Escapist Reading

How would you define escapist literature? I suppose it means different things to different people. It could be anything from thrillers to romance novels, humor, fantasy, science fiction, cookbooks, or – one of my personal favorites – the Ikea catalogue.

I used to read a lot of thrillers. Our bookshelves still carry rows of Robert Ludlum and Len Deighton. For years I refused to read any Dick Francis thrillers on the grounds that I know nothing about horse racing and don't particularly care for horses, which are forever associated in my mind with Peter Shaffer's play Equus. But once I started, I got hooked and read them all (or very nearly all). I even went as far as asking to be taken to the races on a visit to England, to see with my own eyes what the fuss was all about.
However, in recent years I found that I've been taking these thrillers much too much to heart. I really worry about those fictional heroes. I can't bear to read about the beatings they take. I have nightmares about chases in dark alleyways. Let's face it – no matter where the action takes place, whether on Earth or in a "galaxy far far away", and no matter if the protagonists are flesh-and-blood, metal-and-silicone, or aether and thought-waves, the themes are always the same: war and strife, ambition and jealousy, love and hate. I have enough of all that here on Planet Earth, all around me. So I'm giving this genre a rest.

I also used to seek out novels and short stories that made me laugh and chuckle out loud – P.G. Wodehouse, Gerald Durrell, Robert Benchley, Ephraim Kishon, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, to name a few. Unfortunately, there seems to be a finite quantity of Really Funny literature out there. Writing humor – truly witty and funny, and that, in addition, says something meaningful about human nature, the human condition, the world we live in – is very difficult and requires rare talent.

So you see, there was a void in my life. A vacuum. And as you know, nature abhors a vacuum.

Said vacuum has for now been satisfactorily filled: I have stepped up my consumption of popular science. I find solace and peace of mind reading about how the universe came to be, black holes, the curvature of spacetime, teensy-weensy particles with weird names like the Higgs boson and the charm quark; the intricacies of supersymmetry, string theory, eleven dimensions and Calabi Yau shapes. Head-spinning stuff. (Pun intended for those in the know about spin, zero spin, half spin.)

Though it's called popular science, I don't really know how popular it is. For people like me, who studied in the Humanities track in high school and later concentrated on literature, linguistics and writing, all that physics is pretty mysterious stuff and makes for somewhat difficult reading. Especially at bedtime. As you probably know, Stephen Hawking' A Brief History of Time was a best-seller. But how many people have actually read it cover-to-cover? Or can tell you what it's about, beyond stammering "Well, yes, it's about… uh… the universe, and, uh… time…" And how many can point out that on page such-and-such (sorry, I should have marked it in pencil) he actually cracks a joke?... I wonder.

But, whatever I'm reading, an editor remains an editor. I read, pencil in hand, circling difficult words and unfamiliar concepts to be looked up later (or rather, the following day); I add "ha!" in the margins when the writer manages to amuse me (some writers try too hard); I underline Important Passages, hoping that they'll stick in my mind; and I put an exclamation mark in the margin when I find a mistake. Obviously, in any fat book you're bound to find small errors that eluded the editor and the proofreader. But some mistakes are worth mentioning – at least to fellow language pros.

The Life & Death of Planet Earth (Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee) is a fascinating, thought provoking book, though not recommended for born-worriers who are not consoled by the fact that the calamities described are millions of years in the future. It also contains typos, missed words, and a few strange grammatical constructions. On the subject of Earthlings "colonizing" Mars, it says on page 201: "The problem is not technology per say, it is the cost." Well. I can't argue with the writers about when the next Ice Age may be, but "per say"???

My current head-spinner is Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics. I won't give away any of the juicy details, in case you want to read it some day. But I assure you Smolin goes to great lengths (as great as you can without involving actual calculations and formulas) to explain why physics has not advanced as much as it should have in the past decades. Compared to previous books I read, this one is somewhat less escapist, because it covers a lot of conflict and competitiveness within professional circles. I'll try to skip those passages. Or else I'll just switch to Nikolai Gogol; I've always wanted to read The Overcoat.


Reading List (partial)
Carl Sagan: Billions and Billions
Brian Greene: The Fabric of the Cosmos; The Elegant Universe
Paul Davies: About Time; The Origin of Life
Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee: The Life and Death of Planet Earth
Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time
Terry Pratchett, with Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen: The Science of Discworld I, The Science of Discworld II, The Science of Discworld III

Some respect for the dead – part two

By total coincidence, without any connection to my previous post mentioning my late father and my late sister, this post too concerns the dead. But this time I'm referring to Israel's dead, and more specifically, the fallen in Israel's wars.

After much begging and pleading on the part of a certain client who shall remain nameless but for whom I try to avoid working since they pay peanuts, I agreed, as a personal favor, to translate a brochure about the rights of families of fallen soldiers. Obviously, the subject is not new – the country has been dealing with it for over 60 years. Yes, the laws and rules change. But it is an ongoing thing, it's not a new project. Why on earth should this brochure suddenly be super urgent and ready for print within a few days is beyond me. I feel like storming into the government office in charge and bellowing at the officials: Excuse me, who's in charge here? Why hasn't this brochure been drafted ages ago? Do you have an earlier version, perhaps, which only needs some updating or tweaking? Why are you pressuring me to translate it within two days? Who on earth wrote this ghastly, inarticulate, substandard Hebrew text in the first place? Why didn't you have the Hebrew text edited by a professional before dumping this garbage in my lap?

I'll spare you examples – it would bore you to tears. But I will share with you a few small things that bothered me.

משפחת חלל הבוחרת לקבור את יקירהּ בבית עלמין אזרחי ומעדיפה מצבה אזרחית , זכאית להשתתפות במימון הקמת המצבה לאחר הגשת חשבונית מס/קבלה.

This concept of "hishtatfut" recurs throughout the document: the branch or department in question apparently share the cost of various expenses, or give partial reimbursement for various expenses. Thing is, it's impossible to tell from the sloppy Hebrew when the department/branch picks up the entire tab and when it only defrays part of the expense. Perhaps the vagueness is intentional; after all, this brochure apparently comes merely to give widows and orphans an inkling of what they're entitled to, and to urge them to contact the very willing, able, and "service-oriented" staff of the department in order to לממש את ההטבות. "Lemamesh et hahatavot", in case your browser doesn't handle Hebrew fonts:
עובדי היחידה להנצחת החייל עוסקים בכל הקשור לקבורה ולהנצחת הנופלים ומימוש הטבות הנוגעות לכך.

Doesn't this strike you as a weird choice of words? A person who has lost his/her spouse in the line of duty is entitled to certain benefits. But to actually get those benefits, you of course have to follow the Red Tape Road. The meaning is clear, yet the Hebrew words grate and cause me to wince. Perhaps I've been exposed to too much advertising blurb; the last time I saw this expression – mimush hatavot -- it was à propos a voucher for a discount at a fashion outlet.

I go to the website of the Ministry of Defense and notice that there is some mention of this agency loosely translated as Family and Commemoration Branch and its activities. Great, I think to myself. I'll just go to the English section of the website and I'll find out what's what. A few mouse-clicks later I discover that the Spokesperson Announcement page was last updated on July 24, 2007. Well over a year ago. I bet rivers of Spokesperson Announcements have since flowed in Redtapeland. The pages to do with commemoration have not been translated into English at all. But wait, there's a separate commemorative website, as I recall! No, sorry, no help there, either. The only page in English is the "Notes to Site Visitors".
So, I and my colleague S.G. struggled with the Hebrew to the best of our abilities. I apologize to any English speaker who eventually reads those hastily-prepared brochures and who finds them, um, lacking.