Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Fadiman ♥ Fowler

"I refer to Fowler often, but not necessarily to solve a problem in usage, grammar, or pronunciation. I refer to it for spiritual sustenance. It shows me how bad a writer I am and encourages me to do better."

-- Clifton Fadiman, “Commentary on ‘A Dictionary of Modern English Usage’ by H.W. Fowler” (1941), in Weigh the Word 186, 186 (Charles B. Jennings et al. eds., 1957). (from Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Real world versus fiction

A lot happens in the real world for no good reason. If this were fiction, this little incident would have relevance thirty or so chapters from now; as it is it means nothing—after all, not every incident in life has a meaning."
"Tell that to the scholars who study me," Hamlet snorted disdainfully, then thought for a moment before adding: "If the real world were a book, it would never find a publisher. Over-long, detailed to the point of distraction—and ultimately without a major resolution."

“Perhaps," I said thoughtfully, "that’s exactly what we like about it."
Jasper Fforde, Something Rotten (London: Hodder, 2004), p. 75.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A reading biography

"A biography of any literary person ought to deal at length with what he read and when, for in some sense, we are what we read."

Joseph Epstein, "The Noblest Distraction," in Joseph Epstein, Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (London: Norton, 1985), quoted in Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), p. 5.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Generic eulogy

The sermon and the prayers were nothing that couldn’t have been said of any human being who had been born and died.

Laura Furman, “Plum Creek,” American Scholar, Spring 2007, at 104, 107 (fiction).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Beautiful Antarctica

The Antarctic Peninsula is the northernmost part of the continent. It's also the most conventionally beautiful place in Antarctica. Take the Alps, and cross them with the Grand Canyon. Stretch them both so that the mountains are higher, the cliffs sheerer, the glaciers wider and longer and bluer. Now put this glorious mix beside the sea, next to icebergs and penguins and seals and whales, and all within just two days' sail of civilisation.
Gabrielle Walker, Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013), p. 259

Reality and fiction are that close

“The barriers between reality and fiction are softer than we think; a bit like a frozen lake. Hundreds of people can walk across it, but then one evening a thin spot develops and someone falls through; the hole is frozen over by the following morning.”

Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 206. (speaker is Victor Analogy, a SpecOps LiteraTec)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The essayist Joseph Epstein on the essayistic style

While there is no firmly set, single style for the essayist, styles varying with each particular essayist, the best general description of essayistic style was written in 1827 by William Hazlitt in his essay "Familiar Style." "To write a genuine familiar or truly English style," Hazlitt wrote, "is to write as any one would speak in common conversation who had a thorough command and choice of words, who could discourse with ease, force, and perspicuity, setting aside all pedantic and oratorical flourishes." The style of the essayist is that of an extremely intelligent, highly common-sensical person talking, without stammer and with impressive coherence, to him- or herself and to anyone else who cares to eavesdrop. This self-reflexivity, this notion of talking to oneself, has always seemed to me to mark the essay off from the lecture. The lecturer is always teaching; so, too, frequently is the critic. If the essayist does so, it is usually only indirectly.

Joseph Epstein, “Introduction,” in Joseph Epstein, ed., The Best American Essays 1993 (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993), pp. xvi.

Monday, April 13, 2015

World War I still amazes

"If observers on another planet had been able to look closely at the Earth at the start of 1918, they might have been struck not only by the unusual propensity of its inhabitants to kill one another, but by their willingness to travel huge distances to do so. Never had so many people gone so far to make war."

Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), first chapter of Part VI (Kindle location 5107)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Book lovers are nuts

"When we had played together on the Citadel basketball team, John had always looked upon my love of books as a form of mental illness. It amazed him that I read books for pleasure and not because professors made me."

Pat Conroy, My Losing Season (New York: Bantam Books, 2003), p. 7.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Taking from migrant workers

"American society gains much from migrant laborers and gives little back beyond criminalization, stress, and injury. This dishonest relationship must change."

