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Alaskan Range: Read, And Read Again

“Curiously enough,” author Vladimir Nabakov once observed, “one cannot read a book; one can only re-read it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader, is a re-reader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from right to left ... stands between us and artistic appreciation.”

Nabakov was a renowned professor of literature whose lectures even made it into Esquire Magazine, where I encountered his “How to Read, How to Write” in 1980. It left a mark.

Minor novels, according to Nabakov, are written by “minor authors” who “merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction that may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way.”

Great novels, he maintained, the ones worthy of re-reading throughout one’s life, are by authors who combine three traits: storyteller, teacher and enchanter. The first entertains, the second instructs and the third transports the reader into a new world, and “it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”

Reflecting on authors I seem to re-read, several — P.G. Wodehouse, Carl Barks and Terry Pratchett — might not have met Nabakov’s standards, though I’d debate it. And what about diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote autobiographically with brutal candor but entertains, instructs and transports his readers to 17th century London nonetheless?

Patrick O’Brian, on the other hand, surely would have received Nabakov’s blessing. I’m just finishing the final CD in our library’s audio version of O’Brian’s 20-volume “Master and Commander” series read by Patrick Tull, who sounds like a proper English sailor ought. Like all great books, O’Brian’s novels are so intellectually rich that each re-reading reveals new facets and delights.

O’Brian’s books take place in the early 1800s, and his authorial voice and vocabulary is closer to Jane Austen’s time than ours. For example, his characters often respond to questions with, “Just so.” That caused me to reflect on how versatile that small word is.

So is used as eight types of adverbs, including “to a great extent,” as in “That’s so obvious,” and “in truth; indeed,” as in “just so.” So also is two types of adjectives, two conjunctions, a pronoun, as in “She’s loyal and remains so,” and an interjection: “So!”

Our “so” comes from the Old English “swa,” meaning “in this way.” “So-so,” as in “mediocre,” dates from 1520, and “So?” as a term of dismissal was first recorded in 1886. “So what?” (1936), you might ask. It starts with “Where Words Come From,” according to British educational website KryssTal.com.

They cite five sources of words: the base language, in our case Anglo-Saxon; borrowed and adopted words, like Latin and French terms; words created in error, like “buttonhole” which was originally “button-hold”; words created from nothing, like the 1600 words Shakespeare coined; and by altering existing words, as in adding or subtracting suffixes and prefixes, dropping syllables, and metanalysis, “the process where a letter is added or subtracted because of a nearby word.”

Examples of metanalysis include original terms like “an ekename,” “a napron,” and “a narange” that became “a nickname,” “an apron,” and “an orange,” respectively.

Recent excavations of my files revealed “Follow My Logic? A Connective Word Takes the Lead,” a New York Times article by Anand Giridharadas that a friend passed along. Giridharadas investigated “so’s” new popularity among technocrats and noted “Microsoft employees have long argued that the ‘so’ boom began with them.”

He posits that “‘So’ may be the new ‘well,’ ‘um,’ ‘oh,’ and ‘like.’ No longer content to lurk in the middle of sentences, it has jumped to the beginning, where it can portend many things: transition, certitude, logic, attentiveness, a major insight.”

In other words, techies, like many engineering and scientific types, tend to start sentences with “so” to “relay authority. Whereas ‘well’ vacillates, ‘so’ declaims.”

So they say. Mark Twain said “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head.”

And few places are so apt for feeding the mind as your public library.


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