Sleepy Reads, Two Aubreys, and Puns

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November 25, 2015 by libroshombre


They’re rare, but some books pull off the trick of being interesting while still preparing your mind for sleep mode. Samuel Pepys’ 1660-1669 diaries, is the standard by which I measure all others. “Portuguese Irregular Verbs,” a send-up of Continental academia featuring Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, a specialist in romance philology, also fits the bill. It’s written by Alexander McCall Smith, author of the “Ladies Number One Detective Agency” series set in Botswana, which is too interesting for sleep-prep comparison.

Where lady detective Precious Ramotswe exhibits insight, courage and ambition in righting the wrongs of her Botswanan neighbors, Professor von Igelfeld is fixated on his own status and creature comforts, and his mild, self-concerned antics permit drowsiness after a few pages. However, John Aubrey’s “Brief Lives” is better. Aubrey was an antiquary (an historian, in our terms) born in 1626. His “Brief Lives” is described on the book jacket as “those racy portraits of the great figures of 17th century England.”

Aubrey’s subjects are arranged alphabetically, and last night I reached John Dee, and dozing off was out of the question. Dee’s described in as coiner of the word “Britannia,” the first to apply Euclidean geometry to navigation,” founder of the Rosicrucian Order, and was Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer, alchemist, and spy in the royal courts of Europe, where he performed feats of prognostication with the assistance of a seer. That explains a lot about the oldest book owned by Noel Wien Library, a 1659 transcript of his conversations with angels. It’s in the library’s antiquarian book collection, is too fragile for borrowing, but can be examined with permission.

Dr. Dee also owned the finest library in the realm, over 3,000 volumes. Aubrey’s grandfather and Dee were neighbors and frequent visitors. He described Dee as having “a long beard as white as milk. A very handsome man … He was a great peacemaker … He was tall and slender … A mighty good man he was.” Late in life Dee was accused of witchcraft and his library was looted. Several volumes wound up in the library of St. John’s College at Cambridge. That library’s note on them points out that “The perpetrators probably included former pupils such as Nicholas Saunders, by virtue of whose activities the Royal College of Physicians, of which he was a member, now has the largest number of volumes from Dee’s library.” Theft from other libraries is how libraries used to grow.

“John Aubrey” was also a leading protagonist’s name in the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian, which are so exciting and beautifully written they should be avoided when sleep’s your goal. O’Brian’s Aubrey is naturally happy, always expecting to be pleased with the world. He also thoroughly enjoys his own “infinitesimal jests that caused him at least such enormous enjoyment.” A writer on said puns are “one of Jack’s most beloved forms of humour … though he takes such honest, innocent joy in his wretched jokes that readers are usually more inclined to laugh with him than groan.”

Punmaster Richard Lederer, author of “A Primer of Puns,” says “Punning is largely the trick of combining two or more ideas within a single word or expression. Punning challenges us to apply the greatest possible pressure per square syllable of language.” The origin of the word “pun” is unknown, and the Online Etymology Dictionary says that it might be “from ‘pundigron,’ which is perhaps a humorous alteration of Italian ‘puntiglio: equivocation, trivial objection’ … this is pure speculation.”

Regardless, puns abound in literature, and it’s richer for it. For example the Bible’s Book of Judges mentions thirty sons who “rode around on thirty ass colts and had thirty cities,” and, according the, “ass colt” in the original Hebrew was “ayirim,” and “city” was “ayarim.” No one has topped Shakespeare in literary punning. Stacey Dacheux wrote in a article that “Shakespeare rode hard the Elizabethan golden age of punnery … a Shakespearean play contained an average of 78 puns, and over the life of his career Shakespeare had managed to work in no less than 3000 puns into his oevre.”

“Punning,” as Jonathan Swift said, “is a talent which no man affects to despise but he that is without it.”


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