Fun With Phonics


[Those of us who work with words have a natural affinity for wordplay.  Just as a carpenter can see a piece of fine furniture lurking in a block of maple, or a mathematician can see an elegant equation in a random jumble of numbers, so can the literary see puns and allusion hidden within the most utilitarian language. When I was employed at the Vancouver Public Library, I performed what was called collection maintenance in the Fine Arts and History Division, which meant sorting and shelving printed material by the literal truckload every day.  The potential for mental mischief was great.

Handling such a vast collection as the VPL’s millions of items was like living inside a sort of analog hypertext.  Thousands of words, images and ideas would flash across my consciousness over an eight-hour day.  Inevitably there was a surrealism to the ceaseless skimming – you had to laugh at some things and cry at others.  I came across a World War II book called People In Auschwitz and my colleague Al said, “That’s what Auschwitz was all about:  people.”  An illustrated Nazi history had a caption that read, “Hitler at the zeppelin stadium,” on which I commented, “Yeah, Hitler was a major Zeppelin fan.” Flipping through one tote of returns I learned that naturalist Henry David Thoreau, asked on his deathbed if he had made his peace with God, replied “I was not aware that we had quarreled,” and that a collection of letters from the Kennedy dynasty relayed the family news that “we saw Jack off at the airport.”  Ha ha; time to put the books on the shelf.

The deluge of library stuff that we loaded and unloaded became fodder for silent word-association games between us.  There was no time to set aside each history, biography, memoir or index and come up with a witty summation; the titles had to speak for themselves.  Sean, a Fine Arts employee who looked like a benign Travis Bickle, excelled at this.  He could find double- or triple- or single-entendres everywhere, and it was all I could do to keep up.  So he’d wordlessly pull out and hold up the regional magazines Up Here or Pacific Rim, the much-loved Canadiana of Roughing It in the Bush, the comic-strip compendium Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, a Frank Sinatra movie called Some Came Running, film critic Pauline Kael’s Taking It All In, the art house favourite The 400 Blows, and anything with the actress Helen Shaver, or the subtitle An Oral History, or about the British Prime Minister Bonar Law, or funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and get a snicker.  It became competitive.  Sean asked if I knew Miles Davis’s greatest record, and I replied that I’d heard it Kind of Blue.

Some nudges were almost too easy:  the seafaring narratives English Seamen or The Voyage of Semen Dezhnev in 1648, for instance, but in other cases we would have to put a strategic thumb or finger over the cover to create I Wake Up [S]creaming, William Shakespeare’s [Coriol]anus, or The [C]anals of France. This created a world of possibilities.  We quickly dispensed with the BC travel guide Hiking the [N]ass Valley, the Natalie Wood weeper Splendor in the [Gr]ass, and Douglas Coupland’s tribute to the Vancouver urban spirit, City of [Gl]ass. Then a sort of volley erupted between us on either side of the runoff table.  I tried a decorating book called Greek Style (“Has you bent over with laughter, does it?” Gordon put in), and then desperately reached for The Victorian Period, as Sean made an effortless return with Judy Garland’s The Big C[l]ock, until I shot back with another Garland classic, [M]eet Me in St. Louis.  How we laughed as they hauled us off to the sexual harassment re-education workshop.

Silly?  Sure. Juvenile?  You bet.  Tasteless?  Very often.  But such is the curse of the Gutenbergian mindset, especially when situated in a cathedral of books like the VPL.  As we sink further and further into what Marshall McLuhan saw as the post-literate world, may we continue to find those incidental pleasures and pranks afforded by the printed word for long years to] come.

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