Category: Non-fiction

Reader’s Block

So I recently ran into my first wall of the year in terms of this reading project.  I’m not exactly sure why – late last week I was plugging along at a good clip, and managing to read half of this book in an afternoon/evening.  Then, I crashed.  Part of it was the book, which I had a hard time getting into (not sure how I managed to plow through the first half so quickly).  Another part was a number of distractions, including, but not limited to, March Madness.  Perhaps now that my team flamed out in spectacular fashion, I can get back into the rhythm.

At any rate, my latest read was Northrop Frye’s classic The Great Code: The Bible and Literature.  I had been wanting to read it for some time, and though it skirts dangerously close to my field of study (thus nearly breaking the rules of this little project), my co-blogger gave me a dispensation to read it.  I kind of wish she hadn’t.  It’s not that the book isn’t good or insightful – it is, after all, a classic.  It’s just that, for whatever reason, I couldn’t get into it.

In the book Frye attempts to show how the Bible can be read as a unity, not on the basis of religious belief, but in terms of literature.  The Bible, he argues, is a myth – not in the pejorative sense of something that didn’t really happen (though he happens to believe that many of the stylized accounts are embellished to some degree), but in the sense of a continuous narrative with beginning and end.  Much of the book is devoted to analyzing the prominent images and metaphors of the Bible, and though I found it somewhat dry, Frye is a perceptive reader, showing how themes are constantly recapitulated and reframed throughout Scripture.  He also argues that the scriptural story follows a repetitive U-shaped pattern (I would perhaps describe it as a sine curve, hearkening back to my geeky days as an engineer) of alternating rises and falls.  This pattern appears both on the macro level (humanity loses the tree and water of life in the garden in Genesis and regains them in the Book of Revelation) and on the micro level (Israel’s story is a continuous cycle of these rises and falls).

There is much more to the argument than this, and I’m sure it would merit a closer reading, but as I said, for whatever reason, I had a hard time paying close attention to it.  Despite this dryness, Frye did manage to get into a quotation file I’m keeping of my favorite passages from the books I’m reading this year: “[O]ne should doubtless keep an open mind about them, though an open mind, to be sure, should be open at both ends, like the foodpipe, and have a capacity for excretion as well as intake.”  Perhaps the book was worth reading just for that line.  Well, here’s hoping the next read goes a bit more quickly.

Twenty-one down, (at least) thirty-one to go.


An angry Ocean

I picked up The Wave by Susan Casey the day after the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami hit.I had ordered the book almost two months ago to be put on hold (it was apparently very popular) and I got notice that day that it was in– oh the strange irony of it all.  Now, having grown up in Los Angeles, I know earthquakes pretty well. There is nothing more rude or scary as being sound asleep when a big quake hits (in my case the Northridge quake) and you are thrown out of bed by the shaking and therefore are barely awake as you try to crawl your way across the bedroom floor while the walls heave at you. I remember thinking “this might be it” and I crouched in a ball on the floor– the noise of a quake is terrific– you never knew your house could groan that way and still remain standing. A friend was spending the night and I remember her screaming as stuff came crashing off the walls, my parents yelling from down the hall, the neighbor’s dog howling, and the deep angry growl of the earth. I was silent, huddled on the floor with a stuffed animal over my head.  I know earthquakes well, so I really feel for those in Japan– I know the terror that is a quake– but the idea of a huge Tsunami is something else. It is beyond my imagination.

As it turns out, The Wave is not really about Tsunamis per say– it is about giant rogue waves- chiefly the kind that destroy ships in the middle of the ocean, and the kind that surfers ride while looking for the ultimate high. The author, Susan Casey, travelled the world, seeking out wave scientists, mariners, and surfers in order to learn more about giant waves, which as it turns out, are more common than we think they are.

Rogue waves have long been a part of shipping lore. With an astonishing regularity, large ships sink (at about a rate of 1-2 a week- and yeah you never hear about it unless it is a ferry carrying a lot of people or something of that ilk) and more often than not, they sink and leave behind no survivors. A few ships survive and report that monster rogue waves arose from the oceans (often in a storm or rough seas) and took them out. However, since it is hard to measure such waves, they are often never really recorded. Its sorta like a Bigfoot sighting. People say they see him but there are no pictures. Big waves are like that too. And we are talking BIG waves- 100 footers.

