[As a six year old] I couldn't read a lot of the words in The Hobbit. I had accelerated into reading faster than my understanding had grown. If I press my memory for the sensation of reading the second half of the book, when I was flying through the story,I remember, simultaneous with the new liquid smoothness, a constant flicker of incomprehensibility. There were holes in the text corresponding to the parts I couldn't understand. Words like prophesying, rekindled and adornment had never been spoken in my hearing...I could enjoy them. They were obviously the special vocabulary that was apt for the slaying of dragons and the fighting of armies: words that conjured the sound of trumpets. But for all the meaning I obtained from them, they might as well never have been printed. When i speeded up, and my reading became fluent, it was partly because I had learned how to ignore such words efficiently. I methodically left out chunks...
Now that I hardly spell out I do not know, and the things that puzzle me in books do not lie in individual words but in the author's assumption of shared knowledge about the human heart (never my strong point), I still have, like everybody, words in my vocabulary that are relics of that time. The words we learned exclusively from books are the ones we pronounce differently from everyone else. Or, if we force ourselves to say them the public way, secretly we believe the proper pronunciation is our own, deduced from the page and not corrected by hearing the word aloud until it from the page and not corrected by hearing the word aloud until it was too late to alter the sound of the word. The classic is 'misled', said not as mis-led but as myzled-the past tens of a verb, 'to misle', which somehow never comes p in the present tense. In fact, misled never misled me. One of mine is 'grimace'. You probably think it's pronounced grimuss, but I know different. It's grim-ace to rhyme with face. I'm sorry, but on this point, the entire English-speaking human race except me is wrong.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
"Far more than a bookworm's nostalgia trip"
says the Economist of Francis Spufford memoir The Child that Books Built, and (although how anyone can use a derogatory "only" about such a nostalgia trip is beyond me), it is a lot of things besides that...like a confidence-in-my-mastery-of-the-english-language-booster.
I always thought my private (and if I'm not careful embarrassingly public) idiosyncratic pronunciations were because English was my third language, but a native asserts, and I quote, that "everybody" has "words... learned exclusively from books [whose]...pronunciation is our own, deduced from the page and not corrected by hearing the word aloud until it was too late"...so that was reassuring :)
grimace = grim-ace is one of mine too, but at least that's a fairly uncommon word, I wonder how I missed hearing such mundane words as pigeon (= pig-on ) or plait (= plat)...
Anyway its a pretty unique book - a combination of autobiography, child psychology and literary criticism/classification of children's' literature.... he has a real knack for putting the experience of reading as a child into words.
Another element is the tragic story of his sister, suffering from a rare disease, which is central to his need for the escapism only books can provide. He tells it with some sense of guilt for seeking isolation, but without an ounce of sentimentality as befits her character-in her final illness she declares herself "tired of living at the frontiers of medical knowledge". Here too the comforting power of reading is present - she lingers “ long enough for my father to read her the whole of The Lord of the Rings aloud”.