Saturday, December 25, 2021

Living with a Dead Language by Ann Patty

Title: Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin
Author: Ann Patty
Publication: Viking, hardcover, 2016
Genre: Nonfiction/Memoir
Setting: Upstate New York
Description: When editor Ann Patty retired from Manhattan’s publishing world to her weekend retreat in Rhinebeck, NY, she was unexpectedly bored and afraid her mind would atrophy through lack of intellectual stimulation. Although she had always loved words, she had focused on French in college at Cal Berkeley, but now she became convinced that studying Latin was the key to an energetic and fulfilling retirement. Nearby Bard College was skeptical of her interest and wanted to charge her $5,600 to take Latin but eventually Vassar allowed her to enroll in its first-year Latin class and she became totally enthralled by the language and progressed through all the department’s offerings for several years.

My Impression: I was intrigued by this book for several reasons: although I never met Ann Patty, who I guess is about ten years older than I am, I knew her name and we both worked in publishing in the same NYC for many years; I know Rhinebeck where she lives as my uncle has a weekend home nearby; my niece recently graduated from Vassar; and I enjoyed my four years of Latin in high school. Thus, my visual image of the author and setting as I read the book was vivid. I was also interested in the story about her acquisition of the infamous Flowers in the Attic. I was thinking about the book recently because Kate used it in her December Six Degrees of Separation and others commented on having read it avidly as teens. I was never a fan but certainly skimmed it at some point because of its cult following.

The parts of the book I liked best were the author’s descriptions of her classes and her delight in the minutiae of being back in a classroom, which I too appreciated more as a graduate student than as an undergrad:
On that first day, as on every day thereafter, Curtis Dozier arrived at exactly 9:00. “Salvete, discipuli!” He pronounced it as he wrote it on the board; he then declaimed and wrote our response: “Salve, Magister!” We repeated in unison. At first strike, it was a perfect distillation of the preeminence of hierarchy in Ancient Rome, passed down now in English: master and disciple.
Petty makes the quirks of her professors and fellow students entertaining reading, and I was reminded of my nephew’s first year of Japanese several years ago, which was enlivened by his high school’s librarian joining the class. Because she had more leisure time than the students, she was always prepared and her eagerness sometimes made the rest of them look bad. Similarly, Ann’s new obsession was probably maddening to the Vassar students and began to bore her friends, although I enjoyed her pronouncements:
I believe whether one favors the use of the subjunctive in English is often the result of one’s education. And if, as the copywriter maintained, the usage sounds pretentious to the American ear, that only demonstrates the extent to which our educational system has failed to instill proper usage in students.
I too love the subjunctive case and get very annoyed when others try to edit me, particularly the annoying man who taught Legal Writing at my law school. Ann revels in the etymology of Latin, which is essential to the full enjoyment of the language. I decided she would be fun to spend time with and I know I will be surreptitiously looking for her the next time I am in the area (however, I don't think she would be interested in Carney's experience at Vassar although, presumably, Carney studied Latin as some point). Thank you to Words and Peace which recommended this book! I really enjoyed it and have now passed it along to my mother.

Source: Library

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate!  A big chair by the fireplace in front of the Christmas tree and plenty of books to read is always a treat. Looking forward to a family dinner later today!


TracyK said...

Merry Christmas to you, Constance.

Living with a Dead Language sounds like a good read, and I sure it was enhanced by the connections you had to the author.

LyzzyBee said...

That sounds brilliant in itself and I loved the loose connections you have with the author, too!

Lark said...

I'm intrigued by this one. I love that she decided to keep learning new things even after she retired. Hope you had a very Merry Christmas! :D

Katrina said...

I hope you had a lovely Christmas with your family. I think it's quite common for people to want to keep their brains working after they retire, but my three years of Latin at school were enough for me. Some Italians I met years ago were aghast when I mentioned that I had studied Latin at school - why learn a dead language they said? - but as a gardener my Latin has come in very handy, and it has been useful in all sorts of situations. I have been trying to learn Dutch as I have Dutch/Scottish great-nieces but during the pandemic I haven't been able to concentrate on it.