Multiple sets of papers prompt the need today for writing relief. There is none better, perhaps, than that of Dr. Steven Pinker. In his The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, the famous Harvard linguist offers a "homely remedy" for that one "aspect of language use that is most worth changing" — "the clarity and style of written prose."
Since I'll be pushing his remedy in the days to come, I thought you might like, without added comment, Dr. Pinker's prescription:
Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also, unlike a conversational partner, a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one's natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and — probably most important — intensive exposure to good examples. There are excellent manuals of composition that discuss these and other skills with great wisdom, like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style and Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. What is most relevant to my point is how removed their practical advice is from the trivia of split infinitives and slang. For example, a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively. Good writers go through anywhere from two to twenty drafts before releasing a paper. Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, "Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times." Kind of takes the fun out, doesn't it? It's not something that can be blamed on television, rock music, shopping, mall culture, overpaid athletes, or any of the other signs of the decay of civilization. But if it's clear writing that we want, this is the kind of homely remedy that is called for.
Shielded here by Norway Lions, I'm celebrating Syttende Mai. Today is Norwegian "Independence Day," May 17th, famous for political-seasonal liberation — a day marking relief from Denmark's rule in 1814 and, of course, from winter's annually. If you've ever experienced hard and cold, you may — even if not Norwegian — celebrate.
They do, you know, even in L. A. The Half-Norwegian (On the Mother's Side) American Bar Association held their bash yesterday; I wish I had been there. A full-Norwegian myself — but a non-lawyer Angelino — I honor them, although I wasn't smart enough in fleeing L. A. (moving to the Pacific Northwest) to discover that Northwest cold does take its toll on Norskies fondly recalling soft Mediterranean warmth. But for such loss, "abundant recompense," as Wordsworth writes.
Like my childhood reading. In a book still widely read now called Snow Treasure, I learned at my Mom's insistence about kids sledding by jack-booted Nazi invaders — with Norway's gold bullion cleverly hidden under sled blankets. Impressive 1950s reading. Though I'm sorry Mom hid much from me whenever she talked Norwegian, the book's illustrations "jump-started" my learning. Though I still don't know the language, I am sharpening the style.
Speaking of style, my in-law Uncle Arnülf had it. Long Harbor Master of Haugesund, he once thanked the captain and crew of an American war ship, in perfectly eloquent English, for Norway's liberation. His style was sharpened by hauling Caribbean bauxite to American East Coast ports. The torpedo that hit his ship was, among the hundreds that sank others, only a dud. (By the way, his wife — back in Norway — could not reach him and his emigrant siblings for five years.)
Do you know that Norway sent more folks per-capita to America than any other European country — itself half-Norwegian — but one, Ireland?
Which raises the difficult issue of the Vikings. Well, all I can say is, we seem to be forgiven today. At least that's how I read, as I think you should, this very stylish speech by Superior Court Judge Lawrence W. Crispo, an Italian-American member of the L. A. bar raising a double aquavit to Norway's Two Independence Days.
· The A & P of Style: Location, Location, Location ·
At a wedding reception recently, I chanced to converse with a young man studying to become a paramedic in Alaska. When told he needed an A & P course (Anatomy and Physiology II) unavailable at home, I remarked slyly that a radiologist friend's med-school teacher in Iowa City, Iowa, was seen last selling real estate in Washington. After smiling, he warmed to my point, that A & P had perfectly served my friend because, using X-ray, CAT, or MRI technology, his is an art of precise location.
In a way, if you think about it, so is style's. Adjusted to the real estate of sentences, the old slogan of "Location, Location, Location" nicely fits. After all, Jonathan Swift once defined style as "proper words in proper places," and the coordinating axes of grammar, rhetoric, and logic triply apply. Here, we might say, the larger "A & P" of style finds its proper dwelling, though I wouldn't want to get very Heideggerian about it — tomographically, geographically, or topologically.
Which is why I thought today to share a brief passage from the Scot Hugh Blair. You may recall him as the author of Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters (1783). Skilled in the craft of exacting stylistic analysis, Blair took special interest — in Lectures XX through XXIII — in the work of Joseph Addison. As I've already noted Addison, I thought today to focus on the last paragraph of Lecture XX, wherein Blair happily marks a contrast between Addison's two fine concluding sentences and a poorly-styled alternative. It's clearly a matter of location.
I have in this paper, by way of introduction, settled the notion of those pleasures of the imagination, which are the subject of my present undertaking, and endeavored, by several considerations, to recommend to my readers the pursuit of those pleasures; I shall, in my next paper, examine the several sources from whence these pleasures are derived.
