Writing Is Harder than Reading (Just Ask Charlemagne)

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At Runnymede in 1215, King John of England did NOT sign Magna Carta.  He couldn’t.  He didn’t know how to write.  (He affixed his seal to the document instead.)

The great Charlemagne couldn’t write either.  In his later, post-conquering-most-of-Europe-and-making-Christian-conversions-by-slaughter years, Charlemagne took an active interest in all branches of learning. But after his death, his former mathematics teacher, Einhard, reported that though Charlemagne even kept a tablet under his pillow to practice writing when he couldn’t sleep at night, he never mastered the skill.  Since Einhard doesn’t say that Charlemagne never mastered reading either, I think we can assume that Charlemagne could read—and that, given the size of King John’s personal library, that King John could probably read, too.

I’ve been reading up on the subject, and it turns out that to contemporaries of the two kings, for them to be able to read but not write wouldn’t have appeared at all unusual.

Until quite modern times, it turns out, reading and writing weren’t studied concurrently. Reading came first, and most students left the schoolroom before they advanced beyond that.  Those who continued their education learned first to write numbers, not the alphabet.  To be able to keep simple accounts on paper (or, earlier, parchment) was much more useful than to be able to write words, since there was always a handy clerk or something around who could take dictation.

Only a student who persevered for years learned to write at all; and no one but a scholar was expected to do more than to copy someone else’s words.  (Books of paradigms for letters, and even simple sermons, were widely sold.)  A person was called “literate” who could sign his or her own name*; and to be able to produce an original work was a mark of an uncommon level of educational attainment.

Since I learned to read and write simultaneously (and in my mind, they’ve always appeared inseparable), this seems very strange to me.  After some thought, I’ve decided it’s analogous with the way that most people can reproduce—with voice or a musical instrument—a tune that they hear; some have learned to read other people’s notes; but only a relative few can actually compose original music.

In fact, now that I’ve written that down, I really like the music analogy.  For one thing, as far as I know it’s mine, which prejudices me in its favor; and for another thing, it makes me feel like Mozart.  –Okay, not the Mozart of the “Requiem”, more like in his “Twinkle, Twinkle” days; but Mozart nonetheless.

It also makes me feel better about the fact that the other day I caught myself making an egregious error in simple subject-verb agreement in something that I wrote.  In the past, a mistake like that would have embarrassed me very much.  This time I just said to myself, “Not everyone is born a Mozart!” and let it go.

 


*Check out this 1867 report from Britain on literacy among the poor, in which “able to read” and “can produce a simple signature” are separately noted; or this 1902 bulletin from the Department of Labor which has columns labelled “Able to read and write,” “Able to read,” and “Illiterate.”

Me & You & Mary Sue

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that how to write must be one of the most difficult things in the world to learn in a classroom setting.  —At least, I never learned anything about writing that way, and I went to school for many more years than the law actually requires, and took a lot of writing classes.  To their credit, quite a few of my writing teachers admitted this.  “The only way to learn to write is to do it,” they’d say.  And if they’d been more honest, they would have added, “But just in case some really pointed and brutal criticism of your efforts is also helpful, I’m going to give you a lot of that, too.”

This was bad while I was in school, since it amounted to me paying large amounts of money to hear my writing disparaged to my face; but it’s been great since I graduated.  Whereas I not only ceased to learn any more mathematics once I got out of the classroom, but actually forgot everything I ever knew including how to calculate a tip in a restaurant, my writing has gradually, steadily, improved.  In school, I wrote every day, and I have continued to write almost every day since; but I only do math when I have to.

People who generally prefer math—e.g., everybody I live and work with—tell me they want to improve their writing, too, but are stopped by the fact that, unlike with mathematics, there aren’t any books full of problems for them to practice on.  They would write, they tell me, if they only knew what to write about. They seem to view plots as analogous to equations, and want a page of them to solve.

There’s something in that viewpoint, I guess.