So Casey travels the world in search of the waves and the people who have experienced/studied them. But the heart of the book turns out to be her experiences with Big wave surfers, a small tribe of (mostly) men who defy the ocean to ride the monster waves. This tribe is led by the famous Laird Hamilton, Big Wave surfer extraordinaire. Casey documents the surfers who surf Mavericks, Todos Santos, Ghost Tree, Jaws, and the awesome, mythical, Egypt. (These are surfing spots in Hawaii and California if you don’t know your surfing breaks.)  Hamilton acts as her guide, and the tribe of big wave surfers open up their world to her with amazing hospitality, good humor, knowledge and grace. As it turns out, about 2/3s of the book focuses on this, and frankly I think Casey should have simply just focused on writing a book on Big Wave surfing and surfers– because essentially that is the meat of this book.

Casey documents the new fronts in wave science, but she shines in dealing with the surfers and the way they approach 50-100 foot waves. For them it is a spiritual experience, something that humbles you before God and the ocean, and Casey captures that nicely. The basic line in Casey’s book is that the ocean is an angry, unknowable place, and that while man thinks he can conquer it, he cannot. The ocean gives life, and it destroys life (as we saw in Japan last week) and we cannot control it. The book overall, was an interesting read– especially the parts about Big Wave surfing, but it was a bit uneven. Like I said before, the author should have simply focused on the surfers– because I think in the end she fell in love with them more than the Big waves.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

A woman’s cells, her family and a reporter…

Today’s book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I heard about this book through various media outlets last year and heard the author being interviewed on NPR. It seemed (at the time) like an interesting work so I added it to my list for my year of books. When I finally got around to reading it this last week, what I discovered was an astonishing story.

Skloot focuses on a woman named Henrietta Lacks– a poor African-American woman who died of an invasive form of cervical cancer– but whose cancerous cells were removed for scientific research before her death by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. (Without her consent to be used for research purposes– something that was not uncommon in the early 1950s.)  The cells were unusual in that they continued to live in laboratory conditions and kept making copies of themselves. Those cells would become the basis for biomedical testing for decades, and would contribute to research on polio, AIDS, HPV, and cancer (among other things.) Without these cells, many major scientific breakthroughs would have not happened. But nobody told Henrietta about this. No one told her family, and no one thought about the implications, or even the ethics of taking an African-American woman’s cells and making money off their use while her own descendants continued to struggle with severe medical and financial problems (and that is only one aspect of a multifaceted ethical dilemma.)

The book contains multiple storylines to tell the main story. There is the story of Henrietta, her illness and a death. Then there is the story of her cells and the medical miracles that they helped bring about. Then there is the story of the Lacks family and their suffering– and of how Skloot worked for years to win their trust and friendship so that she could tell the most complete story possible. Somehow Skloot manages to weave all these threads together and tell a compelling story that brings out the humanity of Henrietta and her family, while also explaining the difficult and dense scientific side of Henrietta’s story.

I couldn’t put this book down.  First of all, Skloot’s storytelling is phenomenal. She seamlessly interweaves so many different aspects of the story, and manages to remain evenhanded. Her work is careful, knowing that Lacks’s family distrusted all the “white people” who were trying to make a profit off their mother’s cells. And she is honest– this was not an easy book to write– she faced so many roadblocks, yet somehow she pulls everything together and manages to tell Henrietta’s story. By following the family’s wishes to not “pretty up” the book she tells a raw story about the family’s past and how in the present, they have come to grips with that past.

There is so much to say about this book, but I hardly know where to begin. All I have to say is this: read the book, and be a witness to what happened to Henrietta Lacks. That is what her family wanted in the publishing of this book. They wanted people to know her story, to know that she was a person, and for people to know how her cells changed science. They wanted people to think about the ethical dilemma that scientific research on tissues (that were once part of actual people– and usually taken from the poorest minorities without their consent) represents and for people to realize that such research can have long-lasting effects on the families of those who were researched.

Read it and realize that Henrietta’s story is not just a scientific story but a very human story.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Not At Home

I hit a bit of reading ennui these past two weeks, and I seemed too stuck to get out of it. It all started when I picked up Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life in the hopes of having a nice light read (this all started about two weeks ago.) It became anything but- more of a tedious slog.

