Wednesday, March 3, 2021

some books

John Clayton, Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon (Pegasus Books, 2017)
It's a history of the park's place in the American cultural imagination, and on the effects this has had on the physical place. Reaches its climax with the park administration closing the back-country garbage dumps where the bears were accustomed to dine, on the grounds that they want the park to be "natural" and natural bears don't eat human garbage. They ignore the bear scientists who point out that bears know nothing about being natural, and if their garbage suddenly disappears they'll start invading campgrounds with potentially lethal results. And of course that's exactly what happens.
And it has a whole chapter on Yogi Bear, the cartoon character, and its effect on perception of the park. The animation people had never been to Yellowstone, but then they'd never met Yogi Berra, either, so it's all equally imaginary.

Kory Stamper, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (Pantheon, 2017)
Not a history of dictionaries, but an account of life spent sitting in a cubicle at Merriam-Webster amidst huge trays of citation slips (before it all migrated to computer), re-sorting definitions of basic verbs, and answering queries from the public about word meanings. Explains about descriptive v. prescriptive. Demonstrates how to write definitions that aren't completely circular (they should teach this trick to the people who write computer documentation). Says that dictionary compilers never start at A and work their way through; seems unaware that that's what the OED did.

Alison Light, Common People: In Pursuit of My Ancestors (University of Chicago Press, 2015)
British social historian pursues her topic through her own family, mostly 2-4 generations back, the idea being to show how ordinary people lived, not the nobility or gentry. They're sailors and ship's stokers, Baptist preachers, maidservants, bricklayers, workhouse inmates. The most interesting story is of Light's paternal grandmother, who died when Light's father was a small boy, so there are no first-hand memories of her. She was almost exactly Tolkien's age and grew up in the same Birmingham neighborhoods where the Tolkiens lived when they first arrived from South Africa, so the background on the area enlightens me on Tolkien's life too. All that survives of grandmother is a couple photos of her as a young woman in some sort of uniform. It's recalled that she did something during WW1, but nobody remembers what, and it takes Light a while to track down the uniform and discover that its wearer belonged to a now-forgotten but then vital women's army unit called the Forage Corps, whose job was to travel from farm to farm to gather, package, and ship fodder for Army horses, of whom there were still quite a lot in WW1. Besides Birmingham, other towns making cameo appearances in Tolkien's biography which receive detailed accounts of their 19C development here are Cheltenham and Poole.

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