The problem with reading, I find, is that I might learn something. And the problem with learning something is that I might be embarrassed I didn’t know it in the first place. This is not to say I think I know it all, but there are times when I think I know more than I know. Times when I shake my head and say to the book or magazine, “Give me a break. That’s impossible.” Times when I look darn silly in the glaring light of the facts.
So it was the other night, as I made my way through The Innocents Abroad and came upon this: “the rag-tag and rubbish of the city [Naples] stack themselves up, to the number of twenty or thirty, on a rickety little gocart hauled by a donkey not much bigger than a cat….” “Gocart?” says I, “there were no gocarts in 19th Century Naples.” Then I lambasted the modern-day editors who obviously took it upon themselves to tinker with Twain’s prose. To prove how misguided and presumptuous they were – and how alert and knowledgeable I am – I went directly to dictionary. com. The modern form “go-kart,” it said, was coined in 1959 and refers “kind of miniature racing car with a frame body and a two-stroke engine.” Oh, that that had been the entire entry. I was humbled long before I got there. “A small carriage for children to ride in,” was the first definition; “a small framework with casters, wheels, etc.,” the second, and “a handcart,” the third. And when did the word enter the language? 1676.
I do so hate to be wrong.
After regaining my composure, I read on, confident that one silly error was my quota for the week. But a dozen pages later, my attention was grabbed by this sentence: “At seven in the evening, with the western horizon all golden from the sunken sun, and specked with distant ships, the full moon sailing high over head, the dark blue of the sea under foot, and a strange sort of twilight affected by all these different lights and colors around us and about us, we sighted superb Stromboli.”
“That Mark Twain,” I said, “what a card.” “Stromboli” was surely intended as ethnic humor. I had visions of Twain smiling as he contemplated lines such as, “All Hail the great and benevolent Luigi the Great, by the grace of God, king of the realms of Cannoli, Calzone and Stromboli.” But as I read on, it seemed that Stromboli was not a joke, that it was the real name of a real place. Back I went to dictionary.com, and you know what? Stromboli is not only the name of an island off the coast of Sicily, it is also the name of a volcano on that island.
That was enough Twain for one night.
In the Plain Dealer the next morning, there was a story about Russian scientists in Antarctica drilling through the ice to Lake Vostok, “a pristine body of water that may hold life from the distant past and clues to the search for life on distance planets.” But that wasn’t what caught my eye. It was the fourth paragraph: “The Russian team hit the lake Sunday at a depth of 12,366 feet about 800 miles southeast of the South Pole in the central part of the continent.”
I certainly don’t want to cast aspersions at the Associated Press or its reporter, Vladimir Isachenkov, but I have always thought that there is no south of the South Pole, that once a person goes past the pole, he is heading north. I’m sure I’m right, but after striking out twice with Mark Twain, I was not about to pore over stacks of resource material to prove it. I will assume Isachenkov outsmarted himself by trying to account for the Earth’s twenty-three-and-a-half degree tilt, or maybe he thought it had something to do with true pole as opposed to the magnetic pole.
In any event, I’m right this time.