To be fair to Mr. Bryson, I tend to love his books. I found both A Walk In the Woods and In a Sunburned Country both wonderful and hysterical.  I loved his random, slightly loopy style, and often when reading the books I would laugh out loud. This is why I chose At Home for this moment–I felt the need for something light and refreshing. The book itself wasn’t terrible, and at times it reads quite well and recovers some of Bryson’s usual humor and fun, but as a whole it was a big letdown. I think this is because I came into it with high expectations for humor, and also different expectations as to what the book would actually be about. Both were dashed in the process, and because of this my reading slogged along, badly. I had trouble finishing the book. I even emailed with Joseph to ask what to do about it. He kindly suggested I just not finish it and move on to another book, which was tempting, but I found myself with this psychological burden. I had to finish the book– just so I could get past it.

So the premise of Bryson’s book is to use a house (specifically his, an old rectory in England) as a gateway into looking into people’s private lives. Okay– I thought this sounded good. The book is broken down into chapters by room– The Hall, the kitchen, the bedrooms, etc… and in each chapter he gives a sort of  exposition on something related to the room (in the case of the Kitchen, he talks about the spice trade– in the case of bedroom he address both diseases and sex– in the case of the nursery, child mortality– etc). Most of his research centers on British homes of a considerable size (meaning comfortably middle-class and up— he’s not talking about crofter’s cottages here) with an occasional foray over to American great houses (Monticello, Mount Vernon, etc.) Along the way you get a jumbled history of everything, including toilets, cosmetics, brickworks, greenhouses, if it’s in a house, it is here.

Parts of the book are quite interesting and entertaining. The section on the Hall for example, was interesting. Bryson points out that it used to be that the hall was basically a house– everyone lived there, slept there, ate there- etc- few people had their own bedrooms in the medieval period– only the rich. So you would bed down in your Hall, with your servants, and dogs and whatever else- it was usually filthy and stank, but that is how you lived.  And when you think about it, the Hall existed in America in a humbler form– the log cabin (one big room- although Americans tended not to live with their livestock– just a guard dog or pet cat.)  I felt that in that chapter I learned something interesting and true to the form of the general book. The problem is that Bryson does not stay true to  form. In some of the other chapters like “The Drawing Room” he discusses architectural history– fine– but what about the Drawing room? What did people do in their drawing rooms? How did they furnish them? How come we do not use them anymore? In the section the Cellar he addresses building materials– what does that have to do with Cellars? Yes, we get how cellars kept food cool, but an exposition on perhaps the problems of preserving food, refrigeration, or oh heck, people’s use of cellars in America to escape tornadoes would have been more relevant.

I think what annoyed me so much about this book is not that it was badly written (it isn’t.) Or that it is a bit random (I am used to Bryson’s randomness– I like it)– it was that it was really inconsistent and I got no sense of what the main theme of the book was. For instance–in A Walk in the Woods Bryson, among other things, makes a plea for the saving of America’s natural wild lands. It is a love-letter to the wonders that make up the Appalachian Trail. In this book I get no sense of an overall purpose, and I think that is why this book seems so rudderless and hard for me to get through. It also was nowhere as funny as his other books.

All of this, of course, is just my personal opinion. I am a big Bryson fan, but I think this book is just not up to par with the others that I have read. But I did finish it and now I am moving onwards in the land of reading..

Ciao for now,

Bookish C


You never realized that Punctuation was so important…

The middle of the semester is, along with the last few weeks, the toughest time of the year for a college professor. This is mainly because it is the time of year when we get swamped–no, not swamped—drowned in work to grade and evaluate. At times this can be both a joyful and painful endeavor. You always hope that one’s students learn what you want them to in class, and often they do, but sometimes, even a paper with beautiful ideas can be scarred by an errant apostrophe.

That brings us to today’s book Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss.  Now I am not a grammar stickler. In fact I was one of those kids who was never taught grammar. Frankly, I learned more grammar in my Spanish and German language classes as an adult than I did in the English language. Some years ago I asked my mom why they no longer taught grammar in school and she said “Because it is now expected that you will pick it up.” Right. I wasn’t taught it and then I got to college and graduate school, and all those little rules I did not learn as a child–well guess what– I had to memorize them. And I cursed the fact that no one had bothered to teach me the details when I was younger.

