Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gems in the Dock

Last year about this time, I read The Weight of Glory, a collection of essays by C. S. Lewis covering a variety of topics and offering on each one several nuanced, thought-provoking, and sometimes profound ideas. This year for my Lewis reading, I took on God in the Dock, a larger set of essays and addresses that, while quite good, proved less stunning. Part (or most) of the problem is due to editor Walter Hooper’s decision to bring together many short pieces not easily attainable before 1970 and to group them according to theme. Of course Prof. Lewis repeated himself in his public lectures, letters, radio talks, and contributions to small periodicals. But here the reader must experience the repetitions in a way the original audiences did not.

While the gems come loosely strung in God in the Dock (as opposed to the thick, sparkling clusters in the slimmer volume), they still shine brightly. Here is “Myth Became Fact,” one of the best expositions of the idea that Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien discussed with Lewis on one momentous  midnight stroll on Addison’s Walk in Oxford, the idea that led to Lewis’s acceptance of the Christian faith. Myth, he explains, transcends both thought and feeling. When we think of pain, we think only of a memory of the experience, and when we experience pain, we can’t think about it. Myth, however, opens a door to knowledge at a level that integrates both thought and feeling. This definition has nothing to do with truth and everything to do with effect, so, as Lewis discovered, there’s no intellectual barrier to seeing the story of Christ, which looked to him like so many other myths, as historical fact, a feature no other myth enjoys.

Here, too, is “On the Reading of Old Books,” which could serve as the mission statement for my reading plan. Lewis spoke and wrote often about era-ism, a prejudice toward the thinking of one’s own era. We all need to read books from other times in history, he says, in order to get perspective on our own time and the assumptions it pushes on us. “To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good as a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.” He even warns his audience that they should read less C. S. Lewis and more Augustine and Aquinas. I try to read some of all three each year.

And here is the very important “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in which Lewis distinguishes “looking at” and “looking along.” His illustration, which I won’t try to recreate here, helps make sense of a lot of his other writings; Michael Ward depends on the notion in his excellent analysis of the Narnia books.

These three essays would provide an excellent quick intro to Lewis’s thinking, so I think I’ll wrap it up here. But I considered writing about several other pieces in God in the Dock, because I’m tempted by shiny things.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Many More Dimensions

I’ve written before about the power of hype to shape my reaction to something. To give a couple of cinematic examples (and to show my age fairly precisely), after hearing so much about Ishtar being history’s worst movie, I enjoyed it. On the other hand, after hearing so many positive things about Dances with Wolves, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. It works on me so well, that I get concerned sometimes when I come back to a book I’ve enjoyed before. With my memory touting the book so highly, I fear that I’ll become the victim to my own hype and end up finding that the book couldn’t possibly live up to the reputation I’ve built up for it in my own mind. But Charles Williams's Many Dimensions did not disappoint at all. It’s been a couple of weeks now since I finished it, but I can’t let it go without saying more: just two things that I love about the book that I can’t quite find anywhere else.

Okay, the first aspect appears in other books, but they’re all by the same author, and that’s the way Williams makes the familiar exotic and puts the supernatural back in what seems merely cultural. For instance, in this very Christian book, the most devout believer is a Persian Muslim. No English person in the novel seems ever to have read the book of Kings or to have heard of the boy who slew the giant with his sling or of his son who showed his wisdom by threatening to split a baby in half. So when they hear of Suleiman ben Daood, they encounter a bigger-than-life potentate wrapped in the mystical glory of ancient times and faraway lands. Watching through their eyes as we read, we too encounter Solomon son of David for the first time. The Persian speaks of the Mercy, the Peace, and the Protection. The definite article and initial capital lifts each characteristic to divine status and brings the reader, through a few marks of ink on paper, to an understanding of a God Who Is What He Has. The Muslim even hints at the basis of the Trinity by explaining that “the Way to the Stone is in the Stone.” The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

What I enjoyed most this time through, I had completely forgotten about: the mystical Stone’s own personality and mysterious ways. The supernatural focus of the plot is a small Stone that embodies the power of God. Inscribed with the tetragrammaton, it can transport people bodilessly, reveal the thoughts of others, and heal the sick. Characters may argue over who owns this marvelous, wonder-working Stone, who has paid for the Stone, or who has rights to the Stone. But after all, it is just a small stone, and small stones can be lost. While one of the best characters, Cecilia Sheldrake, rides down a country lane in an open roadster, admiring the Stone her husband bought her – or rather admiring herself for being the one person in the world who deserves to have such a powerful object – the Stone flies out of her hand. She and her husband search for the Stone, but perhaps they should have asked themselves whether the Stone was searching for them. Along comes Oliver Doncaster, who, with no notion of what’s going on, spies the stone immediately, picks it up, and walks away. When he arrives home, his landlady’s dying mother rises from her bed completely healed. Most of the characters have strong intentions concerning what to do with the Stone, but in the end human intentions have very little to do with what the Stone itself does.