I admit that I don’t really understand why they can’t come up with as many plots as they want all by themselves, though.  As far as I’m concerned, plots are the easiest thing in the world.  When all I want is some practice writing, I just rewrite scenes from my life—a short-cut that provides me with not only a plot, but also a protagonist and a setting, all ready-made.  Then I can get straight into the much-harder work of describing them.

At first in retelling a story, I frequently succumbed to the temptation to turn myself into a species of Mary Sue*.  There’s nothing wrong with “improving” on reality a little, I guess; but I got bored with being a hero all the time, and now I actually appreciate how my occasional social ineptitude provides me with many excellent opportunities to portray humiliation (self-inflicted), and regret instead.  (Life supplies plenty of material for scenes of hurt and loss without any help from me.)

And it’s therapeutic, too.  I don’t know for sure, but I doubt I would ever say the same about working a partial differential equation.


*For any who don’t already know it, a Mary Sue (as defined by Wikipedia) is “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment.”  If you have written a novel in which the protagonist is just like you, only better in every way, you have written a Mary Sue.  Enjoy your work—but do not share it.  Especially do not share it with me.

Writing in the First Person

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I’m deep into writing another book—a sequel to Ant-Lands.  This is by popular request.  “Honey, write a sequel to Ant-Lands,” was a popular request of my husband’s.  I don’t usually read sequels myself, having formed an unfavorable opinion of them when I was six years old and wasted a week of my young life on the insipid Heidi Grows Up; but I feel like I owe my husband something for being my most faithful and supportive reader.  He once compared my work favorably to that of Joseph Conrad, his own preferred author, and though I don’t believe for a moment that he really thinks I’m in Conrad’s class, the memory of his heroic attempt to sound sincere when he said it is something I will always treasure.

Just to make a change from Ant-Lands, which was written in the third person, I’m writing the sequel in the first person.  I admit to feeling a certain hesitance about this—not because I don’t like writing in the first person (witness this blog), but because I’m haunted by a remark from a friend concerning the first-person point of view.

Her name was Julie, and Julie had given up reading a novel written in the first person because, she reported, it confused her.  She said, “The book kept saying, ‘I did this; and then I did that’; and I kept thinking, ‘no I didn’t!’”

Now, I have never had this problem.  In the same circumstances, if my brain says anything, it says, “Yeah, I totally did do that, and lots more!”; but are there many Julies out there?  By writing in the first person, am I taking a chance on limiting my future sales?

Julie and I are eager to hear from anyone who has more information on this important topic.

What Sculpture Taught Me about Writing Dialogue

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(Photo via Good Free Photos)

The town I live in goes in for public art in a big way, which is very nice except that the piece of public art nearest my home is a statue I don’t like.  Actually, it’s a statue I hate.  This statue is—unusually, these days—representational, and I like representational art.  I should like this statue.  Instead, it evokes an active loathing in my soul.

My daughter—who’s an artist—would probably tell me that this very loathing is the proof that, as a work of art, the statue is a success.  The principal function of art, she tells me, is to make people uncomfortable.  (I think that’s what she said.)  Whether that’s true or not, this statue that I hate has been useful to me.  It’s helped me to write better dialogue.

The statue is of a young woman who looks like she might be waiting for something.  I’ve always assumed she was waiting for a bus because a) the statue is positioned at a bus-stop; and b) she looks a little bored.  Not a lot bored; just a little.  It’s life-sized, which means the young woman is taller than I am because almost everybody is, and she’s dressed very casually in jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie with the hood down and resting on her shoulders.  A light breeze stirs her hair.  Her head is turned slightly to the side, and she stares down the road, watching passively for the bus, which on this particular route runs every hour, seven days a week, except on Christmas and New Year’s when the buses in this town don’t run at all.  Every detail of her face and clothing (her hands are concealed in her pockets) is absolutely correct and in perfect proportion.  Even the aglets on the ends of her shoelaces are visible.  She looks, in short, exactly like a slightly bored young woman of between 18 and, say, 25; casually dressed; who is waiting for a bus—and who has been dipped in bronze.

