The most eccentric and enjoyable book about etymology I have ever read is Anatoly Liberman’s Word Origins…and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone. The Russian-born Liberman is professor of German, Scandanavian and Dutch at the University of Minnesota, and a throwback to the age of Victorian polymaths. He specializes in linguistics and folklore, translates Russian poetry (Tyutchev, Lermontov) and is working on an immense dictionary of English etymology. No desiccated pedant, his bibliography includes an article winningly titled “Gone with the Wind: More Thoughts on Medieval Farting.” His sense of humor is Rabelaisian and he exudes enormous pleasure in what he is doing. “Language is always at play. Creating words may be the most delightful game of all,” he writes in Word Origins, and illustrates his point by citing an episode from Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse. Here are the final sentences in Liberman’s book:
“Many things said in the early chapters will appear in a new light now that the end is known. A book not worth rereading is not worth reading even once.”
I stumbled over the middle of the second sentence because of the unexpected time reversal, but the sentence would not be worth uttering without it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown increasingly jealous of the time I’m able to devote to reading. A frivolous book wastes time, so most of the books I chose I’m actually rereading or they are likely candidates for rereading in the future – in accordance with Liberman’s dictum. Unlike many readers, I seldom think of books as a means of escape. A worthy book is about engagement – with the book and its author, with its language, with the books that preceded and somehow influenced it, with the books that succeed it, and with the world. In theory, I have nothing against books read strictly for diversion but I feel a sense of urgency, especially as life grows more demanding.
One good book inevitably links to others, forming a vast Borgesian web we can never trace. The Internet, of course, complicates matters while simplifying them. I’m reading William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert D. Richardson’s new biography of the philosopher, which makes me want to return to James’ Principles of Psychology and Jacques Barzun’s A Stroll with William James, and also to Emerson and Henry James. Too many choices, when unmediated by taste, discipline and a serviceable memory, result in paralysis and futility. I’m reminded of the way Jakov Lind begins Counting My Steps: An Autobiography:
“The world is a maze of bookshops and libraries, editorial offices and universities, studios and stages, stuffed with literature and culture like a rhinoceros with formaldehyde.”
And that reminds me, sadly, of Lind’s death last week. Years ago, I read his early works – Soul of Wood, Landscape and Concrete, and two of his three memoirs – then he seemed to vanish. An Austrian Jew, he wrote first in German then, after emigrating to London, in English. I hadn’t thought of him in years until Joshua Cohen published a fine appreciation of Lind in the Feb. 6 edition of the Forward, keyed to Lind’s 80th birthday on Feb. 10. Here’s Cohen’s conclusion:
“Entirely out of print in English, two of the books I purchased in preparation for this essay had been autographed (“To Albert,” “To Alfred”). They sold for a dollar apiece — that’s how little he’s known. But fiction that must be followed by fact that must, in turn, be followed by silence, then disappearance, is a reduction we readers cannot accept, or allow — though that might be the daily-felt fate of the writer. Jakov Lind doesn’t deserve to be read — he’s necessary, both in the vicissitudes of his life and, too, in the work it created. His books are the last late bloom of the European Jewish landscape, straining sunward through the concealing concrete.”
Lind died Feb. 17. Here’s a cheap irony: The headline over Cohen’s story is “Paying Tribute to a Living Legend.” Now I want to read Lind again.