Writing a Christian novel is such a terribly tricky business. Portraying spiritual states faithfully requires a careful eye and an imaginative eloquence. But sooner or later, if the novel is to be a novel, some character’s spiritual state has to change, and spiritual change, if the novel’s theology be sound, must come from God. How can the author presume to know what God would do in the situation he has subcreated? I’ve wondered sometimes if the inclusion of God as a character in a story, even if only implicitly, doesn’t flirt with violating the Commandment against likenesses. What I do know, though, is that I remember no other novel that displays more clearly the principle that those who strive for control of their lives never change, while those who do change do so only by submitting their wills to the Stone. Whoever loses his life will preserve it.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Offroading with Stephen King

In four weeks it will have been a half a century since the assassination of President Kennedy. Not so much coincidentally, I had planned to read Stephen King’s 11/22/63 this fall, so I carved some time out my regular reading schedule and read it over the last two weeks, finishing it up this morning. I can’t say it’s a Great Book with capital letters, but I certainly thought it worth a mention here in the online journal of my reading adventure. I could have done with less of the type of language I associate with the junior-high boys’ locker room, and the final crisis disappointed me a bit (it seems time travel causes problems in the fabric of reality, not exactly a startlingly innovative idea worth hiding for eight hundred pages). But I thoroughly enjoyed the ride back and forth between the Teensies and the Sixties and heartily approve of the morality of the sacrifice hero Jake Epping has to make in the end.

The book changes tone several times. I might even say it changes from genre to genre as it unfolds. Starting as a character study (“I’ve never been a crying man”), it shifts rather soon to a fantasy when Jake’s friend Al shows him a time portal to 1958. Their conversations and Jake’s first experiments with the portal bring out the reader’s inner geek, as we try to figure out how the portal works and look for clues as to whether each new trip truly resets all the changes the time traveler has made.

Then in one long section called “Living in the Past,” Jake realizes that he isn’t just on a five-year mission to save John Kennedy; he has changed residence and now thinks of the Age of Tail Fins as home. Here are the book’s best moments. The mediocre football player who finds out he can act. The librarian who has an abusive husband but doesn’t know it. The drive-in theater. Service-station attendants in uniforms. King says he especially enjoyed recalling the sounds and smells of the times, and they’re all here in vivid force: the coins in the pay phone, the fumes of a pre-EPA diesel bus, and so on.

Then Oswald returns from Russia, and the novel transforms into a detective thriller that begins with Jake trying to buy surveillance equipment made in the days before microchips and ends with a history-defying race up the stairs of the Texas School Book Depository Building. Here, King has to make a decision, has to come down on one side or the other. He doesn’t have anything to say about the grassy knoll. But he does show us Lee Harvey Oswald alone in the southeast corner of the sixth floor with a rifle in his hands. And stopping him really does save the President’s life. Oh, come on. I’m not giving anything away. Even I knew that the crazy scheme would achieve its primary goal. But a hero who saves the life of a President standing with him on the ever-sliding frontier of the unknown future is one thing. Going back in time to save the life of a President who has already been killed in one thread of reality is another thing entirely. So the bow isn’t tied too terribly neatly at this point, and the book finally has to become the supernatural thriller that we expect from Stephen King.

