Friday, August 28, 2009

The Golden Book on Writing by David Lambuth

I recently found The Golden Book on Writing  in my father-in-law's book case and wondered how it would measure up to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Both books were authored by college professors as guide books for their students. Elements was published by William Strunk in 1919 at Cornell while Golden Book was published in 1923 at Dartmouth. The booklets (neither is more than 80 pages long) were intended for use within their respective college campuses. What sets them apart is that E.B. White revised Elements for the general public in 1959. And he did it with such precision and wit that it quickly came to be considered an essential guide to good writing.

Frankly, I expected Golden Book to be inferior, but it really can't be compared to Elements. Although both books emphasize economy of language - i.e., the removal of all unnecessary words, Lambuth's main point is to use common sense when writing, even when it occasionally breaks the rules.

Here are some gems from the book:

Good writing - as I have remarked - comes only from clear thinking, set down in simple and natural speech, and afterwards revised in accordance with good usage... After all, good writing is like good social skills. It is learned by constant association with those who practice it, and it must be instinctive and un-selfconscious before it is of the slightest value. That is why you can learn how to write only be reading well. The man who writes with one eye on the textbook of rhetoric, or one half of his brain trying to remember the rules, is like the man who can't tell whether to take off his hat or to use his fork or his spoon until he has remembered what was said on page 74 or 135 of some so-called "Book of Etiquette." Gentleman do not act by rules nor learn how to conduct themselves out of textbooks. Neither do good writers. Therefore: still read. (p. 4)

Ill-chosen words, words that are vague or misleading, give away the fact that you have been too lazy to think clearly what you are trying to say or else that you don't know what words mean. The only satisfactory way to enlarge a poverty-stricken vocabulary is to read widely. (p. 27)

Friday, August 21, 2009

An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis

A favorite topic of mine is the difference between popular books and classic literature. Obviously, I was prepared to love An Experiment in Criticism, especially since it was written in Lewis' unique and witty style.

I wouldn't be honest if I didn't say that certain passages were out of my depth of understanding, but the parts I understood were so rich in meaning that I know I'll be returning to this book again and again. How could I resist re-reading Lewis' rock-hard arguments against those who disdain fantasy for its "untruthfullness"? (p. 67) Or his explanation for why an unliterary reader prefers bad writing? (p. 32)

As the unmusical listener wants only the Tune, so the unliterary reader wants only the Event. The one ignores all the sounds the orchestra is actually making; the other ignores nearly all that the words before him are doing; he wants to know what happened next... He is deaf to the aural side of what he reads because rhythm and melody do not help him discover who married (rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered) whom. He likes [comic] strip narratives and almost wordless films because in them nothing stands between him and the Event. And he likes speed because a very swift story is all events. (p. 30)

I was intrigued by the idea that we should come to a book in an attitude of surrender, i.e., without preconceived notions. Ignore the critcis, says Lewis, until after you've read the book. Don't let them tell you a book is bad. In fact, you should expect it to be good and if it isn't, then you've given the author an undeserved compliment. "We must attend even to discover that something is not worth attention," wrote Lewis (p. 132) After you read an original work, then, by all means, read the critics, he says. But you'll have the advantage of being able to "dialogue" with them rather than listen to a one-sided lecture.

Diehard lit fans and C.S. Lewis lovers will heartily enjoy this book.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

As a budding reader I was surprised to learn that Jane Austen had written only six novels. Surely I could read them and quickly become an "expert" on all things Austen. Happily, my first novel, Mansfield Park, came with an excellent introduction that prepared me to enjoy the story immensely. Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility were also richly satisfying, but my attempts to read about Austen's more immature female protagonists proved futile. Emma seemed too obtuse for her own good. And Catherine (from Northanger Abbey) was too naive for my tastes. I wanted a heroine who knew her heart and mind.

Enter Elizabeth Klett, the answer to all Jane Austen dilemmas. I recently discovered her excellent version of Northanger Abbey at Librivox. Finally someone who reads beautifully and flawlessly! Her reading was so delightful that I found myself smiling, chuckling and even laughing out loud. Who would have thought that this was a VERY FUNNY book? Northanger Abbey was Austen's first published novel and though it lacks the rich characters of some of her other works, the wording is exquisite and the story charming. I'm so glad I gave it another try. Catherine Moreland, the story's heroine, is a young woman who has fed her mind on gothic novels. Because of this she is prone to read more excitment and intrigue into situations than they merit. While I scorned her naiveté in my first attempt at the book, I was won over by her goodheartedness this second time around.

Klett is my new "Librivox hero" and I look forward to listening to her other readings. She's even done a version of Emma, which means I may finally get through it!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The American Flaggs by Kathleen Norris

Reading The American Flaggs was like reading three authors at once. The beginning was similar to the Grace Livingston Hill books I read as a teenager. (Poverty stricken but gorgeous female meets fabulously rich and handsome bachelor, they overcome all obstacles, and live happily ever after.) But the writing was more on the level of a Gene Stratton-Porter novel. By the time I finished, an Elizabeth Goudge-like twist had been thrown in which upped the book in my estimation quite a bit.

Basic plot: Penelope Fitzpercy (“Pen” for short) is tired of her family’s Bohemian lifestyle. Unmade beds, unwashed dishes, unpaid bills and a father who drops in and out of their lives are just a few of her concerns. When wealthy Jeff Flagg offers to take her away from it all she has a hard time saying no even though she’s not in love with him.

I thought I was reading a typically fluffy romance novel until I reached page 300 and the characters began making really bad choices. I was dismayed that Norris, writing in the 1930’s, seemed to be promoting a favorite modern-day theme: Be happy with the one you love and don’t let the person to whom you are married get in the way.

Happily, the book took a turn for the better. Instead of a fairy tale gone awry it morphed into a story about real people making tough moral decisions. Frankly, I was amazed and pleased at its un-Hollywood-like ending.

Any Kathleen Norris fans out there?