The cromulent word

I shall probably never summer at the Vineyard or winter at Palm Beach, or do whatever season one does at Biarritz. But there are some pleasures that are still accessible to the chronically underfunded, and a few, thanks to ebooks and the Internet, that are more accessible than ever. One of these is the pleasure of being polybiblious. This is not a word you will find in the dictionaries, but it has a certain amount of currency online; it means, of course, the habit of reading more than one book at a time.

I have been polybiblious, perhaps, about since the time my father gave me my second book. I am very hard on books; I have a way of breaking the spines, thanks to my habit of generally leaving four or five of them lying about on various surfaces, with the spine up to keep them from shutting and losing my place. (Bookmarks have never been my friends. Give me a million bookmarks today, and by tomorrow week I will have lost every one of them and be marking my places with pencils or paper towels.) People who read only one book at a time, generally speaking, don’t leave their books lying open for days on end, and I suspect they are rather apt to wonder how my books wear out so quickly.

But there are compensations. No monobiblist can ever know the polybiblious delight of seeing two incongruously different texts collide in a brilliant shower of new ideas. You can learn, not twice, but ten times as much by reading two good books concurrently than by reading each one straight through in turn. The texts themselves will conduct a lively argument in your head, which may lead you to conclusions that neither author ever dreamed of.

One of the books I have on the go at the moment is How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters, by the indefatigably right-wing British politician, Daniel Hannan. Hannan makes some good points, and some questionable ones, about the particularly English heritage of law and liberty. He is quite right, I think, to stress the importance of the idea, inherent in English common law, that anything not explicitly forbidden is permitted. In contrast to this, he writes about his experiences with the Eurocrats in Brussels, who seem to have the idea that any new activity is illegal until some official writes a set of regulations for it. This is good stuff, and makes one rather more sympathetic to the late Douglas Adams. In the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the radio series), Adams informed us that of all the curse words in all the languages of our galaxy, the most obscene is ‘Belgium’.

On the other hand, Hannan makes, I think, too much of the specifically Protestant contribution to liberty. The English common law, the English Parliament, and the English jury system all flourished in the fourteenth century, when England was still a Catholic country. But the most important institution in the whole framework of English liberty, I believe, goes back to the almost unrecorded twilight of the seventh century. That is the English language itself. For English is a common-law language. [Read more…]


A comment I left at The Passive Voice, reproduced here for possible discussion:

Look at any dysfunctional corporate culture (and I use ‘corporate’ in the broadest sense; this applies to governments, churches, and armies as well), and there are at least two things you are certain to find:

1. Systems that are inadequate because they are autonomous. Nobody can design a set of rules to cover every possible contingency, and if they ever did, someone would immediately come up with a new contingency that the rules did not cover. (Call it Gödel’s Law of Bureaucracy.) But when the system and its rules are allowed to make the decisions, when people say to sensible proposals, ‘We can’t do that because it’s against policy,’ the whole organization becomes frozen in the way of doing things that was enshrined at the time the rules were written.

2. Systems that are autonomous because people are lazy and afraid. Rocking the boat requires effort and courage; doing anything new requires effort, courage, and creativity. It’s easier and safer to just show up, put in your hours, do your job as defined by the existing rules, and collect your pay. So people hire out bits of themselves – their employable skills, narrowly defined – and leave the rest at home: not only their courage and creativity, but their enthusiasm, their best efforts, and in too many cases, their conscience as well. How many people do things at work that they know are stupid, because they are going along to get along? How many people acquiesce in doing things that are downright wrong? If they brought their whole selves to their work, they would not do these things; but they leave behind whatever part of themselves might conflict with the system and the rules, and — we see the results.

‘When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.’ —Charles Williams.