Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

In the Stacks, a short story by Robin Sloan

leave a comment »

Short, but good. I hope you read it.

Written by Leisureguy

6 January 2023 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life, Memes, Music, Writing

I fell into Mastodon for a while there

leave a comment »

Just signed up (on and did various posts and replies. My understanding is (gradually) growing, and I think I’ll like it. Worth checking out, but be ready for some initial confusion. View that as promising.

Written by Leisureguy

10 November 2022 at 10:53 am

Using the wrong dictionary

leave a comment »

An intriguing and useful entry at the blog, presumably by jsomers:

The way I thought you used a dictionary was that you looked up words you’ve never heard of, or whose sense you’re unsure of. You would never look up an ordinary word — like example, or sport, or magic — because all you’ll learn is what it means, and that you already know.

Indeed, if you look up those particular words in the dictionary that comes with your computer — on my Mac, it’s the New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd Edition — you’ll be rewarded with… well, there won’t be any reward. The entries are pedestrian:

example /igˈzampəl/, n. a thing characteristic of its kind or illustrating a general rule.

sport /spôrt/, n. an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

magic /ˈmajik/, n. the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

Here, words are boiled to their essence. But that essence is dry, functional, almost bureaucratically sapped of color or pop, like high modernist architecture. Which trains you to think of the dictionary as a utility, not a quarry of good things, not a place you’d go to explore and savor.

Worse, the words themselves take on the character of their definitions: they are likewise reduced. A delightful word like “fustian” — delightful because of what it means, because of the way it looks and sounds, because it is unusual in regular speech but not so effete as to be unusable, is described, efficiently, as “pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” Not only is this definition (as we’ll see in a minute) simplistic and basically wrong, it’s just not in the same class, English-wise, as “fustian.” The language is tin-eared and uninspired. It’s criminal: This is the place where all the words live and the writing’s no good.

The New Oxford American dictionary, by the way, is not like singularly bad. Google’s dictionary, the modern Merriam-Webster, the dictionary at they’re all like this. They’re all a chore to read. There’s no play, no delight in the language. The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.

John McPhee’s secret weapon

John McPhee — one the great American writers of nonfiction, almost peerless as a prose stylist — once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his process called “Draft #4.” He explains that for him, draft #4 is the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.

The way you do it, he says, is “you draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” You go looking for le mot juste.

But where?

“Your destination is the dictionary,” he writes:

Suppose you sense an opportunity beyond the word “intention.” You read the dictionary’s thesaurian list of synonyms: “intention, intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, goal.” But the dictionary doesn’t let it go at that. It goes on to tell you the differences all the way down the line — how each listed word differs from all the others. Some dictionaries keep themselves trim by just listing synonyms and not going on to make distinctions. You want the first kind, in which you are not just getting a list of words; you are being told the differences in their hues, as if you were looking at the stripes in an awning, each of a subtly different green.

I do not have this first kind of dictionary. In fact I would have never thought to use a dictionary the way McPhee uses his, and the simple reason is that I’ve never had a dictionary worth using that way. If you were to look up the word “intention” in my dictionary here’s all you would see: “a thing intended; an aim or plan.” No, I don’t think I’ll be punching up my prose with that.

But somehow for McPhee, the dictionary — the dictionary! — was the fount of fine prose, the first place he’d go to filch a phrase, to steal fire from the gods. So for instance he’d have an idea of something he wanted to say:

I grew up in canoes on northern lakes. Thirty years later, I was trying to choose a word or words that would explain why anyone in a modern nation would choose to go a long distance by canoe. I was damned if I was going to call it a sport, but nothing else occurred.

And he’d go, Well, “sport” is kind of clunky, it’s kind of humdrum. Maybe I can do better. And he’d look up “sport,” and instead of the even more hopelessly banal “an activity involving physical exertion and skill” that I’d get out of my dictionary, he’d discover this lovely chip of prose: “2. A diversion of the field.” Thus he could write:

His professed criteria were to take it easy, see some wildlife, and travel light with his bark canoes — nothing more — and one could not help but lean his way… Travel by canoe is not a necessity, and will nevermore be the most efficient way to get from one region to another, or even from one lake to another — anywhere. A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion of the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.

A book where you can enter “sport” and end up with “a diversion of the field” — this is in fact the opposite of what I’d known a dictionary to be. This is a book that transmutes plain words into language that’s finer and more vivid and sometimes more rare. No wonder McPhee wrote with it by his side. No wonder he looked up words he knew, versus words he didn’t, in a ratio of “at least ninety-nine to one.”

Unfortunately, he never comes out and says exactly which dictionary he’s getting all this juice out of. But I was desperate to find it. What was this secret book, this dictionary so rich and alive that one of my favorite writers was using it to make heroic improvements to his writing?

I did a little sleuthing. It wasn’t so hard with the examples McPhee gives, and Google. He says, for instance, that in three years of research for a book about Alaska he’d forgotten to look up the word Arctic. He said that his dictionary gave him this: “Pertaining to, or situated under, the northern constellation called the Bear.”

And that turned out to be enough to find it.

The invention of American English

Noah Webster is not the best-known of the Founding Fathers but he has been called “the father of American scholarship and education.” There’s actually this great history of how he almost singlehandedly invented the very idea of American English, defining the native tongue of the new republic, “rescuing” it from “the clamour of pedantry” imposed by the Brits.

He developed a book, the Blue Backed Speller, which was meant to be . . .

