Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Two good books

When I heard that Geoff Nunberg was writing a book about the word asshole, I thought it was a joke. But no -- days later, the mailman delivered a review copy of “Ascent of the A-Word,” subtitled “Assholism, the First Sixty Years.”

And yes, there is a book’s worth to say about this rude word, all of it entertaining. But since my annotated copy flew off in an airplane seat pocket the other day (there were extenuating circumstances -- children, diapers, seat swaps) I can’t share all the juicy quotes I marked. Luckily, others have liked the book as much as I did: See James Parker at the Barnes & Noble site, for instance, and John McIntyre’s blog post yesterday.

The finished copy has now arrived, so I can at least quote a couple of my favorite bits from the final chapter, on assholism in public life, where Nunberg zeroes in on one of the assholiest features of political discourse: fake outrage.
You’re acting like an asshole … if you accuse someone of incivility knowing full well that no neutral observer would interpret his behavior that way. Nobody for a moment hears any “violent rhetoric” when Obama says he’s itching for a fight with the Republicans or when Michele Bachmann describes Washington as “enemy lines.” The only purpose of a charge like that is to give your own partisans the enjoyment of imagining the irritation it will engender, all the more because it’s so transparently phony.
And then there's the fake outrageousness meant as bait for (real or fake) outrage. When journalist Westbrook Pegler maligned Jews as geese (“fouling everything in their wake”), says Nunberg, he was expressing genuine anti-Semitism. But "when [Ann] Coulter makes an analogous remark about Muslims, she’s only trying to sound offensive ... We know that she doesn’t lie awake seething about Muslims the way Pegler did about Jews.”

Fake offenses, fake responses -- what would Kant have said? That we should try to restrain ourselves, says Nunberg, out of respect for the dignity of the topic. But where's the fun in that?

While I'm in book-review mode, I also want to recommend a title published several months ago, on writing and the teaching of writing: "Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing," by Peter Elbow. I haven't finished it, but like Language Hat, I don't to wait any longer to mention it, because whenever I dip into it there's something thought-provoking. On punctuation, say:
Punctuation is fascinating because it's where a certain kind of rubber hits a certain kind of road. It appeals to something deep in our relationship with language because it's the only visual cue that takes us from silent, timeless visual symbols on the page to audible, in-time, mouth-moving, performance in our bodies. It's where the mind meets the body, where the eyes meet the mouth, where space meets time.
Amazon offers a generous sampling of the book; see for yourself.

(FTC notice: The publishers of these books provided free review copies.) 


John Cowan said...

I think, on the contrary, that Ann Coulter means exactly what she says (excluding her self-referential disclaimers after the fact), and that she is anti-Muslim and anti-liberal in exactly the way that Pegler was antisemitic. I grant I have not read every word of hers, or anything like, but I appeal to Benchley's defense of leaving a play he was reviewing before seeing all of it: he was entitled to assume that the author of the first act also wrote the remaining acts.

Marc Leavitt said...

I have to agree with John. The only question is how much effect can she have on the booboisie?

jokesfb said...

on the contrary, that Ann Coulter means exactly what she says
I agreed With John