Learning a new language, past the age of ten at least, is something like doing a major, complicated leggo construction, strange words popping out of the background noise, seeming to fit with some, but not other, words; groups of words begin to be attached to actions and wishes, but clumsily: say these three words and a drink appears in the hand, those seven and a hand extends to point the way.  It takes a child something like three years to do the magic tricks with language. As adults, when we enter a different language space than our own and try to listen, try to speak, we begin to feel despair: it will never come! We’ve been at this for three weeks! We are running out of time!

We know there are wonderful things in the air — stories told, songs composed,  histories and philosophies written. Some have entered into our own culture, at least by reputation.  Now we are here, in the language of their origin, and feeling baffled. How do we get deeper? Dante is more than a street name, Boccaccio more than a bar.

How to get even a shadow of  a national sensibility before we have (if ever we have) the language tools to do it?  How to move beyond treating a country as a large window-shopping opportunity and enter deeper, not only into “their” culture but into our own as well?  We depend on others: translators and scholars, those who have worked hard and often long, to understand, and to pass on what they have understood to others.

italian-short-introFor a month-long trip to Italy I picked up a slender volume from the fine Oxford Press series “Very Short Introductions,” In this case, ” Italian Literature: A Very Short Introduction.  Besides Dante, who?  Petrarch, Boccaccio, yes.  Who more?

Peter Hainsworth, of Oxford University, and David Robey of Reading University, co-authors of the Oxford Companion to Italian Literature, have given us a place to start.  Although 128 pages isn’t much for 800 years we get a sense of the span of thought and time. Names we have heard, titles we may have read begin to come together, related by language, proximity, shared problems, shared inheritance.

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