14 September 2012

American Squirm

I am, as a friend pointed out to me recently, a very fussy reader. Not so much about what I read, but about the quality of my reading. No doubt it comes from being a writer myself (I nearly wrote something about having pretensions there, but that would be unnecessarily self-effacing, or so the row of books on the shelf behind me which bear my name tell me - not to mention my pieces in Runner's World). I had been explaining to my interlocutor that I had given up on a book (The Thread by Victoria Hislop) when the author wrote of sewerage running into the sea. Just like Louis de Bernieres telling me in Captain Corelli's Mandolin that Greek used the Cyrillic alphabet, except that the errors occurred at opposite ends of the respective books, so I had finished the Greek island novel but only just started the mainland one.

If I were to find a foreign body in a bowl of soup, I would hardly remove it and eat the rest, whether I had found a fly, a hair or a piece of grit - whether it would be reasonable to assume that the whole bowlful had been polluted. I would have lost faith in the product. It happened with a novel by a friend which used the word "taught" on page one, where "taut" was clearly intended. Perhaps that should be actionable as a tort? (No, not a torte.)

Not that I have never read badly-written books. Clinton Heylin's biography of Sandy Denny, No More Sad Refrains, comes readily to mind, but the subject-matter enabled me to overcome any reservations I had. One reads non-fiction for reasons quite different from those for which one reads fiction, I suppose. I have read very few legal textbooks that have truly been well-written - lawyers, apart from anything else, are often addicted to the compound preposition, as if they were being paid by the word. Legal documents are even worse, being replete with compound prepositions: and I recently corrected a travelling draft of a lease which used the indicative mood where the subjunctive was called for. Speaking of the subjunctive, I also recently noted with pleasure how Joanna Harris deployed the subjunctive throughout Blue Eyed Boy, proving that it is not the fossil that some say it is. But I must admit that my enthusiasm for this irrealis mood is the enthusiasm of a convert, or rather one who has only recently come to appreciated and (however imperfectly) understand it.

Participating in a book club has exposed me to a wider range of reading than would otherwise have been the case (notwithstanding my already catholic tastes). But publishers are letting books out with errors of one sort or another that should have been picked up by the editor or proof-reader - and my own work has suffered too: a grotesque misspelling, of a German word, that I admit I should have got right first time but that the publisher should also have picked up. Mr Rosenblum's List, for example, using "airplane" and "aeroplane", and Through the Language Glass - a book by a linguist, for goodness' sake! - using "practise" as a noun. Neither book was written by an American, or first published in an American-speaking country - if one excludes the UK, of course, and that's increasingly difficult as more and more people receive their speech from awful American films. I am sick of hearing "train station" and "can I get?" - the latter, posed to a ticket collector on the train, receiving a simple affirmative answer, confounding the speaker. Better still: the ticket collector was Polish. Actually, given my experience with local taxi drivers, he might well have been a highly-qualified Polish teacher of English. Perhaps it's with foreign users of the language that the best hope for its preservation lies.

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