Tag Archives: language

Should have posted this yesterday

A little late, but better late than never.

The spirit photographs of William Hope
Known as “spirit photographs”, they were taken by a controversial medium called William Hope. Born in 1863 in Crewe, Hope started his working life as a carpenter, but in 1905 became interested in spirit photography after capturing the supposed image of a ghost while photographing a friend. He went on to found and lead a group of six spirit photographers known as the Crewe Circle. Following World War I, support for the group, and demand for its services, grew as the grieving relatives of those lost to the war sought a means of contacting their loved ones.

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He was later exposed as a fraudster, but could count Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of his supporters, so there you go.

What can a linguist learn from a gravestone?
The key running theme of gravestone inscriptions is that they are for the living, and even for a more specific task: they reaffirm and reiterate membership in a group, and the beliefs that are part of the culture of that group. This does not necessarily mean that they are particularly informative about the life of the specific deceased, but they are full of useful, sometimes subtle cues about the community the deceased belonged to, and what they valued.

And what movies they liked?

The Mummy: the story of the world’s most expensive movie poster
Auction house Sotheby’s is currently accepting bids for one of three remaining original posters of 1932’s The Mummy. It is expected to sell for somewhere between $1-1.5m, making it the world’s most expensive movie poster. It’s a scary amount of money.

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I’m sure audiences at the time would have been terrified by that film, but could we say the same about this one, from Méliès? I don’t think so.

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)
Short film by Georges Méliès, released through his Star Film Company, featuring demons, flames, spectres, and a brilliant array of the film-maker’s usual arsenal of tricks. As Wikipdia sums up: “In a Renaissance chamber decorated with devilish faces and a warped coat of arms, a gleeful Satan throws three human victims into a cauldron, which spews out flames. The victims rise from the cauldron as nebulous ghosts, and then turn into fireballs. The fireballs multiply and pursue Satan around the chamber. Finally Satan himself leaps into the infernal cauldron, which gives off a final burst of flame.” Enjoy!

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And I can’t imagine this scaring anyone either. Sounds good, though.

Silly Symphony – the skeleton dance 1929 disney short

So let’s end with an exploration of that devil’s interval, and how it moved from the Classical and Romantic eras into the mainstream.

Spooky music
During the 19th century, composers like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner cracked the code of creepiness. The sonic dread they pioneered involved two key ingredients that horror movies and metal bands still use today: a forbidden sequence of notes known as “Satan in music,” and a spooky little ditty that Gregorian monks sang about the apocalypse.

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That the Wikipedia entry for sofa redirects to “couch” is a salutary reminder that the Internet is written in American and we British fool ourselves that this is English.

B3ta newsletter, 06/10/2018

Send a smile

Maybe it’s an age thing, maybe I’m just a snob, but I’m still reluctant to include emojis in the texts and messages I write. They’re curious things, though.

Emoji, part 1: in the beginning
Sex! Con­flict! In­ter­na­tional stand­ards bod­ies! The brief his­tory of emoji is far more in­ter­est­ing than it has any right to be, and over the next few months I’ll be tak­ing a look at where the world’s new­est lan­guage came from, how it works and where it’s go­ing.

It star­ted with a heart.

What comes to my mind first, though, is the smiley face. Where did that come from? Read on.

How the smiley face became a counter-cultural symbol
The yellow smiley face as we know it has been around for over half a century, but where did it come from? And how does it continue to grin when the general consensus says there isn’t much to smile about these days? Here, we trace the origins of the iconic graphic, from its corporate beginnings to its counter-cultural adoption.

Can I have a word, you guys?

I hate that cliché about people from Yorkshire ‘saying what they mean and meaning what they say’. Words are rarely that straightforward or unambiguous.

This is how tiny changes in words you hear impacts your thinking
One example Lakoff mentions in his book is George W. Bush’s usage of the phrase “tax relief” on the day he arrived in the White House. Consider the framing around the word “relief.”

Lakoff writes: For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief. When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a frame. It is made up of ideas, like affliction and hero.