I’ve lived here for sixteen years, which means (if I’ve done the math right, and allowing for days off) that I’ve driven by the Statue I Don’t Like at least 4000 times on my way to work.  I’ve loathed it every time.  But sometime about viewing #2847, I realized why I didn’t like it; and that the statue had a lesson to teach.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to make characters in my books converse with each other in a way that I considered to be absolutely true-to-life.  Grammar, vocabulary, idiom—I wanted them all exactly those of real people.  Nobody popping off an “oh, very well” in my books, when nobody in real life has said “oh, very well” for a hundred years.  No siree.  And the dialogue I produced that way was the literary equivalent of Bronze Bus-Watcher.  Go to any bus-station and see her equivalent in the flesh; listen to the conversations going on around you and hear my characters’ dialogue.

So when it comes to statuary and dialogue, I conclude, true-to-life is overrated.  True-to-life is an undistinguished young woman rendered faithfully but soullessly in bronze.  Good dialogue—not the stuff I write; but I’m working on it—is Michelangelo’s David.  One hand is bigger than the other, and his eyes don’t track; but you certainly can’t go down to any old bus-stop and see him.

I’m working now on making dialogue that is untrue to life; but, I hope, more revelatory of my characters’ souls.  I’m big into baring souls.  Souls are more interesting to me than even plots—which is saying quite a lot.  This new way is hard for me; but I like it.  I can make my characters say anything I want them too now, even if it’s something nobody in “real life” ever has said, or would.

So far, they have never wanted to say, “Oh, very well.”

Religiousness

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My mother didn’t give me a lot of useful advice.  That is, she gave me plenty of advice—but it wasn’t necessarily useful.  She told me not to put bananas in the refrigerator (which was good to know), but also that white shoes and straw hats must not be worn after Labor Day, and furthermore that one’s shoes must always be darker than one’s hemline.  I have no quarrel with the white shoes/hemline things because I never wear white; but Mom also informed me that a lady never wears diamonds before 4 pm, or a wristwatch after, which means that a lady who is lucky enough to have scored a diamond-studded Rolex can never wear it.  My mother wasn’t young when I was born—she was the age of most of my friends’ grandmothers—and I think some of her dicta may have been a wee bit out of date.  Anyway, I’m a woman, not a lady, and stand on my right to do as I please with regard to diamonds.

I am, however, in perfect agreement with her about one thing:  Religion and politics are not good topics for social conversation.

This conviction makes it just a little bit awkward for me that the third and final question that my English-language students almost invariably ask me is, “Why are Americans so religious?”

I say “almost,” because in fact, the Asian students I’ve interacted with never ask this.  What they know of American culture is what’s penetrated the filter of their own home-culture; and American religion mostly doesn’t penetrate the filter.  They see American-style Christianity all around them, and don’t recognize it.  An Asian student who had been in America for four years was amazed to discover that the figures in the Christmas crèche represented The Holy Family, rather than just “a family.”  It’s the European students who are curious about American religion.

The reasons Americans appear to be more religious than Europeans (I don’t quite concede that they actually are more religious, but they may seem that way) are many and varied, and since I love history and particularly the history of my own country, I think I could probably expatiate on them for several hours.

But I don’t.

For one thing, these are students of biochemistry, not history, and a lecture like that would bore them to death.  For another, to talk about religion at all would be as unsuitable as to wear that lovely fancy diamond-studded Rolex watch that I don’t own either before or, regrettably, even after four in the afternoon.

But it would be rude not to answer them at all, so I just look ‘em in the eye and I say, “Americans are religious because our country was founded by the people YOU drove out of your country for being too religious.

“Now, let’s get back to the proper use of the passive voice, shall we?”

