Labyrinths and lexicons

Danish. In my eighth entry for Weekendavisens lexicon, I discuss Salmonsens Konversationsleksikon, a legendary Danish encyclopedia that has passed through my family for generations. During World War I, the encyclopedia was printed with a blank page under the heading “Europe”; readers were sent a map of the continent when its borders were settled at the end of the war. I use this story to reflect on the coming of climate change: will all maps now become fluid again as the seas begin to rise?

“Konversationsleksikon” (“The Conversational Encyclopedia”), Weekendavisen (2 September 2022). Link.

A theory of the dogear

Danish. In my seventh entry for Weekendavisen‘s lexicon, I discuss the surprisingly vitriolic debate about dogears and annotations. As a messy reader myself, I tend to leave my books tattered and bescribbled, and I argued that the fierce resistance I encounter is rooted in the double status of books: they are treated as both auratic objets d’art and as an interchangeable reproductions. Further, I argue that all writing and reading is, in fact, shaped by constant, small-scale violence.

“Æselører” (“Dogears”), Weekendavisen (3 June 2022). Link.

Winners and losers

Danish. In my sixth entry for Weekendavisen‘s lexicon, I discuss the word “winning” and the strangely central role it played during four years of American politics. The extent to which an exclusive focus on winning is politically counterproductive is underscored by the fact that Trump was replaced by a president, Biden, whose political narrative centered on the very opposite: the transformative power of loss.

“Winning,” Weekendavisen (5 May 2022). Link.

Forgetting to forget

Danish. In my fifth entry for Weekendavisen’s lexicon, I discuss the vexing problem of forgetting: any attempt to forget tends to call the unwanted memory all the more readily to mind. Kant, for example, dismissed his long-standing manservant Lampe, and then wrote a self-defeating memorandum to himself: “Lampe must be forgotten!” Through the examples of Caligula, Barbra Streisand, The Little Prince, and The Raven, I remind myself that the only way to forget is to forget that you wanted to forget, and accept time’s gift as it comes.

“Glemsel” (“Forgetting”), Weekendavisen (14 January 2022). Link.

The ghost of ages past

Danish. In my fourth entry for Weekendavisen’s lexicon, I discuss the strange phenomenon of the Zeitgeist—the inexplicable but undeniable feeling that each period of cultural history is characterized by a certain similarity. The feeling may be illusory and ill-defined, but it is powerful nonetheless, reminding us that we are like birds in flock—part of an enormous movement that we can neither fully comprehend nor control when we are in it. Our life is shaped by the ghostly presence of historical change.

“Zeitgeist,” Weekendavisen (24 October 2021).

The runes and the rock

Danish. In my third entry for Weekendavisen’s lexicon, I tell the strange tale of the Runamo cliff, which was for centuries thought to contain an ancient inscription written in an unknown runic alphabet. In 1841, Finnur Magnússon produced an 800-page report on the Runamo inscription, in which he claimed to have finally deciphered it, offering a translation of the text. But just a few years later, the runes were revealed to be nothing but random cracks in the rockface.

“Runamo,” Weekendavisen (6 September 2021). Link.

Yay to language

Danish. In my second entry for Weekendavisen’s lexicon, I discuss the Danish word jo, which all Danes knows how to use, but which almost no one would be able to explain. Like yes and yay in Shakespeare’s English, Danish has different words for replying to a question depending on how it was framed. This is just one example of the great mystery of grammar—that native language users can easily follow rules that they would struggle to articulate. I muse on this fundamental sense of dispossession in relation to language, and, by extension, to culture.

“Jo” (“Yes”), Weekendavisen (7 July 2021). Link.

B is for House

Danish. In my first entry for Weekendavisen’s new lexicon, this short essay discusses the home that hides within our words. The twenty-two signs that make up the earliest known alphabet all began as drawings of objects commonly found in Middle Eastern households three thousand years ago. I discuss the homey story inside our signs, starting with B for bēt, “house,” and ending with a surprising plot twist: T, the sign for signs.

“Bēt,” Weekendavisen (14 May 2021). Link.