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I love language. I am effervescent in its multitudes.  I rejoice, exclaim, wallow, and exult in the verisimilitude of the vernacular. I delight in dialects, pontificate on puns, saturate in slang, and generally gestate in grammar. Often, I have been accused of using ten words when three would do, because why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to run wild with syntactic abandon when given the chance?

 

Of particular interest to me is the history of language. Where do our words come from? How has time and history and culture shaped the way the world pushes air out of its throat and rolls it across its tongue. It’s all well and good for the Académie française to try to keep French on the straight and narrow. But what about English, who is more likely to push another language into a dark alley and “borrow” some loan words? And it still comes out short compared to German, which produces words like Treppenwitz, literally “stair case joke”, for the comeback to a joke or insult that you don’t think of until later.

 

Reading for me can be a laborious task, as I’ll be working merrily through a text when suddenly I’m jolted out of the narrative by an errant word. What is this delightful collection of syllables, I’ll think? What precise congress of meanings have crafted such an expression? And off I’ll pop to look up its etymology. And where better to start than that trusted friend, the dictionary?

 

In the world of words, consistency of meaning is key to understanding. If we don’t all agree that the word “horse” means a large, four legged mammal with a long face and mane, then a trip to the farm is going to get very confusing very quickly. Enter the Dictionary, that compendium of terminology which keeps us on the same page. A concise definition of every word in the language. A thing of beauty.

 

But definition is only half the work. The other half is context. Knowing not just what a word means, but when it is appropriate to use are the cardinal ingredients in a delicious language recipe (garnished liberally with grammar, of course). Which is why dictionaries include something that you may have overlooked, or don’t pay that much attention to: an example of use. For examples, From the Collins Dictionary:

 

Certificate - An official document that you receive when you have completed a course of study or training. The qualification that you receive is sometimes also called a certificate. Ex. To the right of the fireplace are various framed certificates.

 

One person who didn’t overlook these snippets of speech was author Jez Burrows, who developed an ambitious plan: to write short stories comprised of just the example lines from dictionaries. To hear him tell it, he started by compiling a massive catalogue of every example line from a range of dictionaries, then sorted them into groups, including those that feature a person doing an action, or emoting, or the rarest of all, speaking. Treasured were sentences describing the condition of an object.

 

Taking all these disconnected, brief and context-lacking lines, Jez strung them together into short tales of absurdity, suspense, and melancholic beauty. What were once pieces of linguistic illustration become “I began to speak, but stopped short at the look on the other woman's face. It was not prudent to antagonize a hired killer.” Those line comprised of entries from the Collins English Dictionary and New Oxford American Dictionary.

 

I am in love with this idea. Creating a jigsaw of story from the leavings of language; putting to work the orphans of description. These brief lines, once stagnating on the dictionary page have found bizarre and unexpected new purpose under Jez’s direction. It seems to me to be a form of linguistic collage, part and parcel with gluing sea shells and pine cones onto a picture frame. This concept seems tailor made for the era of Twitter and the character limit, but Jez has collected his foundlings and knitted them together into a tome entitled Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings.

 

A brisk read, but surprisingly soulful and elegant, and a love letter to language. A perfect companion to a snowy winter evening, or to share betwixt friends. A meal made of morsels has never tasted as sweet or been as filling. More about Jez and his work is available at http://www.dictionarystories.com/.

 

To keep up to date with all of LSC’s latest offerings, please follow LSC on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitter, and to subscribe to our new YouTube Channel. We also encourage you to subscribe to the weekly Green Memo, and we hope you check back each and every week on this site for our latest musings on the publishing world.

 

Yours, Fictionally

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The first personality test I ever took was the True Colors test. I took it at the behest of a manager who believed that the dynamics of the department could only truly be reconciled by colour coding. For those not familiar, True Colors groups people in percentages according to the colours Blue (passionate), Green (logical), Gold (responsible) and Orange (fun). 

 

According to that test, I am a majority green, which I immediately dubbed the Scientist Robot category. Most of my coworkers were Gold or Blue. I took this an excellent opportunity to break out my Mr. Spock impersonation, considering how many Kirks and McCoys I was surrounded by. Given that there were no Oranges in the group, my impression was not appreciated.