The problem with ‘Hey guys’
There are, of course, plenty of people—including many women—who have no problem being addressed as “guys,” think the word has evolved to be entirely gender-neutral, and don’t see a reason to change their usage. But others aren’t so sure. “I think there’s a really serious and welcome reconception of gender lines and relationships between sex and gender going on,” says John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics at Columbia University and has written several books about language. He says “something has crested in particular over about the past 10 years”—something that has people examining their everyday communications.

The English alternative to therapy?

An interesting view of us, our language and our politicians, from Rebecca Mead, of The New Yorker.

Jeremy Corbyn and the English fetishization of irony
In the London Review of Books personals, the wounding quality that is so often present in English irony is turned inward, to the point that self-loathing is so acute it becomes a form of self-love. (I may be ugly, but look how clever I am.) Often, though, the violence of irony is turned outward. The British playwright David Hare, in the notes to his play “Plenty,” writes that, when foreign actors ask him why a character behaves in a certain way, he believes it is sufficient to reply, “Because you are English.” Hare goes on, “Irony is central to English humor, and as a people we are cruel to each other, but quietly.” In this sense, Corbyn’s charge that some people “don’t understand English irony” participates in a ratcheting up of cruelty in the name of humor. The next step beyond hurting an individual or a group with a joke at their expense is to insist that their pain, far from being a justified response to verbal violence, is a symptom of deficiency on their part. The charge that a person lacks a sense of humor is a familiar bully’s tactic. Women in particular will recognize that the phrase “Can’t you take a joke?” is an expression of menace, not an invitation to share a laugh.

I’ve never thought of our self-confessed love of irony in such terms before. Our pride in our national sense of humour is no joking matter.

To be able to maintain an ironical approach to life means avoiding a more passionately committed or passionately expressive one. It means arming oneself in advance against the possibility of pain or disappointment, by building pain and disappointment into one’s emotional default. Irony is resignation in jester’s clothing.

Being British as well as American provides Rebecca with a great perspective on us all. Here’s another great and quite moving essay from her.

A new citizen decides to leave the tumult of Trump’s America
After decades in New York, I’ve made the wrenching choice to return to Britain. But England isn’t home.

Very presidential

Very presidential

Maybe this is how it is now, this is how presidents conduct themselves.

Omarosa tapes: There is nothing the former Trump aide can say or do that could possibly matter.
But there is reason to believe that an N-word tape wouldn’t torpedo Trump’s presidency, or even keep him from winning a second term. By this point, we shouldn’t need to hear Trump saying the N-word to become convinced that he considers black people second-class citizens. At the same time, no one who has supported him through his Obama birther fabrication, his insistence that the Central Park Five are guilty, and his defense of white supremacists as “very fine people” will turn against him because he used a racial slur.

I wonder if those Word of the Year assessments will include ‘normalised’ this year.

Dog days of summarizing
If the birtherism campaign strategy, the Mexican rapists comment, the good people on both sides argument, the attacks on NFL players, the LeBron James critique, the efforts to avoid renting apartments to African-Americans, the Central Park jogger case, the wall, the Muslim ban, the disparaging of a Mexican judge, the suggestion that all Haitian immigrants have AIDs, the “shithole countries” description, the response to Hurricane Maria, the backing of Joe Arpaio and Roy Moore, and the constant dog whistles to the alt-right haven’t swayed you, spelling out an offensive word sure isn’t gonna make the difference…

Or has ‘fake news’ already grabbed that accolade?

Trump’s ‘dirty war’ on media draws editorials in 300 US outlets
Starting with the Boston Globe itself, the editorial there, headlined Journalists Are Not The Enemy, argued that a free press had been a core American principle for more than 200 years.

The New York Times chose the headline A Free Press Needs You, calling Mr Trump’s attacks “dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy”. It published excerpts from dozens more publications beneath.

The New York Post – a pro-Trump tabloid – answered the Globe’s call by saying “Who are we to disagree?” adding: “It may be frustrating to argue that just because we print inconvenient truths doesn’t mean that we’re fake news, but being a journalist isn’t a popularity contest. All we can do is to keep reporting.” But it also said: “Will this make a difference? Not one whit”.

