The need to know

Monday August 18, 2008 @ 10:12 AM (UTC)

In sorting through boxes of late, I’ve come across many things I’d long forgotten, and one thing at least that gave me a rueful smile. It is a little notebook from when I read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun*, starting with The Shadow of the Torturer. They’re good books, well written and building to a surprising culmination. However, they’re also written in a strange style. They are meant to have been ‘translated’ from an arcane and alien tongue, and to ‘better represent the original text’, Wolfe has used unusual words.

And I don’t mean unusual words like purulent, adumbrate or deliquescent. I mean unusual like he must have a full OED and perused the alternate spellings so long he decided he could invent more with confidence; I mean so unusual that I had online access to the OED at the time and could only guess at some; I mean unusual as if they were not words in the language, tools in its toolbox, but forgotten implements ranged for display in the cases of a museum of curiosities.

It drove me crazy. When there is a word I do not know in a book, I want to learn it. I scrawl it down, leave a Book Dart, or note the place, and then I look it up later. Or, if it isn’t clear enough from context, I do it right then. Now, Gene Wolfe is not mean enough to write a book in English that English-speakers cannot read (oh Lord, I just thought about the task of translating these) – all these words are used carefully so that you can get a rough idea – “Oh, it’s a building material” – and move on with your reading. Or positioned so you don’t really have to know. Or linked into long lists to make it easier to figure out the context (the one I remember is, in fact, building materials) and deadly obvious that you should not look them all up.

I did. At first, I looked up every one. And there were usually something like six each page. Which brings me to the little notebook. When I realized looking each up before proceeding made the act of ‘reading’ problematic, I bought this tiny notebook at the University Bookstore and started scrawling the words in, to be joined by their definitions at a later date. This solution, too, ended, and I stopped worrying and learned to love the evocative mystery. I managed, thus, to finish reading the tetrology ** in less than a decade and without stealing a copy of the OED.

The notebook, however, abides.

A sample:

gallipot: little pot, apothecary
badelaire: badelar (OED): short broad sword with scimitar-like curve
myste: myst (OED): priest initiated into mysteries
armiger: one entitled to bear heraldic arms
mestachin [I think]: sword dancer in fantastic costume or their dance
caracara: aberrant falcon in South America with vulture tendencies
saros: Babylonian for 3600 or a period of 3600; also, modern astronomy: cycle of 18 years, 10 and 2/3 days in which solar and lunar eclipses repeat themselves
nenuphar: water lily
wildgrave: ruler of an uncultivated or forest region
khan: a building (unfurnished) for the use of travelers
coffle: train of men or beasts fastened together, especially slaves

The list persists beyond the defined part for 13 pages. Looking at it now, I find many words I know – ‘martello’, ‘stunsil’, ‘anchorite’, ‘salubrious’,‘capybara’. I don’t exult too much over my former self, however, because I do seem to recall, in the enthusiasm of my drive to know, adding words I knew, but not precisely, to the pages, confidently expecting I would define them all. I already know about myself that as I have grown I have come to be on better terms – friends, almost – with ambiguity, but how startling to see it so demonstrated, the contrast so clearly drawn between the person I am now and the one that scrawled these lists, desperate to know, eight or so years ago.

* If anyone I know has a line on where these books are now, please let me know. Maybe I lent them?
** Really, really. They were a gift from my dad, they’re beautiful editions, and last time I looked I couldn’t find those TPB volumes in print.


I just found Wolfe a couple months ago, and while I found Soldier of the Mist just pretty good (I felt so betrayed by the ending) The Wizard Knight gave him his rightful status next to Gaiman and De Lint. But I cant find any more of his books! All the libraries around seem only to have the 4th and 5th books of New Sun, which seems rather odd to me. And the library that had Soldier of the Mist didn’t have its sequel. And bookstores don’t even try.

My real question being, why isn’t this guy everywhere? He’s phenomenal, with a great feel for real characters—both main and supporting—and his prose is better than anyone else’s I read in sci-fi or fantasy. So why doesn’t everyone know?

I actually have those books (I think). If they didn’t get sold to Frugal Muse, you can have them once I unpack my book boxes (late September).

Book 5? What now? I thought there were only the four…unless he is pulling a Douglas Adams.

It’s funny, because someone cited Wolfe as a YA author recently (in the point/counterpoint about YA spec-fic over on io9) and I did a double-take, because while I know he writes YA (my dad is reading some) this is all I’ve read by him. It was good, and difficult, and brutal in parts, and often challenging on the level of plot as well as vocabulary…so hearing someone say “You can keep your [adult author], I’ll take Gene Wolfe anyday!” just seemed…odd.

As to why he isn’t more in print, I could not tell you. He’s known among writers and aficionados (obv.), but I don’t know why he doesn’t receive more mainstream recognition.

Well, in theory my very own copies should exist in a box (unlikely, as I seem to recall their being lost by or around Phase 3 of life-boxing c. 2004) or in the hands of someone I know. But probably not you, because I don’t feel like I finished them during the school-year (which would have made them eligible for life-boxing phase 2) which would have made lending them to you feasible :p

I filled several pages of a Moleskine with words and definitions. It trailed off when I was about half way through the first book. I think it was a combination of making peace with the ambiguity, reaching critical mass (and so being more able to divine the meaning of odd words from their context), and laziness.

Recently, I was reading Castle of Days and discovered that there’s a bit in the middle where he defines several select terms. I wish I’d gone into the book with those few pages of glossary. I might photocopy them for whoever I force Wolfe upon next.

Wolfe’s short stories are quite good, by the way. The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories and Endangered Species are particularly good collections.

He’s not quite Zelazny (as far as the short stories go), but damn good.

I assume you’re not refering to these volumes, as they don’t seem hard to find.

The two volume printing seems to be the most recent. They’re what I picked up like a year ago. The titles are odd (Shadow and the Claw for the first double-volume instead of Shadow of the Torture…), which may explain EMeta’s trouble finding them.

They are spiritually the same volumes, but my TPBs were the previous edition. For some reason they were out of print for a few years before the versions you linked replaced them. Those, of course, were the years I was looking, trying to replace my copies without letting my dad know I’d lost his rather beautiful gift! I’d still like my own copies, since they were from Dad, but the process of moving always seems to slip a few things into an unknowable interdimensional space. And I’ve moved a lot.

Oops! I was unclear. I have the exact same copy (trade paperbacks with nice covers) of the Torturer series, but I’m sure that they weren’t originally yours. I blame the thesis. It scrambles my brain.

Heh! If mine HAD gone home from college with you, it would have been an entirely unexpected answer to the puzzle.

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