 

A few years later, at a leadership retreat, I took part in the Myers-Briggs test. This test blows out the possible number of results even more, with 16 possible personality types. There are too many to list here, but they all have cool sounding names like Commander, Protagonist, or Virtuoso. Essentially, after answering a battery of binary questions, you are assigned one of two letters in four different categories.

 

I was, apparently, an INTJ, which I immediately and continue to pronounce “integer”. This means I am Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking and Judging, each of which Mean Something. Mostly, it seems to mean that I’m at risk for attempting to take over the world as apparently most movie villains are this type. So I’ve got that going for me.

 

A couple years ago, a friend introduced me to Enneagrams, by which I mean their chosen past time was attempting to type a person and, within a few minutes of meeting someone, would start shouting seemingly random numbers at them. As party tricks go, it leaves much to be desired. Enneagrams place people on a nonagon, with two numbers between one and nine identifying their personality. For instance, you could be a 2-7, which means that you are mostly a two, with a heavy seasoning of seven. Unlike other personality tests, which tend to track your strengths, the Enneagram places weight on where you most need improvement. In other words, it tells you why you suck.

 

I am, again apparently, a 4-5, the Individualist and the Investigator. Which I immediately dubbed the Robot Detective. And what I learned is that people who take these tests earnestly really don’t like it when you start introducing yourself as a Robot Detective when other people are trying to be capital-s Serious. Which, as you may have gathered, I am not. I personally feel that personality tests can inspire fun conversations, but shouldn’t be something that workplace dynamics or your own life philosophy should be based upon. Many, many people disagree with me. And spend a lot of money for the opportunity to take these tests.

 

The three I've mentioned are not the end of it. Personality tests are big business. StrengthsQuest, 5 Love Languages, MAPP, Big Five; the list goes on. BuzzFeed has built a business out of easy to take tests that tell you what kind of grilled cheese, or what Winnie the Pooh character, you are. And whether you pay for the privilege or take it on your phone during your lunch break, all of these have about the same scientific backing as the daily horoscope. Unlike the horoscope though, many of these tests are presented as being Scientific.

 

Myers-Briggs, for example, was not developed by psychologists, but by a mother-daughter team of amateurs who had an interest in pop psychology and based their method on their personal interpretations of Jung’s archetypes – archetypes which were not backed by scientific research either. It is these two women who at the focus of The Personality Brokers, by Merve Emre. Part history book, part biography, Emre dives into the social conditions that were present between the two world wars that gave rise to the Myers-Briggs assessment (the word “test” isn’t officially used by the institute that bears the name today), and the paranoia of the post-war period that saw it become successful. In a time of Cold War mistrust, a simple test can tell you exactly who a person is? Of course that would be a hit!

 

Emre also goes on step further, and examines why they appeal to us as we take them. The fantasy of personality they can provoke. Do we answer this questions honestly, or wantonly? Are we identifying who we actually are, or who we want to be? There is no such thing as a wrong answer, and on the whole, no bad personalities. But if you could, would you rather be an Orange or a Green? Emre touches on this self-romanticism, while striking a balance between being factual and being critical. She isn’t anti-personality test, she just wants the reader to think more about what these tests tell us about ourselves, beyond what they tell us about ourselves.

 

Oh, in case you’re wondering, I’m an Owl, and a Provolone on Rye. Who knew?

 

To keep up to date with all of LSC’s latest offerings, please follow LSC on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitter, and to subscribe to our new YouTube Channel. We also encourage you to subscribe to the weekly Green Memo, and we hope you check back each and every week on this site for our latest musings on the publishing world.

 

Yours, Fictionally

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According to Wikipedia, there are over thirty holidays, observances, and traditions celebrated world wide in the month of December. Some as ancient as Shabe Yaldā and some as new as Festivus. Most of them celebrating, in some manner, the shortest day of the year, and the turn away from the Bleak Midwinter. One holiday in particular nearly lapsed into obscurity until, a century and a half ago, it was rescued by some ghosts.

 

Last year saw the release of the film the Man Who Invented Christmas, telling the story of Charles Dickens and the mutual life support his A Christmas Carol gave to both himself and a fledgling celebration that had long since been dwarfed by Boxing Day. By the beginning of the 1800s, Christmas had already had a turbulent history. The Romans had celebrated Saturnalia at this time, but didn’t have to contend with snow. As they expanded into Northern Europe, they encountered the Germanic Yule, and other “pagan” celebrations happening at the same time, and merged those traditions with their own.