Seth M. Holmes, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2013), ch. 7 (Kindle location 3693)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Who can see his parents?

     Never trust a man on the subject of his own parents. As tall and basso as a man might be on the outside, he nevertheless sees his parents from the perspective of a tiny child, still, and will always. And the unhappier his childhood was, the more arrested will be his perspective on it. She's learned this through sheer experience.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (New York: Little, Brown & Co., Hachette Book Group, 2009)   (Kindle location 16127)

Too horrible to believe

In the summer of 1943 Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, probably the most eminent American Jew and a devoted Zionist, went to the Polish embassy in Washington to meet the Polish socialist Jan Karski, another death-camp escapee. When Karski finished describing what he had seen at Belzec, Frankfurter paced in somber silence for ten minutes. "I am unable to believe you," he said to Karski at last. "Felix, you cannot tell this man to his face that he is lying," the Polish ambassador interjected. "I did not say that this young man is lying," Frankfurter replied. "I said that I am unable to believe him. There is a difference." Frankfurter extended both arms and waved his hands. "No, no," he said, and walked out.
David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), ch. (Kindle locations 14136-41) (citing Kai Bird, The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 206)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Stories have shape

The moment you put pen to paper and begin to shape a story, the essential nature of life—that one damn thing after another—is lost. No matter how ambiguous you try to make a story, no matter how many ends you leave hanging, it’s a package made to travel.
Dorothy Gallagher, “Recognizing the Book that Needs to Be Written,” in Writers on Writing Vol. II: More Collected Essays from The New York Times (introduction by Jane Smiley) (New York: Times Books, 2003), p. 65.

O, Canada!

“I always relished trips to Canada, because readers there are more alert and engaged than in any other place I know (It’s no coincidence that Canada has the most interesting writers I know, too)....”

Pico Ayer, “Unraveling Ariadne’s Thread,” Am. Scholar, v.73 n. 4, Autumn 2004, at 156, 160.

Beverly Cleary finds writing

Next Miss Smith [the school librarian] gave us homework: writing an essay about our favorite book character. . . . [p. 145]
. . . After I put together a Sunday dinner for my father, who gamely ate it and was enjoying his pipe and the Sunday paper, I sat down to write the essay. Which favorite character when I had so many? Peter Pan? Judy from Daddy-Long-Legs? Tom Sawyer? I finally solved this problem by writing about a girl who went to Bookland and talked to several of my favorite characters. I wrote on and on, inventing conversations that the characters might have had with a strange girl. As rain beat against the windows, a feeling of peace came over me as I wrote far beyond the required length of the essay. I had discovered the pleasure of writing, and to this day, whenever it rains, I feel the urge to write. Most of my books are written in winter.

As much as I enjoyed writing it, I thought "Journey Through Bookland" was a poor story because the girl’s journey turned out to be a dream; and if there was anything I disliked, it was a good story that ended up as a dream. Authors of such stories, including Lewis Carroll, were cheating, I felt, because they could not think of any other conclusion.

I was also worried because I had used characters from published books. Miss Smith had lectured us on plagiarism and said that stealing from books was every bit as wrong as stealing from a store. But how could I write about a favorite character without having him speak?

When we turned our essays in during library, I [<- p. 146] [p. 147->]watched anxiously as Miss Smith riffled through the papers. Was I going to catch it? Miss Smith pulled out a paper that I recognized as mine and began to read aloud. My mouth was dry and my stomach felt twisted. When she finished, she paused. My heart pounded. Then Miss Smith said, "When Beverly grows up, she should write children’s books."

