Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Studies in eccentricity: The Grasshopper King, by Jordan Ellenberg

Imagine a language so precise that there are tens of thousands of different ways to translate the sentence "I kicked the dog." Using the nominative, the genative, the dative, the accusative, the ablative, the locative, the transformative, the restorative, the stative; the operative and its tricky counterpart, the cooperative; the justificative, the terminative, the reiterative, the extremely popular pejorative, the restive, the suggestive, the collective, the palliative, the argumentative, the supportive, the reclusive and the preclusive, the intuitive and the counter-intuitive, the vocative and the provocative, the pensive, the defensive, the plaintive, etc., you can capture every nuance of the phrase.

Was it a field-goal swing, a sideways foot-shove, a horizontal sweep involving the entire leg? All these, and more, called for different verbs. Was the kicking of the dog habitual, or a one-time action? Does the speaker mean to imply the kick is apt to be repeated? And whose dog is it?

Now imagine this language holds a rich folk literature -- grimmer than Grimm -- full of perversely dark humor and a dreadful, hateful poet whose work changed the face of literature and possibly the course of history. There you have the language of a fictional little valley in the Carpathians called the Gravine.

I like stories set in academia. The university scene has a peculiar social life to it found nowhere else. But Jordan Ellenberg's novel The Grasshopper King captures a key element of a professor's life that I've never before seen illustrated this well: that the research itself is exciting and fun -- even if your treasures are locked away in books or in your impenetrable colleagues' minds instead of being hidden in more traditionally exciting locations such as a temple of doom.

Here's a little taste:

In Gravinic it formed a series of perfect dactyls, which by an unfortunate chance coincided exactly with the endless tack-eta of something inside our radiator; so I seemed always to be hearing it, whenever the nights got cold. My English version of the rhyme went as follows:

Little Bug, Little Bug, my son Little Bug,
It is time to do your lessons for school,
Hurry, hurry, hurry, Little Bug!
Or Mama will throw you to the jackals.

This was typical. Gravinian nursery rhymes were all alike in their earnest didacticism, their brevity, and their termination in sudden, usually unpleasant surprises. As I shouldn't need to point out by this time, my translation fails to capture the full meaning of the source text. The original, for instance, strongly implies that the jackals in line 4 are not a vague and distant threat, but rather a specific set of jackals, probably nearby, very possibly inside the house. In English all this is lost -- and with it, I think, the verse's special charm.

In human terms, this book is a very masculine portrait of the life of the mind. It's a grand re-telling of the clever quip of Socrates when someone asked him for advice on whether he should marry or not and Socrates replied: "Whichever you do you will regret it." Some of the characters in this book are bachelors, married to their research. These guys come off as a little odd socially. Other male characters are married to actual women, which is worse. In this story, a romantic relationship is something that comes upon a man unexpectedly. He might try to predict it a bit like weather -- to know when to react by wearing a sweater or carrying an umbrella -- but the idea that one might contemplate the type of relationship he wants (and plan a strategy to get there) is absent.

That's not to say the characters in the story are less interesting than their scholarship. The inhabitants of Chandler State University (and neighboring Chandler City) are as richly eccentric and full of life as the poets of the Gravine. The plot is too, while we're at it. The key to understanding the work of the great Gravinic poet Henderson may well be known to a brilliant professor who has mysteriously fallen silent, and researchers in town and around the world pull out the stops to try to find out what he'll eventually say.

Now if you're still undecided about whether you want to find a copy of this book and read it yourself, the magic of the Internet can help solve your problem (just as it solves so many problems that pre-Internet peoples had to deal with). You see, the first chapter or so of this book is available online for free through Google books here. (Note unfortunately the "Preview This Book" tab unfortunately doesn't show up for some people -- not sure why or how Google books works...) I can tell you that this segment alone is entertaining enough that it's worth the bother to read it online. If you're looking for something a little different for your recreational reading tonight, why not try this? And see if you don't get hooked.


Alon Levy said...

I've been meaning to read this book... unfortunately, I have about fifteen at home I've yet to read, so my reading list is taking a back seat nowadays.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Alon!!!

Yeah, it's a fun read. I'd suggest you move it up in your queue, but I don't know what others are ahead of it. ;^)

Just out of curiosity, how'd you hear about it? Because of the author's Mathematics column?

Alon Levy said...

The author's a number theorist, so I spotted him while researching grad schools to apply to. I later found his column and book. So far I've liked most of his columns and the only paper of his that I've read.

As for what the others are, they include The Nature of Prejudice, The Corrections, 1491, Middlemarch, Devils, The Great Transformation, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, and A Treatise of Human Nature.

C. L. Hanson said...

I suspected it might have been through the Mathematics connection since I know you're in math as well. That's how I met Jordan -- my husband is also in Number Theory.

As for your queue, I haven't read those other books, so you're on your own as to whether to read this one first. ;^)