Our A B Cs
The TALE: Tehachapi Art, Literature and Entertainment
August 17, 2019
Have you ever heard of a literary lipogram? It is a piece of writing, usually poetry, in which the author eliminates one letter from the entire writing. A most amazing lipogram was written in a novel form by Enest Vincent Wright in 1939. Where the most likely choice of Z, J, Q or X is used in elimination, Wright chose from the most difficult of letters, E, T or A, and managed to write the complete novel “Gadsby” without using the letter E. That may not mean so much to the non-writer, but to those of us who generally use all 26 letters of the alphabet quite liberally, we appreciate this effort greatly. Did a lipogram add to the story content? Probably not. But it has kept people reading and talking about this book for 80 years!
“Gadsby” is not the only novel where the alphabet figures majorly in a story. In 2001 Mark Dunn’s novel “Ella Minnow Pea” was published. It is a lipogrammatic fable that takes place on the fictional island Nollop, not found off the shores of South Carolina. The island’s name was a nod to Nevin Nollop who authored the well-worn phrase used by budding typists throughout the 1900s, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” In the olden days before keyboards large and small, students typed this sentence repeatedly, finding the alphabet placement on a manual typewriter, while building their typing speed and accuracy. And yes, authors can possess a wry sense of humor using such a sentence as the premise for their book. But I digress...
“Ella Minnow Pea” is about Ella, who finds herself trying to save her friends from an increasingly totalitarianistic island council. They ban letters of the alphabet from being used merely because they are falling off the building that houses their meetings. This is a book for word lovers. Word play is fast and furious amongst its pages. But it also contains a meaningful message concerning the freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom in general. Which is always an important reminder, no matter how it is delivered, with a minimum of alphabet letters or the whole package.
We can thank the late Sue Grafton for her alphabet titled murder mysteries. Starting with “A is for Alibi” to “Y is for Yesterday” Grafton gave us hours of reading enjoyment and intrigue. If you have not indulged or finished her books, written in a strong and sure alphabetical order, the season of Fall is coming where curling up for hours on the couch will feel mighty inviting. Sadly though, Grafton passed before she started her last novel. So Z ends up being Z is for Zero, and her alphabet will forever stand incomplete.
Writing about the alphabet is timely this week of August as children go back to school and kindergartners attend for the first time. I suggest the classic alphabet book “ABC” by Dr. Seuss for those little ones. It has a complete lineup of letters wrapped in fun and has been documented as a very helpful tool in developing young readers by simply providing a book children will pick up over and over again. Those letters and characters dancing about creates a most likely possibility of osmosis in young minds. The alphabet completely absorbed.
However, beware! There is a children’s book where the alphabet does not fair well. “Z Was Zapped” by Chris Van Allsburg is written as a 26 act play where each letter is shown caught by bad luck. This is no pretty picture book. Drawn in stark black pencil on white paper, the attacks on the letters are grim, from avalanches to being eaten alive. Yet, there are young readers who appreciate dark humor as much as silly. And they too learn their alphabet and perhaps, from the cautionary tale it is, life lessons.
Now, I’m no Ernest Vincent Wright and I have no intention of telling anyone they can or can’t use certain letters, or for that matter demand or restrict any books from their reading lists. However, I did manage to write the paragraph above omitting three letters of the alphabet. Just saying…
*Midge Lyn’dee is a fictional character used for the purpose of entertainment thought the reviews are real and sincere.