Thursday, May 29, 2008


One time when I was a kid, a younger boy I was hanging out with insisted that "Insects aren't animals!" after I referred to them as such. Where did he get that idea? Well, according to some dictionaries, animal sometimes means "mammal." On rare occasion, this definition even shows up in professional writing. (For example, my 1993 edition of Compton's contains the following sentence: "The birds of Australia are even more diverse than the animals.") But this is an obscure definition that sounds pretty strange to me. Why would a child adopt it? I think it has something to do with Jewish education.

When teachers at Jewish schools discuss the laws of kashrus, they almost always say that a kosher animal must have split hooves and chew its cud. But this is only true of mammals; there's a whole different set of laws for birds, fish, and insects. If they mean mammal, why don't they say mammal? Partly it reflects the classic Bible translations, which were written before the word entered English. Hebrew itself didn't have any such word, and "animal" is a pretty accurate translation of chaya, which is derived from chai, meaning "life."

While mammal isn't a totally erudite word, the category has a fuzzy existence in many people's minds. When I once suggested feeding chicken to my parrot, I was asked, "Wouldn't that be cannibalism?" I replied, "Is it cannibalism when humans eat beef?" We tend to think of birds as basically one thing, but mammals as many different things, even though Aves and Mammalia are at the same taxonomic level: class. The presence of mammary glands is just not as memorable a trait as feathers. Substituting animal avoids this problem, because the word is taken to denote any creature that isn't a person, a bird, a fish, a vermin, or a plant. It's the default category that's left over after you've taken away the "special" categories.

This isn't just a semantic quibble; it can affect life decisions. At age eight, my brother decided he was a vegetarian, and he considers himself one to this day, even though he never gave up fish. He reasons that fish isn't meat, and according to Jewish law, he's right. The law against mixing milk and meat is derived from the Bible's injunction not to boil a baby goat in its mother's milk. The law originally applied only to mammals, since only mammals produce milk. But an old rabbinic decree extended the prohibition to birds. As a result, the Hebrew word for meat--basar--usually denotes the flesh of mammals and birds, but not fish. This dichotomy carries over into the English that Jewish kids learn, and my brother based his brand of vegetarianism on it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

My reading preferences

Around the time The Da Vinci Code came out, people kept telling me, "The writing isn't very good, but it's got a great plot!" That is not an effective selling point for someone like me. It's like saying, "The singer has a bad voice, and the instruments are out of tune, but the song is catchy as hell!" I'd rather read a book with vibrant prose and a boring plot than the other way around.

I don't claim my outlook is the only valid one. It's just a personal prejudice. You may feel differently. I have always been drawn to books with vivid sensory prose that pulls me right into the page. One of my favorite authors as a teenager was Ray Bradbury, whose prose sparkled with possibilities. Here is a quote from The Martian Chronicles:
A man squatted alone in darkness. Out of his mouth issued a blue flame which turned into the round shape of a small naked woman. It flourished on the air softly in vapors of cobalt light, whispering and sighing.
In this story, explorers from Earth enter a Martian colony, whose inhabitants proceed to lock them in a Martian asylum. Since Martians are telepathic, the hallucinations of the mad and deranged are visible to everyone. Therefore, the fact that the Earthlings have a spaceship doesn't convince the Martians that the men come from Earth. The Martians simply assume that the spaceship in front of them is a figment of the men's diseased minds. The problem, of course, comes when one of the Martians touches the ship and discovers that it is a bit more substantial than vapor.
The psychologist emerged from the ship after half an hour of prowling, tapping, listening, smelling, tasting.

"Now do you believe!" shouted the captain, as if he were deaf.

The psychologist shut his eyes and scratched his nose. "This is the most incredible example of sensual hallucination and hypnotic suggestion I've ever encountered. I went through your 'rocket,' as you call it." He tapped the hull. "I hear it. Auditory fantasy." He drew a breath. "I smell it. Olfactory hallucination, induced by sensual telepathy." He kissed the ship. "I taste it. Labial fantasy!"

He shook the captain's hand. "May I congratulate you? You are a psychotic genius! You have done a most complete job! The task of projecting your psychotic image life into the mind of another via telepathy and keeping the hallucinations from becoming sensually weaker is almost impossible. Those people in the House usually concentrate on visuals or, at the most, visuals and auditory fantasies combined. You have balanced the whole conglomeration! Your insanity is beautifully complete!"
You'd think fiction this clever would work on screen. But so far I've never seen a movie do justice to any of Bradbury's works. Even when the ideas are there, there's something missing, and that something is the prose. Taking the prose out of Bradbury is like taking the dough out of bread.