Speaking of coming down on one side or the other, I’ll come down myself and land right next to King. Reading the novel got me also reading and watching historical (and pseudo-historical) accounts of the tragedy. I’m thoroughly convinced that Kennedy and Connally were hit with the same bullet just before Zapruder frame 224, and that the fatal shot also came from behind. Johnson told the Warren Commission to quash all conspiracy theories, supposedly to allay the public’s fears. I think the Commission then did exactly the wrong thing and, instead of pursuing the idea that is to be disproven as good scientists do, fudged and inflated the case for the lone gunman. Naturally this strategy made it look as though they were hiding the truth and so ended up fostering the conspiracy theories they were meant to dispel. Perhaps someone could write a story about a time traveler who goes back and tries to get the Warren Commission to do the job right.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Charles Williams’s Twist on Time Travel

Like a lot of readers who grew up in the last century and a half, I love time-travel stories. But ever since I was a kid, I’ve laughed at the literary and (for obvious reasons) cinematic cliché that time travelers take their clothes with them. If I remember correctly, Wells’s time traveler took along everything within the volume if the machine, air included. But his invisible man didn’t take anything else with him into invisibility: an observer could see even the food he ate, sitting in his stomach but apparently floating in air, until his body assimilated it and it became him. So why couldn’t his time traveler show up in the past naked and gasping for air?

In Many Dimensions, Charles Williams explores the idea that a time traveler doesn’t even take his body, let alone his clothes. The time travel situation, though, involves a complication that might make more sense if I explain a different kind of travel first. The plot of Many Dimensions centers on a stone that embodies the power of God and contains all of space, time, and personality within it. People who hold the stone can will themselves into different locations, times, and minds. Those who use the stone to read other people’s minds travel mentally to their target’s location; the traveler’s body conveniently remains behind, preferably seated comfortably while its captain leaves the ship momentarily. The mind free from material underpinnings, then, is able to observe what the target personality observes. But the mind traveler in the book doesn’t become the other person; he retains his own train of thought and knows it as his own, while simultaneously observing the other’s train of thought with some kind of objective distance.

Observing the train of thought reminded me of the Principles of Psychology of William James, in which I read last year that the train of thought is the thinking thing. There is no higher observer, James says, that constitutes the “I” that has the thoughts. “I” is the thought. But Williams remains consistent with his psychological model involving an ego-mind dichotomy, and the dichotomy causes some interesting problems when people try time traveling with the stone. One character who travels to the future finds first that the clock appears to have moved rather quickly, but then realizes he has memories of the intervening minutes, although the memories seem detached and hazy. It seems that Williams has both the body and the train of thought live without interruption and moves only the higher “I” ahead, causing a disturbing conflict in the character of remembering both living through and skipping over the intervening time.

Williams isn’t entirely consistent, though. One poor fellow tries to go back in time, only to live the same few minutes over and over, since each time he gets to T-Time, he again relives the choice to go back in time. His body doesn’t travel back, and he doesn’t meet himself: the usual, McFlyesque scenario. But in this case, the body disappears. No captain, no ship this time. What’s more, when the heroes of the book recover the fellow through some clever manipulations of will and thought, he doesn’t seem to have any higher self that has observed the looping train of thought, the way the person moving forward in time observes the memories of the time he skipped.

Now I can call this inconsistency, and blame Williams for not thinking it through carefully enough. Or (and since I love the book, I’m more inclined to choose door no. 2), I can say that it’s Williams’s imaginative world, and that he can have it as mysterious and unexplained as he wants. But I am disappointed that when characters use the stone for mystical, instantaneous travel through space, they take their clothes with them.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Kindle’s Speech

I had four hours of driving to do on Friday, two hours to a conference in Tulsa and two hours back home to Norman. A perfect opportunity to listen to part of a book, preferably a long book. I have enough margin built up in my schedule this year to read something off-list, so I thought I’d start Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I bought the Kindle version earlier this year, and I planned to while away those four hours by letting the Kindle read to me.

Yeah, I know. The Kindle’s text-to-speech function is a far cry from, for instance, listening to Jeremy Irons read Brideshead or Bill Bryson reading one of his own travel books. But the robotic cadence of Amazon’s wonderbox actually works for me in short stretches – say, two hours to Tulsa and then two hours back. I knew my Kindle Fire didn’t have text-to-speech, but I’ve done this before: transfer the book to the old Kindle and press the magic button. So the day before the conference, I got on the Amazon site, delivered King to the old Kindle, pressed the button to try it out and heard . . . nothing. Silence.

Now this should come as no surprise from a man who gives himself a ten-year- reading schedule and then sticks to it, but it’s hard for me to change plans. I’d had King’s time-traveling thriller in my mental agenda for several days. I can see the calendar in my head now, and there the book sits, in the sixth box of the week, waving to me and smiling, acknowledging our deal to start our acquaintance on precisely that day. I hated to disappoint it. But I had no choice. The Kindle wouldn’t read it to me. I wasn’t sure why, but there it was, and there was nothing I could do about it. I apologized and changed my plan: I’d listen to McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback instead. So I got it on the old Kindle, but text-to-speech was grayed out on it, too.