I Must Show out a Flag and Sign of Love

flg_medOnce the international students that I tutor are satisfied that they understand why Americans eat so much meat (because we can!), they start asking me harder questions. And by harder, I mean things that are even trickier to answer than whether the entire English language contains even one verb that isn’t, in some way, irregular (answer: “ah—define irregular”). These are bright, educated, and very thoughtful young people, and their questions are deeply reasoned, and felt. They’re also quite varied (only the one about meat is of near-universal interest), but there are two others besides the one about meat that come up repeatedly.

One is why Americans are so enthusiastically, openly, obviously, and even (let’s face it) sometimes almost comically patriotic (“U-S-A!  U-S-A!”), and at the same time, so hypercritical of their country?

The first fifty times I was asked this, I really had no answer to give. I wasn’t even willing to concede that the inferences of the question were true. World-wide, I’d usually counter, most people love their native land. They love it the same way they love their mother; which is to say, a lot, and despite all her faults and failings, to which they are not blind. It’s just natural. Americans aren’t unique in this regard.

But I travel quite a bit (mostly in Europe), and I’ve even lived abroad; and after a while I came to the conclusion that the students had a point. (This is why I love it when the students ask me questions. I learn so much that way!) Go to a window in almost any European country and look out, and count the national flags that you see. Unless your room overlooks a souvenir shop, or it happens to be a national holiday, you won’t see many. But in the US, nearly every public building and many private homes fly the American flag every day. Cars sport window-flags, and patriotic bumper-stickers; houses are furnished with star-spangled throw-pillows and the birds in the garden are offered wooden replicas of the Statue of Liberty to nest in (I desperately want one of those; either that, or an Uncle Sam whirligig). I lived for years in a city where the local symphony orchestra—no matter what else was on the program—began every performance with a rendition of the national anthem.

It’s not that I haven’t seen comparable patriotic displays in other countries. I have. But not so many.

The conclusion that I’ve come to about all this is very much like the one I arrived at regarding the American passion for Meat. Our patriotism isn’t genetic, exactly. But it has been passed down through the generations.

The international students who are amazed by our flag-worship are the offspring of generations of people who, overall, had pretty good lives in their native countries. People who have it good someplace stay there. Nobody forsakes everything and goes off to live in a foreign country to do menial work and struggle with the irregular verbs of a new language on a whim.

Americans are the children of people who didn’t have it so good in the Old Country. People for whom America represented a chance—possibly the only chance—for a significant improvement in their quality of life. Consequently they were predisposed to like America before they had even arrived; and if they did prosper, and stayed and raised families here (thirty to fifty percent—depending on which source you read—of those who arrived on the immigrant ships went back home again), they taught their children that America was a great place, entirely worthy of incessant flag-waving, laudatory speeches and “Proud to Be an American” bumper-stickers which, unless you’re a naturalized citizen, make no sense whatever. (Your parents may be proud of their foresight in choosing to give birth to you in American; but, as a fetus, you yourself had little or no say in the decision.)

I don’t need to say any more than this to them before the international students tell me they suddenly understand why Americans are both hyper-patriotic and yet also very critical of their country. No country, they speculate, could possibly continue for subsequent generations to live up to the rosy picture of it painted for them by their parents and grandparents, who had exchanged a bleak existence for one full of promise.

Either that, or it’s something in American water. I lived abroad for two years. I loved every moment of it, and my existence throughout was anything but bleak. Yet I couldn’t wait to get back, fly the flag, eat a hot dog, and I always get a lump in my throat when a band plays the national anthem.

Simplify, Simplify

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Sometimes when I need cheering up, I remind myself that I’m one of the lucky few in this world who is able to make my living doing what I love—writing.

Of course, it’s stretching a point to refer to what I make as a “living”; and it’s also not absolutely true that, in the course of an average working day, I actually get to write very much.  Mostly my job consists of re-writing what other people have written.  I also fill out a lot of paperwork, because much paperwork must be filled out before anything, from a major scientific breakthrough to changing a lightbulb, can take place at a university.  But still, I like my job, and I wouldn’t change it for anything that paid less than three times as well.

