February 6:  Lipogram Day

On this date in 1995, Paul Gray wrote one of the most interesting book reviews ever written.  Writing in Time magazine, Gray was reviewing the novel A Void by the French writer Georges Perec and translated into English by Gilbert Adair.  Read the opening sentence of Gray’s review, and see if you notice what’s missing:

A Void, originally La Disparition (1969), is a lipogram, an old trick dating as far back as 500 B.C. in which authors voluntarily submit to awful handicaps, arbitrarily abjuring crucial signs or symbols and making writing, always a hard task, a virtual impossibility.

A lipogram is a word from Ancient Greek that means “leaving out a letter.”  And in case  you didn’t notice, the letter Gray leaves out of his review is the letter “e.”  Georges Perec’s complete novel A Void — all 285 a pages — is a lipogram, and he doesn’t just “avoid” any letter, he avoids the single most frequently appearing letter in the French language, the letter “e” – a letter that appears in 15% of French words.  

Following Perec’s achievement, translator Gilbert Adair took on the even more challenging task of translating A Void into English while at the same time maintaining its E-lessness.  This means Adair had to avoid the two most frequently used words in English, “the” and “be.”  As in French, the letter “e” is the most frequently used letter in English, appearing in 12.7% of words.

Gray clearly admires the achievements of both Perec and Adair.  In praising Adair’s work, for example, Gray says the following, while maintaining his e-less lipogram:

Adair’s translation is an astounding Anglicization of Francophonic mania, a daunting triumph of will pushing its way through imposing roadblocks to a magical country, an absurdist nirvana, of humor, pathos, and loss.

In 1972 Perec took on another form of constrained wordplay called the univocalic, a piece which uses only a single vowel (See September Seventeenth: Univocalic Day).  In the case of his novella, entitled Les Revenentes, Perec eschewed all vowels but “e.”

Today’s Challenge:  Lipograms — as easy as A, B, C, D, and E   

How can you write a short story in which each sentence is a lipogram?  Try your hand at writing the beginning of a short story of at least five sentences.  Eliminate one letter in each sentence, beginning with the letter “A” in the first sentence, the letter “B” in the second sentence, and so on. If you’re truly ambitious, work your way through the entire alphabet.

Here’s an example:

Mike loves his dog, Spot, but he finds it difficult to love his pet turtle, Boris. This turtle has some serious issues, including his penchant for eating Mike’s clothes.  Just last week, Mike found Boris under his bed gnawing on his brand new tennis shoes. Spot, however, is a quality canine, one that Mike can always trust.  Spot is truly man’s paramount companion, consuming only what is put in his dog bowl.

Quotation of the Day:  Sadly, a handful of critics find lipograms ridiculous, ugly or without worth (as fiction or as wordplay). To such sorry saps, I say only that constraining your thoughts and writing in a particular way aids in promoting branching paths of thought, thus amplifying vocabulary and instilling adroit linguistic skills among both young and old. By putting into praxis ways of thinking that wouldn’t occur normally, lipograms call for authors to look at writing as an activity in ways that, frankly, wouldn’t occur to such niggling adjudicators of linguistic conduct. -Steve Chrisomalis (2)

1-Gray, Paul. “A World of Humor and Loss.”  Time 6 Feb 1995.

http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,982438,00.html

2-http://phrontistery.info/lipogram.html

February 5:  Summary Day

On this date in 1922 the first edition of Reader’s Digest was published. The magazine was the brainchild of DeWitt Wallace, who was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1889.  Recovering from wounds he suffered while serving in World War I, DeWitt began working on his idea of publishing a monthly periodical featuring condensed versions of articles from other magazines.  

First issue of the Reader's Digest, February 1922.pngWith the help of his wife Lila, Wallace published the first edition of the Reader’s Digest, producing 1,500 copies and selling each for 10 cents.  By the end of the decade the circulation had reached more than 200,000, and in the 1930s, Wallace expanded his company to include condensed books. In addition to its smaller, condensed articles, the magazine itself is half the size of a typical magazine, just about small enough to put in your back pocket.  The circulation for Reader’s Digest, however, is not small; it has more paid subscribers than any other magazine in the world (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Read, Ruminate, and Digest

How can you paraphrase the main points of an article in 50 words?  In order to write a summary, or to digest an article by breaking it down to its essential points, you must read carefully.  The purpose of a summary is to capture the writer’s main point your own words.  Select an article of at least 250 words, and write a 50-word summary.  Use the following step to guide you:

Step 1:  Read and annotate the text carefully, focusing on the main ideas and main details.  Underline key ideas, and circle any unfamiliar vocabulary.  Remember, the purpose of a summary is to sum-up the writer’s idea, not your reaction to the writer’s ideas.  So, resist the temptation to inject your opinion.

Step 2:  Draft a brief summary in your own words on a separate piece of paper that captures the writer’s main point or claim.  Don’t include the author and title in your summary.  Also, don’t waste words saying things like: “this article is about” or “the author argues that.”  Instead, just state the main ideas.  Don’t worry about the number of words until you have finished your draft.  

Step 3:  Revise and edit your summary.  Count the number of words and revise as necessary to write the most clear, concise, and correct summary of exactly 50 words.  Read your revised draft aloud to make sure that it is clear, that the sentences are complete, and that there are no wasted words.

Step 4:  Write the final draft of your summary.  On the line above the final draft of your summary, write the author’s last and first name, followed by the article’s title.  Then, on the line below the author/title, legibly write your complete final draft of your 50-word summary.

Quotation of the Day:  The dead carry with them to the grave in their clutched hands only that which they have given away. -Dewitt Wallace

1-http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/nyregion/03bookwe.html?_r=0