His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the tag “reading”

An epistolary request for reading suggestions

I’ve been reading through parts of the correspondence of Fronto (c. 100-170), and among his letters are some to Emperor-Philosopher Marcus Aurelius (or, Richard Harris for those whose concerns with Roman history do not reach far beyond Gladiator), and in one such letter,[1] he requests of his teacher:

Mitte mihi aliquid quod tibi disertissimum videatur, quod legam, vel tuum aut Catonis aut Ciceronis aut Sallustii aut Gracchi aut poetae alicuius, χρῄζω γὰρ ἀναπαύλης, et maxime hoc genus, quae me lectio extollat et diffundat ἐκ τῶν καταλειφυιῶν φροντίδων; etiam si qua Lucretii aut Ennii excerpta habes εὐφωνότατα, ἁδρά et sicubi ἤθους ἐμφάσεις.

An English rendering:

Send me something to read that seems most eloquent to you, either something of yours, Cato’s, Cicero’s, Sallust’s, Gracchus’, or some poet’s, for I need a break, and especially that kind the reading of which gives me a lift and cheers me up from confining cares. Also, if you have some bits from Lucretius or Ennius that sound the best, are extraordinary, and anywhere show their character, send those.

Fronto’s letters are littered with Greek phrases, as we see even in this short excerpt, and in the English translation, I’ve put the Greek phrases in bold.

[1] Epistulae, IV.1 (ed. M. van den Hout, Teubner, 1988, 105). Find more of Fronto’s letters here:

  • Latin text here
  • another text (Lat. and Fr.) here
  • LCL edition, with an older text and an Eng. tr. here from archive.org

Instead of watching moving pictures…

Whether as a resolution for the new year (as here) or simply because, regardless of the date, you want to make of your soul something more than a continual receptacle for the light and sound a television or computer screen emits, here, in a random order, are twenty-five things to do instead of watching TV. This a list I’ve made for myself, but maybe it’ll be fruitfully suggestive to others, too. If so, feel free to say so in the comments, or add your own suggestions!

  1. Look thoughtfully at some art
  2. Call your mother
  3. Listen to music
  4. Read to anyone who’ll listen
  5. Play the guitar, banjo, trumpet, violin, etc.
  6. Recite and memorize poetry
  7. Write letters to friends new and old or to family
  8. Sing
  9. Study a new language
  10. Read a graphic novel
  11. Write a story
  12. On purpose and right now, savor the presence, feel, and taste of one you love
  13. Read Proust
  14. Build something
  15. Sleep
  16. Study the history of your birthplace
  17. Fix a meal for someone who needs it
  18. Get off your ass and move (walk, run, swim, yoga, kettlebells, pull-ups, etc.)
  19. Draw or paint
  20. Clean your house
  21. Talk to someone (in person, video chat, phone)
  22. Do something with your children
  23. Read a biography
  24. Take a bath or shower
  25. Meditate (however broadly understood)
From my backyard, late summer.

From my backyard, late summer.

Casting language into the atmosphere

While perusing the latest National Geographic this morning, I came across a notable photograph. Here it is from the website:

These two students, surrounded around and above by open air and light, project their voices out into this openness, their lungs, breath, throat, and mouth muscles, all eye- and brain-directed, catapult words of another language, a language becoming their own, right into the universe, not the least part of which is their own ears.

Two things struck me when I saw the photograph. First, I was reminded of the possibly legendary rhetorico-athletic exercises that Demosthenes supposedly practiced to overcome his natural difficulties in speaking:

…τὴν μὲν ἀσάφειαν καὶ τραυλότητα τῆς γλώττης ἐκβιάζεσθαι καὶ διαρθροῦν εἰς τὸ στόμα ψήφους λαμβάνοντα καὶ ῥήσεις ἅμα λέγοντα, τὴν δὲ φωνὴν ἐν τοῖς δρόμοις γυμνάζεσθαι καὶ ταῖς πρὸς τὰ σιμὰ προσβάσεσι διαλεγόμενον καὶ λόγους τινὰς ἢ στίχους ἅμα τῷ πνεύματι πυκνουμένῳ προφερόμενον· εἶναι δ᾽ αὐτῷ μέγα κάτοπτρον οἴκοι, καὶ πρὸς τοῦτο τὰς μελέτας ἐξ ἐναντίας ἱστάμενον περαίνειν.

He used to correct and drive away his mumbling and his speech disorder by putting pebbles in his mouth and then reciting speeches. He used to exercise his voice by discoursing while running or going up steep places, and by reciting sentences or verses at a single breath. Moreover, he had in his house a large mirror, and in front of this he used to stand and go through his speech-exercises. (Plutarch, Life of Demosthenes 11.1-2; translation adapted from that of Bernadotte Perrin)

Secondly, I was visually reminded of how important, not to mention fun, it is to read aloud, with care to the text’s meaning and even forcefully, both as regular practice in languages you know well, even your own, and also for languages you’re learning; in the second case, it is naturally needful to have some standard against which to compare your fledgling pronunciation and fluency of sound, granted the variety of voice that may occur even across the spectrum of one language. This vocal shadow-boxing, whether in your native language or another, really can be enlivening and helpful in knitting together eyes, brain, and ears.

Rather than writing anything more, I’m off to do some reading aloud.

A little Proust’ll do you

There are sites or blogs for daily Talmud reading (see a consideration of the practice here), daily Bible, etc., and the reasoning, of course, is that a cycle of daily (or even weekly) readings will give you in relatively small snippets, not so large as to be indigestible, the whole of this or that text after a given period of time, assuming you possess and practice our all too absent quality of consistency. Whether you’re looking for spiritual direction, memory polishing, or simply a structured way to get through books, it works, assuming you can muster the discipline to keep at it. It’s also good for language practice: exposure to new words and forms along with frequent reinforcing of the commonest words, phrases, and forms. And for most people, “language in action” is rather more fun than looking at vocabulary lists and paradigms of nominal and verbal morphology. So how about a little Proust for French practice?

