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Road trips

In which we discuss similarities between books and blogging


Last week, in the last Book I Haven’t Read post, I mentioned By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal, and predicted that – in contrast to the book I was actually writing about – I’d have BHOBC rattled through and quickly finished off.

Well, indeed, I have: it’s read, finished, and back on the bookshelf now. Prediction correct. And, as I said before, I think it was easy to read precisely because it mirrors the way I think. To recap: it’s written as a road trip, during which the writer muses on anything, really, that he finds of interest as he passes. A nearby manor house reminds him of a railway engine named after it, which prompts him to muse on railway engine names in general. The journey from Anglesey to the mainland prompts him to recount the history of the Menai bridges,* and a trip to Hay-on-Wye leads to the history of inn signs, coats-of-arms, and many other things besides.

It’s a book of associations, and a celebration of associative thought. I’m sure that it didn’t actually take place as a single trip, and that when Crystal sat down to write the book he didn’t just muse on whatever came to mind; it’s too carefully structured and crafted for that. But it does read as if that’s what he’s doing. It made me think, moreover, of the way I write this blog, which isn’t at all carefully structured and crafted. But, as I move through the world, I see things which spark my brain alight and give me something to think about; and this blog is the result. It’s full of rambling and digression, but, rambling and digression with a common thread behind it, the thread being the things I encounter.**

I was thinking about this as I got towards the end of BHOBC. So, I was quite amused when I reached Crystal’s thoughts on blogging.

[Blogging] is writing which is totally spontaneous, put up on a screen without the intervention of an editor or proof-reader, so it is much more like ‘speaking in print’ than anything before. And it shows many of the properties of spoken language, such as loosely constructed sentences and unexpected changes of direction. Bit like this book, really…

David Crystal has a blog.*** He started writing it at the end of 2006; he said, as a sort of FAQ page. Given that BHOBC was published in ’07, though, I’d assume that he started blogging either a few months after the book had been written or when it was in the final stages of completion. I’m wondering if writing that book was one of the other things, though, that prompted him to start writing a blog. Because, really, they’re often exercises in a similar sort of vein. Spotting something that interests you, and telling other people about it.

* from building up to burning down, you could say

** Which is all a bit of a longwinded and pretentious way of saying: I write about whatever’s on my mind.

*** Which I linked to above, so you may well already realise this.

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Books I Haven’t Read (I’ve lost count which part)

In which we compare two David Crystal books with the inside of FP’s head


Yesterday’s post, about how we can’t stop ourselves buying books, segues quite nicely into today’s. We didn’t just buy books on Saturday; we bought more on Sunday, from the weekend bookstall outside the Watershed that I remember mentioning not that long ago. I picked up a copy of By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal; and then, thought to myself, should I really be buying a David Crystal book when I already have a book of his on the shelves that I haven’t yet read? I didn’t pause for long, because “you’ve already got one by him” is hardly a very good reason for not buying a book, but it’s true that the one Crystal book already on our shelves is one that I’ve never been able to get very far with. It is: The Stories Of English.

I find the language fascinating: both in use and in history. It’s such a playful thing, can be twisted and swerved, can be squeezed and stretched, and can be bent into truly awful puns. I love playing with it, I love its richness and I love its history, its constantly fluctuating and mercurial history. And so, I thought – rightly – that The Stories Of English would be an extremely interesting book. Crystal, moreover, is a very engaging and lighthearted writer. He’s very easy to read, very interesting, and clearly knows what he’s writing about very thoroughly.

So why, then, is it that I’ve never managed to get past the Middle English chapters? I’ve tried to read it several times, I’ve always enjoyed the sections I have read immensely, but I’ve never been able to get through Middle English. Every time, my enthusiam’s petered out somewhere in the fourteenth century, I’ve not come back to the book, and its later chapters have remained untouched. And so – given the number of times I’ve made an effort to read it – it definitely counts as a Book I Haven’t Read, even though it’s actually very good.

