Book Review: Wordsmithy

wordsmithyAs I said in a previous post, the next best thing to writing is reading about writing. And if I were to gather my favorite writing books and pile them on the floor, I imagine it would look like this:

Somewhere near bottom would be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It’s not that I don’t appreciate this book – remember, it’s still in my favorites pile – but I don’t love it the way others do. I see as it essential reading, but I don’t see it as the Holy Writ of writing guides.

Next up would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir. The first is sharp, winsome, and delightful (I reviewed it here). The second is a gritty, unvarnished look at one man’s journey as a writer. After reading it, I had a deeper appreciation for King’s work and what was behind it.

At the top of my favorites pile would be Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson. Though not a memoir, it is similar to King’s book in that it addresses not just writing, but the writing life. What sets the two apart is how they approach the subject. King has a treasure trove of wise and insightful observations, but his outlook is pagan, atheistic, and often pretty bleak. Wilson’s is staunchly Christian to the core.

I don’t care if you plan to make a career of writing, or merely have a passing interest in it – this book should be on your shelf. It’s an immensely rewarding read for those who want to “sling ink” full time, but most of the tips are such that anybody can profit from them.

The book is short – a mere 120 pages – but I think Wilson has inherited Lewis’ ability to pack into one sentence what most writers pack into three or four. He lays out and explains “a veritable Russian doll of writing tips”: seven exhortations for people who wish to cultivate the wordriht life.

  1. Know something about the world
  2. Read
  3. Read mechanical helps
  4. Stretch your routines
  5. Be at peace with being lousy for awhile
  6. Learn other languages
  7. Keep a commonplace book

I’ve already discussed his advice on keeping a commonplace book and the way he shoots down faux-humility in writing. My favorite tip, however, would have to be the first one: know something about the world.

By this I mean the world outside of books. This might require joining the Marines, or working on an oil rig or as a hashslinger at a truck stop in Kentucky. Know what things smell like out there. If everything you write smells like a library, then your prospective audience will be limited to those who smell like libraries. (p. 10)

An apt reminder for those of us who are tempted to think that the writer’s life happens almost exclusively behind closed doors with a stack of paper and a stack of books. As Thoreau put it, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

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Flotsam & Jetsam (11/29)

It’s Time for Radical Long-Run Optimism – “Conservatives fall into hopelessness and despair because they are trained to be pessimistic and reactionary, and from this malady they are provided no escape which is not condemned as ‘radical.'” A lengthy article, but well worth reading.

Looper: Fact or Fictional? – If you’re a fan of Looper or just time travel in general (and I’m both), this is a lot of fun to watch.

A Word from Joel Beeke – “The precious and momentous doctrine of justification by faith alone… is the heart of the evangel, the kernel of the glorious gospel of the blessed triune God, and the key to the kingdom of heaven.”

Evidence For God: A Fine-Tuned Universe – Awe-inspiring.

MovieByte: Life of Pi – “Beneath all of this, the film is about Hinduism; Eat, Pray, Love meets Castaway. It is difficult to see past the religious themes of the film to appreciate its impressive accomplishments for cinema. The message of “God is real, and manifests himself through every religion” runs rampant in Life of Pi. Not only is it very unscholarly, it just doesn’t add up. The film attempts to wed Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, and more. It falls flat in its attempt with a brutal amount of sentimentality to hide its absurdity.”

Never – A friend and fellow blogger recently released her second novel, Never. I haven’t read it yet myself, but I’ve heard good things about it. Plus, who doesn’t like a good western?

Ripped Jeans and Pearls – Wow. Just wow. I do believe Becky has outdone herself.

“No persons are more frequently wrong, than those who will not
admit they are wrong.” – François de La Rochefoucauld

Postman on Orwell and Huxley

I used to think Orwell and Huxley were saying the same thing. Dystopian worlds, oppression of the masses, big bad government, the whole schtick. To my mind, they couldn’t be that different. (This was before I actually studied it for myself, you know.)

In the forward to his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman explains why Orwell and Huxley were not saying the same thing:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

“Inflicting pleasure.” I like that. It conjures up images of something damaging, and we don’t usually think of pleasure that way. Maybe we should. Maybe, in our quest to avoid being undone by external oppression, we should remember that it is far easier to be undone from the inside out.

Lord, save us from ourselves.

What Is It They Say About Absolute Power?

Keep up with international news? Then you probably heard that Egypt’s president has insisted he will not be another dictator. Cheers all ’round!

Now here’s the punch-line: he said this after granting himself dictator-like powers.

This from The Telegraph:

As at least one teenage protester was killed in clashes at a Muslim Brotherhood headquarters building in the northern of the country, and police continued to fight battles with protesters around Tahrir Square in Cairo on Sunday, Mr Morsi issued a statement stressing that the power seizure was only “temporary” and calling for political dialogue.

He also agreed to meet Egypt’s judges on Monday to negotiate a solution to the crisis.

“The presidency reiterates the temporary nature of those measures, which are not intended to concentrate power,” the statement said.

“The presidency stresses its firm commitment to engage all political forces in the inclusive democratic dialogue to reach a common ground.”

Mr Morsi outraged opponents on Thursday, less than 24 hours after winning international praise for negotiating a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, by announcing that henceforth all his decisions would be beyond legal challenge.

When I first read the headline, I thought it was a joke. Something written by The Onion, perhaps, but real news from the real world? Surely not.

Then again, I’m always underestimating the kind of news the real world is capable of producing. Twain wasn’t joking when he said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”

For what it’s worth, here are my two cents on the subject: What is it they say about power? It tends to corrupt. And what about absolute power? It corrupts absolutely.

But I’m sure Mr. Morsi will be the shining exception.