May 10



My English instruction in school was standard-issue: reading-comprehension questions that seemed to come from a hostile D.A., rules for the punctuation marks we’d been issued, dour warnings against run-on sentences.  All good to know, but it was all we knew.  Then I opened Alastair Reid’s Ounce Dice Trice.


Inside were lists of names suitable for whales.  Definitions of curious words I’d never met: tingle-airey, mumruffin, dimity.  Attempts to capture the sound of yawning or a shoelace breaking.  Words that sounded like counting from one to ten: ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim.  I was eleven years old.  The world has never been the same.


The book showed that language could do more than carry information back and forth.  Instead of a means, it could be an end in itself.  Words had alluring sounds, captivating shapes, fascinating histories.


A year later I found The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear on our shelves and disappeared into it like a Victorian explorer.  There, the Jumblies went to sea in a sieve, and lived.  Instead of conveying facts about the world, words could be the gears of machines designed solely to produce laughter.  Cool!


In high school I discovered Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue, spoken by a four-voiced chorus, a piece built entirely of place names.  (YouTube will show you what I’m talking about.)  Words could be arranged into chamber music!  This was further confirmed by a recording of Dylan Thomas’s lyrical Under Milk Wood, found in the newly opened record collection at Santa Monica Public Library.  The album photo showed the author and five other speakers sitting behind music stands that held their parts.  It was a play for voices, without costumes or sets.  I was hypnotized by it.  It’s been the seed for book after book of mine.


I began playing in the same sandbox these creators had.  I kept lists of names and odd words.  I wrote limericks à la Lear.  I wrote my first multi-voice poem at 18, the forerunner to Joyful Noise.


Years later, I volunteered for the stage crew on a production of Annie.  I’d never been part of a play and was amazed at the backstage view.  The large cast was far exceeded by the scores of others lending their skills.  Prop managers scoured thrift stores and called in favors from other companies to gather the objects needed.  Costumes were sewn by a small army of seamstresses.  Sets were built and revised.  Three different dogs rotated through the role of Sandy, each with a different handler.  Those of us on stage crew learned a complicated choreography for moving sets and props that the audience never saw.  The effort was immense, virtually none of it paid, with no purpose other than telling a story to the community.  In our money-mad culture, it was a marvel to behold.


About that time, I chanced upon the startling news that the French writer Georges Perec had composed a novel without the letter e.  The literary group he was part of specialized in such outrageous constraints.  Suddenly, I saw one for myself.  I’d write a play about verbal explorers living and dead who’d done things with language that Noah Webster had never dreamed of, not for riches but simply for the joy in the quest.  My constraint: there would be twenty-six, one surname per alphabet letter.


That requirement added pleasurable challenge as well as years to the writing.  Perec was my p and Alastair Reid my r.  My t was Ernst Toch, whose Geographical Fugue was performed in full by the cast of four.  I discovered language hackers and hijinx that beggared belief: retelling the classics via vanity license plates, subtractors who removed words from works to reveal utterly different works within, Raymond Queneau’s mix-and-match sonnets whose complete variations would take one million centuries to read.


That play is now a book, Alphamaniacs: Builders of 26 Wonders of the Word.  There’s no longer one surname per letter, allowing an even stronger cast.  It’s still a sideshow in book form, presided over by a master of ceremonies.  But entertainment wasn’t my only goal.  The book is my two-pronged defense of the arts.


For those who can’t see how arts spending benefits society, I’d point to the traits exemplified by my subjects: curiosity, divergent thinking, jaw-dropping persistence.  Fill-in-the-blank questions are easy; the arts are hard.  They constantly confront you with open-ended problems that have no right answer–the sort that face us in the environment, justice, technology, politics.  Our future depends on the imaginers among us.


A less practical but no less powerful defense is on display throughout.  Fiddling with language far into the night probably won’t improve the roof over your head or bulk up your bank account.  The same is true for laughing, dancing, learning an instrument, or dabbing makeup on the orphans in Annie.  We have a word for a life with a fabulous roof but without beauty and joy.  The word is empty.  The alphamaniacs remind us that play and curiosity and challenge are vital, not frills, and that a life without them is lifeless.


Play on!


Paul Fleischman is the author of many books for children and young adults, including Seedfolks, the Newbery Medal winner Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, Weslandia, and Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines. He lives in Monterey, California.