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Babbittry and a Guy from the Sky

17 Sep

Our spouse picked up a couple paperback books that had been sitting on the ‘free’ table of the local college and presented them to us, thinking we’d actually read them. What the heck, we did. One was Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922). The other was Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time (1968).

Babbitt was a best seller in 1922, and it’s the book from which we derive the word ‘babbittry’ (sometimes spelled ‘babbitry’) which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means ‘a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.’ Yep, that’s that main character, George Babbitt alright. George is the Nietzschean herd man, careful not to form an opinion without first checking with his next door neighbor and the members of the Booster’s club.

We read that Lewis had planned for the novel comprise a twenty-four hour period in the life of his character. He apparently abandoned this approach, so that only the first four chapters follow this structure. These early chapters are slow-going and Lewis often tells us rather than shows us his characters’ traits. For example, an early passage informs us “She [Babbitt’s wife, Myra] was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one save perhaps Tinka, her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.”

Babbitt would not be an interesting character if he did not have a crisis of faith, which comes when his best friend commits a shocking crime. Babbitt then goes off the rails a bit, flirting with infidelity, and even more disquieting to his friends, begins to form opinions counter to common dogma. Hearing his friends discussing a labor strike, Babbitt pipes up “Oh rats, Clarence, they look just about like you and me, and I certainly didn’t notice any bombs.” This seemingly mild statement and other similar statements endanger his standing in the fictional town of Zenith.

Though not tightly plotted, the novel is often funny, and despite a slow start, it kept us interested. It’s satirical snapshot of America before the Great Depression.

Give it a look

Give it a look

Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time, on the other hand, deals with life in the future, as least the future from the point of view of 1968, when the book was published. On December 25, 1998, Vornan-19 descends from the sky naked, traveling at several thousand feet per second. He lands in Rome, proclaiming himself a visitor from the year 2999 and administering an electric shock to the policeman who tries to clothe him. Vornan-19 is nothing if not randy; he almost immediately inquires as to the location of the nearest ‘house of intercourse.’

The book is narrated by Leo Garfield, a physicist specializing in sending sub-atomic particles into the past. Leo is the mentor of Jack Bryant, a brilliant student who quits physics just as he’s on the verge of discovering a means of totally liberating the atom using neither fission nor fusion. Jack marries a woman named Shirley and hangs out in the Arizona desert, where Leo is frequent guest.

A lot of the story revolves around the question of whether the bisexual Vornan-19 is a visitor from 2999 or a hoaxer. Leo alternately believes him to be a fraud and the genuine article. He eventually joins a team of scientists (and rather poorly behaved ones at that) who show Vornan-19 around the US. The government is using the supposed man from the future as a counterweight to the nihilistic doomsday cult that has arisen in advance of the millennium.

The novel has been derided as a rip-off of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, but although both deal with the theme of an interloper who transforms a culture, we don’t think that Silverberg is ripping off Heinlein.

There’s a whole bunch of sex in the novel (it was written in the 60s after all), and the ending is a little weak, but we nonetheless found the book entertaining (the ending of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is weak too, and that novel is still beloved.) Despite being written over 45 years ago, it holds up rather well. It’s not top-drawer, but it’s not a bad read.


Grammar Police

17 Feb

If a Grammar Police is ever formed, we want to be on the squad.  We like to correct other people’s grammar, especially those we know well and love.  Most of the time, we really don’t care about the mistake, we just like being pedantic pains in the ass.

There is one grammatical error, however, that grates on our nerves like fingernails on a blackboard.  We don’t know exactly what tense it is, but we’ll call it the past perfect conditional.  Years ago at a stop sign, a friend was irked that we had allowed another car to proceed before we entered the intersection. “You could have went!”, he declared.  We were horrified, and not just at our friend’s back-seat driving.  We don’t know what it is about the construction that we find so abhorrent, but we just want to put our hands over our ears whenever we hear ‘have went’ used in place of ‘have gone’.

word balloon

No, I could not have.

