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Miles Davis’s Trumpet, the One Universal in Languages, and Alexander the Great’s Death

Are you planning on reading Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, her follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale? If so, and you pre-ordered it on Amazon, were you one of the lucky few who received it early [1] by mistake? Inquiring minds want to know.

I’ll be reviewing it for The American Conservative, so I won’t say much here other than this: When Atwood announced she was writing a sequel to Handmaid’s, she said it was inspired by “the world we’ve been living in.” Well, what else could have inspired it, you might ask, and rightly so. But what Atwood seems to have meant is that it was inspired by our present political moment—i.e., the election of Donald Trump, the debate over abortion, and the rise of #MeToo. If true, I remarked at the time, it didn’t sound very promising. Literary works that are preoccupied with making political statements usually miss the opportunity to make less obvious but more interesting statements. There are exceptions, of course, and this doesn’t mean that literary works should say nothing political. But expedience usually tramples nuance.

At the same time, Handmaid’s Tale is nuanced—certainly more so than many recent fans think. Is it about the dangers of religious fundamentalism, or is it (also) a critique of a certain strain of radical feminism? Atwood is of a relatively independent mind—a good trait for a novelist—so maybe The Testaments will be OK after all. We’ll see!

In other news: One of Miles Davis’s trumpets has been put up for sale [2]. “The trumpet was made by the Martin Company, which was founded in Chicago in 1865 by German instrument-maker Johann Heinrich Martin, around 1980 to Davis’ specifications, according to Christie’s. The instrument, featuring a deep blue lacquer and gilt crescent moon and stars, with the name ‘Miles’ inscribed on the bell, is one of a set of three colored trumpets designed by Davis.”

How did Alexander the Great die? By wine? [3]

Seamus Perry reviews [4] Geoffrey Hill’s last work, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin: “You would be hard pressed to describe Geoffrey Hill’s final work. To say it is a sort of notebook cast as a prose poem in 271 sections of greatly varying length doesn’t get you very far. In one way it is squarely in the tradition of Pope’s Dunciad (which it mentions): it is a poem about the betrayal of England, a yowl of anger and outrage at the prevailing imbecility Hill often addressed in his later works . . . Some sections have something of the quality of a diary or a day-book: he takes note of public events (Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the Brexit vote), responds to the books he’s reading and to what’s in the papers, as well as occasionally registering very beautifully the changing seasons in his garden and, somewhere in the background, the progress of the church year. Parts of the poem are movingly autobiographical, full of elegiac feeling: he looks back, for example, to his roots in Worcestershire while experiencing old age and bodily decline (‘Diabetes is now affecting both eyes, though what this may symbolise I can’t say’). And for a lot of the time it is a poem preoccupied with poetry.”

Adam Kirsch reviews [5] Elias Khoury’s My Name Is Adam. Does it matter that a work presented as a historical novel isn’t historical? “Khoury excels at imagining the ‘how’ that historical fiction is meant to capture. But when it comes to why things happened and what they meant, My Name Is Adam raises questions it fails to answer.”

Do literary prizes lead to more books sales and a longer lasting readership? Yes [6].

Are GMO’s bad? That’s the wrong question [7], Tess Doezema argues in her review of Mark Lynas’s Seeds of Science: Why We Got It So Wrong on GMOs: “The central problem that plagues Lynas’s argument is the same one that plagues the GMO debate in general: The conceit that the battle will be won by establishing a unitary scientific Truth about whether genetically modified organisms are good or bad. This view from nowhere is impossible to achieve for an issue bound up with so many questions of social and cultural meaning, from humanity’s relation to nature, to the significance of life, to the role of markets in creating, shaping, and producing it. What ought to be genetically engineered, when, and to what ends — these are questions far broader than biologists can answer. Lynas’s book reveals how damaging the effort to pretend otherwise has been.”

Essay of the Day:

Despite all the differences between languages, there is at least one similarity: People use them to transmit information at roughly the same rate. Rachel Gutman explains [8] in The Atlantic:

“In the early 1960s, a doctoral student at Cornell University wanted to figure out whether there was any truth behind the ‘cultural stereotype’ that certain foreigners speak faster than Americans. He recorded 12 of his fellow students—six Japanese speakers and six American English speakers—monologuing about life on campus, analyzed one minute of each man’s speech, and found that the two groups produced sounds at roughly the same speed. He and a co-author concluded that ‘the hearer judges the speech rate of a foreign language in terms of his linguistic background,’ and that humans the world over were all likely to be more or less equally fast talkers.

“In the half century since then, more rigorous studies have shown that, prejudice aside, some languages—such as Japanese, Basque, and Italian—really are spoken more quickly than others. But as mathematical methods and computing power have improved, linguists have spent more time studying not just speech rate, but the effort a speaker has to exert to get a message across to a listener. By calculating how much information every syllable in a language conveys, it’s possible to compare the ‘efficiency’ of different languages. And a study published today in Science Advances found that more efficient languages tend to be spoken more slowly. In other words, no matter how quickly speakers chatter, the rate of information they’re transmitting is roughly the same across languages.”

Read the rest. [8]

Photo: Coniston [9]

Poem: Morri Creech, “Witness” [10]

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