The obligatory and ubiquitous photograph of a mustachioed Proust

The obligatory and ubiquitous photograph of a mustachioed Proust

Marcel Proust (1871-1922; ici en français) is most well known for his long and unfinished novel À la recherche du temps perdu, published in seven parts from 1913-1927 (first English translation 1922-1930). There are websites (for example, here and here) on Proust and the novel, and I heartily recommend Patrick Alexander’s Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to the Remembrance of Things Past — I’ve not read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change your Life nor Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time. — and for an early estimation, see Edmund Wilson’s here. The French text, either in HTML or PDF, will be found here hosted by the University of Adelaide, and also here; it is from the latter that the text below has been taken. Some readers may also be interested to know that Proust’s manuscripts have fueled a notable amount of study (see, for example, here [abstract only], here, and here).

I’m hardly ambitious enough to start calling this series “Daily Proust” or the like, but I do want to make it a regular appearance here. Each reading will only be a paragraph or two in length. It will be immediately obvious that I am not beginning with the novel’s first part, Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way). The outline of the narrative, such as it is, of the novel can be had from the books mentioned above and some of the websites, but that is not really the point of these serial reading selections. Here the goal is simply getting to know and savoring Proust’s French and stimulating (in French) some philosophical reflection.

Here is the text, the beginning of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur:

Première partieAutour de Mme Swann

Ma mère, quand il fut question d’avoir pour la première fois M. de Norpois à dîner, ayant exprimé le regret que le professeur Cottard fût en voyage et qu’elle-même eût entièrement cessé de fréquenter Swann, car l’un et l’autre eussent sans doute intéressé l’ancien ambassadeur, mon père répondit qu’un convive éminent, un savant illustre, comme Cottard, ne pouvait jamais mal faire dans un dîner, mais que Swann, avec son ostentation, avec sa manière de crier sur les toits ses moindres relations, était un vulgaire esbrouffeur que le marquis de Norpois eût sans doute trouvé, selon son expression, « puant ». Or cette réponse de mon père demande quelques mots d’explication, certaines personnes se souvenant peut-être d’un Cottard bien médiocre et d’un Swann poussant jusqu’à la plus extrême délicatesse, en matière mondaine, la modestie et la discrétion. Mais pour ce qui regarde celui-ci, il était arrivé qu’au « fils Swann » et aussi au Swann du Jockey, l’ancien ami de mes parents avait ajouté une personnalité nouvelle (et qui ne devait pas être la dernière), celle de mari d’Odette. Adaptant aux humbles ambitions de cette femme, l’instinct, le désir, l’industrie, qu’il avait toujours eus, il s’était ingénié à se bâtir, fort au-dessous de l’ancienne, une position nouvelle et appropriée à la compagne qui l’occuperait avec lui. Or il s’y montrait un autre homme. Puisque (tout en continuant à fréquenter seul ses amis personnels, à qui il ne voulait pas imposer Odette quand ils ne lui demandaient pas spontanément à la connaître) c’était une seconde vie qu’il commençait, en commun avec sa femme, au milieu d’êtres nouveaux, on eût encore compris que pour mesurer le rang de ceux-ci, et par conséquent le plaisir d’amour-propre qu’il pouvait éprouver à les recevoir, il se fût servi, comme un point de comparaison, non pas des gens les plus brillants qui formaient sa société avant son mariage, mais des relations antérieures d’Odette. Mais, même quand on savait que c’était avec d’inélégants fonctionnaires, avec des femmes tarées, parure des bals de ministères, qu’il désirait de se lier, on était étonné de l’entendre, lui qui autrefois et même encore aujourd’hui dissimulait si gracieusement une invitation de Twickenham ou de Buckingham Palace, faire sonner bien haut que la femme d’un sous-chef de cabinet était venue rendre sa visite à Mme Swann. On dira peut-être que cela tenait à ce que la simplicité du Swann élégant n’avait été chez lui qu’une forme plus raffinée de la vanité et que, comme certains israélites, l’ancien ami de mes parents avait pu présenter tour à tour les états successifs par où avaient passé ceux de sa race, depuis le snobisme le plus naïf et la plus grossière goujaterie, jusqu’à la plus fine politesse. Mais la principale raison, et celle-là applicable à l’humanité en général, était que nos vertus elles-mêmes ne sont pas quelque chose de libre, de flottant, de quoi nous gardions la disponibilité permanente ; elles finissent par s’associer si étroitement dans notre esprit avec les actions à l’occasion desquelles nous nous sommes fait un devoir de les exercer, que si surgit pour nous une activité d’un autre ordre, elle nous prend au dépourvu et sans que nous ayons seulement l’idée qu’elle pourrait comporter la mise en oeuvre de ces mêmes vertus. Swann empressé avec ces nouvelles relations et les citant avec fierté, était comme ces grands artistes modestes ou généreux qui, s’ils se mettent à la fin de leur vie à se mêler de cuisine ou de jardinage, étalent une satisfaction naïve des louanges qu’on donne à leurs plats ou à leurs plates-bandes pour lesquels ils n’admettent pas la critique qu’ils acceptent aisément s’il s’agit de leurs chefs-d’oeuvre ; ou bien qui, donnant une de leurs toiles pour rien, ne peuvent en revanche sans mauvaise humeur perdre quarante sous aux dominos.

Reactions to the passage here are especially welcome, so please post them in the comments below!

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