Well worth not reading

Some of my favorite books are the ones I’ve never opened

Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I enjoy running my fingers along the spines of books and reading titles and authors’ names, pulling the books out and flipping through them, thinking about the stories inside them.

I buy or borrow the books and read them. This is where an unexpected and troubling thing happens. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading.

There are hundreds of films I’ve never seen, thousands of songs I’ve never heard. But I don’t anticipate them the way that I do books. I don’t imagine the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had experienced them. With books, the anticipation is different. In fact, with books, it is sometimes the best part.

Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple vacationing in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual.

Except that it wasn’t about that at all: It was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be. That dense, bittersweet story I had anticipated reading did not exist, and I felt a sense of loss, a yearning for something unreal. And yet somehow I had read that nonexistent book, because I had created it myself. I was not changed by the experience of reading that book, but perhaps I was changed by my own anticipation of what it could have been.

So I save books. I buy a book with every intention of reading it, but then the more I look at it and think about how great it is going to be, the less I want to read it. I know that it can’t possibly live up to my expectations, and slowly, the joy of my own imaginings becomes more precious to me than whatever actually lies between the covers.

Most books I read just get chewed up and spat out. I enjoy them, but ask me in a year and all I’ll remember is a vague shape of plot, the sense of a character, perhaps the color of a sky in summer, or the taste of borscht. My favorite books, of course, do stay with me. They shift and color my world, and I am different for having read them. But before reading a book, there’s no way to know which it will be: a slick of lipstick that I wear for a day and then wipe off, or a tattoo that stays on my body forever. An unread book has the potential to be the greatest book I have ever read. Any unread book could change my life.

I currently have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But to me, my imagined library is as personal and meaningful — or perhaps even more so — than the collection of books I have read. Each book is intense and vivid in my mind; each book says complex things about my life, history, and personality. Each book has taught me something about the world, or at least about my own expectations of the world, my idea of its possibilities. Here are some examples:

I think that Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say aloud, “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”

Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.

Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it, I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at college.

Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” has been on my shelves for 10 years, dragged from house to house without its spine ever being cracked. It was given to me by a friend when I was a teenager, and I cannot read it because when I do, I will finally understand my friend, and that scares me. Her life is a set of nesting dolls with something solid and simple at the center, and I do not know whether that thing is pure gold or sticky-dark tar-poison. Holding the book is holding my friend’s hand, and that is as close as I dare to get.

Jeff VanderMeer’s “City of Saints and Madmen” is an entire universe between two covers. It contains sculptures and mix tapes and skyscrapers and midwives and sacrifices, and everything else that exists in my own world, but with every edge crusted in gilt and mold. It will open my eyes to a new way of seeing, and when I finish it, I will somehow have been transformed from being just a person who writes into A Real Writer.

Anais Nin’s “Journals” will shatter my illusions and create new ones. Anais Nin is everything that I fear and hope that I am; when I read her “Journals,” she might be everything I think she is. This is thrilling and terrifying at the same time, because then I will be forced to emulate her life of complex heartaches, pearls and lace, all-day sleep, and absinthe-soaked dinner parties — and those things are just not practical. And, even more frightening, she may not be who I think she is. If she is not special, then no one can be special.

I am not ready for Françoise Sagan’s “Aimez-Vous Brahms.” At 18 I read her novella “Bonjour Tristesse” and I was transformed: This book held a truth I didn’t even know I knew. The protagonist of “Aimez-Vous Brahms” is 39, and so when I read it at 39 it will tell me the truth the same way that “Bonjour Tristesse” did when I was 18. Like 18, 39 is a the perfect meeting of anticipation and experience, and this book will guide me through into the next phase of my life.

I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. Perhaps I will never read them. This is the same logic that means I will probably never visit Russia: I imagine that a trip to Russia will be the crux of my life. Every moment will be candy-colored buildings and strong coffee on silver platters, steam trains slipping past quaint farmhouses and huge black bears glimpsed through the snow, furred hats against my ears, and history seeping into my veins. I know that if I actually go to Russia, there will be moments where I don’t like the food, or my feet ache, or I can’t sleep, or I get annoyed at not being able to read the Cyrillic signs. If I keep it in my imagination, it stays pure and perfect.