Okay; two times as well.

I work with biochemists (and biochemistry trainees), and, as I think I’ve mentioned, I’m also married to a biochemist, so I think I may state with some authority that the reputation biochemists have for being highly intelligent beings is generally well-deserved.  Their reputation for being incurably nerdy and somewhat absent-minded is also well-deserved; but I’m not going to get into that now.  My point is that they’re as bright a group of people as you will ever find, and like most really intelligent people, they usually write pretty well.

But as English becomes, more and more, the international language of science (and I think it could be argued that it is becoming simply the international language), a new, sub-dialect of Scientific English is evolving, and part of my job—my favorite part—is to translate regular Scientific English into this new dialect.

I learned this dialect in part by doing another of my little jobs around the lab, which is to correct the written English of the international students.

The difficulties the students have are specific to their nationalities.  Chinese students have terrible problems with verbs.  In speaking, some of them actually try to avoid them altogether (not recommended), or consistently use a single, particular verb-form—usually, for some reason, the present participle.  Nearly all of them have trouble distinguishing between an actual verb and a noun derived from a verb.  I let “we mixing the reagents,” or “I rotation the test-tube,” pass in conversation, but when the students bring me drafts of scientific papers they intend to submit, I know I have a duty to do.  Luckily, clarity is everything in a scientific paper, and style is nothing, so I’ve decided the Chinese students can live without the pluperfect.

Europeans have difficulties understanding the fine differences in meaning conveyed by the use of the definite rather than the indefinite article; students from the Middle East resist using articles at all.  “Such thing have no purpose,” an Iranian gravely informed me.  (She had trouble with her verb endings, too.)  The entire French nation apparently nurses a stubborn conviction that the word “information” should be plural.  “This informations was new to the investigator,” French students blithely write; and then they resist me when I demand that they change it.  (I avoid arguments by endorsing the use of alternate terms, such as “fact”.)  To a Russian, a double negative makes, not a positive, but a particularly emphatic negative.  (Russians also like the word “informations” a lot, though not as much as the French.)  All of them mistake slang for Standard English, which gives their papers a casual breeziness that reviewers absolutely hate.

Then after I’ve worked on the international students’ papers, I take what I’ve learned and apply it to the scientific papers written by the lab’s native speakers of English.  World-wide, many scientific journals are now published in English only.  Consequently it’s necessary, when writing papers for submission to these journals, to keep in mind that English isn’t the first language of most of the people who will read it.  Years ago, when I first started at the university, I combed draft papers principally for slang, idiom, and (in those pre-Spell-Check days) typos.  Now I flag unusual words, and simplify complex grammatical structures for the benefit of non-native speakers.

I haven’t quite resigned myself to changing my own writing style, though.  I probably should.  With the decline of the corner bookstore and the rise of Amazon-style world-wide book distribution, the more generally comprehensible a book’s style and vocabulary, the more likely it will be widely read.  Unlike many other writers, I have the experience necessary to take advantage of this.

I’ve been thinking, in fact, that given that there are over one and a half billion people in China, I should probably write specifically for the Chinese market.  I’ll write a book with a suitably Socialist plot—comrade gets girl; comrade studies Mao’s aphorisms with girl; comrade loses girl—and without any verbs at all.  It’ll be a smash.

Why Can’t Things Ever Be Simple?

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I like to read period literature.  –Not the stuff that gets anthologized and reprinted from age to age.  That stuff is mostly whatever the anthologists think is least likely to offend modern sensibilities.  It doesn’t necessarily reflect the attitudes of ordinary people of the time.  I like to read the ephemera.  Forgettable novels and cheesy magazine articles are full of insights into what people like me, people who were not necessarily great and lucid thinkers, once really believed.