The Topeka Capital-Journal was another paper to join the campaign. It said of Mr Trump’s attack on the media: “It’s sinister. It’s destructive. And it must end now.” The paper was one of the few to endorse Mr Trump in 2016.

Shower thoughts

We use the term eyesight, but we don’t use nosesmell, tonguetaste or earhearing.

When you fall and scrape your knees you’re technically getting hit by a planet and walking away with only a scratch.

australienChris Hemsworth is Australian and Thor is from space, so does that make him an Australien?

More shower thoughts.

There is such a thing as emoji research now

I still can’t bring myself to join in with this, but there you go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Academics gathered to share emoji research, and it was 🔥
Wijeratne had been working on separate research relating to word-sense disambiguation, a field of computational linguistics that looks at how words take on multiple meanings. The use of jumped out as a brand new problem. “They were using the gas pump emoji to refer to marijuana,” says Wijeratne. “As soon as I saw this new meaning associated with the emoji, I thought, what about emoji-sense disambiguation?”

That moment caused Wijeratne to redirected his PhD research toward emoji. This week, he put together the first interdisciplinary academic conference on emoji in research.

[…]

Now, researchers are beginning to turn more seriously toward those research questions. On Monday, linguist Gretchen Mcculloch presented a theory of emoji as beat gestures—the equivalent of gesticulating to add emphasis—rather than a language in themselves. “Letters let us write words, emoji let us write gestures,” she says. Eric Goldman, a legal scholar at Santa Clara University’s School of Law, discussed a forthcoming paper on emoji and the law, which highlights the potential for emoji to create misunderstanding in legal contexts—including high profile cases, like the Silk Road case.

100,000 happy moments

Nathan Yau has a fascinating look at what makes us happy.

What makes people the most happy
What made you happy in the past 24 hours? Researchers asked 10,000 people this question. More specifically, the collaboration between the University of Tokyo, MIT, and Recruit Institute of Technology asked participants on Mechanical Turk to list 10 happy moments. This generated a corpus of 100,000 happy moments called HappyDB.

With how things are these days, I was happy to read over and analyze such a happy dataset.

Communication tied up in knots

I think I might have remembered that the Inkas never invented the wheel, but I didn’t know they hadn’t invented writing. It seems so fundamental to civilisation development. Apparently ‘knot’.

The khipu code: the knotty mystery of the Inkas’ 3D records
But, after more than a century of study, we remain unable to fully crack the code of the khipus. The challenge rests not in a lack of artifacts – over 1,000 khipus are known to us today – but in their variety and complexity. We confront tens of thousands of knots tied by different people, for different purposes and in different regions of the empire. Cracking the code amounts to finding a pattern in history’s knotted haystack.

Ok, I can just about understand the like-an-abacus-but-made-of-string category of these strange artefacts, but those types only accounts for two thirds of the ones remaining today.

The remaining third of these devices – the so-called narrative khipus – appear to contain encoded non-numerical, narrative information, including names, stories and even ancient philosophies. For those who love puzzles, the narrative khipus are a godsend.

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Dante’s Divine Comedy: the book was too long, the video too short

This article from BBC Culture reviews the enormous contribution Dante made with his Divine Comedy, not just in terms of literature and religion but the development and adoption of the Italian language too. It does include this irreverent passage though:

Dante and The Divine Comedy: He took us on a tour of Hell
… Right there that suggests this view of the afterlife is coloured by authorial wish-fulfillment: Dante gets a personal tour from his father-figure of a literary hero and the woman on whom he had a crush. In the parlance of contemporary genre writing, Dante’s version of himself in The Divine Comedy is a Mary Sue, a character written to be who the author wishes he could be, having experiences he wishes he could have. Sandra Newman, author of How Not to Write a Novel, has said that “The Divine Comedy is really a typical science fiction trilogy. Book one, a classic. Book two, less exciting version of book one. Book three, totally bonkers, unwanted insights into author’s sexuality, Mary Sue’s mask slipping in every scene.”