There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I really will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I know that certain books will resonate deeply and perfectly because they are similar in some way to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Alice Greenway’s “White Ghost Girls,” a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, “Ecstasia” and “Primavera”; or Stewart O’Nan’s small-town ghost story, “The Night Country”; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.

I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.

Try an experiment with me. It might seem odd at first, but go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book, the best book you have ever read. But I suggest that the literary universe you have just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. Your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.

Kirsty Logan is a fiction writer in Glasgow.


Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/well_worth_not_reading/

‘Soumbala,’ an African mustard to the rescue of French gastronomy

France imports 80% of the grain it uses as raw material for the much-loved condiment from Canada, where drought has ravaged the crop yield.

By Marine JeanninPublished on August 31, 2022 at 05h03, updated at 09h18 on August 31, 2022 

Soumbala sold at the Marché de la Côte d'Ivoire, a store in the Chateau-Rouge district of Paris, on August 25, 2022.
Soumbala sold at the Marché de la Côte d’Ivoire, a store in the Chateau-Rouge district of Paris, on August 25, 2022. VINCENT PAILHÉ

It is a wavering pillar of French gastronomy. Mustard, the third most consumed condiment in France behind salt and pepper, has disappeared from supermarkets. It too is a victim of global warming. As Europe’s leading producer and the world’s leading exporter of mustard, France imports 80% of its raw material from Canada, where the latest drought ravaged harvests of Brassica juncea and Brassica nigra, otherwise known as brown or black mustard – a plant in the same family as canola.

In Burgundy, local production has not been spared either, and the Russian-Ukrainian war has deprived France of its potential emergency suppliers. Producers are promising a replenishment of stocks for November, as the 2022 vintage has been good. But with climate change worsening, it is likely that there will be more shortages.

But what if the solution was in West African cooks’ cupboards? From Niger to Guinea-Bissau, people are familiar with “African mustard,” a type of faba bean called soumbala in Bambara, netetou in Wolof, afitin in Fon-Gbe and dawadawa in Igbo. It is made from the seeds of the néré tree, a food tree of the Sudanese and Sahelian savannahs also known as the purple mimosa. The fruit’s yellow pulp, which is sweet and carbohydrate-rich, is used as flour, while its black seeds are either cooked, fermented and sold in the form of pellets with a characteristic strong odor, or dried, roasted and ground into a powder.

‘An almost classic mustard… without the mustard’

“When used in this form, it’s more like nutmeg,” said the Malian Fousseyni Djikine, co-founder of BMK canteens in Paris. “In our restaurants, we use it to make mafé. Soumbala brings a rather atypical flavor, which is difficult to describe, but which flavors the sauce. For specialists, that’s what makes the country’s good mafé!” It’s easy to believe him, smelling the powerful, slightly cocoa-like aroma that wafts from the open kitchen of his restaurant in the 10th arrondissement. But it is not strictly speaking a substitute for mustard, he said, because the latter is “characteristic of French cuisine. On the other hand, what they have in common is that, like mustard, soumbala radically transforms a dish!”

Unlike French mustard and its Eastern cousins horseradish and wasabi, soumbala does not linger in the nose. It is mainly used as a substitute for spices in countries that do not have them, especially in the Sahel region with its desert climate, said the Cameroonian entrepreneur and chef Nathalie Brigaud Ngoum.Read more 

“As we have few trees, we use fermented ingredients to flavor our dishes, fish for coastal countries or, even, soumbala,” she said. But to transform the seeds of the néré tree into an authentic African mustard, you have to roll up your sleeves. “If you want to go all the way, soumbala should not be used as a powder, like a spice, but as a pomade, like a condiment.”

Nathalie Brigaud very kindly agreed to give us her recipe. “You buy prepared and fermented néré seeds, and you crush them with oil, vinegar and lemon. You add cassava or sweet potato flour, for creaminess, and turmeric, to get a nice dark yellow paste. You can use it fresh to spice meat or fish, or cook it and store it in a jar, to make it last a little longer.” While the scent of pure soumbala may put off sensitive noses, the chef promised that this homemade African mustard is even accessible to rookies. “In fact, it makes an almost classic mustard… but without the mustard. It’s a mixed condiment, at the crossroads of European and African cuisines!”