Continue reading.

The post explains how to download and install the dictionary so that you can do automatic word lookup.

Written by Leisureguy

12 October 2022 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Writing

In praise of aphorisms

leave a comment »

Andrew Hui, associate professor in literature at Yale-NUS College in Singapore and author of The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature (2016) and A Theory of the Aphorism (2019), has an interesting essay on the aphorism as a philosophical device, but aphorisms enliven and encapsulate discourse beyond philosophy. One famous example is Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr’s dictum “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Another example, so far less famous (since I wrote it just minutes ago) is “A routine is a ritual that has lost its soul — or has not yet found it.” (That now is in my post on Covey’s method.)

Hui writes in Aeon:

Atypical university course in the history of philosophy surveys the great thinkers of Western civilisation as a stately procession from Plato to Aristotle to Descartes to Kant to Hegel to Nietzsche. These magnificent intellects offer their ideas in weighty philosophical tomes, stuffed with chiselled definitions, well-reasoned arguments and sustained critiques. In turn, instructors present the grand narrative of ideas to a new generation of students.

Immanuel Kant typifies this magisterial approach. In the closing pages of his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), the German philosopher narrates the history of Western philosophy from Plato to Aristotle to Locke to Leibniz to himself as a series of attempts to construct systems. Indeed, he is nothing if not a scrupulous architect of thought:

By an architectonic I mean the art of systems. Since systematic unity is what first turns common cognition into science.

That is, science turns what is a mere aggregate of random thoughts into something coherent. Only then can philosophy become a doctrine or method of judgment of what is knowledge and what is not. No systems, no real philosophy.

But might there be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Kant’s philosophy? What happens when we consider the history of philosophy not from the point of system-building, but through an alternative account that pays attention to the fragments of thinking?

Consider Heraclitus’ ‘Nature loves to hide’; Blaise Pascal’s ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me’; or Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘If a temple is to be erected, a temple must be destroyed.’ Heraclitus comes before and against Plato and Aristotle, Pascal after and against René Descartes, Nietzsche after and against Kant and G W F Hegel. Might the history of thought be actually driven by aphorism?

Much of the history of Western philosophy can be narrated as a series of attempts to construct systems. Conversely, much of the history of aphorisms can be narrated as an animadversion, a turning away from such grand systems through the construction of literary fragments. The philosopher creates and critiques continuous lines of argument; the aphorist, on the other hand, composes scattered lines of intuition. One moves in a chain of logic; the other by leaps and bounds.

Before the birth of Western philosophy proper, there was the aphorism. In ancient Greece, the short sayings of Anaximander, Xenophanes, Parmenides or Heraclitus constitute the first efforts at speculative thinking, but they are also something to which Plato and Aristotle are hostile. Their enigmatic pronouncements elude discursive analysis. They refuse to be corralled into systematic order. No one would deny that their pithy statements might be wise; but Plato and Aristotle were ambivalent about them. They have no rigour at all – they are just the scattered utterances of clever men.

Here is Plato’s critique of Heraclitus:

If you ask any one of them a question, he will pull out some little enigmatic phrase from his quiver and shoot it off at you; and if you try to make him give an account of what he has said, you will only get hit by another, full of strange turns of language.

For Plato, the Heracliteans’ stratagem of continual evasion is a problem because they constantly produce new aphorisms in order to subvert closure. In this sense, Heraclitus is opposed to Plato in at least two fundamental ways: first, his doctrine of flux is contrary to the theory of Forms; and second, the impression one gets is that his thinking is solitary, monologic, misanthropic, whereas Plato is always social, dialogic, inviting.

Plato’s repudiation of his predecessor’s gnomic style signals an important stage in the development of ancient philosophy: the transition from oracular enunciation to argumentative discourse, obscurity to clarity, and thus the marginalisation of the aphoristic style in favour of sustained logical arguments. From Socrates onward, there would simply be no philosophy without proof or argument.

Yet I think it is possible to defend Heraclitus against Plato’s attack. Perplexity arising from enigmatic sayings need not necessarily lead one to seizures of thinking. On the contrary, it can catalyse productive inquiry. Take this well-known saying: . . .

Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more.

Written by Leisureguy

1 August 2022 at 10:35 am

Past Lives of the Paragraph

leave a comment »

When I read Richard Hughes Gibson’s essay on the paragraph, I immediately misremembered a quotation from Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, 1874-1904. That passage in my memory was as follows:

[B]y being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell — a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great — was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing — namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. . . Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British paragraph — which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for would be not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that.

The actual quotation has “sentence” in place of “paragraph,” but in the context of Gibson’s essay, “paragraph” slid neatly into place. (His comment that clever boys could “learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat” first brought to mind Samuel Johnson’s famous dictum, “Greek, sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can” and then also a comment from Eva T.H. Brann, one of my tutors at St. John’s, to the effect that students in general think the amount of Latin they already know is sufficient, but however much Greek they know, they want to know more.)

But let us now turn to the paragraph. Gibson writes:

[I]t is a little remarkable that the treatises on rhetoric were so slow in coming to note the organic significance of the paragraph: that the theory of the teachers was so many years behind the practice of the writers.

Edwin Herbert Lewis, A History of the English Paragraph (1894)

[T]here is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch of a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimited by a blank line or an indentation.