A lot of times I find things in period writing that I don’t like very much.  Even after reading a lot of it, the intolerant religiosity of the western world in the nineteenth century sometimes still shocks me.  Writers whose portraits depict sweetly-smiling old ladies in mourning bonnets have no trouble consigning most of humankind to eternal damnation for the sin of not being the right sort of Christian.

Sort of reminds me of something—I can’t think what—that I read in the papers just recently…

Sometimes I find funny things.  I own at least two hundred articles and pamphlets, spanning two hundred years, outlining (in the blackest terms imaginable) what the authors imagine will be the dire and inevitable consequence to women of (among many, many other things) speaking in church or in public; taking payment for nursing the sick; becoming schoolteachers; using a telephone or riding a bicycle; voting; shortening their skirts or their hair; or serving in the military as (underpaid) “auxiliaries.”

The hilarious thing is that—in contrast to the poor record of futurists in general—the writers of these articles were absolutely correct in almost everything they prophesied!  Talkative, employed, short-haired, trousered women really didn’t continue to find their ultimate fulfillment in home, family, and a position of perpetual dependency.  (Men still find women attractive, though.  The extinction of the race due to the lack of the motivation a delicate silk gown provides to men to perform their generative duties is one prediction that has definitely not come true.  –Also, nobody foresaw the tattoos.  Ever.)

And sometimes in ephemera, I find things that make me nostalgic, and kind of sad.

This weekend I was reading a Nero Wolfe mystery that came out in 1965.  In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed in an effort to end attempts to deny African-Americans their legitimate rights and responsibilities as Americans.  Though that Act isn’t specifically mentioned in the story, the consciousness of it pervades the book.

The plot is a very common one:  A woman is found murdered, and her fiancé is suspected of the crime.  The complication, the topical detail that makes Nero Wolfe agree to take the case, is that the woman is white; and the fiancé, African-American.  The father of the fiancé, in fact, admiringly quotes a speech Nero Wolfe once gave to a group of African-American men—meant to be stirring, but to modern ears, bombastic and more than a little condescending—urging them to be better and more just than their oppressors.  With hindsight, I can just imagine how such a speech would really have been received.

The rest of the story is formulaic.  (Or at least, it is now.  It might have seemed more original at the time.)  Racist attitudes are openly expressed by the ignorant and evil; while the educated and/or well-meaning say things like, “When I consider myself superior to anyone, as I frequently do, I need a better reason than his skin.”  The problems of the two families, white and black, exactly mirror one another; as do, apparently, their life experiences.  The accused’s father is a professor of anthropology.  If he encountered any racist barriers in his rise to that eminence—and modern readers know that he did—it isn’t mentioned.  Once certain legal disabilities have been done away with, the book implies, the problem of racism in America will be solved, because black Americans will quickly become identical with the white mainstream American “us”.

Back when the book was written, I believed that, too.  I’m embarrassed to remember that now.

It’s been fifty years, and we’re still regrettably racist in this country.  But we have made some progress, I think.  Few of us believe anymore that there’s a single “us” for all the “theys” to turn into, for one thing.  That was an important insight.  America has been a multicultural society from the first, and success for a multicultural society doesn’t lie in somehow ceasing to be multicultural.  Nero Wolfe was good at solving crimes, and I envy his success with orchids (a pink Vanda!)—but in some ways, he was also just so awfully naïve.

I learn a lot of good lessons from reading ephemeral writings, such as that the longer-standing the injustice, the more intractable and elusive the remedy for it; that the degree of hysteria a societal change engenders isn’t necessarily proportional to the issue’s actual importance (oceans of ink were once expended in a futile effort to persuade men not to bring down Western Civilization by adopting the newfangled style of buttoning their trousers at the front, rather than at the side); and that solutions to one problem usually create a bunch of new problems.

And now, thanks to a Nero Wolfe novel, I also know to write only fantasy, or something set in the distant past.  Sure, topical is popular; topical is commercial—but unless you possess a crystal ball (I do not), at every stroke of the pen you risk—fifty years on—looking like a fool.