Then adding his analysis, Blair continues:
These two concluding sentences afford examples of the proper collocation of circumstances in a period. I formerly showed that it is often a matter of difficulty to dispose of them in such a manner as that they shall not embarrass the principal subject of the sentence. In the sentences before us, several of these incidental circumstances necessarily come in — By way of introduction — by several considerations — in this paper — in the next paper. All which are with great propriety managed by our author. It will be found, upon trial, that there were no other parts of the sentence, in which they could have been placed to equal advantage. Had he said, for instance, "I have settled the notion (rather, the meaning) of those pleasures of the imagination, which are the subject of my present undertaking, by way of introduction, in this paper, and endeavored to recommend the pursuit of those pleasures to my readers, by several considerations," we must be sensible that the sentence, thus clogged with circumstances in the wrong place, would neither have been so neat nor so clear, as it is by the present construction.
Which helps me now to the ever-trivial moral of my story: to wit, that if you ever find yourself in the "wrong place," well, Move, Unclog Those Arteries, and, of course — if possible — Get Some Style.
· Indirection in the King's Road: Edith Wharton on Henry James ·
Robert Frost once famously described a guide "who only has at heart your getting lost." But consider the reverse: a famous direction-seeker only losing his guide. That is my subject today, here prompted by a take on the firm, crisp, smooth, direct, easily flowing style of Edith Wharton engaged upon the mostly infirm, uncrisp, indirect, halting style of Henry James. I thought you might like the stylistic pairing.
My adjectives today come from Louis Auchincloss. Auchincloss finds Wharton "in full command of the style that was to make her prose as lucid and polished as any in American fiction," as he writes in Edith Wharton, A Woman in Her Time. "It is a firm, crisp, smooth, direct, easily flowing style, the perfect instrument of a clear, undazzled eye, an analytic mind, and a sense of humor alert to the least pretension." It's Wharton's humor I emphasize, one drawn colorfully from A Backward Glance (her autobiography, 1934), presented here with liberties she'd perhaps herself find amusing. Wharton's words are printed in Blue, Henry James's in Rust, and the guide's in Lost.
The most absurd of these episodes [Wharton and James getting lost while motoring in England] occurred on another rainy evening, when James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur — perhaps Cook was on holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King's Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. "Wait a moment, my dear — I'll ask him where we are"; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.
"My good man, if you'll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer — so," and as the man came up: "My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station."
I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: "In short" (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), "in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to . . . "
"Oh, please." I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, "do ask him where the King's Road is."
"Ah — ? The King's Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King's Road exactly is?"
"Ye're in it," said the aged face at the window.
I hope you see the real advantages here, as the old cliché has it, of what's sometimes mistakenly called a "Cook's Holiday."
Today's post is brought to you, guardedly, by the letters PC. They stand for "Politically Correct" — rendered perhaps more meatily by the better phrase, "Philologically Crippled." You can be the judge today. It is a good day for truth.
In a recent review of the new Diane Ravitch book, Merle Rubin asks:
What do dinosaurs, mountains, deserts, brave boys, shy girls, men fixing roofs, women baking cookies, elderly people in wheelchairs, athletic African Americans, God, heathens, witches, owls, birthday cake and religious fanatics all have in common? Trick question? Not really. As we learn from Diane Ravitch's eye-opening book "The Language Police," all of the above share the common fate of having been banned from the textbooks or test questions (or both) being used in today's schools.
Although I don't want to stretch Rubin's point from the April 28th L. A. Times, Rubin's ending does mark Ravitch's importance:
Lucid, forceful, written with insight, passion, compassion and conviction, "The Language Police" is not only hair-raisingly readable but deeply reasonable. It should be required reading not only for parents, teachers and educators, but for everyone who cares about history, literature, science, culture and indeed the civilization in which we live.
Might Ravitch, though, approve of my citing one of those "elderly people in wheel-chairs" — one able to speak to "the civilization in which we live"? Nancy Mairs, say?
First, the matter of semantics. I am a cripple. I choose this word to name me. I choose from among several possibilities, the most common of which are "handicapped" and "disabled." I made the choice a number of years ago, without thinking, unaware of my motives for doing so. Even now, I'm not sure what those motives are, but I recognize that they are complex and not entirely flattering. People — crippled or not — wince at the word "cripple," as they do not at "handicapped" or "disabled." Perhaps I want them to wince. I want them to see me as a tough customer, one to whom the fates/gods/viruses have not been kind, but who can face the brutal truth of her existence squarely. As a cripple, I swagger.
Now the harder question: Would Nancy Mairs approve of my saying now: "Yeah! And who doesn't 'swagger'? Why, those desert-fried, cookie-baking educationists I once trashed for layin' down sad 'barbaric yawps' on the roof-tops of the literate world with (what's it called?) God-awful athletic fanaticism! You know, heathenish, forked-tongued mountaineer wannabes, full of verbal aspiration, owl-eyed and bird-brained — all fixed to witch's tits, degenerate dinosaurs mostly, with 'brave' fronts and 'shy' behinds."