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (2015)

What is a paragraph? Consult a writing guide, and you will receive an answer like this: “A paragraph is a group of sentences that develops one central idea.” However solid such a definition appears on the page, it quickly melts in the heat of live instruction, as any writing teacher will tell you. Faced with the task of assembling their own paragraphs, students find nearly every word in the formula problematic. How many sentences belong in the “group?” Somewhere along the way, many were taught that five or six will do. But then out there in the world, they have seen (or heard rumors of) bulkier and slimmer specimens, some spilling over pages, some consisting of a single sentence. And how does one go about “developing” a central idea? Is there a magic number of subpoints or citations? Most problematic of all is the notion of the main “idea” itself. What qualifies? Facts? Propositions? Your ideas? Someone else’s?

In his 1928 English Prose Style, the poet and art critic Herbert Read argued that there’s no point in fussing about the “vague” notion of a central “idea” anyway, since it “will be found of little application to the paragraphs we find in literature,” a claim that Read illustrates with unruly precedents from Thomas Babington Macaulay, John Milton, and D.H. Lawrence, among others. What Read clarifies is not only that single-minded definitions buckle under even minimal stress. Taking up his nearly century-old book, one recognizes a peculiar tradition in which one textbook after another, one generation after another, has promoted a blueprint for paragraph construction conspicuously at odds with the prose of the most highly acclaimed stylists of the English language.

What gives? The tension reflects the paragraph’s curious history as a punctuation mark and unit of thought. In fact, my opening question—what is a paragraph?—only gets more complicated as we gaze further and further into the past, as the paragraph gradually dwindles to a thin line in the margins. This backstory explains why it is so hard to say what exactly a paragraph is and, in turn, why we struggle now to legislate its parameters. But this isn’t an entirely despairing story: To recall the paragraph’s past lives is also to consider how previous generations have put their thoughts in order and to gain thereby a vantage to reconsider our own writing practices.

The trouble begins with the ancient Greeks. Their scribes—and later their Roman imitators—laid out documents in columns on papyrus bookrolls (a.k.a. scrolls) using a method known as scriptio continua in which words are written without spaces in between. The classicist William Johnson has memorably likened the effect to “a tight phalanx of clear, distinct letters, each marching one after the other to form an impression of continuous flow.” But scriptio continua poses an obvious challenge: The reader must sort the marching characters into meaningful words and sentences. Unsurprisingly, scribes and readers over the centuries invented marking systems to aid the reader’s labors of understanding and, equally important, vivid articulation—reading being very much an oral performance in antiquity.

The first such mark—in use from the fourth-century BCE on—was a plain horizontal stroke drawn in the margin alongside or perhaps slightly intruding between lines of the text. This paragraphos (literally, “written beside”) has been called “the first punctuation mark,” though it likely wouldn’t pass muster with modern grade school teachers because it didn’t have a consistent grammatical or rhetorical function. It signified simply that a transition of some kind would take place in the neighboring line—perhaps the beginning of a new sentence or stanza, perhaps a change of speaker in a drama or Platonic dialogue. Typophile Keith Houston has rightly called the paragraphos a “crude instrument.” Its pliability, though, made it eminently useful.

As a mark of change, the paragraphos was a familiar device in the scribal arsenal—along with techniques such as outdenting, enlarging letters, and leaving empty space— for identifying subsections of texts, including those that conform to our sense of paragraph-scale. However, and here we run into our first bump in the narrative, classicists and biblical scholars have debated whether to call these chunks “paragraphs,” at least in the modern sense. First of all, save for a few hints otherwise, these marks cannot be attributed to the authors of the documents; they represent a later (perhaps centuries-later) reader’s or scribe’s interpretation of a given document’s structure (which sometimes varies between copies). More importantly, classical rhetoric had no concept of “the paragraph” as “a generic unit of discourse,” as the rhetorician Jeanne Fahnestock has observed. To be sure, ancient rhetoricians were formidable scholars, and left behind an enormous body of useful counsel about language (poetic and prosaic), argumentation, and education, among other matters. But their principal charge was the training of orators, and though some teachers encouraged writing exercises to that end, none taught the skill of assembling a series of written blocks of text, each designed to unfold ideas, themes, subjects, incidents, etc. Antiquity, in short, provided the terminology from which the paragraph derives but no edicts to govern its production.

The medievals gradually disbanded the scriptio continua phalanx. First its field was taken. In the late Roman Empire, the bookroll was displaced by the new stack-and-flip writing technology, the codex (what we usually mean by “book” now), which had been adopted early on by Christian communities and was better suited to northern lands where papyrus was hard to come by but animal skins weren’t. The codex introduced the page—a new surface, framing device, and interface whose possibilities scribes and artists of the High Middle Ages would consciously exploit. But the more immediate threat to scriptio continua was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2022 at 8:54 am

“A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.”

leave a comment »

The title quotation is from Randall Jarrell’s introduction to Christina Stead’s novel The Man Who Loved Children. I came across it in reading Wyatt Mason’s wonderful article (gift link, no paywall) in the NY Times about Akhil Sharma, who rewrote (and is about to publish) his first novel, published 22 years ago and started 30 years ago.

That caught my attention, but I also find myself revising and augmenting things I previously wrote — in fact, I spent time last night and this morning polishing (again) my post on Stephen Covey’s method, a post that I initially wrote more than 5 years ago and have revisited (and revised) many times over the years.

Needless to say, Akhil Sharma is a much better writer than I, but then it’s even more appropriate for me to revisit and revise things long since written.