Now I saw a clear pattern, so I looked it up. The young people use a thing called Google these days, and I thought I’d try it out. Sure enough, lots of people were complaining online that they couldn’t listen to recent bestsellers, like the latest Stephen King or David McCullough. As it turns out, the most prominent publishers have decided they don’t like Kindle’s text-to-speech function because they’re afraid of losing audiobook sales. Really?! If I wanted the audiobook, I would have purchased the audiobook. But I didn’t. I wanted a book to read with my eyes, and I wanted a robot to read six percent of it to me while driving for a few hours on I-44. If someone wants to hear the whole book, she’s going to spend her fifteen dollars on a recording of a living human actually reading, and she’s not going to purchase a black-and-white version. If someone like me prefers to read but wants the audio only occasionally to relieve some boredom, he’s going to pay the publisher for the visual copy. He’s not going to pay twice just for a few minutes of weird convenience; if the audio isn’t available, he’s just going to go to another book.

And that’s just what I did. I listened to half of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain instead . The twelfth-century classic was free on the internet, so I guess no publisher cared.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Romance of Home

Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a strange little book. Written in 1904, it provides a look at the Orwellian year of 1984. In Chesterton’s vision, modernism’s takeover of England involves a culture of no imagination or romance and a constitution headed by a randomly selected king. And then one day the random selection process elects as king a fool critical of dry modernity. King Auberon tries to create a facetious veneer of medieval pageantry by inventing histories for the boroughs of London, designing new, colorful symbols for each, and encouraging them to do battle with one another in a show of patriotism.

By placing patriotism in the city, Chesterton has finally revealed to me why that sentiment was so important to him. The details that brought it all together for me come in Book III, about halfway through. The random selection process works also at more local levels, and it picks out Adam Wayne for provost of Notting Hill, and Adam Wayne is an actual romantic. There’s no veneer here; Wayne is a true patriot. He writes a book of poetry about the city unlike any written before; in his book, instead of “paying a compliment to a hansom cab” by comparing it to a spiral seashell, he pays his compliment to a whirlwind by comparing it to the hansom cab. In other words, wandering clouds and virgin woods don’t supply the ground of his romantic view; the city does. Having grown up in the city, “he saw the street-lamps as things quite as eternal as the stars.” “Nature puts on a disguise,” Chesterton’s narrator says later, “when she speaks to every man; to this man she put on the disguise of Notting Hill.” And elsewhere: “A street is really more poetical than a meadow because a street has a secret. A street is going somewhere.”

My train of thought put it all together in this way. The poetical yen looks for secrets; it tries to find the mask “Nature” has put on so it can pull that mask off. That mask might take the civilized form of a street or a street light, but Chesterton would have to admit that for a poet, of course, even a meadow has a secret to reveal. The romantic hears the whisper from beyond and sees whatever surrounds him as the local mask. If he grows up in a city, the mask of mystery is an urban mask; if in the country, a bucolic one. His home, then, always holds a special place for him because its features, be they gas lamps or dark forests, represent the conduits through which he first hears the Voice.

Chesterton’s view makes sense to me now, but the romantic streak didn’t show itself that way in me at all. I don’t feel much patriotism for the St. Louis suburb I grew up in. I think I may have heard the whisper in the backyard trees, but as far as geography goes, a much louder voice called to me from distant mountains. My heart salutes Montana more readily than it does Missouri. Some romantic rumblings, though, come independent of location. Even in my adolescent home, I certainly heard the voices of the Muses, especially Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, and Urania. The first time I heard Chicago’s “Make Me Smile,” I felt an overwhelming call from a distant homeland I never knew I belonged to, and I suppose I should say that I’ve had a patriotic devotion to that band ever since. Similarly, the first piece of literature that completely captured me with its charms was A Tale of Two Cities, so a substantial portion of my patriotism is directed toward the Kindgom of Dickens.