Truss’s book is about the intricacies of  punctuation. She is, clearly, a grammar-lover. Well, lover may not be strong enough a word. Perhaps enforcer is better.  Truss wrote the book to take a humorous look at punctuation and all the painful ways that people misuse it, and she does this with a sparkling wit, and often snide (and funny comments.)

The book is set up with each chapter dedicated to a specific punctuation mark– the period, the comma, the colon, semi-colon– you are beginning to get the picture. She starts each chapter with a hysterical incident involving the particular mark, and then proceeds to simply (and with a great deal of humor) explain the particular rules of usage around the mark.

This sounds boring- I know it does, but it is not.  There is a reason why the book is a bestseller. One of my favorite passages in the book deals with the difference between “its” and”it’s.” I was reading this while at the dentist’s office, waiting for him to complete my root canal and would have howled in laughter if it wasn’t for all the gear still in my mouth at the moment.

“The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal sign of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has.” If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its.”  This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing “Good food at it’s best,” you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”

Okay, so that reads a bit harsh out of the context of the book, but it’s one example of her very sharp sense of humor and no-tolerance approach to punctuation mistakes. And frankly it is also a very simple explanation of a common mistake. Trust me, after reading that, you will not forget how to properly shorten “it is” (it’s.) And one of the reasons why I laughed so hard is because no one taught me this rule until graduate school. A rather incredulous professor explained it to me, and I rather red-faced, slunk away to correct all those wayward errors.

I like biting humor, and I appreciate Truss’s effort to fight the good fight. Lord knows, I find myself trying to fight the fight with my own red pen on student’s papers these days. I am determined to not leave them in the dark like I was.  I  loved this book, found it to be sparkling, funny and memorable, and I am going to give a copy to all of my major advisees.

Can’t let all them get the “its” mixed up with the “it’s” can I?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Cracking the Narnia Code

Suppose someone claimed to have discovered a secret code in one of the most wildly popular children’s series in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Moreover, suppose that this person claimed the code would unlock the architectonic structure of a series that, while certainly a modern classic, has often been accused of being written in a bit of a slapdash manner, with no clear guiding principle.  Then suppose that our interpreter further claimed that the author of the series intentionally used this code, but kept it a secret, only to be “discovered” nearly half a century after the author’s death.  You would think this guy was crazy, no?  These are precisely the claims that Michael Ward makes in his recent study of the Chronicles of Narnia, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.  Want to hear the most outrageous part?  He actually pulls it off!

Words fail to express the genius of this work, which originated as a doctoral thesis at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  Ward’s claim at first appears audacious, bordering on absurd.  The argument can be summed up briefly: each of the seven books in the Narniad (the scholarly term for the series) reflects the characteristics of one of the seven heavenly spheres of medieval cosmology (Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn).  Not only does each book reflect one of these spheres, though; each one actually embodies the spirit of the planet, from beginning to end.  The characters, the plot, the imagery of each book – all of these combine to establish an overall Gestalt corresponding to the book’s planetary symbol.  To take just one example, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first book in the series, is imbued with the characteristics of Jupiter.  It is a Jovial book filled with kingly features, joyfulness, feasting, and the passing from winter into spring.  Aslan embodies many of these features, but so, in their own way, do the four Pevensie children, as do other characters and the very plot of the story.  This Jovial character explains appearances that have seemed anomalies to most interpreters.  Many critics, for example, argue that Father Christmas is out of place in Narnia and so was simply a blunder on Lewis’s part.  Narnia was a mishmash of various mythologies carelessly cobbled together (this was J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous criticism of the book).  Ward argues that the Jovial theme explains the appearance of Father Christmas: rather than an oddity or an incongruity, Father Christmas appears because he is the quintessential Jovial character in modern culture – both in the sense of jocularity, and in the sense of reflecting this and other characteristics of Jove, king of the gods.

The lion’s share of Ward’s book interprets each of the Chronicles along these lines.  Ward does not confine himself to the Chronicles, though.  In each chapter he also discusses the significance of one of the planetary spheres in Lewis’s scholarship, in his poetry, and in the space trilogy (the other work obviously influenced by Lewis’s fascination with medieval cosmology) before turning to the Chronicle that embodies the sphere.  With each successive chapter, the case becomes stronger and stronger, such that by the end the reader can’t help but agree with Ward that his discovery of the schema is definitive – not in the sense of closing off discussion, but in the sense of explaining the fundamental guiding principle behind the series.

