Luxuriating in Language

Studio 360

I had the good fortune to hear the outstanding Irish writers John Banville and Colum McCann a few days ago, when they did a reading together at New York's 92nd Street Y. Banville won the Man Booker prize in 2005 for The Sea and McCann won last year's National Book Award for Let The Great World Spin.

Both are a pleasure to listen to, certainly for their lilting Irish accents and their humor, but not only for that. I closed my eyes as each was reading and heard poetry in their prose. What is it about the Irish? I mused, thinking back to my Irish great-grandmother, who could make a request for tea sound like a sonnet.

During the Q&A I got an answer. 'English doesn't feel like our first language,' said Banville of Irish writers. 'That's fruitful for us because we examine every word. We become drunk with language.'

That's as good an explanation as I've heard. Even if both men grew up speaking English, their culture was steeped in Irish language, and they were always straddling both worlds.

I've kept Banville's comment with me since then, as I try to listen to the English around me as though it weren't my first language. It's the difference between unthinkingly slugging down a glass of water, and really noticing the curve of the glass it's in, the way the light hits it, and its temperature on my tongue. Here's to really noticing, and to getting drunk on language.

- Cary Barbor


Banville talks about his compulsion to read and write books:

McCann discusses getting the experience he needed to write good stories:

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.