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Posts Tagged ‘books’

11 JANUARY, 2013

H. P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Aspiring Writers, 1920

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“A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.”

“If there is a magic in story writing,” admonished Henry Miller, “and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.” And yet, famous advice on writing abounds.

In January of 1920, iconic science fiction and fantasy author H. P. Lovecraft published a short guide titled “Literary Composition” for United Amateur Press Association — a grassroots literary education collective that dubbed itself an “exponent of amateur journalism,” an early version of today’s blogs and citizen journalism. Found in the anthology Writings in the United Amateur (free download; public library), the essay offers aspiring writers technical tips and big-picture wisdom on the art and craft of the written word.

Much like Jennifer Egan did nearly a century later, Lovecraft stresses the vital osmosis between reading and writing:

No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules. … All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.

Lovecraft notes the equal importance of non-reading as intellectual choice:

It is also important that cheaper types of reading, if hitherto followed, be dropped. Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style. If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible. An excellent habit to cultivate is the analytical study of the King James Bible. For simple yet rich and forceful English, this masterly production is hard to equal; and even though its Saxon vocabulary and poetic rhythm be unsuited to general composition, it is an invaluable model for writers on quaint or imaginative themes.

He advocates for cultivating a love of uncommon words:

One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it. The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony. In reading, the novice should note the varied mode of expression practiced by good authors, and should keep in his mind for future use the many appropriate synonymes he encounters. Never should an unfamiliar word be passed over without elucidation; for with a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.

But in enlarging the vocabulary, we must beware lest we misuse our new possessions. We must remember that there are fine distinctions betwixt apparently similar words, and that language must ever be selected with intelligent care.

Like Thoreau, Lovecraft finds in nature a literary muse:

For the purpose of securing epithets at once accurate and felicitous, the young author should familiarize himself thoroughly with the general aspect and phenomena of Nature, as well as with the ideas and associations which these things produce in the human mind.

He offers a meditation on fact and fiction, with a cautionary note about narrative sequence:

In fictional narration, verisimilitude is absolutely essential. A story must be consistent and must contain no event glaringly removed from the usual order of things, unless that event is the main incident, and is approached with the most careful preparation. In real life, odd and erratic things do occasionally happen; but they are out of place in an ordinary story, since fiction is a sort of idealization of the average. Development should be as lifelike as possible, and a weak, trickling conclusion should be assiduously avoided. The end of a story must be stronger rather than weaker than the beginning; since it is the end which contains the denouement or culmination, and which will leave the strongest impression upon the reader. It would not be amiss for the novice to write the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be. In this way he will be able to concentrate his freshest mental vigour upon the most important part of his narrative; and if any changes be later found needful, they can easily be made. In no part of a narrative should a grand or emphatic thought or passage be followed by one of tame or prosaic quality. This is anticlimax, and exposes a writer to much ridicule.

Lovecraft enumerates the twenty most common mistakes of young authors, “aside from those gross violations of syntax which ordinary education corrects,” and offers a common cure for all:

  1. Erroneous plurals of nouns, as vallies or echos.
  2. Barbarous compound nouns, as viewpoint or upkeep.
  3. Want of correspondence in number between noun and verb where the two are widely separated or the construction involved.
  4. Ambiguous use of pronouns.
  5. Erroneous case of pronouns, as whom for who, and vice versa, or phrases like “between you and I,” or “Let we who are loyal, act promptly.”
  6. Erroneous use of shall and will, and of other auxiliary verbs.
  7. Use of intransitive for transitive verbs, as “he was graduated from college,” or vice versa, as “he ingratiated with the tyrant.”
  8. Use of nouns for verbs, as “he motored to Boston,” or “he voiced a protest.”
  9. Errors in moods and tenses of verbs, as “If I was he, I should do otherwise,” or “He said the earth was round.”
  10. The split infinitive, as “to calmly glide.”
  11. The erroneous perfect infinitive, as “Last week I expected to have met you.”
  12. False verb-forms, as “I pled with him.”
  13. Use of like for as, as “I strive to write like Pope wrote.”
  14. Misuse of prepositions, as “The gift was bestowed to an unworthy object,” or “The gold was divided between the five men.”
  15. The superfluous conjunction, as “I wish for you to do this.”
  16. Use of words in wrong senses, as “The book greatly intrigued me,” “Leave me take this,” “He was obsessed with the idea,” or “He is a meticulous writer.”
  17. Erroneous use of non-Anglicised foreign forms, as “a strange phenomena,” or “two stratas of clouds.”
  18. Use of false or unauthorized words, as burglarize or supremest.
  19. Errors of taste, including vulgarisms, pompousness, repetition, vagueness, ambiguousness, colloquialism, bathos, bombast, pleonasm, tautology, harshness, mixed metaphor, and every sort of rhetorical awkwardness.
  20. Errors of spelling and punctuation, and confusion of forms such as that which leads many to place an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its.

