Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘literature’

09 FEBRUARY, 2012

A Wordle Anatomy of Gary Stheyngart Blurbs

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Mapping a catalogue of promiscuous praise.

Gary Shteyngart might have authored a few books and earned himself a Moby Award for best book trailer, but his true claim to fame seems to be a much more intricate form of literary art: the book blurb. So prolific is his blurbery that Brooklyn-based writer Jacob Silverman decided to have some fun with it and launched The Collected Blurbs of Gary Shteyngart, “a catalogue of promiscuous praise.”

Naturally, I decided to in turn have my own quick-and-dirty fun with it, collected the text from all the blurbs to date, and dropped them into Wordle for a good old-fashioned weighted typographic footprint of Shteyngart’s veneration vocabulary:

Apparently, he likes his books funny, patriotic, and written by people named Jennifer or Adam.

Next, perhaps a bored geek might find some joy in putting together an algorithmic Gary Shteyngart Blurb Generator, in the style of the Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator?

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16 JANUARY, 2012

The Letters of Greats: From Ernest Hemingway to Georgia O’Keeffe, a Glimpse of Famous Correspondence

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Lessons in love via post, or what Hemingway’s soft side has to do with Maurice Sendak’s early genius.

What is it about letters that speaks to us so powerfully, intrigues us so seductively? Letters in general have a way of revealing as much about the subject matter as they do about the author and the recipient, but when they offer slivers of the lives, loves, and longings of those we hold in high regard, they hold a whole different kind of appeal. Today, we turn to five chronicles of famous correspondence that shed new light on the hearts and minds of cultural icons.

DEAR GENIUS

As a hopeless lover of children’s books, I have tremendous respect and infinite gratitude for Ursula Nordstrom (1910-1988), who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973 and who is often considered the single most influential and visionary champion of innovation in children’s book publishing in the past century, reining in a new era of children’s literature free from the approval shackles of morality tales and, instead, full of room for children’s emotions and imaginations to roam. Known for trusting her intuition above all else, she edited — and, some would say, co-envisioned — such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1951), Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are (1963), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964), among many others.

In Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, Leonard Marcus opens up the HarperCollins archives to reveal Nordstrom’s remarkable character, with its rare blend of razor-sharp intellect and boundless creativity, through her correspondence. These letters — witty, thought-provoking, hopelessly entertaining, unapologetically brilliant — not only offer a priceless time-capsule of the collaborative work behind such iconic books, but they also bespeak Nordstrom’s incredible work ethic that appears at once superhuman and underpinned by profound humanity.

Marcus laments:

Nordstrom belongs to the last generation of devoted letter writers. She took immense pleasure in the act, often writing to authors when there was no obvious necessity of doing so, except for the all-important necessity of keeping a ‘channel open’ to them. Although she naturally did much of her editorial work with local authors in person or by phone, she also sent long, funny, perceptive letters to those with whom she had just spoken by telephone or just that day met for lunch. Time and again, she simply could not resist the temptation to write.”

The portrait on the cover comes from none other than Maurice Sendak himself, whose own correspondence with Nordstrom makes several cameos throughout the book. From a letter to a 27-year-old Sendak dated February 21, 1955, which captures in equal measure Nordstrom’s grit, gut, and exceptional graciousness:

Dear Maurice:

I’ve wanted to write you a note and tell you over the ‘phone that your new ideas for the ending of Kenny’s Window seem wonderful to me, and I’m sure it’s going to be a beautiful book. Keep working on it and when you have all the chapters together, you and I can go over it word for word, and get down to brass tacks, you should forgive the originality of my prose style. But the main thing is: thanks for everything I am sure you are doing to the book. The pages you showed me the other day in the Vanderbilt made me very very very happy.

As for your color pictures for the Krauss book — words are no good whatsoever. There are a few peaks in an editor’s life, and seeing those pictures of yours has been a peak of mine. They are indescribably lovely and absolutely perfect and — well, pure in the best sense.”

Thanks, Molly.

MY FARAWAY ONE

There’s something relentlessly alluring about the voyeurism of other people’s letters to begin with, but make them love letters and it’s a whole different level of mesmerism. Such is the case of My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933, the product of an ambitious digitization project by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, a fine addition to these 7 favorite digitization projects in the humanities.