All that remains is to find suppliers. For that, there is only one destination: Château-Rouge, an African neighborhood in the 18th arrondissement of Paris with dozens of stores selling traditional ingredients. At the elegant Marché de la Côte d’Ivoire, a tiny family-run stall that is barely 13 meters squared in rue Doudeauville, the owner Yohann Abbé sells his powdered “soumara.” “When you buy it in balls in the African markets, you then have to pound it yourself… We prefer to save our customers this trouble,” he said, smiling behind his cash register.

The teams at the BMK Paris-Bamako restaurant, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, are preparing to use
The teams at the BMK Paris-Bamako restaurant, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, are preparing to use “soumbala” in their mafé on August 25, 2022. VINCENT PAILHÉ

He gets his supplies in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, from a producer in the big market of Adjamé, and sells his imported product to consumers in West Africa: the Côte d’Ivoire of course, but also Senegal, Mali and Guinea. “In addition to being a staple of African cuisine, it has interesting health benefits,” he said, “to the point of being considered a superfood. In particular, it’s very good for people with high blood pressure.”

Outside of Château-Rouge, it is currently difficult to obtain it in mainland France. But according to the latest projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), temperatures in the south of the country will be close to 50°C by 2050: African mustard therefore seems to have a bright future.

Marine Jeannin

Translation of an original article published in French on lemonde.fr; the publisher may only be liable for the French version.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s pop culture legacy – We tried

Beyond his political career, Mikhail Gorbachev became an unlikely cultural icon, appearing in ads for Pizza Hut and Louis Vuitton. He was immortalized in film by Werner Herzog, and even won a Grammy Award.


Mikhail Gorbachev with a Louis Vuitton bag and the Berlin Wall in the background

Hours after the news of Mikhail Gorbachev’s death was made public, “Pizza Hut” started trending on Twitter. Amid the tributes to the last leader of the Soviet Union who initiated the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall through his perestroika and glasnost policies, a 25-year-old ad for the pizza chain went viral.

The clip opens with a series of shots of Moscow landmarks, such as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and St. Basil’s Cathedral, and then shows Mikhail Gorbachev and and a young girl, presumably his granddaughter, walking through a snowy Red Square before they enter a Pizza Hut restaurant.

The other clients in the restaurant recognize their former leader and all start discussing his legacy.

While a middle-aged man complains that because of Gorbachev, they face “economic confusion and political instability,” and are even plunged into “complete chaos,” a younger guy points out that he is the reason that they’ve gained access to “opportunity and freedom.”

An older lady at the table ends the dispute with one killer argument: “Because of him, we have many things… like Pizza Hut,” she points out, and everyone agrees, leading them to cheer, “Hail to Gorbachev!”

Commercials to finance his foundations

Along with charging fees for the lectures he gave around the world, appearing in ads was one of the ways Gorbachev used to finance his foundations.

The think-tank International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, also known as the Gorbachev Foundation, was created in 1991 to monitor developments in post-Soviet Russia and promote democratic values.

In 1993, Gorbachev also used the money from his Nobel Peace Prize to help establish the “Novaya Gazeta” newspaper, known for its critical and investigative coverage of Russian politics. Gorbachev’s Geneva-based non-profit environmental organization, Green Cross International, was also set up that same year.

Among the products Gorbachev agreed to promote were Apple Computers. In the 1994 ad created for German publications, Gorbachev is shown standing next to a Macintosh computer. “A man can either be part of the solution or part of the problem,” the caption says, quoting the politician, “I have chosen the former.” The computer screen happens to be flashing the name and symbol of Green Cross International.

Gorbachev announced his resignation on TV on December 25, 1991; over the decades, he made major media appearances

A Louis Vuitton ad that reflected a Russian murder case

But it was the details of another commercial that triggered questions.

In 2007, Gorbachev appeared in an advertisement for French luxury label Louis Vuitton.

In a portrait by star photographer Annie Leibovitz, the former Soviet leader is shown in the back of a car, driving past the remains of the Berlin Wall — a reference to his political legacy. He has a classic brown Louis Vuitton bag sitting next to him.

There’s a magazine poking out of that bag. Those who were curious enough to zoom into the picture to analyze its contents still were required to understand the Russian language to read the front cover headline: “Litvinenko’s murder: They wanted to give up the suspect for $7,000.”