I don’t think I’ll come back to Napoleon of Notting Hill, but it’s taught me a few things. I’ll see the patriotism more clearly in Chesterton now, and I’ll see Chesterton in the street lights. More importantly, I hope to see the Homeland more often in all these things.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Great Book that Hasn’t Been Written, but Should Be

The film-producer character in Argo says, “If I’m going to make a fake movie, it’s going to be an award-winning fake movie.” In a similar vein, I’d like to announce today that I’m pretending to write an award-winning novel. It’s a completely derivative book, this imaginary, award-winning novel. And the book I’m deriving it from is Charles Williams’s Many Dimensions.

In Many Dimensions, characters deal with the amazing properties of a cubic stone imprinted with the Name of God. Most of the characters see the stone as an object to possess, buy, steal, or legally confiscate. They treat the miraculous virtues of the stone as powers to be manipulated and used. Others see the stone as an incarnation – or, to coin a parallel word (as long as I’m being derivative) using the Latin word lapis, an inlapation – of God, an entity not to use but to submit to.

All of that second set of characters and some of the first discover that the tiny stone, which appears to fit in the palm of a human hand, actually holds the whole world within it. As one character observes: the stone is not in time, time is in the stone. Several characters have visions of being inside the stone. In one vision, the light in the stone radiates to become the other objects in the room. The character receiving this vision comes to realize that everything in our world exists only by the creative and sustaining power of the stone.

It’s that last vision that got me started writing my new book. I’ve experienced the presence of God in music many times. It’s not just that I’ve had a spiritual epiphany while listening to music, but that the music itself seems the very echo – a viscerally solid echo – of a primordial Sound from an immaterial dimension. Imagine being under the water in a pool and hearing the dim, muffled sound of music playing from a radio on the deck above. As the beautiful sounds coming out of the speaker plunge into the water to join you, they take on wetness. They get thicker and spread more slowly and enter your water-logged ears as the muffled, wet translation of the crisp, clear music ripping through the dry air above. Well, when I listen to music in the normal, nonswimming way, I often get the sensation that the sounds have plunged into our material world from an even drier realm, that our gross atmosphere has muffled the unimaginably coruscating music of Heaven itself.

In the opening chapter of my award-winning novel, a musicology professor named Brister McConnell has found a glassy shell on the beach of Martha’s Vineyard. (His family is rich; he could never afford to summer on the Vineyard on a musicology professor’s salary.) The shell thrills in his hand as he holds it. And when he puts it to his ear, he hears a noise whiter than the whitest white noise he’s ever heard before. The professor wants to analyze the sound with a spectrograph and finds that the mystifying shell registers frequencies beyond the capabilities of the microphone.

Prof. McConnell doesn’t run the experiment himself, of course. He has his graduate assistant, Lucy Graves, do all the work. And when Lucy puts her ear to the shell (she can’t bring herself to say that she puts the shell to her ear), she has a different experience. Rather than hearing blended noise, she finds that she can hear every frequency individually, as if an aural prism separates all the colors for her. In time, she learns that she can hear the frequencies moving from one to another, and that she can in fact focus in on individual lines of the infinite counterpoint to hear any piece of music ever played, any line ever spoken. She hears Lincoln’s voice delivering his Second Inaugural. She discovers how Caesar pronounced both his name and his famous three-word report. (There’s a definite labial buzz to the opening sound of each word. Pace classical pronunciationists.) In one mystical experience, she perceives the divine sound to be emanating from the shell and becoming the sounds of her voice, of the cicada in the tree outside, of the hum of the fluorescent light and the whisper of the air rustling through the air-conditioning vent. Before she falls into a blissful coma from which she never recovers, she utters ecstatically her claim that the blessed shell bears the Voice of God, the master Melody with which every symphony has only made the attempt to sing along.

Prof. McConnell goes to prison for attempted murder, unjust charge though that may be. The university’s lawyers, however, are unable to abrogate his tenure on the grounds of something as slippery and inconsequential as a felony, so he continues to teach and direct dissertations online from his cell.

My book will receive all its awards posthumously in the year 2063.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Singular Problem

In the linguistics videos we’ve been watching lately, Dr. Anne Curzan, descriptive linguist that she is, defends the use of they in reference to a singular antecedent. “Each student had completed their homework,” she says, is perfectly acceptable. To get away from the peculiar complication of using a word, each, that refers to a group while being grammatically singular, she offers another sentence she approves of: “My friend gave me their pen.” She smiled slyly as she said this, and I know she was smiling at people like me. I won’t say that I never use a plural pronoun with a singular referent, but I don’t have to like it or approve of it. I’m not a descriptive linguist. I try to speak clearly (although I mainly fail, I fear), I edit my writing, and I teach my students to write clearly. So I have to have reasons to judge grammar, and number agreement provides part of my reasoning. I’m not content to describe; I must prescribe, if only to myself.