The article begins:

“Hey, man, can I give you a hug?”

The unexpected question was posed by a man I’d just met — the 50-year-old, Delhi-born Indian American novelist, essayist and short-story writer Akhil Sharma — as we stood at the top of the chilly little hill we had climbed. The hill was part of a loop we would end up taking a number of times over two days, the three of us, which is to say me, Sharma and his baby daughter, asleep in her stroller. Her need for a nap had been the pretext for our circuit around Hollins, a small university outside Roanoke, Va., where Sharma was a writer in residence.

A plum gig, it required that Sharma teach one graduate-level fiction course to a small group of students at Hollins. So Sharma and I had taken his daughter for her daily stroller nap through the not particularly lovely campus, which, beyond its lackluster borders, was ringed in the distance by the oceanic peaks that make up the Virginia quadrant of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

As we walked, Sharma and I fell easily into the discussion of uneasy things. The particulars of those uneasy things haven’t much bearing here, except to say that we — two men in our early 50s — were addressing, with candor, the difficulties through which people at midlife pass. And it was at one materially insignificant moment in our conversation, when we reached the crest of that hill on that loop, that Sharma posed the unexpected question.

Sharma, who is slight and dapper, opened his arms. I opened mine. His leatherette puffer parka compressed slightly as he held me and I him.

It is unusual to hold a stranger in a loving way, and yet it didn’t feel strange. What’s odd to me, retrospectively, about that moment in Sharma’s arms is how congruent the feeling of it was with the feeling of reading his work: to be brought suddenly, unexpectedly, un-self-consciously close to another human — a pressure that’s palpable on every page of his work.

I realize the same assessment might be made of any number of contemporary writers, and while I stand by it and will try to qualify it, there is something undeniable about Sharma that can be said of very few novelists, and it was for this reason that I went to see him. Sharma had done a weird thing, something white-rhino rare in the history of literature: He had revised and radically rewritten a novel, his first, “An Obedient Father,” one he published 22 years earlier. Considerably shorter, with a very different ending but the same title, the novel was about to be published a second time — it reappears this month — more than 30 years after Sharma began it.

It’s not as though the first version of “An Obedient Father” was ignored. It met with the kind of success few first novels receive. It was excerpted in The New Yorker and won the PEN/Hemingway Award, and Sharma received a Whiting Award — career milestones for any writer. Novelists reached out to its 29-year-old author out of the blue. Sharma was not shy to say that among them was the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. Still, the book would sell only adequately for a literary novel: according to Sharma, 6,000 hardcover copies and then 11,000 paperback copies over the next two decades, taking 17 years to earn back what the publisher advanced him for it and certainly not paying well enough that it let Sharma live off his writing.

Aside from those encouraging/discouraging realities, Sharma was secretly displeased with the novel when he published it. He’d had doubts, yes, but he had been arrogant enough, or insecure enough, or hopeful enough to want to be hailed as a genius, and when it was clear that, despite the praise the book received, “genius” was not a word being thrown around, Sharma’s sense of failure, of not living up to his hopes for the novel, was confirmed. In that little way, what he already knew to be true was borne out: Whatever the book did well, aesthetically, it had real things wrong with it, formal problems he hadn’t been able to name, much less fix.

“An Obedient Father” is a brutal book. It tries to integrate two first-person reports of family life, one by a father and another by his daughter, with a larger, social story about modern India, its political history and its fraught, failed attempts at change. The father . . .

Continue reading. (gift link, no paywall)

Written by Leisureguy

12 July 2022 at 1:24 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Writing

Blog drifting in a different direction

leave a comment »

I find myself less interested in political/news posts, though there are exceptions, so the blog — which basically reflects my own interests — is, I’ve noticed, changing directions somewhat. You may have noticed, but I wanted to say that I’m also aware of it.

I think there will probably be more food-related posts and videos, occasional music/jazz videos, and of course science and history as topics arise. But politics is now such a downer I’m de-emphasizing that in my own reading, and thus in the blog.

Written by Leisureguy

28 April 2022 at 10:49 am

Posted in Daily life, Writing

“May I Quote?” — The New Yale Book of Quotations

leave a comment »

Bryan A. Garner, an American lawyer, lexicographer, and teacher, reviews The New Yale Book of Quotations in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

AS A COLLECTOR of reference books — an out-of-control number, I’m afraid — I had a full floor-to-ceiling bookcase of quotation books when, a couple of years ago, I was offered 200 more. A professional speechwriter had retired and wanted to know what to do with his large collection of these books. Even though we’d never met or even corresponded, he somehow concluded that he might bestow them on me — if I’d take them. I suspected I already owned them all. But after he sent me a list of 150 he wagered I didn’t own, and his wager was right, I gratefully accepted the gift.

There were compilations specifically about art, business, literature, politics, religion, science, and sports. There were compilations of single writers such as William F. Buckley Jr., Louis L’Amour, La Rochefoucauld, Will Rogers, William Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. There were even compilations by people not thought of as writers — Charles Barkley (“Anytime I’m on a team, we’ve got a chance to win.”), Bill Clinton, Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Donald Trump, and Jack Welch. The array of available material was stunning.

On reflection, it’s not surprising that a professional speechwriter would collect these things. Think of all the speeches, good and bad, that are peppered with statements attributed to revered predecessors. Listeners are supposed to infer that the speaker has drawn upon a vast reservoir of material gathered from a lifetime of reading. But no: it was probably a quote pulled from such a compilation after two or three minutes of looking.

Two big questions arise for users and compilers of these books: should they be arranged topically or by source? If you want quotations about the subject of research, would you rather have them all in one place under R, or spread throughout the book under the names of the people who uttered the statements? My own preference has always been for the former: show me all the research quotations together. Or honesty. Or marriage. Or wit.

But the most authoritative quotation books have always  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 April 2022 at 4:05 pm

Posted in Books, Writing

Shirley Jackson’s response to a reader’s letter of complaint

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

7 April 2022 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Books, Writing

Facing facts; or, I was wrong

leave a comment »

I’ve been on an internal pedantic rant about the use of “canister” instead of “cannister,” since I was sure I had learned the latter. For example, “bannister” is used, not “banister.” Or so I said to myself. But I was wrong. 

Change is hard, but now I’m a canister/banister guy. 

Written by Leisureguy

22 March 2022 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Writing

What Makes a Great First Sentence?

leave a comment »

In Lit Hub Allegra Hyde takes a look at how a book begins for the reader:

Maybe it has happened to you: a stranger catches your eye while you peruse the plant identification section of the library, or wander a mossy hillock speckled with Amanita bisporigera, or shuffle along in the funeral procession for your wealthy Aunt Tabitha. The look squeezes a secret place inside you, sets your heart racing—in fear or excitement, you can’t quite tell. Call this kismet. Call it chemistry. Despite all that remains unknown (and that could go wrong), you feel compelled to see where the connection might lead. You know it could change the course of your life.

I say this as a romantic—and as a human who reads and writes fiction. Because the spark of connection can happen on the page in the same way it can in the real world. A great first line can spur intense readerly attraction—provoke a compulsion to know more. Let’s call this: love at first sentence.

Such a reading experience is also a rare one, however. Just as it is easy to encounter most strangers and remain unmoved—so is it easy to not read most works of literature. The world is full of people we will never know and fiction we will never read. It takes something special for a first line to capture the heart of a reader—to propel a text out of a slush pile or off a bookshop shelf—for a work of literature to transform from stranger to intimate.

What is that something, exactly? I started pondering this question in earnest last summer, after signing on to teach a class about fiction’s first lines. To “research” in preparation for the class, I decided to ask around—to ask strangers, specifically, in the spirit of love at first sentence. And so, to the people of Twitter, I posed: “What are your favorite first lines in literature?”

The people of Twitter had plenty to say. From my initial post, a long thread of first lines unfurled, as readers and writers of fiction shared first sentences that had lodged in their brains and stuck. The openers came from a breadth of genres and in all syntactical varieties. There were first lines from odd realist novels, such as:

I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink

And there were openings from speculative short stories:

Seven corporations control the afterlife now, and many people spend their lives amassing the money to upload into the best.
–Louise Erdrich, “Domain”

There were long opening sentences, such as:

Back when my parents and I lived in Bushwick in a building sandwiched between a drug house and another drug house, the only difference being that the dealers in the one drug house were also the users and so more unpredictable, and in the other the dealers were never the users and so more shrewd—back in those days, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment so subpar that we woke up with flattened cockroaches in our bedsheets, sometimes three or four stuck on our elbows, and once I found fourteen of them pressed to my calves, and there was no beauty in shaking them off, though we strove for grace, swinging our arms in the air as if we were ballerinas.
–Jenny Zhang, “We Love You Crispina”

There were short, punchy openers like:

Mother died today.
–Albert Camus, The Stranger

 As well as:

They shoot the white girl first.
–Toni Morrison, Paradise

Several of Morrison’s opening lines were highlighted again and again. Other frequent repeats included:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
–Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude


No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.
–Shirley Jackson, Haunting of Hill House

Then there was fan favorite: . . .

Continue reading.

Of course, there is perhaps the most famous first sentence of all: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s opening to his 1890 novel Paul Clifford, though most remember only the first clause:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Written by Leisureguy

14 March 2022 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Books, Writing

Excellent commentary on Biden’s SOTU speech by James Fallows, who was chief White House speechwriter for President Carter

leave a comment »

The Atlantic doesn’t have gift links, but they will allow non-subscribers to read in full a few articles a month, and this one by James Fallows is worth using that option. Fallows begins with a preface about speeches in general, and then begins his commentary on Biden’s speech. He writes:

Listening to Joe Biden give his first official State of the Union address on Tuesday night, I thought: This is strong. It is clear; it’s the right message in the right language. It reflects the speaker in an honest way. And it also brings something new to this tired form.

But each of those judgments rests on assumptions about speeches in general and State of the Union addresses in particular. So let me lay out my reasoning and then get to the details of the speech.

What makes a speech “good”? Or “effective”? Or viewed as “eloquent”? Or perhaps eventually as “memorable” or “historic”?

These are trickier assessments than they might seem, and can take time to settle in. The value and effect of a speech depend on some circumstances that a speaker can control, or at least be aware of: the message, the audience, the expected length of the speech, the expected tone, from jokey to statesmanlike. But they also depend on aspects of timing and fortune beyond anyone’s control. Winston Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” pledge to Parliament in 1940 is remembered in a particular way because of how the next five years of combat turned out. As are Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “date which will live in infamy,” John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

By contrast, George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration one month into the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is remembered in a different way, because of what happened afterward.

(I know how it feels to be involved in a statement that history has made look foolish. While working for Jimmy Carter in the White House, I was the writer on the trip where he gave a New Year’s Eve toast, in Tehran, to the shah of Iran as an “island of stability” in the turbulent sea of the Middle East. That was the official U.S. outlook at the time, which I did my best to express. Within little more than a year, the shah was out, and the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini was under way.)

Why many different kinds of speeches can be “good,” and what makes them that way

Some speeches are meant to excite or inspire. Political-rally speeches are in this category, the more so the closer they come to Election Day. Speeches to inspire the whole nation should obviously not be partisan. For instance, JFK in 1962: “We choose to go to the moon … not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skill.” Speeches to energize the base can be partisan as hell, because voters are about to choose one side or the other. For instance, FDR just before Election Day in 1936: “[My opponents] are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

Some speeches are meant to console or commemorate. Robert F . Kennedy’s most moving speech may have been his unscripted statement of grief and resolve, at a street corner rally before a largely Black crowd in Indianapolis, when sharing the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated, in April 1968. This was two months before Kennedy himself was shot dead. Ronald Reagan gave his State of the Union address in 1986 a few days after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and he began with a tribute to the seven dead astronauts. I believe that Barack Obama’s most powerful address was his eulogy in 2015 for the slain parishioners at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Some speeches are meant to explain. The example all aspire to is  . . .

Continue reading.

After his introduction, Fallows begins his commentary on Biden’s speech:

What follows is an abbreviated version of an approach I’ve tried before, of annotating the SOTU transcript. You can read the whole official speech from the White House if you prefer. I’ve used the version that was on Biden’s TelePrompter, and I’m leaving out more than half of it, indicated by an ellipsis (…) in interests of space. Comments are in bold, with the words or lines they’re referring to in italics. Here we go.

Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President, our First Lady and Second Gentleman. Members of Congress and the Cabinet. Justices of the Supreme Court. My fellow Americans. Of course, this is the first time that a president has begun with this salutation. As was true throughout the speech, Biden under- rather than oversold the moment.

… Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated.

He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined. An attempted “line,” which Biden sensibly moved right past rather than waiting for a response.

He met the Ukrainian people. What I am referring to as plain-style eloquence.

From President Zelenskyy to every Ukrainian, their fearlessness, their courage, their determination, inspires the world.

Groups of citizens blocking tanks with their bodies. Everyone from students to retirees, teachers turned soldiers, defending their homeland. This will not be studied for rhyme, or emphasis in delivery. But it is very powerful.

In this struggle, as President Zelenskyy said in his speech to the European Parliament, “Light will win over darkness.” The Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States is here tonight.

Let each of us here tonight in this Chamber send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world.

Please rise if you are able and show that, Yes, we the United States of America stand with the Ukrainian people. One of the performance-art aspects of SOTUs is which part of the chamber will cheer which lines. This was a graceful and appropriate way for Biden to induce a standing ovation from all.

Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson: When dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaosAs a matter of sentence rhythm, this is not the way Churchill, Kennedy, et al. would have phrased it. But, once more, powerful in its intent. They keep moving.

… American diplomacy matters. American resolve matters. This could not be plainer. Nor truer, at the moment.

… [Putin] thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us at home. Putin was wrong. We were ready. Here is what we didSee above.

We prepared extensively and carefully… I spent countless hours unifying our European allies. We shared with the world in advance what we knew Putin was planning and precisely how he would try to falsely justify his aggression. “I am going to tell you about the actual work of being president.”

We countered Russia’s lies with truth.

And now that he has acted, the free world is holding him accountable.

Along with twenty-seven members of the European Union including France, Germany, Italy, as well as countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and many others, even SwitzerlandEven Switzerland!!!!

We are inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine. Putin is now isolated from the world more than ever. I do not think we have heard these words before in a SOTU …

Tonight I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime: No more. Nor this word.

The U.S. Department of Justice is assembling a dedicated task force to go after the crimes of Russian oligarchs. I believe the camera panned to Merrick Garland at this point. Many people thinking, with me, Get busy with these task forces!

We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gainsNor these words. Nice emphasis on your.

Continue reading.

I find the Atlantic is well worth the price of the digital-only subscription — and right now there’s an even better bargain. Every issue has articles worth noting, and they also publish much along the way.

Written by Leisureguy

5 March 2022 at 10:11 am

How to read ‘Ulysses’? With gratitude.

leave a comment »

With gratitude and with others, it would seem. Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite writes in The Harvard Gazette:

Four years ago, Sorcha Ashe ’22 enrolled in the seminar “Complexity in Works of Art: Ulysses and Hamlet” with a lofty goal: read one of the most challenging novels in the modern English canon.

“‘Ulysses’ has kind of a lore around it as being an impossibly complicated book, and I definitely thought that it was going to be beyond me when I started,” said Ashe, an integrative biology concentrator from St. Paul, Minnesota. “But I had always wanted to read it because my father is Irish and it’s his favorite book.”

Guided by instructor Philip Fisher, Felice Cowl Reid Professor of English, Ashe and her classmates journeyed together through James Joyce’s Irish modernist classic, which was first published in book form in February 1922. The rewards were equal to the task.

“I found it to be one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve ever had,” Ashe said. “To get to talk about those challenging parts and the enjoyable parts with other people made the experience so much more valuable than it would have been if I had read it on my own. It was such a joy to hear different people’s takes on the same set of words.”

Ashe’s struggle and delight with the novel echo century-old refrains from Joyce’s contemporaries. Fellow modernists including Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot reacted with confusion and envy to the author’s combination of rich prose, shifting perspectives, and Homeric allusions in a meandering interior story that spans but a single day.

“Virginia Woolf was quite defensive about ‘Ulysses’ when it came out, because she said it was boring and overrated,” said Beth Blum, an assistant professor of English and Joyce scholar. “But after sitting with it more, she saw what he was trying to do and appreciated it. She began to see that Joyce was, as she put it, trying to get thinking into literature.”

Eliot lamented: “It is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”

The book’s hold on literary culture is matched by few others, Blum noted. Internet searches yield multiple “how-to” guides for reading the novel, numerous essays debating whether one should even try, and arguments about which version should be read — with or without typos. All of these elements have coalesced into mythology, said Blum.

“Reading a book like ‘Ulysses’ represents a form of cultural capital and education, but the novel is also associated with a more democratic experience of humanity through the common man, Leopold Bloom,” she said, referencing Joyce’s protagonist. “Approaching the novel as a personal challenge allows you to reckon with difficulty and learn to persevere in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. I think that is part of the reason why it continues to appeal to people and endures.”

Reflecting on her College experience with “Ulysses,” Ashe said the novel altered . . .

Continue reading.

Note this post on which edition/printing to read. The inexpensive Kindle editions, for example, are generally from the first printing and riddled with typos.

Written by Leisureguy

28 February 2022 at 9:02 pm

“Po” punctuation proposed

leave a comment »

Edward De Bono (whose books appear in the booklist) wrote a book well worth buying and reading: Po: Beyond Yes and NoThe idea is that a great variety of creative ideas can be generated if one (or a group) suspends judging the ideas during the creative period. Rather than greeting each idea with “Yes” or “No,” De Bono proposes saying “Po,” which might be read as “Suppose” or “Consider as a possibility” or “Let’s look at where this might lead.”

It occurred to me, in reading this post, that a good punctuation mark to set off a word or sentence or paragraph that is proposed as a possibility for consideration might be made from the two diagonals. For example, /\ this new punctuation can be useful \/.  Note that the “\/” functions as a “close quote,” to mark the end of the possibility suggested.

It’s also nice that neither / nor \ require the use of the shift key.

/\ = “blue sky” (a flight of imagination)

\/ = “getting back down to earth”

Written by Leisureguy

23 February 2022 at 5:14 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Writing

Brief scene from “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” by Sir Tom Stoppard

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

13 February 2022 at 7:04 am

Posted in Art, Daily life, Video, Writing

The reality of sight-translating an ancient language

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

11 February 2022 at 11:25 am

Posted in Daily life, Writing

A word for an obsession familiar to me — and Giri/Haji

leave a comment »

What I suffered most when my computer was away was not have a convenient way to write, and today I learned the useful word graphomania: “An obsessive inclination to write.”

While the computer was absent, I would repeatedly think of things I wanted to write about, for which the iPhone was completely inadequate. I’m now a keyboard guy, and I wanted to be able to write about things to figure out what I thought about them as well as to tell others about them.

Take, for example, the eight-part limited series Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame) on Netflix. I had seen it before, but I watched it again and in this viewing noticed much more. It is set in Tokyo and London, with bilingual dialogue (some in English, some in Japanese with subtitles). It is about family and friendship, and conflicts of duty and odd pairings of people and destinies.

One thing I noticed this time is how much some sequences resemble a graphic novel — not just in the composition of the scene onscreen (though indeed some scenes are presented onscreen in multiple panels), but also in the content of some some sequences.

It was so much like a screen treatment of a graphic novel that I checked to see whether there was a graphic novel as the underlying property (as the movie industry calls the book or play from which a movie has been made).

No, it’s an original screenplay, but some reviewers did note that the plot summaries at the beginning of episodes 2 through 8 were done in graphic-novel style. I had not noticed that because I skip summaries when I’m watching a series straight through, as I was doing, but that made me start watching them — and they are definitely worth watching.

It’s quite an interesting series and toward the end there are stylized (i.e., non-realistic) sequences that reflect on the story.

BTW, Korean limited series seem to have a standard length of 16 episodes, and for those I generally watch plot summaries because the series have so many episodes. Plot elements from several episodes back can re-emerge, and the plot summary at the beginning of an episode is written to remind you of the plot elements relevant to the current episode.

Movies vs. Graphic Novels

When I read the graphic novel Watchmen, it seemed clear that movies were a big influence on graphic novels — some sequences seem taken from movies. But graphic novels do not have the kind of sequence control a movie offers: when you watch a movie, the director decides the exact sequence in which you will see the story unfold, whereas the graphic novelist cannot so closely control the sequence in which you view the page.

To gain that control, the graphic novelist exploits the space on the page, a resource not available to the movie director. Some of the page layouts in Watchmen are stunning, and in effect show that control of the spatial presentation of the story can be effective in a way that temporal presentation finds difficult to mimic. It was this spatial presentation — multiple panels, side by side — that were brought into Giri/Haji. As you read (a graphic novel) and watch (a movie), you can see the tradeoffs between spatial and temporal control.

