You’ve lived somewhere—perhaps many somewheres. Your friends or family have influenced you. You’ve probably even thought about how you like some linguistic features and want to avoid others. People have long been aware that these factors influence why different groups speak differently, but the systematic study of dialect began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as part of the same scientific movements that gave us the Linnaean catalogue of the living world and the periodic table of the elements. While some cataloguers set out with nets to study butterflies, or burned candles inside jars to distill gases, others pored over ancient scripts and compiled lists of verbs.
But what kind of net can you use to capture living language? A German dialectologist named Georg Wenker thought he had an answer: he sent out a postal survey to schoolteachers across German-speaking Europe and asked them to translate forty sentences (such as “I will slap your ears with the cooking spoon, you monkey!”) into the local vernacular. It was a wise enough idea: teachers would be guaranteed to be able to read and write, and even if Wenker didn’t know the name of every single village teacher, surely the village post office in, say, Quedlinburg, could pass on his letter to the Quedlinburg village school. But in order to make it easy for the schoolteachers to respond, Wenker didn’t provide them with any training in phonetic notation. This meant that if one teacher wrote “Affe” (monkey) and another teacher wrote “Afe” or “Aphe,” it was anyone’s guess whether they were trying to represent the same pronunciation.
One of the most radical and important ideas in the history of physics came from an unknown graduate student who wrote only one paper, got into arguments with physicists across the Atlantic as well as his own advisor, and left academia after graduating without even applying for a job as a professor. Hugh Everett’s story is one of many fascinating tales that add up to the astonishing history of quantum mechanics, the most fundamental physical theory we know of.
One evening in Rome, in the kitchen of the Italian writer Caterina Bonvicini, I expressed a desire to assemble a collection of Italian short stories translated into English. It was March of 2016, during a brief trip back to Italy. Six months before, my family and I had returned to the United States after living for three years in Rome.
My life as a reader had, by that time, taken an unexpected turn; since 2012, shortly before moving to Rome, I had chosen to read only Italian literature, mostly from the twentieth century, and to read those works exclusively in Italian, a language I had diligently studied for many years but had yet to master. I was forty-five years old, and I believed, even before this new phase began, that I was already fully formed as a reader and writer. And yet I surrendered to an inexplicable urge to distance myself, to immerse myself, and to acquire a second literary formation.
Stephen King’s protagonists have been hunted by all sorts of malevolent beings, from the demonic clown of “It” to the fiendish cowboy Randall Flagg in “The Stand.” But as scary as those supernatural bad guys can be, King’s most unsettling antagonists are human-size: the blocked writer sliding into delusions of grandeur and domestic violence, the fan possessed to the point of madness by someone else’s fiction, the bullied teenager made homicidal by the cruelty of her peers. We can see something of ourselves in these characters, and recognize in them our own capacity for evil. King’s latest novel, “The Institute,” belongs to this second category, and is as consummately honed and enthralling as the very best of his work. It has no ghosts, no vampires, no metamorphosing diabolical entities or invaders from other dimensions intent on tormenting innocent children. Innocent children are tormented in “The Institute,” but the people who do it are much like you and me.
The truth turns out to be sadder and more ambiguous than Noah could have imagined; we are never too old, Donoghue reminds us, to emerge from our childish dusks. What begins as a larky story of unlikely male bonding turns into an off-center but far richer novel about the unheralded, imperfect heroism of two women — Michael’s incarcerated mother and Noah’s long deceased one — and the way we preserve the past and prepare for the future. What is family, anyway, but an elaborate web of story and memory, stretching backward and forward to connect us through time? Whether we’re brought together by blood or circumstance, it’s the psychic inheritance that inevitably wins out, equipping us with a sense of who we are and how we might ourselves respond when life invites us to answer the call, to live with skin fully in the game.
This story needs to be told, he writes, because imperialism persists, yet “it is not obviously apparent how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess”. And it needs to be read to beat back the wilfully ignorant imperial nostalgia gaining ground in Britain and the poisonously distorted histories trafficked by Hindu nationalists in India. It needs to be read because with constitutional norms under threat in both countries, the defences seem more fragile than ever.