But while I’m not a descriptive linguist, Dr. Curzan is, so of course she notes the construction, finds it interesting, and tries to find an explanation. And I’m with her that far. The problem is that she refers her viewers to a website that calls the construction “singular their” and that refers to people like me as “pedants.” (Considering the topic of common but annoying linguistic constructions, I considered starting that last sentence this way: “The problem is, is that . . . .”  I decided against it, obvs.) I’m not sure their is singular even in the examples given, and I certainly don’t like to be dismissed as a pedant. So I thought I’d indulge in a little defense.

I’ll credit Dr. Curzan with two victories right up front, though. First, I realize that she meant this segment of the course as a defense of her way of speaking, so to have me talking about defending myself means that she has switched the momentum to her side. Second, when she said that the website listed several examples of “singular their” found in the works of Jane Austen, I told my friends I’d be surprised if any of them were found in the narration, and I was wrong. While most instances of the pattern occur in the dialog, some indeed appear in the narration itself. And before I go on I also need to make it crystal clear that Dr. Curzan seems nice and smart, and that everything she says fascinates me. I think that if we taught at the same school, she could be my friend.

But she still hasn’t convinced me to quit trying to improve and clarify either my own writing or that of my students. To begin with, I don’t like her arguments about the options available on her first sentence. I agree with her in saying that “Each student had completed his or her homework” is ugly. Taking an idea from Chesterton, I suggest that the government should impose a heavy fine on anyone who utters such an enormity. But why are we so concerned about possession at all? Why not “Each student had completed the homework”? Her second sentence, about the friend and the pen, is just silly. Jane Austen’s narrator never identifies a specific person and then uses their; she uses it after generic tags like “each person” and “everyone” and “nobody.” Surely the speaker knows the gender of his or her friend. (Congress is too busy with the shutdown to fine me for that one.) Would Dr. Curzan still accept the sentence if the friend’s name had been specified? “Jennifer gave me their pen.” Ick.

To go farther, I’m not entirely sure their is singular in a lot of the examples used to defend “singular their.” In many of the examples given on the website, a pronoun beginning with th- links back to the word everybody, and I don’t believe that everybody is necessarily singular. The English generally use plural verbs with collective nouns where Americans would use singular verbs: “The family are coming for Christmas,” for instance, as opposed to “The family is coming.” So why should Dr. Curzan and the website she refers to insist that everybody is singular? “Who’s the pedant now?” I ask, with a challenge in my eye. The website actually offers examples clearly demonstrating the plurality of all the words in question, unwittingly undermining its goal of defending “singular their.” One example, from Bishop William Warburton: “Everybody I meet with are full ready to go of themselves.” If everybody and them were both singular, as the website claims, it seems the sentence should read “Everybody I meet with is full ready to go of themself.”

Even everyone can be thought of as plural, despite it ending with the singularly singular word one. Another example on the website, this time from Shakespeare, is cited this way: “1600 SHAKS. Lucr. 125 Euery one to rest themselues [ed. 1594 himselfe] betake.” The site claims that the pedants only started their crusade in the 1790s, but clearly Shakespeare (or his editor) at least recognized the options two hundred years earlier. And the variation seems to me to suggest not that themselves is singular but that everyone (or euery one) can be treated as either plural or singular.

That last example raises the issue of whether history has any normative force on grammar. Between the video and the website, it seems that the argument is that pedants shouldn’t complain against “singular their” because it’s been around for a long time, at least since the 1300s. But why should we speak the way English speakers did seven-hundred years ago? I thought descriptive linguists embraced change. What ground do they have for resisting this particular change? That its proponents are pedants? Pedants speak the language, too. Don’t we count? And why must the website belittle the very presence of logic as the motive behind the desire to make a pronoun and its antecedent agree in number? Is logic categorically barred from having any influence on language? If so, maybe we should give up teaching grammar to children. Why don’t we just tell fifth graders that “Me and Jimmy don’t got nothing” is fine and get on with life? Madness! Madness! If she really wants to defend this prickly practice of number disagreement while attacking the value of logic, Dr. Curzan really has their work cut out for them.