The Devil’s in the Details

fish-GrimmsI may have mentioned that I’m no longer young, but believe me, it doesn’t follow that I’m nostalgic for The Good Old Days. Sure, forty years ago I was better-looking. My skin was smoother and I had fewer stomachs and chins. But I also had only my own hands and brain to rely on, whereas now I have robots to do my work, computers to think for me, and Ebay on which to buy back my childhood.

I’m currently waiting, with all the patience of a six-year-old, for a boxed set of books: Grimm’s and Andersen’s Fairy Tales, published in 1945. They’re the versions I grew up with, beautifully illustrated with copperplate engravings, and—possibly because the world seemed an especially harsh place in 1945—honestly and accurately translated from the original languages with no accommodation to a child’s fragile psyche. In 1945, apparently, children’s fragile whatevers were to be hardened up, not accommodated. Sensitive child? Cod-liver oil shots and Grimm’s Cinderella were just what the doctor ordered.

The theme of the Grimm’s Cinderella is basically the same as Disney’s: Abused step-child triumphs. The difference is in the story’s plot details. There’s no fairy-godmother, for one thing. Cindy finds her three ball-gowns (one for each of three successive nights of dancing; even a prince wasn’t expected to pick a wife in only one night) lying on her mother’s grave. Disney either thought a grave was too morbid to mention in a children’s story, or that by leaving open the question of whether Cindy’s mom was absent due to her death or a messy divorce, more children could identify with her. I can see his point. My father died when I was very young, and I had a grave to visit, too. I saw myself every time I looked at the illustration of Cinderella at her mother’s graveside.

I also identified with the fact that she had two older sisters. My own two sisters weren’t step-, and they weren’t (very) evil; but we had our issues. I got a big thrill out of the part of the Grimm story in which in response to their mother’s urging, the step-sisters make their big ugly feet fit Cinderella’s little lost shoe by cutting off their toes and heels. “When you’re queen,” Wicked Step-mother reassures them, “you won’t have to walk anymore.” I was a little disappointed in the prince for being such a dim-wit as to fall for the ruse (twice); but luckily for him, some talking birds nearby alerted him in time to the blood-trails the sister’s mutilated feet were leaving. The talking birds also made sure to peck out the step-sisters eyes once Cindy was happily settled in the castle.

In the Andersen book was the delightful The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, in which a very vain little girl who bridges a mud-puddle with a perfectly good loaf of bread to avoid soiling her shoes gets sucked straight into a Hell that makes the Biblical lake of fire look like Club Med by comparison (moral: Don’t be vain; also, don’t waste food); and The Red Shoes, in which a vain little girl lies about the color of her shoes to her half-blind benefactress and is danced to death by them (moral: Don’t be vain; also, don’t lie).

Now, those were some stories!

In contrast, my grandson’s current favorite book is one in which Superman uses his various super-powers to determine that Mr. Grocer’s missing bananas were stolen by a gorilla. Superman gets the gorilla to confess to this transgression by assuring him that he (the gorilla) will feel much better once he’s got the whole ugly story off his chest. (The bananas will still be gone, though. No word on who compensates Mr. Grocer for the bananas.) Same basic fairy-tale-type plot, with Superman filling in for fairy godmother; same basic moral set (lying, stealing, and wasting food are bad); but what a difference in the details! I read Grandson this story at bed-time and then we both fall asleep from sheer boredom. I’m not allowed to read him Cinderella, or The Red Shoes. I’m not allowed to read him The Girl Without Hands, in which a father cuts off his daughter’s hands to escape being taken himself by the Devil. But I’m looking forward to re-reading them myself; and who knows? Maybe one day my daughter will change her mind. Maybe one day she’ll reason, “After all, Mother read them as a child; and look how great she turned out.” Maybe one day Grandson himself will figure out that he’s being cheated, and demand better entertainment. Honest: Grimm and Andersen will harden his little psyche right up.

No cod-liver oil for him, though. That stuff’s just plain nasty.

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