Perry Link once noticed that Chinese writers use more verbs in their sentences whereas English writers use more nouns. For example, in one passage from the 18th-century Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber,” Cao Xueqin uses 130 nouns and 166 verbs. In a similar passage from “Oliver Twist,” Charles Dickens uses 96 nouns and 38 verbs.
This observation is at the core of his New York Review of Books essay “The Mind: Less Puzzling in Chinese?” which is the first winner of this year’s Sidney Awards. I give out the awards, named for the philosopher Sidney Hook, to celebrate some of the best long-form essays of each year.
Link notes that Indo-European languages tend to use nouns even when verbs might be more appropriate. Think of the economic concept inflation. We describe it as a thing we can combat, or whip or fight. But it’s really a process.
Link takes this thought in a very philosophical direction, but it set me wondering how much our thinking is muddled because we describe actions as things. For example, we say someone has knowledge, happiness or faith (a lot of faith or a little faith, a strong faith or a weak faith); but faith, knowledge and happiness are activities, not objects.
If that last point needed underlining, go to Christian Wiman’s beautiful essay “I Will Love You in the Summertime,” in The American Scholar. As a small child, Wiman used to sneak into his parents’ room in the middle of the night and peel open their eyelids in the hopes that he could see what they were dreaming.
But the essay is mostly about the things children know, the things adults know and the process of reaching beyond everyday perception. It’s better to quote a few passages:
“People who have been away from God tend to come back by one of two ways: destitution or abundance, an overmastering sorrow or a strangely disabling joy. Either the world is not enough for the hole that has opened in you, or it is too much.”
“I suggested she pray to God. This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide), since I am not a great pray-er myself and tend to be either undermined by irony or overwhelmed by my own chaotic consciousness.”
“As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish.”
Wiman also nicely quotes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord, and you gave them to me.”
These two essays are not about the events that shook the world in 2016. I'll get to more of them in the next batch of Sidneys, but in the meantime, the most important – and best crafted – essay of the year was probably Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine” in The Atlantic. It’s a classic not only on Barack Obama’s mind and the world situation today, but also about the act of foreign policymaking.
Nathan Heller’s “Letter from Oberlin: The Big Uneasy,” in The New Yorker, captured the moral awakening (or mania) that is sweeping college campuses. That essay, too, generated an enormous amount of conversation and is worth revisiting.
I'll end this batch of Sidneys with another perception-altering essay, Charles Foster’s “In Which I Try to Become a Swift,” from Nautilus. Foster writes about swifts, a family of birds a bit like swallows.
Swifts are violent, acrobatic and ethereal. They eat 5,000 or more insects a day. When they hunt for bees they select only the stingless ones. They can select the wasp mimics from actual wasps, even while traveling 50 feet a second.
But the essay is really about Foster’s efforts to enter into the swift experience. Once while driving to a day care center, he saw a group of them exploding from some tree tops. He scrambled up a tree, where “I swayed in a fork just below the top and pushed my head out into the killing zone of the delta. I saw a tongue, squat, gray, and dry; I saw myself, pinched and saucer-eyed. … I snapped a mouthful of nymphs and spat them onto the roof of a brand-new Mercedes dropping off a child from a house 300 yards away. It was the closest I ever got.”
Foster enters into the different ways swifts experience air and time, and like all these writers, undercuts the normal way we see the world.
More winners are coming Friday. If you want essays like this all year, I have to again recommend the website The Browser, edited by Robert Cottrell, which gathers eloquence from far and wide day after day.