Difficult Book

pile of books

Why are you torturing yourself reading that book if it is like eating cardboard, my cousin asked when I told her how slow moving and tedious I found the Vladimir Nabakov memoir Speak, Memory which I had renewed yet again to finish the last thirty pages. Aside from the fact that it was on my list of recommendations from the memoir teacher I had last summer in Iowa, something did call me to persist through the pages though I was not interested in his family lineage nor his intense life-long hobby of catching butterflies.

The book is only 261 pages long, which includes an appendix, but is peppered with assorted Russian words, his mother tongue, some of which are very similar to words I remember from my grandparents’ heritage of Slovakia. In an early excerpt he says that a dying aunt’s last words were, Oh, now I understand, everything is voda. In Slovak voda also means water. Later he uses the word, tsiganki and it took me a moment to recognize as I sounded it out, the Slovak word, ciganki both of which mean gypsies.

The elder of my many cousins all remember a few of our grandmother’s frequently issued phrases. So when I saw the words, Bozhe Moy, I laughed aloud almost seeing her in her housedress and apron, shaking her head and saying sadly, Bozhe moy, dobre! adding the word good to the exclamation.

In high school I barely survived two long and painful years of studying Latin, a long dead language, which though it is no longer a spoken language, is still used in some high academic branches of medicine and science, naming plants, for example. In retrospect I can now see the value of Latin as a basis for understanding a lot of vocabulary in English, but it also serves as a foundation for Spanish and Italian.

I was long intrigued by what seemed to me as similarities in at least the romance languages – like the word two in English, dva in Slovak, deux in French and duo in Spanish. They are all small words and if a person knew one or two of them, could probably correctly guess the others. That strong interest compelled me to take linguistics at San Jose State which netted me a very heavy 4.D at the end of that quarter. Perhaps a counselor should have advised me against that move, which took its toll on my previously nice grade point average.

Now, on to what my old friend, Dick Foy used to call frivolous reading, something to read for the simple pleasure of reading.


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