I guess I must agree. I want to say I read The Divine Comedy as a sixth former, but it’s more accurate to say I read Inferno and just briefly skimmed the rest, like everyone else.

And I loved Peter Greenaway’s video version, A TV Dante, though it was frustratingly too short, only covering the first eight cantos of the first book.

Dante_El Infierno, “A_T.V. Dante” ( Peter greenaway & Tom phillips_1993) subtitulado en español

The illustrations that tend to go along with the books are wonderful, and I’m sure they have contributed to the ongoing appeal of this massive Medieval poem.

A digital archive of the earliest illustrated editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy
These images, from Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, represent a 1497 woodcut edition, at the top, with a number of hand-colored pages; an edition from 1544, above, with almost 90 circular and traditionally-composed scenes, all of them probably hand-colored in the 19th century; and a 1568 edition with three engraved maps, one for each book.

As evocative and helpful as they are, that typical cone shape never really worked for me, though, as it doesn’t feel underground-y enough. In this version below, it looks like a vast plain or the map of a pleasant stroll through the North York Moors.

a-wide-open-hell

It needs more ceilings, like in As Above, So Below, a film dealing with similar geography, but with added claustrophobia.

as-above-so-below-ceiling

(I must admit I haven’t seen this film, however. Rather than having to sit through all these kinds of films, I get all I need from the FoundFlix YouTube channel these days. Much quicker.)

From a time before Duolingo

Food to the rescue.

Gleanings from the past #54
A ludicrous story is told of a great naval function which took place during the reign of the last Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie. Several American vessels were present, and they were drawn up in line to salute the Empress’s yacht as it passed. The French sailors, of course, manned the yards of their ships, and shouted ‘Vive l’Impératrice!’ The American Admiral knew that it was impossible to teach these words to his men in the time left to him, so he ordered his crew to shout ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese!’ The imperial yacht came on, and as it passed the fleet there was a mighty roar of ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese.’ And the Empress said she had never received such an ovation before.

Dumbing down the chatbots

A quite different take on Google’s AI demo from the other day. Rather than be impressed at how clever the bots appear, because they sound like us, we should be sad at how inefficient we’ve made them, because they sound like us.

Chatbots are saints
Pichai played a recording of Duplex calling a salon to schedule a haircut. This is an informational transaction that a couple of computers could accomplish in a trivial number of microseconds — bip! bap! done! — but with a human on one end of the messaging bus, it turned into a slow-motion train wreck. Completing the transaction required 17 separate data transmissions over the course of an entire minute — an eternity in the machine world. And the human in this case was operating at pretty much peak efficiency. I won’t even tell you what happened when Duplex called a restaurant to reserve a table. You could almost hear the steam coming out of the computer’s ears.

In our arrogance, we humans like to think of natural language processing as a technique aimed at raising the intelligence of machines to the point where they’re able to converse with us. Pichai’s demo suggests the reverse is true. Natural language processing is actually a technique aimed at dumbing down computers to the point where they’re able to converse with us. Google’s great breakthrough with Duplex came in its realization that by sprinkling a few monosyllabic grunts into computer-generated speech — um, ah, mmm — you could trick a human into feeling kinship with the machine. You ace the Turing test by getting machines to speak baby-talk.

Relaxed data

Data is such a funny word. It’s a plural, strictly. Part of me wants to use it that way, and show off, but a larger part of me always feels too self-conscious to do that. Thankfully, as Nathan Yau from FlowingData has discovered, the ‘rules’ around its use have been ‘officially’ relaxed.

Data is, sometimes
If you read data as singular then write it as such. For example, we already allow singular for ‘big data’. And we should for personal data too. An easy rule would be that if it can be used as a synonym for information then it should probably be singular — and if we are using it as economic data and mean figures, then we should stick to plural.

New alphabets, new words

I can’t imagine how difficult this must be to organise. Kazakhstan is changing its official alphabet — every written thing across all areas of life, work, education, commerce — from the Russian-based Cyrillic one to the Latin-based one of the West.

