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This context comes from a part of Stephen King's book "The Shining" in which Wendy, Jack's wife, speaks to him about Danny, their son. She thinks Danny isn't eating enough lately and spending too much time trying to teach himself how to read (which she thinks is to please them). The following text is Jack's answer to this claim.

"They taper off" he said vaguely. "I think I read that in Spock. He'll be using two forks again by the time he's seven."

Wikipedia says:

Spock was the first pediatrician to study psychoanalysis to try to understand children's needs and family dynamics

The phrase "I read that in Spock" is weird to me. I wouldn't say I read that in King or Dostoevsky. I would say "I read that in one of the King's books or Dostoevsky's". Initially I thought it might be a magazine named after him, in which case the sentence would make perfect sense. Also, there are no books of his titled with his name only. Is this a mistake, informal speech, or some kind of linguistic invention of King's, for which he's known, after all?

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    You might not say it, but many people would! It's quite normal to use the name of an author, particularly a very well-known one, to mean 'the works of' that author. Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 15:18
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    I wouldn't say I read that in King, but I have no problem saying I read something in Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky, or Spock. I think the first 3 are "licensed" by the fact that we're accustomed to treating the works of great literary figures as "reference texts". Unquestionably that's why I'm happy to use the construction with Spock, Masters and Johnson, Stephen Pinker, Dawkins,... (those are all cases where the writer is primarily engaged in trying to teach the readers something). Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 15:41
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    It's an example of metonymy - specifically in this case, using author's name to mean the works of that author. Which only seems to work well with "teaching" texts (in the case of important literary figures, they're effectively "teaching" the reader characteristics of great literature). Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 15:48
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    This is especially true of textbooks. They're often referred to by author than by title since the titles are often un-memorable. If I talk about "Grey and Meyer", other electrical engineers generally know exactly what book I mean.
    – The Photon
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 18:43
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    @Kate Bunting I agree. Especially since Dr. Spock is only known for one book, "Baby and Child Care", which is still in print.
    – Wastrel
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 12:46

4 Answers 4

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Such expressions are very common. For example, one might say "I've read Shakesepeare extensively." The person means that he or she has read Shakespeare's works, not the author himself. This is an example of metonymy.

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    @Lambie I think that I made it clear that it was neither "a mistake" nor "some kind of linguistic invention of King's", and then I addressed what it actually was. And this answer has been accepted, so I assume that it satisfies OP. Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 1:01
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    I'm sorry but to say that "I read x in [name of author]" is not ,metonymy. It is not a figure of speech. It is a reference to the work of an author. And "I've read Shakespeare extensively." is a very different phrase from the one the OP is asking about. So many upvotes are perplexing....
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 13:55
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    @Lambie According to one dictionary "read in" is a literal phrase that means to "read in the works of an author". The figurative use is expressed by the idiom "to read between the lines" or the literal act of inferring. See idioms.thefreedictionary.com/read+in. That being said there's a difference between "read in the works of Spock" and "read in Spock". Spock is clearly NOT a piece of writing per the definition. It is, however, the name of the author that labels the piece. As such to refer to something by a part is, indeed, metonymy. Since you're a thinker, you'd be interested in...
    – J D
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 18:01
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    I agree with this answer and disagree with Lambie to soem extent. I think this is an example of metonymy, the name of the author being substituted for the author's works. Whether it is or not, it is indeed a very common and quite natural. It is most often used of non-fiction works, but in literary criticism at least it is used of fiction: "The theme of the 'man alone' is important in Forrester, and the same theme appears in Westlake." Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 18:34
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    @Lambie you've got it reversed. The name of the author is "the name of something closely associated with" and the "thing or concept" is the the works of that author.
    – mbrig
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 0:01
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The grammar is fine, as others have answered. I’ll add that it’s especially common to cite works by author’s last name in academic papers, and the character Jack Torrance is a (fired) prep-school teacher who likely told his students to cite their sources this way in their essays. You might already know this, but there’s a reference to Postwar U.S. pop culture that might be obscure today.

This “Spock” is Benjamin Spock, a famous pediatrician and author at the time The Shining was written. He was usually called “Dr. Spock” and in 1977, was more famous than the character from Star Trek, a show that had been canceled back in the ’60s and not yet revived as a movie, even if it weren’t clear from context who they meant. As late as 1994, Patrick Stewart, the lead actor of TNG, did a joke on Saturday Night Live about how he knew a lot more about the original series than everyone thought, like how there were two doctors on the Enterprise, Doctor McCoy and Doctor Spock. Dr. Benjamin Spock’s best-known book, Baby and Child Care, was written in 1946 and sold more than fifty million copies

The background here was that he usually told parents to let their kids do whatever they want, and they’ll turn out fine. Thirty years later, when The Shining was written, its influence had already peaked and there was a backlash to it, and to the permissive culture he exemplified. Jack Torrance, the character who says this, is also the kind of person who’d start out trying to follow Dr. Spock’s advice, but by this point we already know that he doesn’t stick to his good intentions. We’ve seen him lose his temper and break his son’s arm, and make a whole string of mistakes that ruin everything for his family. So what he’s saying is not really reassuring at all.

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    For me that 2nd para is it. The OP knows Dr. Spock was a pediatrician, but doesn't know his book was that famous. Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 5:29
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    Start Trek was canceled in 1968 or 9 but it was in syndication continually in most US markets until the 1990s (when TNG came out) and its characters remained extremely well known in pop culture. Having been born after ST was canceled I was still much more aware of Mr. Spock than Dr. Spock as a child.
    – The Photon
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 16:25
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    I've thought for decades that Dr. Spock is what caused Baby Boomers to become the Me Generation.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 9, 2023 at 19:21
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Stephen King sentence:

"I think I read that in Spock. He'll be using two forks again by the time he's seven."

That means: in Spock's work.

When referring to the work of famous intellectuals or in academic papers, we often just use: in Spock, in [last name of the person]. Usually, this is about authors who write non-fiction and not about playwrights or novelists or poets.

Spock wrote a "ton" of books.

See for yourselves: Books by Dr. Benjamin Spock

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    In this case I don't think it refers to Spock's entire body of work, just the one book he's most famous for. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 21:55
  • @MarkRansom If you can provide better wording, please feel free to do so. But in + author's name does not refer to a particular book even if Spock was famous for his. It means in his work, whatever that may be.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 22:30
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    I wasn't disagreeing with you or arguing with your wording, just pointing out that this is a special case that might differ from the way you'd use "Shakesepeare" for example. Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 22:44
  • I don't think the distinction between an author like Spock who is known for just one book, and an author like Shakespeare who is known for many works, makes any difference here. A sentence like "The question is 'to be or not to be' - I read that in Shakespeare" makes perfect sense to me. @MarkRansom Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 0:19
  • @DawoodibnKareem It does not matter how much an author has written. One book could be enough for the expression.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 0:32
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"I think I read that in Spock. He'll be using two forks again by the time he's seven."

In this particular case it is an elliptical reference to a particular book known to both the speaker and person listening to them: "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" by Dr. Benjamin Spock or, potentially at least, another work by the same author about child care.

Amongst parents in the time when it was at the height of its popularity, "to (have) read something in Spock" meant to have read it their copy of his child care book. In my personal experience, the book achieved such popularity that "to read something in Spock" became a set phrase that meant to (have) read it in said child care book. This meaning was then commonly understood even you didn't know the exact book title, had never read it yourself, and/or weren't even a parent.

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  • in plus the name of an author is not elliptical.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 0:32
  • Yes, exactly this. I couldn't remember the title of the book, but have often heard it referred to just as "Spock" or sometimes as "Dr Spock". Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 12:53
  • ... indeed, I don't think I've ever heard it referred to by title, rather than by author. Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 13:18

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