There’s one thing, only one thing, I can put my finger on. It’s quite a non-linear book. There are excurses and diversions. There are lots of box-outs. This is understandable. All histories can be highly non-linear, and The Stories Of English is deliberately written in a non-linear way, to take account of the parallel histories of different dialects of the language. I’m used to reading non-linear texts, or in a non-linear manner when I’m online,* or when I’m researching something: flipping between tabs in my web browser, or shuffling through several open books on my desk, comparing pages and stopping to take notes.** But when I sit down to read a book for pleasure, I’m not used to doing that. I expect my books to have a beginning, middle and end; a linear structure if not a linear narrative; flipping back and forth, both physically and mentally, needs more concentration. Crystal’s straightforward writing style, in this context, is deceptively easy to read. Especially when you reach the Middle English period, and the stories of English really start to get complex,*** it needs a lot more mental effort to keep track of things than you might think you’d need when you open the book.

By Hook Or By Crook, by contrast, is structured in a linear way, but one that’s orthagonal to its linguistics. It’s a road-trip book, essentially, with Crystal musing on anything of linguistic interest – or of any interest to him at all – which he comes across on the way. And it’s ideal for me to read, particularly because that’s the way my own brain works.**** I’m racing through it, and I’ll probably have read it by the weekend; and I’ll probably read it again and again over the years. Its mode of writing complements my own favourite mode of reading, and my own favourite mode of thinking.***** The Stories Of English, by comparison, is something I have to concentrate on to get my head around. That, I suspect, is why it’s a Book I Haven’t Read. Yet.

* Wikipedia particularly

** only the other week I could be found in the city reference library comparing between several books on railway history and taking notes on the development of Great Western Railway wagon handbrakes, for example.

*** which is not so much due to a lack of complexity in Old English as due to a lack of texts in Old English – complex diversity requires a certain amount of evidence in order for the diversity to be visible.

**** I am, like him, the sort of person who would do an emergency stop and jump out of my car to photograph a mis-spelled sign at a level crossing.

***** It must also help that I know some of the places he writes about. When I first opened it, at random, for example, I saw: a photo of the toll house at Boston Lodge, apparently taken from either the works or a passing train.

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Lost terminology

In which a word is snappy but fails to catch on


Jargon changes over the years; bits of it get picked up, some bits become mainstream, and some wither away.

On a trip to Wet Yorkshire the other day, I started thinking: there’s one piece of jargon which I think it’s a shame didn’t get picked up. It’s Charles Babbage‘s term mill, which he used to name something that was, for him, a new concept: a machine which would carry out arithmetic calculations according to a sequence of instructions. Today, we’d call it a computer CPU; but there isn’t really any better term for it other than that awkward three-syllable abbreviation. I’d much rather be talking about the newest Core Duo mill, or Athlon mill; it rolls off the tongue. A twin-mill machine sounds much snappier than a dual-processor one. If you look at one under a microscope, it even looks vaguely like the giant mechanical grids of 19th-century looms,* just like the mills Babbage was originally alluding to. Is there any chance of the word making a come-back? Probably not; but it would be nice if it did.

* I was tempted to take up “loom” and segue into a Doctor Who discussion, but that reference would be too geeky even for me.

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Masochism

In which FP goes back to BASICs


No, I’m not a masochist.

I take a strange, geeky, masochistic pleasure, though, in making things hard for myself. In doing computer-based things the long way round. In solving the problems that are probably easy for some people, but hard for me. In learning new things just because it’s a new challenge.

Today, I was wrestling with a piece of Basic code in an Excel spreadsheet. I’ve not touched Basic since it had line numbers,* and I barely know any of it. I forced myself to work out how to do what I wanted in it.** It was mentally hard work, and meant a lot of looking back and forth to the help pages, but I got it done in the end. It might not be written in the best way, the most efficient way, or the most idiomatic way.*** But doing it was, strangely, fun.

* this is geek-speak for “a long long time ago”.

** or, rather, what the consultant I was assisting wanted.

*** for non-geeks: every computer language or system has its own programming idioms, which fit certain ways of programming particular problems. Someone used to language A will, on switching to language Z, often keep on programming in language A’s style even if this produces ugly and inefficient code in the other language.

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