I was dumbfounded. Miss Smith was praising my story-essay with words that pointed to my future, a misty time I rarely even though about. I was not used to praise. Mother did not compliment me. Now I was not only being praised in front of the whole class but was receiving approval that was to give direction to my life. The class seemed impressed.
Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill (New York: Dell Yearling, 1989), pp. 145-47

We need each other

And when I think of all the things the people there told me, I realise that the other lessons that Antarctica has thrown up all point this same way: It is only when you are forced to rely overtly on the people around you—and people in far off bases who you'll never meet—that you remember how fully we rely on each other back in the real world. It can take being in pure emptiness to remind you to let go of your hubris; and it can take being blocked by the power of nature to remind you how precarious our existence is and how tenuous and temporary our mastery.
Gabrielle Walker, Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013), p. 348

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The essayist Joseph Epstein, on essays

As someone who takes some pride in being known as "Joseph Epstein, an essayist"—or, even better, "the essayist Joseph Epstein"—who takes the term "essayist" as an honorific, I have both an interest and a stake in the form. I hate to see it put down, defamed, spat upon, even mildly slighted. The best luck that any writer can have is to find his or her form, and I feel fortunate in having found mine some twenty years ago in the familiar essay. It happened quite by luck: I was not then a frequent reader of Montaigne and Hazlitt; in those days I was even put off by Charles Lamb, who sometimes seemed to me a bit precious. For me the novel was the form of forms, and easily the one I most admired and should most have liked to master. Although I have published a dozen or so short stories, I have not yet written a novel—nor have I one in mind to write—and so I have to conclude that despite my enormous regard for that form, it just isn’t mine. Perhaps it is quite useless for a writer to search for his perfect form; that form, it may well be, has to find him.

Over the years, I have come to think more and more of the history and of the contemporary standing of the essay, the form that is apparently mine. I recently had occasion to read through Montaigne, who was the first modern essayist. It is a deep tribute to call a man modern who began writing in 1572, but the first thing one notices in reading Montaigne is how contemporary he feels. The essay, his own chosen form—he all but invented it, really—made it possible for him to speak to us person to person, with an intimacy hitherto unknown in literature. In this magical form Montaigne could dilate upon his subject, deliberately digress, or do anything he pretty much damn well pleased. The slender silver thread that holds a Montaigne essay together is the man Montaigne himself. He was the first essayist to talk about himself: "not to dare to talk roundly of yourself betrays a defect of thought," he felt. In his hands, the essay became an instrument of discovery—self-discovery, chiefly. "I study myself more than any other subject," Montaigne wrote. "That is my metaphysic; that is my physics.”
Joseph Epstein, “Introduction,” in Joseph Epstein, ed., The Best American Essays 1993 (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993), pp. xiv-xv.

Legal research changes, and changes

          Legal research changes, as landforms do, by different processes and at different rates. Some changes are fairly minor, as when the wind creates shifting patterns on the surface of the sand—for instance, when the U.S. Government Printing Office began releasing the 2012 edition of the United States Code, there was little that someone familiar with the 2006 edition needed to learn in order to use it effectively. Other changes require some addition to our knowledge, as when a familiar source becomes available on an online platform; think of a river that carves a new channel while the original channel remains. But when familiar sources cease to exist or totally new platforms are introduced, it sometimes feels as though the legal research landscape has been affected by an earthquake that shifts the ground we stand on or a volcano that creates totally new features. We don’t want to carry this metaphor too far—we believe that many of the changes we see in legal research are salutary, not cataclysmic—but the field is dynamic and the resources used to teach it must also change. 
          The changes in the legal research landscape have been and will continue to be dramatic. Here are a few changes since the prior edition of Fundamentals. Industry giants Westlaw and LexisNexis restructured their search interfaces, creating WestlawNext and Lexis Advance. Bloomberg Law made a strong entrance into the law school market. The Government Printing Office revamped and expanded its website, introducing FDsys. After twenty years of developing the very useful THOMAS, the Library of Congress replaced it with Congress.gov. And, although many researchers won’t be as astonished as we were, the IRS stopped compiling the Cumulative Bulletin. Oh, and Scotland nearly left the United Kingdom, a move that would have changed the research in the law of those nations in multiple ways.
Steven M. Barkan, Barbara A. Bintliff & Mary Whisner, Fundamentals of Legal Research (St. Paul: Foundation Press, 2015), p. vi.

