Perhaps you have a hobby that you never mention to anyone. Perhaps you fear that others might find it a little—what is the best term for it?—creepy.
Dr. Boli has a hobby like that. He collects hands.
Not just any hands. They have to be librarians’ hands, and Dr. Boli collects them from Google Books.
The scanning of thousands upon thousands of books is necessarily done in haste, and with a broad tolerance for error. Usually the librarian, or deputy sub-under-librarian, charged with the scanning is careful; but accidents do happen, and fingers are photographed.
Some of the images are wonderfully artistic—surreal and suggestive—like this blurred hand captured in the act of retreating from the camera. This image tells a whole story, rich with metaphor, about the half-seen truths of other people’s lives, the things we glimpse only occasionally and very briefly before the veil of conventional behavior falls over them again.
More often, though, what we see is just a finger or two in the corner of the image, often in vivid color, because librarians wear brightly colored finger shields when they scan old books, and apparently Google’s algorithms trigger full-color mode when they detect color content in the image:
There seems to be another algorithm that attempts to blur out these straying fingers, with different levels of success, as we see here, where the thumb is clearly visible but the fingers have been clumsily obscured:
Every once in a while, though, we get a magnificent full-page, full-color hand:
These are the rare moments of discovery that make Dr. Boli think life is worth the trouble after all.
Last month we spent some time trying to find the most misspelled word in the English language. After much effort by many contributors (to whom Dr. Boli is suitably grateful), we came to the tentative conclusion that the most misspelled word might be the contraction “you’re,” which is very often spelled “your.”
Our survey is slightly skewed, however, by the nature of the Internet itself. Though the Internet is indeed a democratic institution, where anyone can say anything, it is nevertheless true that a disproportionate amount of the writing on the Internet comes from either professional writers or amateurs who write regularly—bloggers, for instance. This is, in fact, merely a tautology: more of the writing on the Internet comes from people who write more. Such people, merely by exercising their writing ability so often, are bound to be better spellers than the general public, most of whom seldom write anything if they can help it.
Where, then, shall we find a good representation of the spelling habits of the general public?
The obvious answer is Craigslist. Here people who normally would not write if they could help it are motivated to write by greed or simple necessity. And we can take a general survey of Craigslist users’ spelling habits very easily, because the search engine is very simpleminded: it does not attempt to work around our misspellings the way Google does.
So we search for the common phrase “If you’re interested” in the Pittsburgh section of Craigslist, and here is what we find:
“if you’re interested”: 514 postings
“if your interested”: 625 postings
The misspelling is more frequent than the correct spelling in a representative sample of the general population. It should be noted, by the way, that Pittsburgh’s largest industry is higher education.
So are Pittsburghers unusually illiterate? Let us look at Mobile:
“if you’re interested”: 100 postings
“if your interested”: 185 postings
“if you’re interested”: 979 postings
“if your interested”: 1083 postings
“if you’re interested”: 268 postings
“if your interested”: 345 postings
“if you’re interested”: 478 postings
“if your interested”: 405 postings
“if you’re interested”: 925 postings
“if your interested”: 868 postings
“if you’re interested”: 770 postings
“if your interested”: 660 postings
It would seem, therefore, that the misspelling and the correct spelling of “you’re” are almost evenly balanced wherever we look, and that if anything the advantage goes to the misspelling.
Do we learn anything useful from this observation, other than that despair is a reasonable response to any detailed observation of human behavior?
Perhaps not. But the next time you talk to a lexicographer who insists on “description, not prescription,” and scoffs at the idea that the educated, rather than the general public, ought to set the standard for English usage, challenge him to revise his dictionary to include “your” as the correct spelling of the contraction for “you are,” with “you’re” as an obsolescent variant. See if he is true to his principles.
Dear Dr. Boil: Is there anything written that is beyond parody? If there is, how would you know that it’s not just in poor taste? If it is beyond parody, what can you do to recover from your exposure? —Sincerely, Stumped in Steubenville.
Dear Sir or Madam: It goes without saying that parody is beyond parody, unless it is very bad parody, in which case the single joke in the metaparody will be that the parody is not funny, and that sort of joke wears thin quickly. Indeed, most kinds of humor or comedy are immune to parody for the same reason.
Parody thrives on the serious, the well-intentioned, and the self-important. Whenever a piece of writing shows that the writer had a higher opinion of it than readers do, it cries out for parody. And that is almost always the case: few indeed are the works of literature whose authors have not had a higher opinion of them than their readers had.
Of serious works, then, there are few that are beyond parody. But such works do exist, and they are invariably the works that are their own best parodies. The works of Amanda McKittrick Ros are beyond parody, for example, because no parody could ever hope to equal the sheer unlikeliness of the original.
But what other works of serious writing are beyond parody? Surely Dr. Boli’s readers will have some opinions, and together we can compile a useful list. Readers should be warned, however, not to include Dan Brown on the list. It has been conclusively proved that Dan Brown is not beyond parody.
As for the rest of your question, taste that is merely poor is always subject to parody. It is only the egregiously awful that places itself beyond parody, and the best way to recover from exposure to it is to eat chocolate.