In this connection, it’s useful (and interesting) to read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

Written by Leisureguy

11 February 2022 at 2:19 am

Walden Pond Books

leave a comment »

Written by Leisureguy

10 February 2022 at 7:01 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Daily life, Video, Writing

Hunter S. Thompson and the Four Secrets to Gonzo Journalism’s Success

leave a comment »

This article will appeal principally to readers of a certain age. Peter Richardson writes in the New Republic:

Fifty years after the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson’s celebrity remains a durable fact. Yet there was nothing inevitable about his notoriety or the style that gave rise to it. Gonzo journalism—Thompson’s unique blend of hyperbolic commentary, satire, invective, hallucination, and media critique—developed unevenly, haphazardly, almost by accident. That body of work, and the rock-star celebrity it created, almost didn’t happen.

In 1965, Thompson was a freelancer begging for assignments when The Nation commissioned an article on the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. Thompson parlayed his first-person account into a bestselling book, and Random House quickly signed him for three more titles on short schedules. The second book stalled, however, and Thompson struggled with his magazine work. Playboy spiked his lengthy profile of Jean-Claude Killy, the Olympic skier who became a pitch man for Chevrolet. Fortunately for Thompson, Warren Hinckle ran the Killy piece in the premiere issue of Scanlan’s Monthly.

Hinckle also published “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Thompson’s 1970 account of the famed sporting event—or rather, the drunken revelry surrounding it. Illustrated by Ralph Steadman, that piece is usually considered the first work of gonzo journalism. Thompson set the debauchery at Churchill Downs against a backdrop of political violence—including President Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia and the slaughter at Kent State University, which occurred the same week as the Derby. Finishing the story was an ordeal, and Thompson considered it an abject failure. When it was heralded as a breakthrough, he compared the experience to “falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.”

Thompson’s next articles skipped the gonzo pyrotechnics, but “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which Rolling Stone ran in November 1971, etched gonzo journalism in the public imagination. Based on a pair of wild weekends in the desert, the two-part article was a freewheeling epitaph for the 1960s counterculture. It made a bigger splash than the Kentucky Derby piece, but in a letter to James Silberman, his editor at Random House, Thompson worried that it would diminish his credibility as a serious journalist. Once again, he had underestimated gonzo’s career-altering appeal.

Gonzo journalism thrived at Rolling Stone, especially during the Nixon era. As the decade wore on, Thompson’s outsize persona—which featured his drug consumption, gun fetish, and “fortified compound” near Aspen—began to eclipse his work. Yet Thompson understood his literary gift quite apart from his celebrity. In 1975, he correctly described himself as “one of the best writers currently using the English language as both a musical instrument and a political weapon.”

p>But how, exactly, did Thompson achieve that status in a single decade? With the benefit of hindsight, we can identify four separate developments that pushed Thompson toward his unique niche in the media ecosystem.


Early in his career, Thompson admired the Kennedys, detested Nixon, and attended the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco. Even so, he considered American politics a dead end. He wanted to follow the example set by Tom Wolfe in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965). An early version of the New Journalism, that book featured Southern California’s hot-rod scene as well as the spectacular growth of Las Vegas. Later, Wolfe profiled the psychedelic scene around novelist Ken Kesey, whom Thompson had introduced to the Hell’s Angels. In short order, Thompson also carved out a niche as a student of exotic West Coast subcultures.

His outlook changed dramatically in 1968. By that time, Thompson had befriended Hinckle, who presided over Ramparts magazine. Through his connection with the legendary San Francisco muckraker, Thompson learned that all hell would break loose at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He asked Silberman to obtain press credentials for him and booked a trip to Chicago. His sources were correct: Thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets and public parks, and police officers flayed provocateurs, peaceful protesters, and observers alike. The clashes provided a dramatic backdrop for the debates inside the convention, especially over the party’s position on the Vietnam War. Senator Edmund Muskie maintained that the anti-war contingent wanted peace at any price, the peace plank was defeated, and Hubert Humphrey received the party’s nomination. By the end of the convention, both Humphrey and Muskie earned Thompson’s lasting contempt.

The real story was in the streets, however, where Thompson recoiled from the police violence he witnessed. Scampering from agitated cops on Michigan Avenue, he encountered two officers blocking his retreat to his hotel.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 January 2022 at 11:47 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Media, Writing

Evolution of Our Alphabet

leave a comment »

Other alphabets (Arabic, Korean, Cherokee, et al.) had different evolutions, of course. The image above is from an interesting article in Visual Capitalist, which begins:

Over the course of 2021, the Greek alphabet was a major part of the news cycle.

COVID-19 variants, which are labeled with Greek letters when becoming a variant of concern, normalized their usage. From the Alpha variant in the UK, to the Delta variant that spread from India to become the dominant global strain, the Greek alphabet was everywhere. Seemingly overnight, the Omicron variant discovered in South Africa has now taken the mantle as the most discussed variant.

But the Greek alphabet is used in other parts of our lives as well. For example, Greek letters are commonly used in mathematics and science, like Sigma (Σ) denoting a sum or Lambda (λ) used to represent the half-life of radioactive material.

And the study of linguistics shows us why using Greek letters in English isn’t completely farfetched. This visualization from Matt Baker at demonstrates how the modern Latin script used in English evolved from Greek, and other, alphabets.

It’s All Proto-Sinaitic to Me

Before there was English, or Latin, or even Greek, there was Proto-Sinaitic.

Considered the first alphabet ever used, the Proto-Sinaitic script was derived in Canaan, around the biblical Land of Israel. It was repurposed from . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2022 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Daily life, History, Writing

%d bloggers like this: