Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘language’

13 FEBRUARY, 2012

The Bomb and the General: A Vintage Semiotic Children’s Book by Umberto Eco circa 1966

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How symbols become symbols, or what keeping atoms in harmony has to do with language acquisition.

Novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco once said that the list is the origin of culture. But his fascination with lists and organization grew out of his longtime love affair with semiotics, the study of signs and symbols as an anthropological sensemaking mechanism for the world. In bridging semiotics with literature, Eco proposed a dichotomy of “open texts,” which allow multiple interpretations, and “closed texts,” defined by a single possible interpretation. Since semiotics is so closely related to language, one of its central inquiries deals with language acquisition — when, why, and how children begin to associate objects with the words that designate those objects. Most children’s picture books, with their simple messages and unequivocal moral lessons, fall within the category of “closed texts.”

In 1966, Eco published The Bomb and the General — a children’s book that, unlike the “open texts” of his adult novels with their infinite interpretations, followed the “closed text” format of the picture book genre to deliver a cautionary tale of the Atomic Age wrapped in a clear message of peace, environmentalism, and tolerance. But what makes the project extraordinary is the parallel visual and textual narrative reinforcing the message — the beautiful abstract illustrations by Italian artist Eugenio Carmi contain recurring symbols that reiterate the story in a visceral way as the child learns to draw connections between the meaning of the images with the meaning of the words.

This particular page presents a lovely wink at Brian Cox’s The Quantum Universe, featured here earlier today:

Mom is made of atoms.
Milk is made of atoms.
Women are made of atoms.
Air is made of atoms.
Fire is made of atoms.
We are made of atoms.

The Bomb and the General is a fine addition to these little-known but fantastic children’s books by famous authors of adult literature.

via the lovely We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie; images courtesy of Ariel S. Winter

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10 FEBRUARY, 2012

E. B. White on Why Brevity Is Not the Gold Standard for Style

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“Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound.”

The Elements of Style endures as one of the most important books on writing ever published, a quintessential guide to composition and form. Though Strunk’s stern and directive tone was somewhat softened by White’s penchant for prose, the tome remains a stringent upholder of standards of brevity and succinctness as the hallmarks of linguistic excellence. But even White, it turns out, was troubled by the absolutism of such rules. Buried in Stylized, Mark Garvey’s fantastic history of the Strunk and White classic, are a handful of never-before-published letters by E. B. White to readers of the iconic style guide, which reveal a more dimensional relationship with language.

In one, predictably, White remains true to the book’s overarching ethos, reminiscent of David Ogilvy’s famous 1982 memo on writing, and makes a case for clarity:

Dear Mrs. –

[…]

There are very few thoughts or concepts that can’t be put into plain English, provided anyone truly wants to do it. But for everyone who strives for clarity and simplicity, there are three who for one reason or another prefer to draw the clouds across the sky.

Sincerely,

E. B. White

But in different letter, White nods to the other side of the coin, in what might at first appear a contradictory and out-of-character defense of richer language by the crusader of conciseness but is, at its heart, a plea for balance and context over rigid rules:

Dear Mr. –

It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.

If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your letter.

Yrs,

E. B. White

Embedded in White’s point about language I find a reflection of one of my core beliefs about life in general: that rules are excellent organizational tools and efficient reducers of cognitive load, but they are no substitute for contextual sensitivity and personal judgement.

For more gold from E. B. White’s private correspondence, escape into the highly addictive Letters of E. B. White, with a cherry-on-top foreword by the great John Updike.

* Thus begins the second sentence of one of the most famous soliloquies in Macbeth.

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03 FEBRUARY, 2012

A Brief History of The Elements of Style and What Makes It Great

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On depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness.

“I hate the guts of English grammar,” E. B White once famously proclaimed. Yet Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is among the most important and timeless books on writing. With its enduring legacy and cultish following, it has inspired countless derivatives and homages, from a magnificent edition illustrated by Maira Kalman to a rap. The book has become a legend in its own right, its story part of our modern creative mythology — but, like a good fairy tale, it brims with more curious, unlikely, even whimsical details than a mere plot summary might suggest. Those are exactly what Mark Garvey, a 20-year publishing veteran and self-professed extreme Elements of Style enthusiast, explores in Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

From how White, a former student of Strunk’s, resurrected the original text after Strunk’s death, to White’s thoughtful, stubborn, heartfelt, and often snarky correspondence with his editors and readers, including many never-before-published letters, to original interviews with some of today’s most beloved writers, including Adam Gopnik, Nicholas Baker, and Elmore Leonard, the slim but fascinating and wholehearted volume offers a rare peek inside the creative process behind one of the most iconic meta-meditations on the English language.

A large part of what made the Strunk and White collaboration so potent, it turns out, is the stark contrast between the two authors’ attitude towards the rules of language. Garvey writes:

E. B. White described Strunk’s voice on the page as being ‘in the form of sharp commands, Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his platoon,’ and it’s true, the professor seems to spend much of this time in an imperative mood: ‘Do not break sentences in two,’ ‘Use the active voice,’ ‘Omit needless words.’ It’s a natural enough idiom, considering his day job; Strunk sounds teacherly, though he’s not without humor.

White’s voice, on the other hand, is that of the writer, the practitioner of long experience whose sympathies favor the artistic side of the enterprise.

But, above all, Garvey captures the intangible essence of what makes The Elements of Style as much a subject of workshops as it is an object of worship:

True believers have always felt something more, an extra dimension that has likely been a fundamental source of the book’s success all along: As practical as it is for helping writers over common hurdles, The Elements of Style also embodies a worldview, a philosophy that, for some, is as appealing as anything either author ever managed to get down on paper. Elements of Style is a credo. And it is a book of promises — the promise that creative freedom is enabled, not hindered, by putting your faith in a few helpful rules; the promise that careful, clear thinking and writing can occasionally touch truth; the promise of depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness; and the promise that by turning away from artifice and ornamentation you will find your true voice.

Rigorously researched and infectiously narrated, Stylized is an exquisite labor of love, a love that honors one of the most quintessential paragons of creative labor in modern literary history.

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