Of all blunders, there is hardly one which might not be avoided through diligent study of simple textbooks on grammar and rhetoric, intelligent perusal of the best authors, and care and forethought in composition. Almost no excuse exists for their persistent occurrence, since the sources of correction are so numerous and so available.

For more timeless wisdom on writing, see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter of advice, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 guidelines for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, Margaret Atwood’s 10 practical tips, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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11 JANUARY, 2013

How People Earn and Use Money: Vibrant Vintage Illustrations from 1968

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“Before spending money a person should be sure he is doing the right thing.”

With the fiscal cliff towering over the mainstream media, one has to wonder how America cultivated its relationship with money and the economic mindset that got us where we are today. In 1968, at the peak of “the century of the self” and the consumerism of the Mad Men era, while Alan Watts was busy bringing Eastern philosophy to the West and trying to convince Americans to seek purpose beyond money, a primary school supplement titled How People Earn and Use Money (UK; public library) — from the same Social Studies Program series that gave us How People Live in the Suburbs and How We Use Maps and Globes — set out to explain to children the basics of economic theory and its implications for everyday life.

But far from a mere educational tool, the vibrant vintage primary-color illustrations by artist Jack Faulkner and words by Muriel Stanek capture both the era’s characteristic biases and the naiveté of an overly simplistic view of the market economy — from the gender stereotypes dictating what types of jobs are appropriate for men and women to the blind faith in banks that seems in retrospect a caricature of the recent global recession to the tragic conditioning that work for money alone is the only kind of work.

(The woman speaking with the male credit manager, of course, isn’t there to get a loan for a new business venture, but for a new fridge and stove.)

How People Earn and Use Money, sadly long out of print, was part of a Basic Understanding series of primary school supplements, also including such out-of-print treasures as How People Earn and Use Money, How Farms Help Us, and How Our Government Helps Us.

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10 JANUARY, 2013

Iconic Designer Massimo Vignelli on Intellectual Elegance, Education, and Love

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“Intellectual elegance [is] a mind that is continually refining itself with education and knowledge. Intellectual elegance is the opposite of intellectual vulgarity.”

Besides the iconic New York City subway map, for which he remains best-known, the great Massimo Vignelli has worked on some of the twentieth century’s most memorable packaging, identity, and public signage for clients like IBM, American Airlines, and Bloomingdale’s, and has earned some of the creative industry’s most prestigious awards, including the AIGA Gold Medal (1983), the New York State Governor’s Award for Excellence (1993), the National Arts Club Gold Medal for Design (2004), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum (2005). But nowhere do Vignelli’s eloquence, wisdom, earnestness, and sensitivity shine more brilliantly than in How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (public library) — the same fantastic anthology of Debbie Millman‘s interviews with creative icons that gave us Paula Scher’s slot machine metaphor for creativity.

A champion of “intellectual elegance,” Vignelli explains his lifelong crusade against vulgarity:

MV: When I talk about elegance, I mean intellectual elegance. Elegance of the mind.

DM: How would you define elegance of the mind?

MV: I would define intellectual elegance as a mind that is continually refining itself with education and knowledge. Intellectual elegance is the opposite of intellectual vulgarity. We all know vulgarity very well. Elegance is the opposite.

DM: I have to ask: What would you consider to be vulgar?

MV: Vulgarity is something underneath culture and education. Anything that is not refined.

[…]

DM: Why do you think people are fascinated by vulgarity?

MV: Because it is easier to absorb. Elegance is about education and refinement, and it is a by-product of a continual search for the best and for the sublime. And it is a continuous refusal of indulging in anything that is vulgar. It’s a job.

He offers an articulate definition of what design is really about:

It is to decrease the amount of vulgarity in the world. It is to make the world a better place to be. But everything is relative. There is a certain amount of latitude between what is good, what is elegant, and what is refined that can take many, many manifestations. It doesn’t have to be one style. We’re not talking about style, we’re talking about quality. Style is tangible, quality is intangible. I am talking about creating for everything that surrounds us a level of quality.

Like Steve Jobs famously did, Vignelli has profound disdain for focus groups and, like Millman herself, advocates for not letting limited imagination shrink the boundaries of the possible:

I don’t believe in market research. I don’t believe in marketing the way it’s done in America. The American way of marketing is to answer to the wants of the customer instead of answering to the needs of the customer. The purpose of marketing should be to find needs — not to find wants.

People do not know what they want. They barely know what they need, but they definitely do not know what they want. They’re conditioned by the limited imagination of what is possible. … Most of the time, focus groups are built on the pressure of ignorance.

Vignelli adds to history’s most beautiful definitions of love:

MV: Love is a cake that comes in layers. The top layer is the most appealing one. This is the one you see first. Then you cut into it and you see many different layers. They’re all beautiful, but some are sweeter than others.

How do I define love? I define it as a very intense passion on the one hand, and a very steady level on the other. The first layer, the one of passion, is the most troublesome. God, it’s a pain.

DM: Why?

MV: Because the more you love, the more jealous you get. You become jealous of everything, the air around the person, the people, a look, even the way they look at something. Then there is the extreme pleasure of writing about love, as well. This is fascinating to me. The layer of correspondence — and the anxiety to receive answers. That is great.

Finally you come to the physical layer. The emotion of receiving and conveying pleasure is sensational. It’s unbelievable how your entire body becomes a messenger. Your fingers, lips, eyes, smells. Your whole body becomes involved.

Then there is the layer of suffering. Distance, remoteness, no presence, horror. The suffering of not seeing who you want to see, and not being with whom you love. This is another painful aspect of love. We are talking about pain. All these layers define love. I think that is why it’s so great and so extremely complex.

Like other great creators, including Paula Scher, William Gibson, and Henry Miller, Vignelli recognizes the combinatorial quality of creative work as a sum-total of one’s lived experience:

One of the great advantages of being so concentrated on your work is that it is all there is. Everything I do comes into this and enriches me. Everything, even every book I read, enriches me.

On the life of purpose:

DM: Do you think that there’s a common denominator to people who can make a great contribution? Do you think that there’s something that–

MV: Unites them? Yes. What in Greek is called sympathy, the synchronization of pathos. You feel this incredible level of connection with these people. To a certain extent, it is equally comparable to love.

On the poetics of New York, echoing Anaïs Nin:

New York is a fabulous city. It’s like a magnet. I can’t leave anymore. There is nothing that can compare to New York. And it is not even beautiful. There are hundreds, thousands of other cities that are much more beautiful. But there is only one New York.

On design vs. art:

DM: How do you generally start a project?

MV: By listening as much as I can. I am convinced the solution is always in the problem. You could do a design that you like, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Design must solve a problem. Then, the design is exciting. But I find it extremely difficult. This is why I respect artists. Without a problem, I don’t exist. Artists are lucky; they can work by themselves. They don’t need a problem.

Three years after the publication of How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, Vignelli joined Millman on her inimitable Design Matters podcast, which was recently awarded the People’s Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards. The interview is well worth a listen in its entirety, but here are some of the most stimulating bits:

On the designer’s responsibility to elevate people rather than lower them down, echoing E. B. White on the responsibility of the writer:

Marketing people look down to people. Instead, a good designer or a good, responsible client looks up to people. … One has to believe in the redeeming factor of education, in the redeeming factor of not spreading vulgarity. … Commercial things are done by people that want to exploit other people and couldn’t care less about quality. We are interested [in] quality. … Nobility is our life — isn’t that great?

On combating vulgarity with intellectual refinement and education as a filtration tool:

Knowledge brings you sifting ability.

On print vs. digital books:

Good things will have permanence. Good books will probably stay as a printed form.

A superb definition of “junk”:

Something which is trendy, which is not lasting value, something which is just phony, something which is just insensitive in the details, something which is not elegant, something which is not strong…

On the three pillars of the future of design education:

A designer without a sense of history is worth nothing.

Two years later, in 2012, Millman interviewed Vignelli in this beautiful short film directed by the late and great Hillman Curtis:

Good design is ubiquitous and forever. Bad design is localized and temporary, ephemeral.

You can subscribe to Design Matters on iTunes, download The Vignelli Canon as a free PDF or grab a proper print beauty, and treat yourself to How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer.

IMAGE: Painting of Massimo Vignelli by Jessica Helfand via Design Observer

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