 

Time, as it likes to do, moved on, and Christmas largely remained an excuse to drink and be merry, with emphasis on the drinking. The rowdier elements of the pagan traditions did not sit well with the English Puritans, and Christmas was banned in England by Oliver Cromwell in 1645. It was restored along with the monarchy a few years later, but the wind was taken out of its sails, and for the next two hundred years the celebration in the UK was a much more subdued, private affair. No decorations, no presents, no carols or fanfare.  Just a goose, if you were lucky.

 

In 1819, Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow fame) wrote an account of Christmas celebrations, which were almost certainly fabricated. Irving was a notorious liar, who is also responsible for the myth that people before Columbus thought the Earth was flat. But Irving’s idea of a seasonal gathering which brought together people of all status, to celebrate a new year and enjoy the customs of the ancients caught the imagination.

 

In 1823, Clement Moore published The Night Before Christmas in New York (with its long Germanic and Dutch heritage, as well as healthy immigrant population), fully bringing the Germanic and Nordic traditions of St. Nicholas into the Christmas story. A few years later, back in the UK, a young Queen Victoria married the German Prince Albert and with him came more of the German traditions, still heavily influenced by the ancient pagan practices. Mistletoe, Holly wreaths, candles and carols came to England with the Prince. In 1841, a tree was decorated in Windsor Castle for the first time, illustrations of which made their way across England and over the ocean, cementing the Christmas tree as the centerpiece of the holiday home.

 

For more on the history of Christmas, and how it evolved over the centuries, check out the gorgeously photographed Christmas: from solstice to Santa by Nikki Tate.

 

Then came the ghosts. The Victorians were no strangers to ghost stories; they permeated much of their literature. As the Victorian age marched on and the Scientific Revolution began to take hold, spiritualism spiked. Charles Dickens wasn’t a spiritualist, but he did think of ghosts often. Not as the white sheeted frights of horror, but as the memories of those who have passed, especially in the last year (this being the Victorian era, and death common and indiscriminant). It was his belief that there was no better time of the year to consider the lessons ghosts might teach us then in the deep of the winter, when the trees were bare and the air cold, and candles danced shadows through long nights.

 

Having suffered a series of commercial failures, Dickens was desperate for a hit. But Christmas was a long shot at best. A holiday people barely made mention of was hardly the foundation for a best seller. His publishers were nervous, but Dickens had his ghosts to guide him, and wrote his Christmas Carol not based on any religious practice but on a common human decency. That Christmas was a time for families to come together, to celebrate and rejoice in their company, and toast the year to come. Most of this was – again – largely fictional. It made for a good story but shared little in common with a reader’s actual experience.

 

It struck a chord though. Upon publication, it was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Readers saw in Dicken’s morality tale not what they had, but what they wanted and could have. Christmas as an idea exploded across the British Empire, heralded by ghostly warnings and promises. Ghosts never really took off as a Christmas staple – they lost their moral compass and became spooks over on Halloween. Thanks to Dickens though, they’ve never really left Christmas either. Each year more writers are inspired to tell their own paranormal tales - such as in the short story colletion Ghosts of Christmas Past, including the works of Neil Gaiman - usually featuring spirits seeking to put right what once went wrong.

 

This year we’ve put together two lists (40777 for fiction and 40653 for everything else) of recent and popular material the celebrate the holiday season. With more than thirty to choose from, there is surely something for everyone in the coming month. And if you’d rather skip them all, there are still roaring fires, hot cocoa, and thoughts of tropical beaches you’d rather be on to keep you warm. Whatever and however you celebrate being halfway out of the dark, if you happen to meet any ghosts along the way, mind what they tell you. They might be friendlier than they look.

 

To keep up to date with all of LSC’s latest offerings, please follow LSC on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitter. We also encourage you to subscribe to our new YouTube Channel. We also encourage you to subscribe to the weekly Green Memo, and we hope you check back each and every week on this site for our latest musings on the publishing world.

 

Yours, Fictionally

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With great power comes great responsibility. Many would recognize this as the philosophy that has driven Spider-man for the past 56 years. Equally it could apply to Spider-man’s creator, Stan Lee, who passed away last Monday at the age of 95.

 

It is no exaggeration to say that Stan Lee invented the modern superhero. While Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the architype with Superman in 1938, and Bob Kane and Bill Finger hit on a cultural icon with Batman in the following year, the early years of superhero comics were filled with pulp stories of war-time intrigue, gangsters, and simple characterization. Comics in the forties and fifties were more interested in tales of chilling horror to delight and amaze than telling complex, human stories.

 

Stan Lee changed that. Having already been a veteran of the industry by the 1960s, Lee was given a chance by the new Marvel comics to tell more complex stories. Instead of white-and-black hatted cowboy stories, Lee wanted heroes that had personalities, who suffered loss and self-doubt, and didn’t always win at the end of the day. Marvel’s heroes were modern heroes, and their masks became metaphors.

 

It is no surprise that Lee’s heroes – the rage-induced Incredible Hulk, the prosecuted mutants of the X-Men, the morally questionable Daredevil – all appeared and rose to popularity during the tumultuous time that was the 1960s. The counter culture revolution had young people questioning their parent’s straight-laced and more repressed mindsets. Unlike Superman, who was a stalwart beacon of truth, justice and the American way, Captain America was a man out of time, proud to wear his uniform but also willing to question his orders if he thought them unjust. The Civil Rights Movement and second wave feminism allowed the voiceless to rise up, and readers wanted to see themselves reflected in the comics. Lee obliged, with characters like Black Panther, and the Wasp.

 

His motivations weren’t all altruism and social responsibility. Lee was a showman, and had an eye for what would sell. He created She-Hulk – Bruce Banner’s similarly green afflicted cousin – as a response to the popularity of the Bionic Woman. His first creation for Marvel, the Fantastic Four, was a direct response to DC Comics own Justice League, and would eventually lead to the creation of Earth's Mightiest Heroes, the Avengers

 

His instinct for the limelight wasn’t always positive though. Through his monthly column Stan’ Soapbox, Lee became the face and the voice of Marvel throughout the sixties and seventies. However, the contributions and accomplishments of his frequent artist collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Dikto were minimized. It was these artists’ designs and visual storytelling that gave the comics revolution their style. Lee’s self promotion did not always win him friends, and he tied the Marvel Brand to his own.

 

Ditko – who died earlier this year – was Lee’s co-creator on Marvel’s most popular character, and the most relatable hero of the 20th century: Spider-man. Not a brilliant inventor, a billionaire playboy, a famed scientist, or an all-powerful alien; Peter Parker was just a boy. He found himself out of his element, in a world increasingly dangerous and unpredictable. He had responsibilities but struggled to keep up with them. He doubted himself. He had girl problems. Take off the mask, and he was no different than multitudes of readers picking up the comic week after week.

 

Lee left Marvel in the nineties, during a period of near bankruptcy for Marvel. Because of the nature of the industry, when Lee started working for them, he never saw any of the profits from the dozens of characters he created. But Lee had spent decades tying his name to his characters in the public mindset, and neither could ever escape the other. Lee’s cult of personality lead him to movies and television, where he pushed to have Marvel’s characters take to the screen.

 

While a painted green Lou Ferrigno won fans in the eighties, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium when the action truly left the page and jumped to the screen, and Lee went along for the ride. From the release of 2000’s X-Men to this year’s Spider-man ; Into the Spider-verse, Lee made a humourous cameo in every film based on his creations, the superhero equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock. Lee lived to see his characters go from the funny pages to Saturday morning cartoons to the company he helped put on the map being bought by Disney for $4 billion. The MCU movies featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson are among the most successful movies ever made. Not bad for a bunch of characters jumping around in their pajamas.

 

"I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers,” Lee once told the Washington Post. “And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing."

 

We’ve put together an Slist of books and movies created or inspired by Stan Lee, which you can view here.

 

To keep up to date with all of LSC’s latest offerings, please follow LSC on Facebook, on Instagram, and on Twitter. We also encourage you to subscribe to the weekly Green Memo, and we hope you check back each and every week on this site for our latest musings on the publishing world.

 

Excelsior!

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