The cost of changing an entire country’s alphabet
That the Kazakh language is currently written in Cyrillic – and the persistent use of Russian in elite circles – is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s rule, one that some of its neighbouring countries sought to shed right after the union’s collapse in 1991. Azerbaijan, for example, started introducing textbooks in Latin script the next year, while Turkmenistan followed suit in 1993. Kazakhstan is making the transition almost three decades on, in a different economic environment that makes the costs hard to predict.

[…]

So far, state media has reported that the government’s total budget for the seven-year transition – which has been divided into three stages – will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge ($664m). About 90% of that amount is going to education programmes the publication of textbooks for education programmes in the new Latin script, including for literature classes.

The government aims to complete the move by 2025. I’d love to revisit this story then, to see if they meet their deadline and budget.

I wonder if Kazakhstan’s new alphabet will be put to use with some of the new words this report discusses. A University of Birmingham researcher has analysed 900 million tweets from October 2013 to November 2014 from users in the USA, looking for terms that started off rare but became more popular.

Feeling litt? The five hotspots driving English forward
The result was a list of 54 terms, which covered everything from sex and relationships (such as “baeless” – a synonym for single), people’s appearance (“gainz” to describe the increased muscle mass from bulking up at the gym), and technology (“celfie” – an alternative spelling of selfie). Others reflected the infiltration of Japanese culture (such as “senpai”, which means teacher or master). They also described general feelings, like “litt” (or “litty” – which means impressive or good – or affirmations such as “yaaaas” (as an alternative to yes.) Interestingly, some of these terms such as “candids” (a noun describing photos taken without the other person’s knowledge) have been around for years, but were extremely rare until seeing a sudden rise in popularity.

Because the messages were timestamped and geocoded, he could track five geographic hubs that were driving these changes and additions to the language; West Coast, Deep South, North East, Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast.

Gulf Coast  The third (and final) southern region to feature in Grieve’s analysis, this hub centred around New Orleans, extending across Louisiana and into eastern and coastal Texas and along the Mississippi to Memphis. One of the region’s most noteworthy contributions – idgt (I don’t get tired) – became a catchphrase of the rapper Kevin Gates, who grew up in Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, and released a single of the same name in 2014.

Notable terms: bruuh (bro’): idgt (I don’t get tired); lordt (Oh Lord!)

Remarkable, beautiful and completely meaningless

Another great find on Brain Pickings.

Reality, representation, and the search for meaning: Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache’s invented graphic languages
A century after Nietzsche, the Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache (February 21, 1940–January 5, 2012) set out to probe the limits and possibilities of language by filling countless notebooks, letters, and postcards with text. None of it was legible.

In the 1970s, Dermisache invented an array of graphic languages, each with a distinct syntactic texture and a visual rhythm that inclines toward meaning, or the longing for meaning. The lines she composed in them — so purposeful, so fluid, evocative of a script in a foreign tongue or a cardiograph or birdsong notation — become a Rorschach test, beckoning the mind to wrest from them a message, a meaning, a representation of some private reality of thought and feeling.

And from the Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings Amazon page:

Her work, which she created while living under the junta in Argentina, is lasting and subversive even though she barely penned a legible word…In our current environment, it is difficult to look at her work and not think about the impossibility of discourse, the primacy of self-expression, and the fallacy of a shared objective language, not to think of this art as both radically political and necessary today.–Will Fenstermaker “The Paris Review “

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Very poetic. A little spooky? Teeline? What would the graphologists make of them, I wonder.

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Literary pejoratives

Shakespearean insults for every situation
In addition to appreciating his literary contributions, Shakespeare enthusiasts understand and enjoy the snarky humor that is embedded in his work. His writing shows the power of language for its ability to make a statement and pack a punch. To celebrate the 402nd anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death, we’ve compiled the best insults from some of his most famous works into a Shakespearean insult generator.

As well as providing us with an infographic for us to generate our own insults, there’s a comprehensive list of his best put-downs, barbs and slurs, including:

“You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.”
Much Ado About Nothing

“Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile.”
Cymbeline

“I do desire that we may be better strangers.”
As You Like It

(Via At the BookShelf)

Thoughtfully curated words

It’s so satisfying when you come across a piece of writing that expresses so eloquently something that you’ve been struggling to set down in words and rationally consider for a long time. This is just a part of it.