I had a somewhat different experience recently as I read Elsewhere, a 1991 novel by Will Shetterly. It is part of a series by several authors about a place called Bordertown, existing between the human world and the land of Faerie. The extreme prose minimalism of this book surprised me, because I associate the urban fantasy genre with Charles De Lint, whose prose swirls and engulfs the reader.

Elsewhere is told in first person, for reasons that escape me. The narrator does little more than describe what happens, with only occasional entries into his inner thoughts. His attitudes, his feelings, his personality are seen mostly through his actions. A third-person approach would have worked better, but even then, I would have trouble picturing the events. The story concerns a teenage runaway who flees to Bordertown. After being thrown off the train, he is met by two half-elves, who are described as follows:
Two people in dusty black leather straddled dustier black bikes on a road maybe two hundred feet uphill. In the shadow of an ancient oak tree, they'd been invisible until one of them clapped. Their skin was almost as dark as their hair, which rose from their heads like raven's wings. Their ears came to perfect points.... A small difference in pitch and attitude told me that she was female, and the other, male. From where I stood, they looked identical.... They were both lean and strong and bigger than me.
It isn't until well into the story that the narrator hints that he's attracted to the female. I found this rather odd, considering her initial description. There was nothing that made me picture her as a beautiful woman, though she is finally described that way--on p. 183! As I read the book, I repeatedly felt I was getting a less-than-complete picture of what was happening.

Though I have a clear preference for lavish prose, I am able to appreciate other styles. I have no problem with Hemingway's famously terse prose. It's still good writing. It still gives a complete picture of what's happening. (It reminds me of Einstein's remark, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.") What I don't like is bad writing, whatever the style, and even if the work has other good qualities.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

My Amazon reviews

I have just added a sidebar link to my Amazon book reviews. There are only nine so far. (I may in the future review other types of Amazon products.) I have already discussed some of these books here, though the reviews are never exact replicas of my blog entries. If you don't go to the sidebar, you can also click here:

Amazon reviews

Sunday, May 04, 2008

My small but significant influence

As a casual Wikipedian, my most frustrating project has been maintaining the anti-Semitism section in the article on Roald Dahl, one of my favorite authors as a kid. Dahl made several widely publicized anti-Semitic remarks in the 1980s, such as "there's a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity.... even a stinker like Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason." For years he insisted he was only anti-Israel. Finally, in 1990, he admitted in an interview that he was also anti-Semitic. He didn't say this in a regretful way; he spoke as though his anti-Semitism was justified. It was a striking remark, since very few public figures openly admit to anti-Semitism.

I remember reading about this interview at the time. A few months later, he died. (I thought to myself, "Good riddance.") But curiously, I stopped hearing about this final admission of his. A biography I purchased years later talked extensively about his anti-Semitism but didn't mention the interview. When the Wikipedia article on him appeared, it featured several of his notorious quotes but made no mention of the one where he admitted to being an anti-Semite. I couldn't find the quote anywhere on the Internet.

Checking the newspaper databases at my university, I found a letter to the editor by Abraham Foxman in The New York Times quoting him as having told the British newspaper The Independent, "I am certainly anti-Israel, and I have become anti-Semitic." I inserted this citation into the article, though it was questioned by some because it was an out-of-context quote from an activist trying to discredit him.

Some time later, I obtained the full text of the interview from LexisNexis. Here is the entire quote: "I'm certainly anti-Israeli and I've become anti-Semitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism." That's a tad more ambiguous than the Foxman version. But I put it into the article.

Every now and then, anonymous users try to delete the information in the anti-Semitism section. Many try altering the title to "Criticisms of Israel," ignoring the fact that his attacks were specifically directed at Jews, not Israel. It seems that anytime someone gets accused of anti-Semitism, people swoop down and call it criticism of Israel, whatever the facts suggest.

But I have managed to keep the section intact, and I am gratified to see how it has influenced others. Until I dug up the Independent interview, that quote was nowhere to be found on the Internet. Now it is mentioned on various websites, all because of yours truly. It's funny the effect you can have on the world from just your computer.