Barry Duncan has an obsession that follows him everywhere he goes. "I see street signs, restaurant menus, objects while I'm walking along, and I'm just reversing them all the time," he tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered.
Duncan is a master palindromist. He creates phrases, sentences, even passages that read the same forward and backward. He's been at it since 1981, when he was working at a bookstore in Philadelphia and stumbled onto a book of wordplay.
"I was 24 years old, so I'm sure at that point I knew what a palindrome was," Duncan says. "But when I saw palindromes on the page, I just thought: I could do that. I just felt like something was missing that I needed to do. And so I've been doing it since then."
In the beginning, Duncan's palindrome obsession wasn't much fun. For the first 10 years, he says, it drove him a little crazy. "There was a point in the early '90s where I thought I would have to be hospitalized," Duncan says. "I would go to bed thinking I was missing three letters from the beginning of a palindrome and I could work it out, and I just couldn't. Now I know better."
Duncan is constantly working out new palindromes — not just on paper, but in his head. Strolling down the street, he spots a "Don't Walk" sign. He turns the words around in his head and comes up with "Don't nod" and "Walk Law" — both palindromes. He expands "Walk Law" to "Walk, sir, I risk law." He identifies the "I" as the middle pivot point and then begins to build it out on each side. "I walk, sir. I risk law. I" leaves that last "I" dangling, so he resolves it by adding one more word: "Won't I walk, sir? I risk law. It now."
Once Duncan gets rolling, he can write some of the longest palindromes in the world. He has written palindromes for friends that are 800 words long. He fills up pages and pages of notebooks. He reads them at parties. He writes them for local businesses. But his favorite palindromes are the ones that aren't obvious — they're stealth wordplay.
"When I was in Russia in 1997, I sent an email to a friend and I gave it the subject line 'Part One: Russia is sure no trap,' " Duncan says. "The person never commented on it, so I think maybe it was never detected to be a palindrome."
In 2010, Duncan wrote a palindrome expressing his incredulity that Lost was still airing new episodes on ABC: "No, still? It's not so long? No, Lost on. Still, it's on?"
Duncan says that the secret to writing a good palindrome lies in finding its middle, its center. You have to identify "the letter on which the palindrome is going to pivot and turn," he explains.
That perfect fit isn't just about letters. Finding the word that works, or puzzling through a complex language challenge can be a tremendously rewarding experience.
"I think it's one of life's sweetest moments when we find the people or things that are right for us, or fit us, or resonate with us, or compliment us. And that's how I feel about me and reversibility," Duncan says. "I feel like once I saw it, I knew it was something that was missing. And now we've had a pretty good relationship for 30 years."
Reading Palindromes: A Casual Introduction
By Barry Duncan
If you are new to reading palindromes, here is the best advice I can give you: Read a palindrome the way you would read anything else. In other words, read it forward. If you insist on reading it forward and backward (thinking that you are being clever and sophisticated by following both ends until they meet in the middle), you may become dizzy and confused. Wait. The time will come.
Some novice readers of palindromes are under the impression that the punctuation in a palindrome must be the same in both directions. These people are misinformed. Pay them no mind.
Without too much formal training, you should be able to recognize some of the mistakes made by beginning palindromists. There is the unfortunate stylistic decision to use all capital letters in the palindrome. There is the near-fatal error of doubling in the middle, instead of letting the palindrome pivot and turn. These early efforts are often marked by the use of abbreviations, proper nouns, strange exclamations, unusual spelling and erratic punctuation. The palindromist's goal should be to produce something that is as close to everyday language as possible. Even an experienced palindromist will sometimes find it necessary to employ abbreviations and abrupt exclamations, of course, but standard usage is always preferred.
When you are finally comfortable with the idea of reversibility, it should be safe for you to read a palindrome forward and backward. In addition to being a useful mental/visual exercise, this reversing can also have practical advantages. Perhaps you suspect that the palindrome you are reading was written by an incompetent and therefore you want to make sure that it really is the same both ways? Check it. Perhaps you are completely stunned by a masterful palindrome and simply cannot believe that front and back meet in the middle? Trace away. One effective method for learning to write palindromes is to read palindromes back and forth (with a reversible eye, as it were). Keep in mind, however, that the process may remain a mystery to you even after its mystery has been revealed.
How do we determine the quality of a palindrome? Certainly, the work of an accomplished palindromist will be smoother and less balky than that of a beginner; its cadence will seem more natural. I am impressed when a palindrome contains grammatically correct sentences. While you should be careful not to judge a palindrome by its size — quick and concise is preferable to sprawling and chaotic — a big palindrome that consistently makes sense is a notable achievement. If someone is talented enough to introduce irony, humor, sarcasm or wordplay into a palindrome, that is worth admiring. And one sure sign of uncommon reversible aptitude is the ability to write on virtually any subject; it takes a peculiar combination of versatility and strength to be able to compose a palindrome on demand.
Palindrome writing is an exacting discipline, and a mastery of reversibility is not acquired overnight. If you will continue to work on your reading, and will allow us to work on our writing, I am confident that we will meet in the middle.
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