That was the cover of the May 28, 2007 edition of the New Times magazine, a liberal Russian weekly that has often published pieces critical of President Vladimir Putin.

The magazine’s cover refers to the case of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy and prominent critic of Putin who was poisoned. On his deathbed, Litvinenko accused the Russian president of having orchestrated his murder. The suspect above-mentioned in the headline refers to Andrei Lugovoi, who is wanted by British authorities; the Kremlin has, however, refused to extradite him from Russia.

Responding to internet speculation at the time, Louis Vuitton spokespeople said that the magazine shown in the image was not chosen with any deliberate intention beyond adding authenticity to the look of the picture.

Nina Hagen’s rap for Mikhail

Singer Nina Hagen, aka the German “Godmother of Punk,” paid an early tribute to Gorbachev in a humorous rap song titled “Michail, Michail (Gorbachev rap),” released on her eponymous album from 1989.

The song’s lyrics were actually written by her stepfather, poet and singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, who is one of former East Germany’s most famous dissidents. Biermann also released his own version of the song that same year, on his album “Gut Kirschenessen. DDR – ça ira!”

An astute observer of the changes emerging from Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reforms, Biermann advised his “dear Gorbi” through the lyrics of the song to “stay smart” to avoid “cannons instead of butter,” all while reminding him that, alongside freedom, the population will need food, too (“Nix is mit Freiheit ohne Futter”). 

From a Grammy Award to a Werner Herzog documentary

Gorbachev also contributed to a number of noteworthy media productions.

His recording of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”, created with Bill Clinton and Sophia Loren, won the 2004 Grammy Award for best spoken-word album for children.

Different documentaries also feature interviews with the pivotal political figure. Most prominently, Werner Herzog directed “Meeting Gorbachev,” which features three conversations filmed over the course of six months.

Werner Herzog filming the documentary ‘Meeting Gorbachev’ with the former Soviet leader

In the 2018 film, Gorbachev discusses different aspects of his personal life, his legacy, as well as his disappointments.

At the time of the shoot, Gorbachev was already in poor health, but he was still clear-headed about what was happening in his country. The democratic reforms he had tried to set up were being swept aside, with Russian President Vladimir Putin using authoritarian measures to reinstate the Soviet empire that collapsed under Gorbachev’s watch.

One quote from the “Meeting Gorbachev” film summarizes the melancholy mood triggered by the overturn of Gorbachev’s attempted democratic reforms. Herzog asks the veteran politician: “I would like to hear, what should be on your gravestone?”

With a sparkle in his eye, Gorbachev simply answers: “We tried.”

Article and photos: https://www.dw.com/en/mikhail-gorbachevs-pop-culture-legacy/a-62982574

Edited by: Louisa Schaefer

Sanna Marin, Finland’s partying PM, defends right to private life: ‘I am human’

Madrid – AUG 25, 2022 – 08:40 CDT

Sanna Marin on Wednesday, August 24, at a Social Democratic Party event in the Finnish city of Lahti.
Sanna Marin on Wednesday, August 24, at a Social Democratic Party event in the Finnish city of Lahti.LEHTIKUVA (VIA REUTERS)

On the verge of tears, Sanna Marin, Finland’s prime minister, responded to the week-long criticism over videos and photographs of her at private parties. “I am a human being,” she said. “Sometimes I also long for joy, light and fun amidst the dark clouds.”

At an event organized by her Social Democratic Party (SDP) on Wednesday, August 24, in the city of Lahti, in the south of Finland, Marin asked to be judged on her work as the country’s leader and not on what she does in her private life.

A day earlier, Marin had apologized after the publication of a photograph taken at the prime minister’s official residence showing two well-known influencers in the country kissing topless, with a Finland sign obscuring their breasts. The image reignited a controversy that seemed to have been put to bed the previous day after Marin announced she had tested negative in a drug test. The test was taken three days earlier on the insistence of several opposition politicians, who claimed that in one of the videos showing Marin letting her hair down with well-known society figures, a partygoer could be heard alluding to cocaine.

“I haven’t missed a single day of work,” Marin said in her defense on Wednesday. “I want to believe people will look at what we do at work rather than what we do in our spare time. I don’t see any problem in us enjoying ourselves in the company of our friends.” Marin acknowledged that the week had proven “quite difficult” for her.

