Monday, July 13, 2009

Arika Okrent

Arika Okrent is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers who tried to Build a Perfect Language.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Iris Murdoch's The Book and the Brotherhood. I never would have chosen this novel on my own: the tagline is "A story about love and friendship and Marxism." It is indeed about love and friendship, though not in the trite way the tagline would suggest, and it is not really about Marxism at all. It is about a group of friends who, when they were young and politically-charged Oxford students, agreed to pool resources to support the most brilliant of their group so he could fully dedicate himself to writing an important book about important ideas. Decades go by, their beliefs change, their brilliant friend causes misery in their lives in various ways, but they continue to support him out of a sense of duty to a promise made. My old English professor, a specialist in 20th-century British women novelists, recommended it to me, and I'm glad he did. The plot is engaging and full of drama, and the way it easily and deeply exposes inner lives and shifts in perspective is utterly absorbing. But I've never read a book that left me so unsure of what I was supposed to think about characters and events, and it unsettled me (in a good way). I felt the need to go find and read some criticism on it in order to help me understand my reactions. So, Professor Soule, if your plan was to get me back to the college-days excitement of interacting with literature, it worked.

I also wouldn't have thought to pick up Science from Your Airplane Window by Elizabeth Wood if it hadn't been suggested to me. I wrote about how Mark Shoulson, my guide to the world of Klingon, pulled it out of his bag when we settled in for our flight to a Klingon conference in Phoenix. That detail was meant to add to a portrait of his nerdy pursuits, but I later bought the book, thinking it would be a fun, educational diversion for my son the next time we took a flight. (Here's to the passing along of nerdy pursuits!) I haven't yet remembered to pack it for a flight, but I have been picking it up occasionally to learn a fascinating tidbit about the shapes of lakes, the polarization of light, or the plow lines in farms. It is written in a very simple, direct style that gives you exactly what the title promises. The simplicity is almost poetic; it captures the essence of good non-fiction. It says, "Here, sit by me. Let's look out of this tiny window together. I will show you things you never noticed and change your perspective on the things you have noticed. Even though this window is tiny, through it you can see the whole world."

The language book I have going now is John Baugh's Beyond Ebonics. A fascinating look at a grossly misunderstood linguistic controversy.

And I read The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander a while ago, but I can't pass up an opportunity to recommend it. Though I'm reluctant to play the "he reminds me of" game, I was reading a lot of Primo Levi – one of my favorites – right before I started this book, and the transition to Englander's voice was almost imperceptible. Englander writes with a similar wary wisdom and gentle, humorous absurdity about absolute horrors. Ministry deals with Argentina's "dirty war" but it is really about all wars, all injustice, and the sometimes dangerous compromises people make in order to lead a normal life in abnormal circumstances.
Learn more about Arika Okrent and her work at her official website and at the In the Land of Invented Languages website.

--Marshal Zeringue