February 24, 2021
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Le Petit Prince

by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Today, I read a book in a language that is not English, for only the second or third time in my life.

I’ve been working on a project on the intellectual roots of hypertext and the Web, an inquiry inspired by a class to which Andy van Dam and Norm Meyrowitz invited me to speak last year. I’ve been asking lots of people for advice on sources for various questions. One suggested a multi-volume work which seems eminently pertinent, but which is only available in French.

After some prevarication, I realized that if a graduate student in this pickle came to me for advice, I would likely say, “Learn to read French, or start over on a different topic.” With my hearing problems, I’m never going to manage to speak, but reading might be possible.

I asked my eminent cousin, “Suppose you had a graduate student to whom you had said, ‘go away and come back and talk when you have an adequate reading knowledge of French.’ When would you expect to see this student next?” She said, “Six months: three months intensive coursework, three months in France.” I can’t manage that. There’s work to do, and we’re still in the midst of pandemic. But perhaps we can get somewhere, and perhaps my eminent cousin has high standards.

Reading on the iPad is great because the dictionary is a joy to use. And, do I use it! Even for this famously easy little children’s book, I’m puzzling out the simplest little things. (We do have some esoteric vocabulary: boas (open and closed), baobabs, switchmen, and lamplighters for starters.) This is a profound book but an odd one for children, perhaps even sadder than Charlotte’s Web which was read to me once and remains unbearable to think about.

Next up, I’m going to attempt Jo Walton’s Among Others en Français, where it has a different title but will still, I hope, be tons of fun.