Two 'influencers' kissed at the official residence of the Finnish prime minister.
Two ‘influencers’ kissed at the official residence of the Finnish prime minister.

Several police sources and criminology experts have since explained that there was no clear indication that drugs were being taken at the private party in the footage in question. Drug use and possession for personal use are a criminal offense in Finland, subject to a fine or, in exceptional cases, by imprisonment for up to six months.

The Helsinki police have confirmed that they have received three complaints regarding the videos but, as there is no indication of law-breaking on behalf of the prime minister or her friends, and there will be no investigation.

Marin, 36, became the world’s youngest female head of government in 2019. She has since given the role her own individual twist: “I want to show that there are normal people with normal lives in these jobs,” she said recently. Shortly before the release of the controversial videos this summer, the leader caused a furor on the internet with the publication of images of her attending a music festival in a leather jacket, denim shorts and combat boots.

In December, Marin apologized after local media reported that she had gone out partying just hours after her foreign minister, environmentalist Pekka Haavisto, had tested positive for Covid-19. Marin explained that, while out, she received two text messages advising her to self-isolate for having been in close contact with Haavisto, but did not see them until the following day as she had left her work cellphone at home.

Article and photos: https://english.elpais.com/international/2022-08-25/sanna-marin-finlands-partying-pm-defends-right-to-private-life-i-am-human.html

Stephen Leacock, a neglected humorist

My Financial Career

John Gibbens’s tour of second-hand bookshops turns up a neglected humorist

My Financial Career (Stephen Leacock)

He started writing pieces for periodicals in the 1890s, and in 1910 he brought them out as a book, Literary Lapses. It was a smash. A wag commented in 1911 that more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada. His most lucrative book, however, was his first, Elements of Political Science (1906), which became a standard university text.

Like Literary Lapses, Laugh with Leacock opens with ‘My Financial Career’. If this was actually his first piece, few writers can have made a debut so near their peak. Describing his attempt to open a bank account, Leacock captures minutely the psychopathology of the ‘customer’ – bullied, belittled and bewildered. The detail may be historical, but the theme has only grown more universal, now that we spend so much of our lives being treated as ‘customers’ by someone or other.

A lot of his satire still stands up like this. The clothes and settings have changed, but the pretensions, follies and fads are all recognisable. Take, for instance, his assault on the magazine short story, ‘The Snoopopaths or Fifty Stories in One’: ‘ “Back,” she iced. And then, “Why have you come here?” she hoarsed. “What business have you here?” “None,” he glooped, “none. I have no business.” They stood sensing one another.

“I thought you were in Philadelphia,” she said – her gown clinging to every fibre of her as she spoke.’

Leacock’s durability may result from a rule he made himself. Apparently, when he was in teacher-training he carried off a wicked impersonation of the principal of his college that deeply wounded the man, and from then on the precocious humorist vowed to keep personal mockery out of his comedy. Someone who’s funny without either malice or obscenity – it’s increasingly hard to imagine, nowadays.

The sleepy lanes, by the way, turned out to be vergeless and patrolled by ferocious 4x4s. And though we scanned every single headstone, we never found Andrew Young. Was that precise description of his own funeral the canon’s little joke?


You Tube for the full text: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IV6xT00ZZ4

Leacock also wrote, among other books, The Dawn of Canadian History.

Don’t say it

The art of dodging bad words

We may not be quite so delicate today, but euphemism — from the Greek for “auspicious speech” — is with us still. Our rooster and weather vane date from the 19th century, when cock became too vivid for polite American discourse. (So strong was the taboo that Bronson Alcocke, father of Louisa May, changed the family name to Alcott.) For public tough talk about courage, we translate our favorite English slang into Spanish, like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, and compliment folks on their cojones. (Or tone it down further, George Will-style, and ask if a leader has the “kidneys” for the job.)

Euphemisms can be private or public, trivial or deadly, serious or joky — but they can’t be dispensed with, says Ralph Keyes in his new book “Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms.” So long as humans have had things to be discreet about, they’ve had names that furnish some rhetorical distance from the things themselves. “Penis, Latin for ‘tail,’ in Cicero’s time was put to work as a euphemism for the male sex organ,” notes Keyes. (And just as some writers groused, in recent decades, that a former meaning of gay had been filched from them, Cicero complained that he could no longer call a tail a tail, now that the word meant something else.)