We first became aware of our other pet peeve when we were on jury duty in a slip and fall case (the two parties ended up settling out of court.)  A lawyer had asked a witness whether a substance on the pavement was inherently slippery.   “Not in and of itself”, responded the witness.  While not grammatically incorrect, the term ‘in and of itself’ strikes us as excessively wordy.  What’s wrong with ‘not  in itself’, or ‘not by itself?’

The third word that grates on our nerves isn’t grammatically incorrect at all, we just don’t like the word.  The word is  … bra.  We don’t like it because to us it sounds vaguely disgusting, like the sound someone makes when choking.  “She purchased a bra.”  To us, that conjures up an image of someone going to a seedy marketplace in a bad part of town.  “She purchased a brassiere.” Ah, that’s better. Sounds much classier, doesn’t it?  We were recently in an auto parts store when we saw a box containing a ‘nose bra’, a thing apparently designed to protect the front ends of sports cars.  We wouldn’t buy one even if we had a sports car.  If they change the name to ‘nose brassiere’ however, we just might reconsider.

Comp. Sci. and English are Practically the Same Subject

7 Jan

When we were in college, Computer Science students had trouble in English classes and English majors shied away from Comp. Sci. courses. This seems weird, as they both  deal with the same things.

In English classes, students learn English syntax, sentence structure, and how to organize ideas into paragraphs.  Ideally, they also learn to state their ideas succinctly. In Computer Science classes, students learn the syntax of the computer language,  how to structure a program, and how to organize the program into separate procedures.  They also learn to do as much as possible with the fewest lines of computer code.  Seems like pretty much the same subject to us.

A computer program is a kind of stylized essay (OK, if you want to be technical  it’s a set of commands for the computer to follow, but we’re indulging in a little bit of poetic license here), where the non-human reader either understands or fails to understand its content, depending how well we’ve written the program.  Our English paper has human readers who, depending on how well we’ve written the paper, will understand or fail to understand how our arguments support the paper’s thesis.

If you think we’re indulging in whimsy, we’re not.  We did terribly in comp.  sci.  courses until we stopped thinking about programming as being primarily about mathematics (which terrified us) and started thinking about it in terms of  structure and syntax.  Once we had this epiphany, we were finally able to write programs that actually compiled and yielded the desired results.

Hal 9000

Good morning, Dave.


Buff is boffo

11 Nov

Gotta love the English language (we certainly do.) Many English words have multiple meanings and here’s one that has no less than five


Polishing cars in the altogether


The word “buff” can mean:

1. a brownish-yellow color; tan.
2. To polish or shine.
3. Informal. the bare skin: in the buff.
4. a fan or devotee.
5. Muscular, in good physical shape (slang)

So, a muscular person with a spray-on tan who likes to polish cars in the altogether could be described as a buff buff in the buff buff buff.


Les, Les, and Less

26 Sep

Know the Difference:

Les Paul

Les Paul

Les Misérables

Les Misérables

Less Than

Less Than

Deceptive Word

24 Sep

The word ‘lifestyle’ must surely be one of the most deceptive words in the English language. places it circa 1925-30, but I don’t recall seeing it in print until the 1980s.  As per (, the word means:




1. the habits, attitudes, tastes, moral standards, economic level, etc., that together constitute the mode of living of an individual or group.

2. pertaining to or catering to a certain lifestyle: unhealthy lifestyle choices; lifestyle advertising; a luxury lifestyle hotel.
3. (of a drug) used to treat a medical condition that is not life-threatening or painful: lifestyle drugs for baldness.

I would define the word as:  the choices made by those who can afford to make choices.  The first entry above lists economic level in the definition , but  to say something like “The people formerly employed at the company that went under are now living a poor lifestyle” seems perverse to me.  It almost implies they  got together and collectively said “Let’s get poor!”
The word is sometimes used when discussing sexual mores. However, I doubt that anyone ever got up in the morning and said “Hmmm.  What to have for breakfast?  I’ll have the fruit instead of the sticky bun – it’s healthier.  Now, what should my orientation be – I think I’ll be strait/gay” (fill in the blank) “’cause it seems like a good idea.”
Some years back on the show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” the host would  fawn over a different rich person and his/her possessions every week.  I never watched the show, but the show’s usage of the term ‘lifestyle’ seemed close to what I believe is the true connotation of the term .