Ward does more than offer a fascinating literary analysis, however.  He also opens a window onto Lewis’s genius, his broadmindedness, and his playfulness.  His thesis shows numerous connections between Lewis the scholar, Lewis the poet, and Lewis the storyteller.  Lewis lived and breathed medieval culture, and he synthesized it in a stunning way.  Moreover, Ward demonstrates the capaciousness of Lewis’s Christianity.  Like his medieval hero Dante (and the medieval spirit in general), Lewis did not disdain all things pagan, but rather intentionally drew upon the good, the true, and the beautiful in pagan mythology.  In short, he baptized the pagan gods and used them to represent different aspects of the Christian God he had come to worship.  Finally, the fact that Lewis could use such a schema and yet keep it a secret suggests an endearing puckishness on his part.  Ward suggests that one of the reasons Lewis may have kept the schema a secret was to see if anyone would get it.  The joke paid off, as it took nearly fifty years for someone to get it.

Planet Narnia is a breathtaking work.  It opens new vistas on this modern classic, and it deserves to become a classic itself.  I have long been a fan of both Lewis and Tolkien, but I always considered the latter’s Middle Earth the superior achievement.  While my loyalty still lies with Tolkien, Ward has convinced me that Lewis’s Narniad is no less spectacular.  For any serious fan of Lewis and of the Chronicles, Planet Narnia is an absolute must-read.

Seventeen down, (at least) thirty-five to go.


P.S. If you are a bit daunted at the prospect of tackling a work that began as a doctoral thesis, Ward has also published a more popular version of the work, The Narnia Code (also available on DVD).

At the risk of perpetuating the curmudgeonly image that several of my earlier reviews may have generated, this week I decided to pick up Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.  The book is a manifesto in defense of the importance of humanistic learning, both for its own sake and for the good of society.

Nussbaum, a philosopher who has taught at Harvard, Brown, and, most recently, the University of Chicago, provocatively begins the book, “We are in the midst of a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance” (1).  The crisis of which she speaks concerns not the economy, but rather education.  Every day schools at every level give less and less time and money to the humanities and more and more to practical disciplines.  Whereas once education was geared toward inculcating good citizenship and critical thinking, these days students are often encouraged – by parents, by society in general, by the economic crisis – to see their education primarily as a means to the end of making money.

Not for Profit argues against this trend on a number of levels, both philosophical and practical.  Nussbaum challenges the emphasis on economics as an indicator of a nation’s development with a shrewdly chosen example: the old South Africa under apartheid was always near the top of the development indices based on the amount of wealth the country generated.  And yet few people today would consider the old South Africa a nation worthy of emulation.  Nevertheless, the emphasis on productivity persists, to the detriment of our students’ full development.  Moreover, this emphasis poses an increasing threat to democracy, as the abandonment of things like literature and the arts can lead to a devaluing of the human person.

Following her diagnosis of the problem, Nussbaum offers a prescription for revitalizing education in the interests of preserving the values of democracy.  Education ought to be holistic, dealing not only with the life of the mind but also with the affections.  Students should be taught to have empathy for the outsider, to have genuine compassion for the other, and to think critically.  Nussbaum argues that the most effective method to achieve these goals is Socratic pedagogy.  Students must learn to analyze arguments and think for themselves, rather than simply regurgitate information.  Moreover, given the nature of globalization, they must be taught foreign cultures and the interconnectedness of economies, a foreign language, world religions, and philosophical theories of justice.  Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book advocates for the indispensability of literature and the arts.  Using the Chicago Children’s Choir as an example, Nussbaum relates various anecdotes about how music can break down barriers and generate mutual understanding among people of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.  The imagination, she argues, is no less important a part of education than the other disciplines that receive more interest and funding.

Nussbaum’s final chapter reprises the warning that education is headed in the wrong direction.  Science, technology, and the almighty dollar have become gods (my words, not hers), and everyone seems to pinch a bit of incense at the altar.  Praising the schools of the Far East, President Obama noted in a 2009 speech on education, “They are spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do.  They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career.  We are not” (138).  Careerism and productivity, it would seem, are the order of the day.  But do we recognize the cost?

