Book-watching

Danger Blog! calls our attention to Donald Barthelme’s 1972 National Book Award acceptance speech. Barthelme won in the “Children’s Literature” category for The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine:

Writing for children, like talking to them, is full of mysteries. I have a child, a six-year-old, and I assure you that I approach her with a copy of Mr. Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity held firmly in my right hand. If I ask her which of two types of cereal she prefers for breakfast, I invariably find upon presenting the bowl that I have misread my instructions — that it was the other kind she wanted. In the same way it is quite conceivable to me that I may have written the wrong book — some other book was what was wanted. One does the best one can. I must point out that television has affected the situation enormously. My pictures don’t move. What’s wrong with them? I went into this with Michael di Capua, my editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who incidentally improved the book out of all recognition, and he told me sadly that no, he couldn’t make the pictures move. I asked my child once what her mother was doing, at a particular moment, and she replied that mother was “watching a book.” The difficulty is to manage a book worth watching. The problem, as I say, is full of mysteries, but mysteries are not to be avoided. Rather they are a locus of hope, they enrich and complicate. That is why we have them. That is perhaps one of the reasons why we have children.

Related: a logic scholar from St. Andrews University in Scotland briefly discusses (scroll down a bit) the seven varieties of ambiguity put forward in Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, a seminal “New Criticism” text published in 1930.


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