Curate
Sprinkle the fairy dust of high-sounding words over the ungainly contours of something quite ordinary, and you may be able to transform it into something special, in the way that a gentle snowfall can turn an ugly tool shed into a dreamy cottage, inhabited by elves. Even if you are running a thrift shop—and yes, it is not hard to find proprietors of thrift shops who identify themselves as “curators” of their establishments—you too can boast that your shop’s contents are “thoughtfully curated.” That sounds a whole lot better than saying “We don’t take used underwear or stuff that has holes in it.” But there is a lot to be said for respecting and loving ordinary things on their own terms, seeing that they are beautiful even without makeup, rather than always trying to tart them up into something grand and gilded.

But to be fair, there is another element folded into the meaning of “curate,” one running deep but not readily visible, that may also explain some of its appeal. The word derives from the Latin curare, to take care, and has in its historical ancestry the notion of a “curate” as one who is charged with the care of souls. This more spiritual meaning survives here and there, as for example in the “curate” of an Anglican parish church; and the faint aura of it surely still remains a part of the word we use to describe the museum professional. The religion of art persists, after all, as witness the flocks of culture-vultures that stream into our galleries on Sundays, standing in long lines to perform their spiritual duties. Perhaps in some instances, such as that of the independent bookstore, it can even be said that the “thoughtful curation” of the inventory reflects an attentiveness to the needs of the soul. One earnestly wants it to be so.

That last point chimes with one of Alain de Botton’s chapters in his handbook on how a future society that has fully dropped a belief in the supernatural might still care for itself. It’s worth looking up.

Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists
Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.

The challenges and rewards of an inner city school

Even though I’ve worked in a school for a couple of years, I still consider myself new to the sector, after working in universities and colleges for almost 20 years. They’re quite different now, from how I remember mine.

A news team visited an inner city school in Leeds, to share the types of difficulties and opportunities some schools face these days.

The school with 72 languages
Every week we hear about the huge challenges for schools up and down the country – from funding cuts, to talk of a recruitment crisis. Calendar was invited into one particular school – where students speak 72 different languages. It provides many challenges for the Co-operative Academy – in Burmantofts – one of the most deprived areas of Leeds. Not least how to teach children – many of whom do not speak any English – the curriculum.

The dedicated teachers at the Co-operative Academy
The Co-operative Academy in Leeds is in one of the poorest and most diverse areas in the city. Here 75% of students don’t speak English as their first language. And more than 60% are eligible for pupil premium funding – for those with low incomes. That’s more than twice the national average. It means teachers here have a very difficult – and sometimes upsetting – job on their hands. Here’s the second of Helen Steel’s special reports.

Raising aspirations in inner-city school
In the final of a three-part series by Calendar reporter Helen Steel, we see how staff at the Co-operative Academy of Leeds – in one of the most deprived inner-city areas of the UK – are determined to raise aspirations.

Left on the shelf

I’m not alone in having unread books on my bookshelf. (Sometimes they don’t even get that far.)

“Tsundoku,” the Japanese word for the new books that pile up on our shelves, should enter the English language
There are some words out there that are brilliantly evocative and at the same time impossible to fully translate. Yiddish has the word shlimazl, which basically means a perpetually unlucky person. German has the word Backpfeifengesicht, which roughly means a face that is badly in need of a fist. And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku, which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.

We readers all have books we can’t seem to finish, but the same seems to be true of authors.

In praise of unfinished novels
…A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.

[…]

In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”

Not so much left on the shelf as never made it to the shelf in the first place.

Speaking of not reading books though, here’s a great passage from Umberto Eco’s review of Pierre Bayard’s book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

On unread books
But the most interesting thing is that Bayard has failed to notice that, in admitting his three intentional errors, he implicitly assumes that one way of reading is more correct than others, so that he carries out a meticulous study of the books he quotes in order to support his theory about not reading them. The contradiction is so apparent that it makes one wonder whether Bayard has actually read the book he’s written.