I found much to agree with in Not for Profit.  Nussbaum makes a passionate and in many ways compelling case for the importance of the humanities.  As already noted, the chapter on literature and the arts was intriguing.  At the same time, I’m not persuaded by every element of her argument.  I was a bit put off by her regular denigration of “rote” learning, as well as her near blanket dismissals of tradition and authority.  I don’t at all mean to suggest that memorization is the be-all and end-all of education, nor that it can substitute for critical thinking.  Nevertheless, I do think that one of the more unfortunate trends in education is the demonizing of memorization. The latter is an essential skill, one by which we learn some things for which there is no other appropriate method.  Moreover, much higher order learning depends on the lower level skill of memorization.  Similarly, one cannot critique a tradition or an authoritative statement unless one first understands it.  I’m sure if pressed Nussbaum would acknowledge this, but I wish she had been more careful with her language.

Despite these quibbles, Nussbaum is a learned and passionate advocate for the lasting significance of the humanities, and thus I consider her an ally.  I leave you with the eloquent final sentences of her argument:

“If we do not insist on the crucial importance of the humanities and the arts, they will drop away, because they do not make money.  They only do what is much more precious than that, make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, with thoughts and feelings of their own that deserve respect and empathy, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate” (143).

Fourteen down, (at least) thirty-eight to go.


Believe it or not, in the history of the English language grammar and glamour were once the same word.  Derived from the same Greek and Latin roots, the two were connected through an association between learning and enchantment.  In his recent book The Glamour of Grammar Roy Peter Clark seeks to re-glamorize grammar for a modern audience.  Clark is a man of many hats: medievalist, journalist, writing coach.  As the “About the Author” section notes, Dave Barry has said of him, “Roy Peter Clark knows more about writing than anybody I know who is not currently dead.”  If The Glamour of Grammar is any indication, he knows more about writing than a good many dead people, too.

The book is divided into five parts, moving from the most basic units to the big picture.  Part I focuses on WORDS.  No element of composition is too insignificant in a writer’s attempt to communicate with readers.  In Clark’s hands, such seemingly minor distinctions as the definite and indefinite articles (“the” vs. “a/an”) take on a much larger role than their small stature would suggest.  Using well-known examples, Clark shows how even the slightest change to a title can have a drastic effect on the feeling it conveys: for example, change the title of the classic movie The Godfather to A Godfather, and you have a completely different mood.

In Part II (POINTS), Clark discusses punctuation marks.  The preceding sentence most likely elicited a yawn from most readers, but Clark manages to show in an engaging way just how much work something as simple as a period – or a “full stop,” as the Brits call it (and as Clark prefers) – can do for one’s writing.  From the period to the serial comma to the sexy semi-colon to the exclamation point, Clark teaches how to bring one’s writing to life with these little jots and squiggles.

Part III (STANDARDS) addresses what grammarians commonly refer to as “rules.”  Clark eschews the tendency to reify these standards into unbendable rules, finding an elegant balance between descriptive and prescriptive accounts of language.  Writers must learn the “rules” of grammar before they can bend or break them to good effect.  The “rules” thus become “tools” that can be deftly applied in the hands of a skilled artisan.

The final two parts of the book (MEANING and PURPOSE) tackle the larger questions of writing.  In Part IV Clark explores what makes for a good sentence.  Along the way he challenges some of the most common pieces of writing advice – avoid the passive voice, never use sentence fragments – while at the same time demonstrating the wisdom of standards such as keeping subject and verb together.  Part V addresses the reasons for writing and the complex social, cultural, and political implications of word choice, dialect, taboo language, and a host of other decisions a writer must make.  The final chapter discusses new technologies, showing how even a 140-character Twitter message can crackle with elegance and style.

The Glamour of Grammar is a good read for many reasons.  Clark presents his instructions with a hefty dose of humor, and he often models the style he is teaching.  To take but one example, the following paragraph appears in the chapter on the question mark:

“But who was Question Mark?  And how did he become one of the godfathers of the punk rock movement?  And why am I asking these questions in a book about grammar and language?  The answer has to do with the extraordinary power of the question mark.” (89-90)

I also found Clark’s advice to be practical and balanced.  Challenging the “grammazons” (his lovely neologism for hardline grammarians), he affirms the usefulness of standards, but also the freedom a writer must have to buck the rules – but only once the writer understands them.  Perhaps more impressively, he manages to explain these rules effectively without relying on grammatical jargon, no doubt a necessary tactic to restore grammar to its state of glamour.