This exceptional volume gathers 650 meticulously selected and annotated letters exchanged between one of the most prominent couples in art history, photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and legendary artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), who over the course of their 30-year romance exchanged more than 5,000 letters — roughly 25,000 pages — on everything from the rich detail of their daily lives to the breathless angels and demons of their passion.

Culled by editor Sarah Greenough, these missives — sometimes sweet (“Dearest Duck”), sometimes steamy (“the sensuousness of you touching the sensuousness of me”), always profoundly heartfelt (“I love you, Dearest One, if I am capable of love”) — reveal a rare glimpse of the tender humanity behind the cultural icons and, along the way, offer a richer understanding of their creative process as artists.

Photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz kissing at Lake George, 1929

Letter from Georgia O'Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz on letterhead 'Los Gallos, Taos New Mexico,' May 14, 1929

From one of O’Keefe’s spicy letters, which seem to somehow mirror the fluid, light urgency of her floral paintings:

Dearest — my body is simply crazy with wanting you — If you don’t come tomorrow — I don’t see how I can wait for you — I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours — the kisses — the hotness — the wetness — all melting together — the being held so tight that it hurts — the strangle and the struggle.”

And from Stieglitz, as O’Keeffe became his photographic muse:

— How I wanted to photograph you — the hands — the mouth — & eyes — & the enveloped in black body — the touch of white — & the throat — “

(As a compulsive dasher myself — sometimes to a painful degree — I found their excessive use of dashes both comforting and charming.)

Letters from Stieglitz to O'Keeffe, November 2-4, 1916

Letters from Stieglitz to O'Keeffe, November 8-10, 1916

How much we have in common. — Traits. — Both turn everything we touch into something really living — & amusing — for ourselves. — Both can laugh — really laugh — even at our heartaches… 300 years you want to live!! — I wish I could give you that as a gift — “

Perhaps most poetic of all is that the couple’s romance, captured in the 600 stirring pages of My Faraway One, embodies those highest ideals of being not merely lovers but also each other’s finest muses, greatest fans and most constructive critics — which makes it as much an invaluable piece of art history as it is a personal yet universal fragment of human aspiration.

Originally featured last October.

YOUNG HEMINGWAY’S LETTERS

After spending a decade sifting through Ernest Hemingway’s correspondence, Penn State professor Sandra Spanier collaborated with Kent State University’s Robert W. Trogdon to curate this first in what will be a series of at least 16 volumes. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922, one of the 11 best biographies and memoirs of 2011, exposes a young Hemingway different, richer, more tender than the machismo-encrusted persona we’ve come to know through his published works. Though Hemingway had articulated to his wife in the 1950s that he didn’t want his correspondence published, his son, Patrick Hemingway, says these letters could dispel the myth of the writer as a tortured figure and distorted soul, a pop-culture image of his father he feels doesn’t tell a complete and honest story.

My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway’s life than any of his biographers to date […] [My father] was not a tragic figure. He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person.” ~ Patrick Hemingway

The letters — lively, quirky, full of doodles and delightfully unusual spellings — cover everything from Hemingway’s childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, to his adventures as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in WWI to the heartbreak of his romance with a Red Cross nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky and his eventual marriage to Hadley Richardson.

From lovers to rivals to his mother, the recipients of the letters each seem to get a different piece of Hemingway, custom-tailored for them not in the hypocritical way of an inauthentic social chameleon but in the way great writers know the heart, mind, and language of their reader. The letters thus become not only a tender homage to this unknown Hemingway, revealing new insights into his creative process along the way, but also a bow before the lost art of letter-writing itself.

Originally featured last October.

STEINBECK: A LIFE IN LETTERS

Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968) might be best-known as the author of East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, but he was also a prolific letter-writer. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters constructs an alternative biography of the iconic author through some 850 of his most thoughtful, witty, honest, opinionated, vulnerable, and revealing letters to family, friends, his editor, and a circle of equally well-known and influential public figures.

Among his correspondence is this beautiful response to his eldest son Thom’s 1958 letter, in which the teenage boy confesses to have fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. Steinbeck’s words of wisdom — tender, optimistic, timeless, infinitely sagacious — should be etched onto the heart and mind of every living, breathing human being.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,

Fa

Originally featured last week.

FLOATING WORLDS

Between September 1968 and October 1969, Edward Gorey — mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton — set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer. Over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.

This year, Neumeyer opened up the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art. Though neither a biography of Gorey nor a memoir by Neumeyer, it’s a delightful and revealing blend of both, full of intellectual banter and magnificent illustrations, and is also both among 2011’s best art and design books and best biographies and memoirs.

In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer

Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.

There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:

This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

Originally featured, with more wonderful illustrations, last September.

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10 JANUARY, 2012

Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses: 18 Rants by Mark Twain

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How to commit 114 out of 115 possible violations of literary art in less than a single page.

On the heels of yesterday’s New Year’s resolution to read more and write better channeled through a reading list of 9 essential books on reading and writing comes Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences — an epic, exquisite rant by Mark Twain, listing eighteen rules of fiction violated in popular writer James Fenimore Cooper’s final tale, The Deerslayer. So peeved was Twain by critics’ acclaim of the story that he unpacked it with meticulous, delightfully spiteful attention to distasteful detail, his fury culminating in one passage where “in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115.”

It was written in 1895, the same year as this amusingly appalling list of don’ts for female cyclists.

Take it away, Mark:

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Twain concludes:

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”

The entire essay is very much worth a read, a curious Frankensteining of Twain’s signature wit and his earnest annoyance. It’s available as a free Kindle book (that’s $0.00) from Amazon and downloadable in several formats from Project Gutenberg.

To avoid these offences, and many more, pay heed to Mark Twain’s and other literary icons’ words of wisdom in Advice to Writers.

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09 JANUARY, 2012

9 Books on Reading and Writing

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Dancing with the absurdity of life, or what symbolism has to do with the osmosis of trash and treasure.

Hardly anything does one’s mental, spiritual, and creative health more good than resolving to read more and write better. Today’s reading list addresses these parallel aspirations. And since the number of books written about reading and writing likely far exceeds the reading capacity of a single human lifetime, this omnibus couldn’t be — shouldn’t be — an exhaustive list. It is, instead, a collection of timeless texts bound to radically improve your relationship with the written word, from whichever side of the equation you approach it.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

If anyone can make grammar fun, it’s Maira KalmanThe Elements of Style Illustrated marries Kalman’s signature whimsy with Strunk and White’s indispensable style guide to create an instant classic.

The original Elements of Style was published in 1919 in-house at Cornell University for teaching use and reprinted in 1959 to become cultural canon, and Kalman’s inimitable version is one of our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

On a related unmissable note, let the Elements of Style Rap make your day.

BIRD BY BIRD

Anne Lamott might be best known as a nonfiction writer, but Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life affirms her as a formidable modern philosopher as well. The 1994 classic is as much a practical guide to the writer’s life as it is a profound wisdom-trove on the life of the heart and mind, with insight on everything from overcoming self-doubt to navigating the osmotic balance of intuition and rationality.

On the itch of writing, Lamott banters:

We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.”

And on the grit that commits mind to paper, she counsels:

You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.”

On why we read and write:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

ON WRITING

Hailed as one of the most successful writers alive, Stephen King has hundreds of books under his belt, most of which bestsellers. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is part master-blueprint, part memoir, part meditation on the writer’s life, filtered through the lens of his near-fatal car crash and the newfound understanding of living it precipitated.

Though some have voiced skepticism regarding the capacity of a “popular writer” to be taken seriously as an oracle of “good writing,” Roger Ebert put it best: “After finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery.”

A few favorites from the book follow.

On open-endedness:

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

On feedback:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

On the lifeblood of writing:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

On the relationship between reading and writing, which I wholeheartedly second:

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING

In Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, Ray Bradbury — acclaimed author, dystopian novelist, hater of symbolism — shares not only his wisdom and experience in writing, but also his contagious excitement for the craft. Blending practical how-to’s on everything from finding your voice to negotiating with editors with snippets and glimpses of the author’s own career, the book is at once a manual and a manifesto, imbued with equal parts insight and enthusiasm.

On the key to creativity (cue in Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk):

That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.”

On what to read:

In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world.”

On art and truth:

We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.”

On signal and noise, with an embedded message that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life”:

Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.”

THE WAR OF ART

Steven Pressfield is a prolific champion of the creative process, with all its trials and tribulations, best-known for The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles — a personal defense system of sorts against our greatest forms of resistance. “Resistance” with a capital R, that is.

Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.”

Also of note: Pressfield’s recent companion guide to the text, Do The Work, one of our 5 favorite manifestos for the creative life.

ADVICE TO WRITERS

Advice to Writers is “a compendium of quotes, anecdotes, and writerly wisdom from a dazzling array of literary lights,” originally published in 1999. From how to find a good agent to what makes characters compelling, it spans the entire spectrum of the aspirational and the utilitarian, covering grammar, genres, material, money, plot, plagiarism, and, of course, encouragement.

Here are a few favorites:

Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Don’t ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out.” ~ Charles Bukowski

Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.” ~ Muriel Rukeyser

Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created — nothing.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” ~ Saul Bellow

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” ~ T. S. Eliot

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ Stephen King

Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.” ~ Ralph Ellison

Listen, then make up your own mind.” ~ Gay Talese

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” ~ Mark Twain

Originally featured, with more quotes, last December.

HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE

Humbly titled yet incredibly ambitious, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish isn’t merely a prescriptive guide to the craft of writing — it’s also a rich and layered exploration of language as an evolving cultural organism. It belongs not on the shelf of your home library but in your brain’s most deep-seated amphibian sensemaking underbelly — an insightful, rigorous manual on the art of language that may just be one of the best such tools since The Elements of Style.

In fact, Fish offers an intelligent rebuttal of some of the cultish mandates of Strunk and White’s bible, most notably the blind insistence on brevity and sentence minimalism. To argue his case, he picks apart some of history’s most powerful sentences, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Lewis Carroll, using a kind of literary forensics to excavate the essence of beautiful language. As Adam Haslett eloquently observes in his excellent FT review:

[Pared-down prose] is a real loss, not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to ‘omit needless words’ (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.”

To dissect the Tetris-like quality of words, Fish examines the following Anthony Burgess sentence from his 1968 novel Enderby Outside:

‘And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.’

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nested in the places ‘ordained’ for them — ‘ordained’ is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of syntactic structures — they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another. They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine.”

Originally featured here last January.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY ON WRITING

Ernest Hemingway famously maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing. Yet, over the course of his career, he frequently wrote about writing in his novels and short stories, his letters to editors, friends, critics, and lovers, in interviews, and even in articles specifically commissioned on the subject. In Ernest Hemingway on Writing, editor Larry W. Phillips culls the finest, wittiest, most profound of Hemingway’s reflections on writing, the nature of the writer, and the elements of the writer’s life. The slender volume packs insights on everything from work habits to mood management to discipline to knowing what to leave out, delivered with Hemingway’s unmistakable personality and his signature zeal for integrity.

On what makes a great book:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”

On symbolism:

There isn’t any symbolysm [sic]. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

(Cue in other famous writers on symbolism, from Jack Kerouac to Ray Bradbury to Ayn Rand.)

On the qualities of a writer:

All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.”

First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and an absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive. Try to get all these things in one person and have him come through all the influences that press on a writer. The hardest thing, because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his work done.”

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

HOW TO READ A BOOK

How to Read a Book, originally written by Mortimer Adler in 1940 and revised with Charles van Doren in 1972, is the kind of book often described as a “living classic” — “classic” because it deals with the fundamental and unchanging mesmerism of the written word, and “living” because it does so in a way that divorces this mesmerism from its hard medium, allowing the essence to evolve as our culture has evolved over the decades. From basic reading to systematic skimming and inspectional reading to speed reading, Adler’s how-to’s apply as efficiently to practical textbooks and science books as they do to poetry and fiction.

One of the book’s finest points deals with the fundamental yin-yang of how ideas travel and permeate minds — the intertwined acts of reading and writing. Marginalia — those fragments of thought and seeds of insight we scribble in the margins of a book — have a social life all their own: just ask The New York Times’ Sam Anderson, who recently shared his year’s worth of marginalia in a wonderful interactive feature. Hardly anything captures both the utilitarian necessity and creative allure of marginalia better than this excerpt from Adler’s classic:

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”

First featured here, along with a meditation on modern marginalia, in December.

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