Saturday, January 5, 2013

rather peculiar books

I was going to de(con)struct a couple of silly articles about Tolkien that came out in the wake of the moovie, especially one in Time claiming that hobbits and dwarves reproduce asexually because no women are to be seen. Never mind that both Bilbo's mother, and Fili's and Kili's, are mentioned in The Hobbit, let alone all the quite prominent roles of women in the Tolkien books that the ignoranti haven't read, like, uh, LĂșthien; it's not enough to complain that they're not onstage in The Hobbit, you have to make a fool of yourself pretending they don't exist at all, and sound like the pseudo-scholar who once claimed the characters don't need to defecate because we don't see them doing that, either.

But the prospect of going on any more than that about it bored even me, so there's no word to describe what it would inflict on you. Instead, these library books:

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum
This is a rather peculiar book. Blum is on a hunt for the physical manifestations of the Internet, i.e. the actual boring-looking, box-like industrial park buildings where the servers and routers are stored. In the process he says some interesting things about its historical development, geographic imperatives (signals may travel at lightspeed, but with this quantity of data, microseconds make a big difference), and security issues, but the main impression is his goshwow sensa wonder at actually being in these holy spots. But the reader isn't there with him (and while the descriptive prose is good, there are no photos), which left me understanding why he wrote the book, but not why I was bothering to read it.

Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher
This is a rather peculiar book. It comes in two parts. First, Deutscher elaborately erects a straw man parodic exaggeration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so that he can demolish it with ridiculous ease, even going so far as mockingly to suggest that we should just eliminate the word "pain" and save millions on aspirin. Then he goes on to prove that the actual hypothesis is in fact true, using three points: 1) the subliminal association of human secondary sexual characteristics with inanimate objects by speakers of languages where they're gendered nouns; 2) distinctions of shades of color according to the groupings set by the color words in the speaker's language; 3) languages which use compass directions for everything instead of self-oriented directional words like left, right, ahead, behind.
This last one most interested me, partly because I hadn't heard of it before, and partly because I have a rudimentary form of the internal compass speakers of such languages must develop. I'm never entirely unaware, for instance, that as I sit at my desk here, I'm facing north. If I spoke one of these languages, I'd have to say that I type words not from left to right, but from west to east, and if I moved the computer, I'd have to modify that statement. And something nagged at me when we first moved to this house, until I realized that it was that now we were sleeping facing east, whereas in the old house we slept facing west. For that matter, I am sometimes incredulous at other people's ideas of what color something is. They say it's orange, but it looks red to me, or maybe vice versa, or maybe yellow, I forget which. The arbitrariness of these divisions is very much to mind.

In other news, I've received a paycheck for all the writing I did last month. Usually they come faster than this, but I guessed the holidays might cause a delay. The check is dated December 31st. I recognize this as a term of art.

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