Finally, Clark is not afraid to wander into the realm of theology, grounding the beauty and richness of language not only in human evolution but also in the divine.  He manages to do so without coming off as preachy (a hard charge to stick to a man who uses the movie The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet as an illustration), and yet it comes across as genuine, and therefore genuinely moving.  The Glamour of Grammar deserves to be on the shelf of any serious – and not-so-serious – writer.  Read it for pleasure, read it for learning, but, most of all, read it to make your writing glamorous.

Thirteen down, (at least) thirty-nine to go.  (1/4 of the way there!)


A Connoisseur of Fine Sentences

Recently a friend of mine sent me an article about a new book by Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.  Before I even read the article, I knew the book would be a must read.  Fish is a widely respected literary critic who has taught at UC-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and who, more recently, has been a regular columnist/blogger for the New York Times.  While I don’t read his posts religiously, I do enjoy them whenever I get to them – both because he is a thoughtful man with an interesting perspective on the world, and because he is a consummate wordsmith.  If Fish has something to say about writing, it is worth listening to.

How to Write a Sentence did not disappoint.  Part how-to book, part literary analysis, and part appreciation of the art of the good sentence, the book leads the reader on a tour of some of the best-crafted sentences in literature and film, explaining how and why the sentences are so powerful.  Fish’s approach is considerably different than that of another modern classic, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (cf. the puckishly titled chapter “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White”).  Rather than provide rules drawing on grammatical concepts foreign to many people today, Fish analyzes the logical structure of sentences, explaining the components essential to all sentences and then offering ways to expand on the basic unit.  He summarizes his approach concisely toward the end of the first chapter: “Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation” (11, italics original).  In order to write good sentences, one must understand and appreciate good sentences.  Going against received wisdom, Fish advocates imitation as an important way of learning to write well.

Along the way, Fish makes a number of important observations.  In the third chapter (wittily titled “It’s Not the Thought That Counts”), he argues that content alone is insufficient.  In order to write persuasive and compelling sentences, one must master the forms of writing: “It is true that you can’t get form from content, but it is also true that without form, content cannot emerge” (27).  Likening the writing of sentences about nothing to practicing musical scales, Fish recommends writing nonsensical sentences over and over again until one has mastered the forms.  Only once a writer has mastered the forms will he be equipped to convey his thought intelligently and eloquently.  By “forms” Fish does not mean the typical grammatical terms found in many books on writing, but rather the logical structures that make a sentence coherent and intelligent.  While these structures can be analyzed with grammatical terms, one need not understand the finer points of the gerundive or the pluperfect in order to put Fish’s lessons into practice.

The middle three chapters of the book explain and analyze three different sentence styles, the subordinating style, the additive style, and the satiric style.  Fish then moves on to discuss first and last sentences.  A final chapter before the epilogue focuses on “sentences that are about themselves.”  Throughout the book he treats the reader to some of the finest sentences ever crafted, thus delighting as well as instructing the reader.

What struck me most as I read How to Write a Sentence was some of the borderline theological implications of Fish’s argument.  My favorite sentence in the book, and one, in my humble opinion, that would be in good company with the sentences Fish analyzes, is the following from chapter four: “It is often said that the job of language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality, not of course in a literal sense – the world is one thing, words another – but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is only one among innumerable possible orders” (37).  I know Fish is not himself a Christian (though his work on Milton has given him profound religious sensibilities), but the idea behind this sentence in many ways resonates with the prologue to the Gospel of John.  Moreover, it speaks to the potential language has, both for good and for evil.

Despite his erudition and eloquence, Fish manages not to take himself too seriously, making the book all the more appealing.  Any academic who can call his approach to learning to write a sentence “the Karate Kid method” and who draws examples not only from fine literature, but also from the essay of a fourth-grader, is okay in my book.  At a brief 160 pages, How to Write a Sentence is a quick and delightful lesson in the fine art of sentence craft.  To borrow the words of the anonymous child in St. Augustine’s Confessions, “Take and read.”

Eleven down, (at least) forty-one to go.


Playing Politics with an Epidemic

Today’s book is And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

Randy Shilts’s book is a masterwork of journalistic writing and activism. Twenty-five years have passed since it was published, and it still remains a classic. Shilts’s book focuses on the early years of the AIDS epidemic– the time period when people did not realize they even had an epidemic on their hands. It begins in an eerie manner, with a young Scandinavian doctor coming back from practicing medicine in central Africa in the last 1970s and dying of an unknown and devastating disease. From there, Shilts shifts his focus to the United States, chiefly the gay populations in San Francisco and New York, where the epidemic begins to take shape.

Shilts pulls no punches in this book. He unleashes a righteous fury at all the failures that allowed AIDS to take hold in both the United States and the world– the politicians who refused to grant funding for research, the doctors who were baffled by a disease that did not fit into a neat “box,” some members of the gay community for their wariness of the medical establishment, local governments for failing to recognize what was going on (especially the blood banks– many people died because of their refusal to face the facts), the US Government and CDC, and the infighting among certain researchers that slowed down the chances of getting a grip on the epidemic.

In the early years there were four mains groups of people who got AIDS, Haitians, hemophiliacs, Intravenous Drug abusers and Gays. And in the early years it was seem primarily as a “gay disease,” even though there was evidence that it could be spread among heterosexuals and through blood donations. For this reason, finding help for sufferers was an uphill battle, as the disease spread among members of society that were seen as “undesirable.” Almost everyone involved played politics with the disease, or were the victims of politics. What astounded me in the reading of this book was how it was so easy for the American people and government to deny the humanity of certain groups of people. Almost as if gay folks and drug abusers deserved this horrifying plague.  As Shilts puts it ” Later, everybody agreed the baths should have been closed sooner; they agreed health education should have been more direct and timely. And everybody also agreed blood banks should have tested blood sooner, and that a search for the AIDS virus should have started sooner, and that scientists should have laid aside their petty intrigues. Everybody subsequently agreed that the news media should have offered better coverage of the epidemic much earlier, and that the federal government should have done much, much, more. By the time everyone agreed to all this, however, it was too late. Instead people died. Tens of thousands of them.”

People died because people played politics with their lives in an astounding number of ways. Yet, heroes did emerge during the epidemic. The doctors who latched onto the new virus and kept trying to untangle it despite cuts to their funding and pressures from hospital administrators. The City of San Francisco for trying to curb the disease through innovative health measures (the City played politics too, but it did a heck of a lot better than other places with large populations of AIDS sufferers.) The gay community for fighting for help and for caring for those who were dying. And other, at times unlikely allies come to light, such as conservatives Orrin Hatch and J Everett Koop. Hatch fought for legislation to keep AIDS testing confidential, and Koop was the first member of the Reagan Administration to outline a multi-pronged,  sensible and pragmatic attack on the virus–much to the dismay of many of his more conservative supporters (the administration had muzzled him for five years, keeping him from speaking on the health crisis.)

The book is huge (600+) pages but it reads easily, almost like a mystery in the early portions. It contains a massive amount of information, names and dates, but it is a compelling read. While Stilts writes only on the AIDS epidemic you can’t help but wonder what would happen is some other new disease would pop up that was just as deadly– one likes to think that politicking and infighting would not ensue within the government and public health facilities that are supposed to protect us, but no doubt they would.

Last summer I was in San Francisco visiting a friend who is a doctor when we walked into an airy, bright store that sold all sorts of neat gift-shop sorts of things. My friend said to me quietly “This shop raises money to help care for those with AIDS and to help fund research locally. They also sell lots of neat stuff. Whenever we need a unique gift for someone we try to buy here. They do good work.”  San Francisco (and New York  as well as other cities) is a city that lost a generation of young people who did not have to die. The early years of the AIDS epidemic are fading from public memory, mainly because in developed countries the disease can be treated more as a chronic condition if you are lucky and have the means. People now talk about AIDS being an “African problem,” which it most definitely is, but few Americans want to realize that it remains a problem within their own country.  People still don’t want to talk about it or face the reality that is a terrifying disease that is transmitted sexually.

Read Shilts’s book. Read it to realize what happens when you mix a disease with ignorance, hate, and politics. Read it to understand that we are all human beings and as a collective humanity that we all suffer when a fellow human suffers from this disease. Read it so that we don’t forget, and so that we continue to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C