten track then at least off the beaten purpose.


(It just occured to me that it could be an entertaining classroom activity: showing an image and making students guess the title of the book it represents.)

Tim O’Brien and the Art of Storytelling

Another great longread on the Atlantic about the way a story must be told, written by Tom O’Brien, made me want to say a few words about the book I haven’t finished yet but already know it well deserved its place in the school curriculum.

I’ve been reading (well, in fact, listening to) The Things They Carried and it is absolutely amazing. Not the war thing, not the terror and fear and death and disgust thing, but the way he narrates those stories, the way they capture the reader’s attention, and you no longer care what is true and what is imaginary, you just know that until you hear the ending you will not be able to put the book (the earphones) down.

“That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

In addition to the brilliance of the prose itself, Bryan Cranston‘s performance is incredible, I wish he would narrate something from Dickens or other guys sticklers to volume. Strangely enough, Tim O’Brien himself doesn’t strike me as a great reader (and I wish I could unsee his outfit).

On Ebooks

A new study which found that readers using a Kindle were “significantly” worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story is part of major new Europe-wide research looking at the impact of digitisation on the reading experience, suggests The Guardian. 

The study, presented in Italy at a conference last month and set to be published as a paper, gave 50 readers the same short story by Elizabeth George to read. Half read the 28-page story on a Kindle, and half in a paperback, with readers then tested on aspects of the story including objects, characters and settings.

“The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, ie, when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.” The researchers suggest that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does”.

It is so, so weak. 

Why didn’t they conduct an experiment making the very same readers swap the “reading devices”? Check reading speed? Past experience in reading? Perhaps those readers who failed to render the plot and put the events in order could not read at all? My, it sounds so stupid it makes me want to scream; what kind of creature would fail to chonologically place the events of a just-read story in order? A goldfish? Then again, not even a goldfish should be asked to read Elizabeth George.

I surely love paper books routine — browsing bookshops for hours, leafing thorough the pages, making dog-ears, sticking a pencil in my hair, just in case I find a cool quote, — but I am strongly convinced that a Kindle has lots of perks. It is a) lighter than most books, b) occupies less space in my well-stuffed handbag, c) always provides fonts of a convenient size (oh, I remember reading Byatt’s Possession and CURSING Vintage publishing house for that reprint edition) — I can go on and on while I get to eco-friendly. Students of our faculty of philology have long switched to digital books, having failed to get all those unpopular and poorly published Sendrars and Karamzins from the libraries.

So, I’m just going to get back to my Stella Gibbons (totally unfoundable anywhere in Russia but Kindle store)

English Spelling

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
   I will teach you in my verse
   Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
   Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
   Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
   Just compare heart, hear and heard,
   Dies and diet, lord and word.

And so it goes for 274 lines. Written by a Dutch scholar and traveler in about 1920.

There is also a 147-line version, which you can listen to being read right here, and I should credit Propel Steps for the delight it brought me. A great material to teach spelling vs. pronounciation, and well, since we’re talking about spelling, here’s another amusing poem. “Sauce unknown”!

Virginia Woolf Talks about the English Language

To combine old words with new words is fatal to the constitution of a sentence. In order to use new words properly you would have to invent a whole new language, and that though no doubt we shall come to it, is not at the moment our business. Our business is to see what we can do with the old English language as it is. How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they can survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? <…> [Words] are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. <…> [They] don’t live in the dictionary, they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in the moments of emotion when we most need words we find none.

It was recorded by BBC in 1937 and is the only surviving recording of Mrs. Woolf’s voice. (via Open Culture)

There is an exhibition at the National Gallery at the moment, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision; I envy Londoners and tourists.

On Haruki Murakami

A nice piece on The Atlantic about his newest novel: The Mystery of Murakami

I have to admit, I’ve been a fan since my early twenties, I thought it was a temporary crush due to the age but it just refused to fade. The novels still have their mesmerizing effect.

I like to assign Murakami’s short stories to the students of my translating class and to compare the existing Russian and English versions, trying to guess the original )

Here are some stories published by New Yorker: YesterdaySamsa in Love and Town of Cats (this one is an abstract from 1Q84)

Some Poetry

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

by Lord Byron

It was Dead Poets Society that reminded me of this poem. I remember at the university one of my groumates copying the poem to a girl of our acquaintance, she didn’t figure it was not his and was quite impressed 🙂

and here’s a nice poetry podcast, may be helpful if you’re not too condifent in rhythm and rhymes: