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19 MARCH, 2013

The Philosophy of Style: Herbert Spencer on the Economy of Attention and the Ideal Writer (1852)

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“To have a specific style is to be poor in speech.”

Today’s abundance of advice on the art and craft of writing makes the phenomenon appear a modern meta-trope of the written word. And yet it is anything but new. In his 1852 treatise The Philosophy of Style (public library; public domain), Victorian-era philosopher, scientist, and liberal political theorist Herbert Spencer sets out to create a structural framework for good composition, guided by the emergent groundswell of formalist writing. Only 32 years old at the time, he defines language as “an apparatus of symbols for the conveyance of thought” and proceeds to map out its essential machinery.

Like Alexander Graham Bell, Spencer believes that engaging with good writing on a regular basis helps one internalize the secrets of the craft:

There can be little question that good composition is far less dependent upon acquaintance with its laws, than upon practice and natural aptitude. A clear head, a quick imagination, and a sensitive ear, will go far towards making all rhetorical precepts needless. He who daily hears and reads well-framed sentences, will naturally more or less tend to use similar ones. And where there exists any mental idiosyncrasy — where there is a deficient verbal memory, or an inadequate sense of logical dependence, or but little perception of order, or a lack of constructive ingenuity; no amount of instruction will remedy the defect. Nevertheless, some practical result may be expected from a familiarity with the principles of style. The endeavour to conform to laws may tell, though slowly. And if in no other way, yet, as facilitating revision, a knowledge of the thing to be achieved — a clear idea of what constitutes a beauty, and what a blemish — cannot fail to be of service.

A scientist at heart, he proposes an empirical approach to literary dogma:

However influential the truths thus dogmatically embodied, they would be much more influential if reduced to something like scientific ordination. In this, as in other cases, conviction will be greatly strengthened when we understand the why. And we may be sure that a comprehension of the general principle from which the rules of composition result, will not only bring them home to us with greater force, but will discover to us other rules of like origin.

Like Kurt Vonnegut, Spencer recognizes that the writer ought to pity the demands placed on the reader. One of his key concepts is thus the principle of economy of attention:

On seeking for some clue to the law underlying these current maxims, we may see shadowed forth in many of them, the importance of economizing the reader’s or hearer’s attention, To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum towards which most of the rules above quoted point. … A reader or listener has at each moment but a limited amount of mental power available. To recognize and interpret the symbols presented to him, requires part of this power; to arrange and combine the images suggested requires a further part; and only that part which remains can be used for realizing the thought conveyed. Hence, the more time and attention it takes to receive and understand each sentence, the less time and attention can be given to the contained idea; and the less vividly will that idea be conceived.

One of his key aims is to liberate writing from “friction and inertia”:

Language must be regarded as a hindrance to thought, though the necessary instrument of it … Hence, carrying out the metaphor that language is the vehicle of thought, there seems reason to think that in all cases the friction and inertia of the vehicle deduct from its efficiency; and that in composition, the chief, if not the sole thing to be done, is, to reduce this friction and inertia to the smallest possible amount.

He cautions against the perilous burden the direct style — a technique that “conveys each thought into the mind step by step with little liability to error [and] gets the right thought conceived by a series of approximations” — places upon the reader’s attention, rendering it unfit for communicating complex or abstract ideas:

So long as the mind has not much to do, it may be well able to grasp all the preparatory clauses of a sentence, and to use them effectively; but if some subtlety in the argument absorb the attention — if every faculty be strained in endeavouring to catch the speaker’s or writer’s drift, it may happen that the mind, unable to carry on both processes at once, will break down, and allow the elements of the thought to lapse into confusion.

In a related aside, Spencer offers an apt aphorism:

What is bombast but a force of expression too great for the magnitude of the ideas embodied?

The same principle of economy of attention, Spencer argues, holds true of the creation of powerful imagery:

Not only in the structure of sentences, and the use of figures of speech, may economy of the recipient’s mental energy be assigned as the cause of force; but that in the choice and arrangement of the minor images, out of which some large thought is to be built up, we may trace the same condition to effect. To select from the sentiment, scene, or event described those typical elements which carry many others along with them; and so, by saying a few things but suggesting many, to abridge the description; is the secret of producing a vivid impression.

[…]

Whatever the nature of the thought to be conveyed, this skillful selection of a few particulars which imply the rest, is the key to success. In the choice of component ideas, as in the choice of expressions, the aim must be to convey the greatest quantity of thoughts with the smallest quantity of words.

Spencer uses this attention economy to admonish against saturation and advises on the proper sequence to achieve literary climax, advocating for variety:

As immediately after looking at the sun we cannot perceive the light of a fire, while by looking at the fire first and the sun afterwards we can perceive both; so, after receiving a brilliant, or weighty, or terrible thought, we cannot appreciate a less brilliant, less weighty, or less terrible one, while, by reversing the order, we can appreciate each.

[…]

The sensitiveness of the faculties must be continuously husbanded — includes much more than has been yet hinted. … We must progress from the less interesting to the more interesting; and why not only the composition as a whole, but each of its successive portions, should tend towards a climax. … [As] the easiest posture by and by becomes fatiguing, and is with pleasure exchanged for one less easy, so, the most perfectly-constructed sentences will soon weary, and relief will be given by using those of an inferior kind. … We may infer … not only that we should avoid generally combining our words in one manner, however good, or working out our figures and illustrations in one way, however telling; but that we should avoid anything like uniform adherence, even to the wider conditions of effect. … We must subordinate the component effect to the total effect.

In a worthy counterpart to Nabokov’s ideal reader, Spencer concludes by considering the ideal writer, with an implicit addition to history’s most eloquent definitions of art:

The ideal form for a poem, essay, or fiction, is that which the ideal writer would evolve spontaneously. One in whom the powers of expression fully responded to the state of feeling, would unconsciously use that variety in the mode of presenting his thoughts, which Art demands. … To have a specific style is to be poor in speech.

He ends with a proposition reminiscent of Anaïs Nin’s insistence on the importance of emotion in writing and urges:

The predominant feelings have by use trained the intellect to represent them. But while long, though unconscious, discipline has made it do this efficiently, it remains from lack of practice, incapable of doing the same for the less active feelings; and when these are excited, the usual verbal forms undergo but slight modifications. Let the powers of speech be fully developed, however — let the ability of the intellect to utter the emotions be complete; and this fixity of style will disappear. The perfect writer will express himself as Junius, when in the Junius frame of mind; when he feels as Lamb felt, will use a like familiar speech; and will fall into the ruggedness of Carlyle when in a Carlylean mood. Now he will be rhythmical and now irregular; here his language will be plain and there ornate; sometimes his sentences will be balanced and at other times unsymmetrical; for a while there will be considerable sameness, and then again great variety. His mode of expression naturally responding to his state of feeling, there will flow from his pen a composition changing to the same degree that the aspects of his subject change. He will thus without effort conform to what we have seen to be the laws of effect. And while his work presents to the reader that variety needful to prevent continuous exertion of the same faculties, it will also answer to the description of all highly organized products, both of man and of nature: it will be not a series of like parts simply placed in juxtaposition, but one whole made up of unlike parts that are mutually dependent.

Complement The Philosophy of Style with Stephen King’s militant case against adverbs, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, 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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19 MARCH, 2013

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls: Mischievous Vintage Illustrated Verses by Shel Silverstein, A. A. Milne, Lewis Carroll & Ted Hughes

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“Moral: Never stew your sister.”

In 1963, editor William Cole and beloved children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer joined forces on a little gem titled A Cat-Hater’s Handbook. The following year, the two came together in a different yet equally endearing collaboration: Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls (public library) — a charming 1964 collection of “funny, absurd, and truly ridiculous rhymes” ranging from folk limericks to anonymous poems to verses both famous and little-known by literary luminaries like Ted Hughes, Lewis Carroll, Shel Silverstein, and A. A. Milne, accompanied by Ungerer’s signature irreverent drawings.

Cole himself sets the tone with an opening rhyme:

Here in this book, collected for you,
Are hundreds of things that you never should do,
Like stewing your sister, scarring your brother,
Or disobeying your father or mother.

What follows falls somewhere between Edward Gorey’s delightfully dark alphabet and Mark Twain’s playful Advice to Little Girls.

NOTHING TO DO?
Shelley Silverstein

Nothing to do?
Nothing to do?
Put some mustard in your shoe,
Fill your pockets full of soot,
Drive a nail into your foot,
Put some sugar in your hair,
Place your toys upon the stair,
Smear some jelly on the latch,
Eat some mud and strike a match,
Draw a picture on the wall,
Roll some marbles down the hall,
Pour some ink in daddy’s cap —
Now go upstairs and take a nap.

MY BROTHER BERT
Ted Hughes

Pets are the hobby of my brother Bert.
He used to go to school with a mouse in his shirt.

His hobby it grew, as some hobbies will,
and grew, and GREW and GREW until —

Oh don’t breathe a word, pretend you haven’t heard.
A simply appalling thing has occurred —

The very thought makes me iller and iller:
Bert’s brought home a gigantic Gorilla!

If you think that’s really not such a scare,
What if it quarrels with his Grizzly Bear?

You still think you could keep your head?
What if the Lion from under the bed

And the four Ostriches that deposit
Their football eggs in his bedroom closet

And the Aardvark out of his bottom drawer
All danced out and joined in the Roar?

What if the Pangolins were to caper
Out of their nests behind the wallpaper?

With the fifty sorts of Bats
That hang on his hatstand like old hats,

And out of a shoebox the excitable Platypus
Along with the Ocelot or Jungle-Cattypus?

The Wombat, the Dingo, the Gecko, the Grampus —
How they would shake the house with their Rumpus!

Not to forget the Bandicoot
Who would certainly peer from his battered old boot.

Why it could be a dreadful day,
And what Oh what would the neighbors say!

THE GOOD LITTLE GIRL
A. A. Milne

It’s funny how often they say to me, “Jane?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
And when they have said it they say it again,
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”

I go to a party, I go out to tea,
I go to an aunt for a week at the sea
I come back from school or from playing a game;
Wherever I come from, it’s always the same:
“Well?
Have you been a good girl, Jane?”

It’s always the end of the loveliest day:
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”
I went to the Zoo, and they waited to say:
“Have you been a good girl?”
“Have you been a good girl?”

Well, what did they think that I went there to do?
And why should I want to be bad at the Zoo?
And should I be likely to say if I had?
So that’s why it’s funny of Mummy and Dad,
This asking and asking in case I was bad,
“Well?
Have you been a good girl, Jane?”

SARAH CYNTHIA SYLVIA STOUT
Shelley Silverstein

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
would not take the garbage out!
She’d boil the water
and open the cans
and scrub the pots
and scour the pans
and grate the cheese
and shell the peas
and mash the yams
and spice the hams,
and make the jams.
But though her daddy
would scream and shout,
she would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceilings:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
mouldy bread and withered greens,
olive pits and soggy beans,
cracker boxes, chicken bones,
clamshells, eggshells, stale scones,
sour milk and mashy plums,
crumbly cake and cookie crumbs.
At last the garbage piled so high
that finally it reached the sky.
And none of her friends would come to play.
And all the neighbours moved away.
And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout
said, ‘I’ll take the garbage out!’
But then, of course, it was too late.
The garbage reached beyond the state,
from Memphis to the Golden Gate.
And Sarah met an awful fate,
which I cannot right now relate
because the hour is much too late.
But, children, think of Sarah Stout
and always take the garbage out!

RICE PUDDING
A. A. Milne

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’s crying with all her might and main,
And she won’t eat her dinner—rice pudding again—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
I’ve promised her dolls and a daisy-chain,
And a book about animals—all in vain—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’?s perfectly well, and she hasn’?t a pain;
But, look at her, now she’?s beginning again!
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
I’ve promised her sweets and a ride in the train,
And I’?ve begged her to stop for a bit and explain—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
 
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’s perfectly well, and she hasn’?t a pain,
And it’?s lovely rice pudding for dinner again!—
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

THE DUCHESS’ LULLABY
Lewis Carroll

Speak roughly to your little boy,
And beat him when he sneezes:
He only does it to annoy,
Because he knows it teases.

THINK OF EIGHT NUMBERS
Shelley Silverstein

Think of eight numbers from one to nine —
That’s fine.
Now pick up the phone and dial them all —
That’s making a call.
Now wait till somebody answers,
Then shout ‘Yickety-yick!’ and hang up quick.
And sit for a while,
And have a smile,
And start all over again.

BROTHER AND SISTER
Lewis Carroll

Sister, sister, go to bed!
Go and rest your weary head.”
Thus the prudent brother said.

“Do you want a battered hide,
Or scratches to your face applied?”
Thus his sister calm replied.

“Sister, do not raise my wrath.
I’d make you into mutton broth
As easily as kill a moth”

The sister raised her beaming eye
And looked on him indignantly
And sternly answered, “Only try!”

Off to the cook he quickly ran.
“Dear Cook, please lend a frying-pan
To me as quickly as you can.”

And wherefore should I lend it you?”
“The reason, Cook, is plain to view.
I wish to make an Irish stew.”

“What meat is in that stew to go?”
“My sister’ll be the contents!”
“Oh”
“You’ll lend the pan to me, Cook?”
“No!”

Moral: Never stew your sister.

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls is an absolute treat from cover to cover.

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19 MARCH, 2013

Stress As Metaphor

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“Stress signified hardship, and endurance was needed to deal with it. Now … we ‘work’ to overcome stress; we don’t suffer it.”

Modern neuroscience has strongly suggested that optimism might benefit physical health, and researchers are now confirming that psychoemotional stress might actually trigger physical inflammation in the body. Even back in 1934, they knew that the key to mastering life was the elimination of worries. F. Scott Fitzgerald set out to immunize his daughter Scottie against stress with an itemized list of the things in life to worry and not worry about. But what, exactly, is stress — and how did we come to think of it the way we do?

In One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea (public library), Dana Becker investigates the origins of our stress metaphors:

Stress has had many different meanings over the centuries, and because of this, the way we talk about ‘stress’ now bears only a shadow of a resemblance to the way people talked about stress long ago. At one time, stress was a name for ‘what was hard and had to be endured,’ as Robert Kugelmann has noted. Stress demanded strength and fortitude. The image that was often invoked was that of a ship tossed about by the stress of bad weather, and in that image Kugelmann sees the difference between the stress of then and the stress of now. The storm-tossed ship represented something that neither challenged the forces outside it nor was wholly separate from these forces. Stress was what ‘proved the strength, power, and virtue of the ship and crew.’ It was occasional, like wintery blasts that assailed that metaphorical ship; stress signified hardship, and endurance was needed to deal with it. Now, particularly in the middle class, we ‘work’ to overcome stress; we don’t suffer it. And stress is not considered a sometime thing in contemporary Western societies; it is believed to be constant.

Much like our early metaphors for memory, which likened the mind to the recording technologies of yore, Becker traces the metaphor for stress to yesteryear’s depictions of the body as a machine and an industrial apparatus:

Early engineering gave us the ideas of stress and strain, and from these followed the metaphor of the body as a machine with a finite store of energy and with parts that life could grind down. The 1949 edition of the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary defined stress completely without reference to human beings, as the ‘action of external forces; especially to overstrain.'; Today, the definition reads like this: ‘a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tensions and may be a factor in disease causation’ and ‘a state from a stress; especially one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.’ Stress now derives from physics, where it refers to the force that can transform material in ways that cause it to change its form or to break. In our vernacular, stress can be both a cause (‘It was stress that caused his heart attack’) and effect (‘When the plane was late I was so stressed out’). But although we refer to stress as both a force outside the person and an inner state, recently it is the inner state that has been getting the primary emphasis.

This inward reorientation of the stress metaphor, Becker argues, is largely the result of the rising monoculture of liberal individualism, which places individual freedom and self-actualization at the heart of what it means to be human, all the while preserving and honoring the fluid self and negating the myth of fixed personality:

The ‘self’ has become something we can think and talk about — something we can even remake, if necessary. But individualism or no, the self is not separate from social expectations and norms; it can’t be considered apart from the way it is talked about and judged, as British psychologist Nikolas Rose has pointed out. Many of the events in our lives (marriage, unemployment, combat) are open to judgments about how we have coped with or adjusted to them, and these judgements are steeped in a psychological language that has slipped its middle-class moorings to become the currency of our time. … [At] other times in our history, when the stress concept didn’t exist, we couldn’t experience ourselves in the way that stress both describes and delimits.

In the rest of One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, Becker, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College, goes on to argue that the concept of stress has become inflated to a deleterious degree over the past 40 years, critiquing our cultural tendency to approach stress management and the preservation of sanity as a matter of perpetual bandaging of symptoms rather than a deeper concern with understanding and healing the underlying causes.

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