Barry Duncan, master palindromist


Even before actually meeting Duncan, I’d been told about his palindromes. It was early 2009, and I’d just taken a job with Harvard University Press. When I first heard him described as a “master palindromist,” I imagined, briefly, some sort of governing body with an esoteric ranking structure, doling out titles like “grandmaster” in chess. But no. For Duncan the title is self-proclaimed. “When I say I’m a master palindromist, there are two answers for what that means,” he explained. “One is that it means, when it comes to palindrome-writing, I know what I’m doing. The other, slightly longer, slightly more combative answer is that it means you shouldn’t confuse me with any of those garden-variety, ‘Madam I’m Adam’ hacks who couldn’t paint my shadow.” His speech often has a theatrical quality, slowed and emphasized toward the ends of sentences. You learn fairly quickly that he has a tendency to repeat himself. Not the careless repetition of telling you the same thing twice, but the practiced, verbatim repetition of entire anecdotes. And so, when he explains what it means to be a “master palindromist,” and it’s the only time that I see his hackles raised, I can tell that it’s a practiced response, a performed aggravation at the nerve of those who doubt. “I mean, I don’t know what to say. I gave myself the title ‘master palindromist,’ but I’m the one inventing the terminology, and making the rules, so I might as well be giving out titles as well.”

more from Gregory Kornbluh at The Believer here.