What could be more fun than mocking yesterday’s euphemisms? Open a copy of Mencken’s “The American Language” and you find our American forebears exclaiming “nerts!” (to avoid the naughty “nuts!”) and calling their legs “limbs” or “benders.” Then there are the benighted Brits, for whom Poe’s “The Gold Bug” was retitled “The Golden Beetle,” since “bug” to them meant only the (unmentionable) bedbug.

For modern Americans, of course, penis is just the scientifically correct name. Over the centuries, the job of euphemizing the organ has been handed off to hundreds of other words, some short-lived and others more durable. This is the typical life of a euphemism: a ride on what Keyes calls the “euphemism carousel” and Steven Pinker called the “euphemism treadmill.” By either metaphor, a euphemism wears out as it becomes too familiarly linked to the thing it designates; its distancing powers fade, and it’s abandoned, temporarily or permanently, for a newer term.

Any word, however inoffensive it looks, can wear out its welcome this way. It’s hard to imagine a more abstract word than undertaker, for instance: “One who undertakes a task.” But as a euphemism for “one who handles funerals,” it acquired a morbid aura in less than 200 years. By the end of the 19th century, writes Keyes, “undertakers had promoted themselves first to funeral directors, then to morticians…presumably because it sounded like ‘physician.’ ”

This process takes time, naturally; at the moment, some American parents think butt is a fine word for kids to use, while others still hear it as vulgar. Specific terms aside, though, we all know how to tailor our language to the audience of the moment. Even the most plain-spoken among us seem content with a world where some words are off limits to 3-year-olds and radio bloviators. And this euphemizing of intimate matters — death, bodily functions, sex — seems like a perfectly reasonable social contract: I’ll pretend I would never picture you on the toilet, or in your coffin, if you’ll pretend the same in return.

But euphemisms, as Keyes notes, aren’t limited to these universal human realms. They also have their dark, Orwellian public side. And the use of euphemism by the powerful — insiders and authorities of all stripes — involves a different relationship between the euphemizer and euphemizee. We all know what “passed away” really means, whether it’s our idiom or not. But when a finance guy euphemizes risky investments as “subprime loans” or a military officer calls dead civilians “collateral damage,” the obfuscating language can begin to sound like professional terminology — the equivalent of the doctor’s “MI” for “heart attack” — rather than what it is, an intentional attempt at misdirection. When euphemisms cover up things we aren’t familiar with (and often don’t want to know better), they’re much more insidious than the polite evasions of everyday life.

In fact, the whole subject would be easier to talk about if we assigned euphemisms to two separate categories — benign and malign, maybe. To call the room where you urinate a “bathroom” or refer to a sexual act as “sleeping with” is hardly sinister; it’s merely following a set of cultural expectations, just like using napkins or saying “please pass the salt.” Describing a patient’s MRI as “worrisome” rather than “dire” may be a (temporary) hedge, but it’s also a human gesture.

But telling citizens that torture is “abuse” and mercenaries are “contractors” — or in Orwell’s words, that burning and bombing villages is “pacification” — is a different sort of enterprise. These euphemisms — the top-down terminology invented and deployed to serve the interests of the coiners — are the ones that give “euphemism” a bad name.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe


Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/02/13/dont_say_it/

Beyond the keyboard: Fountain pen collectors

find beauty in ink


By Eliza McGraw

August 30, 2022 at 9:00 a.m. EDT

I first heard about the existence of fountain pen lovers’ gatherings from Marc Pelletier, of Castine, Maine, a family friend whom I met recently on a trip to Maine. He had written my daughter’s name in a beautiful, flowing hand with what he called his “everyday writer” — an instrument that was anything but ordinary. It was a 1925 black-and-pearl-celluloid pen with a flexible nib, the part that touches the paper. Pelletier also mentioned that I was lucky to live in D.C., because the Washington DC Fountain Pen Supershow was held nearby.

So one day in August, I went to the show, billed as the world’s largest. Display areas at the Marriott Fairview Park in Falls Church, Va., teemed as pen enthusiasts made their ways along aisles, testing nibs with calligraphical flourishes and holding the barrels of pens carefully in their hands. Tables spilled out from the ballroom into surrounding hallways and onto a lower floor. Approximately 170 vendors occupied 250 tables, and about 2,000 people attended over three days, according to Barbara Johnson, who runs the show with her son, Jeff Hancock.

T-shirts at the show read, “My fountain pen scoffs at your subpar writing instrument,” and “Don’t touch my nibs.” Companies had names such as Pendemonium and Penquisition. The DC Metro Pen Crew, an approximately 575-member group that organizes pen buys, meetings and other events, hosted a table to give away new and used pens and accessories. There were pen kimonos and pen pillows. Walking through such a space scrawling in a notebook with a felt-tip earned glances full of pity.

Vintage-pen collectors are a mainstay of pen shows. Some of these people are more interested in pens as “a work of art rather than a writing instrument,” Ed Fingerman, a former president of Pen Collectors of America and the director of operations for Fountain Pen Hospital, in New York, told me earlier. They might collect art nouveau pens, or celluloid pens like Pelletier’s, which became popular in the 1920s. Not all are prohibitively expensive; some can be had for less than $200.

Vintage pens have meaning, said Baltimore resident and self-described “pen nerd” Yarelis Guzman, who was attending the show. When Guzman’s mother was growing up in Puerto Rico, she earned a Parker fountain pen as a member of an honors class. She lost it on her way home, and although she and her father looked, they couldn’t find it. A generation later, Guzman continued the search at pen shows, and eventually located and bought the same style of Parker. She gave it to her mother for Christmas last year. “She was so happy,” she told me.

Pen shows also host new pen creators. “I am a one-woman shop,” said Lauren Elliott, of Reston, Va. “I’m the CEO and the marketing manager and the shipping department.” She named her company Lucky Star Pens because she loves the night sky, and at the show, she wore a black shirt covered with white stars. On her table, she displayed Celestial Moon pens, on which she’d collaborated with other artisans. They were gleaming and galactic-themed with a swirling purple-and-black design and a lunar white round barrel finial.

A mechanical, not unpleasant buzz ran underneath the constant talk of vermilion ink and vintage Watermans. The sound came from grinding, as craftspeople shaped fountain pen nibs for customers. Individuality and customization matter to pen aficionados, said nibmeister JC Ament of Arlington, Va., whose company is called Nib Tailor. “A fountain pen is obsolete technology,” he said. “It’s not a necessity. You want it to be a very tactile thing. It’s a talisman.”

Social media, Fingerman said, has been “huge” for the hobby. There are YouTube channels, blogs, and Etsy, Instagram and Twitch accounts by so-called penfluencers for penthusiasts. “There’s no bottom to the rabbit hole,” said Arielle Fragassi, of Houston. “It just goes deeper and deeper.”

The ever-mounting presence of digital technology in daily life has turned some toward the hobby, said Bryant Del Toro, a software engineer who creates content as ThatJournalingGuy. Digitally expressing creativity can be a challenge, he said. That’s where analog instruments and particularly fountain pens come in: “You pick up the pen, you’re more intentional with your thoughts, and it adds a whole bunch of personality.”

“If I sit down with a pen and an ink, I’ll try to pair a pen with a specific color ink,” said Fragassi, a chemist and novelist who also maintains an Instagram page with pen and stationery content. “I love brainstorming pen to paper because I can jot stuff down and draw different conclusions and get all that information out of my head onto the page.”

At the show, an ink-testing station took up long tables. Racks holding ink and containers of cotton swabs sat near rectangular sheets of white paper swatched with rows of inks, donated by sellers, with names including Blue-Ringed Octopus Blue and Gibson Les Paul Guitar Series Desert Burst. Showgoers could use the swabs to sample different colors.

By early afternoon on the day I attended, vendors seated back-to-back turned to talk with each other. At a seminar, held away from the rush of the ballroom and hallways, Geoffrey Parker, great-grandson of the founder of Parker, gave a talk on the company’s archives. The trading and selling floors kept churning. A high level of pen-loving conversation carried on, the lively sound of an interactive community.

“What I write is pleasant to actually experience, and I think that there are a lot of people like me,” Pelletier had told me earlier. The crowded, bustling event bore this out. “You go to a pen show,” said Fragassi, “and suddenly you’re surrounded by people and everyone’s enthusiastic about fountain pens. You’ve found your people.”

Eliza McGraw is a writer in Washington.