Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


I dog ear the pages of my books. Not a lot. Just a tiny bit. Not usually for a bookmark, but to remember to come back. Which I usually don't, of course, and when I do, I don't usually remember what it was I wanted to come back to.
To Jeremy, this is unconscionable. Which I spelled right on the first try. And which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, means "having no regard for conscience," and is the opposite of conscionable, which isn't ever used anymore. Which, in turn, comes from consciened, an even more obsolete word, meaning "having a conscience." But I digress as usual. Anyway, Jeremy finds dog-earing unconscionable. He likes books pure and virginal. This probably comes from his childhood best friend's mom having been a librarian. Dog ears, I imagine, are the bane of the modern librarian's existence, since bookworms (as in, the insects that feed on the paper and glue in books) aren't as much of a thing anymore.
But I like books that have been dog-eared by other people too. I like to wonder what they were thinking about, and what it was they wanted to come back to, and what they were thinking as they read, and whether the book changed their life and whether they're still alive. I'm awed by the fact that they'll never know anything about all of the pairs of hands that will read the book that they gave away, and that all I'll ever know about them is that they folded down the corner of pages 7, 122, 199, and 300.
Right now, I'm reading the dog ears in my favorite Vonnegut novel, Bluebeard. The copy I read first belonged to my dad and lives at his house. He found it depressing, which is funny because it may be the most upbeat thing Vonnegut ever wrote. Which, to be fair to my dad, isn't saying much. Bluebeard is the supposed autobiography of Rabo Karabeckian, who was a modern artist who worked in Sateen Dura-luxe, a house paint that was supposed to last longer than the Mona Lisa's smile, but which dissolved not long after he created his works, and so now his works are just blank canvasses again.
That there's what we call symbolism.
I think the book's about making meaning from meaninglessness, or maybe sense from senselessness. His parents were among the few survivors after the Turkish empire committed genocide against the Armenians. Out of that senseless slaughter, they created a son. Their son fought in World War II, and out of that senseless war, their son found his voice. 
I've dog-eared page 66 to remember to come back and to tell you what it says. It says
It's hard to believe how sick of war we used to be. We used to boast how small our Army and Navy were, and how little influence generals... had in Washington... Nowadays, of course, just about our only solvent industry is the manufacture of death, bankrolled by our grandchildren, so that the message of our principal art form, movies and television and political speeches and newspaper columns, for the sake of the economy, simply has to be this: War is hell all right, but the only way a boy can become a man is in a shootout of some kind...
That's truer today than it was in 1987, when he said it. In 1987, Full Metal Jacket was raw and agonizing. Now it's almost quaint next to 300 and Saving Private Ryan, which I watched while munching on popcorn. 
I love Kurt Vonnegut except for one thing, which you've probably noticed. When I read Kurt Vonnegut, I write like Kurt Vonnegut. Which I also attribute in part to the fact that we've both been technical writers, which has made us terse and to the point and fond of plain words and simple constructions. Out of the senselessness of wires and programming languages, maybe I'll find my voice.

Fun fact for the day: Among Geoffrey Chaucer's surviving works is a technical document on the use of the astrolabe. I'm in better company than I knew!


Adam said...

Having nothing to do with the point of this post, here's what I have to say:

If you're talking about Sandy, she didn't take good care of her books. She bent the spine in half, read in the bathtub and water logged books, and I wouldn't doubt she bent the pages too.

Perhaps Jeremy is rebelling against her lack of caring for books. I know I am.

Megi said...

While I don't dog ear any of mine, you can easily tell which books on the shelf I have read, because their spine will be broken. Charles can't stand this, but I still attest that my hands are too small to hold a book properly unless I do it. In addition to that problem, I also tend to dip the corners accidentally in the bathtub and get small smudges of chocolate (both the candy and of the cocoa variety) on the ones that I've reread.