Work and happiness

            "If your work won’t make you or anyone else happier, why do more of it than you have to? Believers in the gospel of work typically consider happiness irrelevant. Deep down, they think we have a duty to be miserable."

Christopher Clausen, “Against Work,” Am. Scholar, v. 73, n. 4, Autumn 2004, at 133, 137.

Monday, April 6, 2015

We take luxury for granted

      Near the end of my research Samuel [a migrant farmworker] told me, "Right now we and you are the same; we are poor. but later you will be rich and live in a luxury house [casa de lujo]." I explained that I did not want a luxury house but rather a simple little house. Samuel replied, looking me in the eyes, "But you will have a bathroom on the inside, right?"
Seth M. Holmes, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2013), ch. 3 (Kindle location 1688)

Bohr on predictions

"It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future."

Niels Bohr

quoted in David R. Bell, Location Is (Still) Everything: The Surprising Influence of the Real World on How We Search, Shop, and Sell in the Virtual One (Seattle: Amazon Publishing, 2014), ch. 6 (Kindle location 3168)

(This comment probably wasn't what led the Nobel committee to give him a prize.)

A dream of writing a book

            We had a school library with a librarian, Miss Smith, a young, brisk, well-tailored teacher who also taught reading. She taught us how to use the library and once made us line up alphabetically by our last names, as if we were books on shelves. After that, I found a place on the shelf where my book would be if I ever wrote a book, which I doubted.
Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill (New York: Dell Yearling, 1989), p. 143

Turning reviews to one's own ends

          "Besides, said Mr Norrell, ‘I really have no desire to write reviews of other people’s books. Modern publications upon magic are the most pernicious things in the world, full of misinformation and wrong opinions."
          "Then sir, you may say so. The ruder you are, the more the editors will be delighted.
           "But it is my own opinions which I wish to make better known, not other people’s."
           "Ah, but sir,’ said Lascelles, ‘it is precisely by passing judgements upon other people’s work and pointing out their errors that readers can be made to understand your own opinions better. it is the easiest thing in the world to turn a review to one’s own ends. One only need mention the book once or twice and for the rest of the article one may develop one’s theme just as one chuses. It is, I assure you, what every body else does."
          "Hmm,’ said Mr Norrell thoughtfully, "you may be right. But, no. It would seem as if I were lending support to what ought never to have been published in the first place." 

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), pp. 112-13.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Comics need a better reputation

As Empire Comics' sales figures had climbed, and the towering black cyclones of money came blowing in out of the heartland, Anapol, out of this residual ambition and a perverted sense of guilt over the brainless ease with which colossal success had been achieved, had grown extremely touchy about the poor reputation of comic books among the Phi Beta Kappas and literary pooh-bahs whose opinions meant so much to him. He had even imposed upon Deasey to write letters to The New York Times and The American Scholar, to which he then signed his own name, protesting the unfair treatment he considered those publications had given his humble product in their pages.

--Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (New York: Picador, 2000), p. 365

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Models may be wrong, but . . .

"Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful."

George Box

George Box & Norman Draper, Empirical Model Building and Response Surfaces (New York: John Wiley Sons, 1987), quoted in David R. Bell, Location Is (Still) Everything: The Surprising Influence of the Real World on How We Search, Shop, and Sell in the Virtual One (Seattle: Amazon Publishing, 2014), p. 86 (attributing the quotation to "the famous statistician George Box")

Book projects can surprise you

"It [this book] may also be a lesson for those writers who, like me, approach a story with the naive belief that they will be able to follow it the way a spectator passively follows a parade, and that they will be able to leave it without altering its course."

Allison Hoover Bartlett, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession (New York: Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2009), p. 6

Darwin's dad thought he was a slacker

"You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to all your family."

Robert Darwin, to his son Charles, after Charles's med school failure

Quoted in John Homans, What's a Dog for? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Bet Friend (New York: Penguin, 2012), p. 94