Althouse | category: writing



a blog by Ann Althouse

"The first three chapters celebrate... a wallowing country tune, an angular new wave spasm, and a song my grandparents played in the living room when the Grangers came over for bridge."

"But of the sixty-six selections, thirty were released between 1947, when Dylan was six years old, and 1962, when his first album appeared, shortly before his twenty-first birthday. This strange body of music includes Italian restaurant staples like Sinatra’s 'Strangers in the Night,' gunslinger melodramas like 'El Paso' by Marty Robbins, Vegas gruel by Dean Martin, and the Yale 'Whiffenpoof Song' as sung by Bing Crosby, Fred Waring, and the Glee Club. There’s a way to see this canon as the genome that shaped Dylan’s gift, the mundus that greeted the bonneted infans at his planetary awakening. In another light they are the musical reef that he dynamited, utterly obliterated, using only his voice, his attitude, and his harmonica. There’s a name for the place that both nurtures and imprisons us, the place we simultaneously pine for and detest: home...."

Writes Dan Chiasson in "Road Maps for the Soul/The Philosophy of Modern Song can be read as a tour journal, refracted through one lonely song after another" (NYRB).

Nice pen-and-ink drawing of Dylan — by Yann Kebbi — at the link.

I've blogged plenty about TPOMS, but I couldn't help blogging one more, stunned as I was by the phrase "the mundus that greeted the bonneted infans at his planetary awakening."

Sometimes when you like something you read, it's because you're thinking, yeah, that's the way I write. Other times you like it precisely because it's so crushingly obvious that you'd never even dream of writing anything like that.

"May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard."

That's the oldest message that we have today that is written in alphabet letters. It's inscribed on an ivory comb.

Quoted in "An Ancient People’s Oldest Message: Get Rid of Beard Lice. Archaeologists in Israel unearthed a tiny ivory comb inscribed with the oldest known sentence written in an alphabet that evolved into one we use today" (NYT).

The NYT tells us the comb is from "around 1,700 B.C., " and I'm interested to see the survival not just of the comb but of "B.C." — rather than "B.C.E." — in the NYT.

I do a little research and dig up — not quite archeologically — something from 1997 A.D. (or should it be C.E.?), and I'm telling you about it because it's written by long — but not that long — gone William Safire, "B.C./A.D. or B.C.E./C.E.?":

As a White House speech writer, I had a hand in writing the text on the plaque marking the spot where Apollo 11 astronauts first set foot on the moon. To slip in an unobtrusive reference to God, I wrote, ''July 1969 A.D.'' When some alien from a U.F.O. lands there in a few thousand years, it will surely know that the initials stand for the Latin Anno Domini and get the point that our first explorers feared only God.

My mistake was putting the A.D. after the date. Correct dating usage is to put B.C., ''before Christ,'' after the year and A.D., ''in the year of our Lord,'' before the year.

Ah. So that's very interesting but not relevant to the question that brought me to the column. But Safire moves on, saying maybe he "goofed in more ways than one" and he shouldn't have written "A.D." at all, but  C.E., "in deference to Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians."

He quotes Harold Bloom — ''Every scholar I know uses B.C.E. and shuns A.D.'' — and others. 

Safire concludes:

Evidently many think B.C.E./C.E. is religiously neutral; others hold that the change is silly because the count remains from the birth of Jesus Christ and confuses those who think the C stands for ''Christ'' and not ''Common.''

Here's my take: I'll stick with B.C. because Christ, in American usage, refers directly to Jesus of Nazareth as if it were his last name and not a title conferring Messiah-hood. For non-Christians to knock themselves out avoiding the word Christ, when it so clearly refers to a person from whose birth we date our secular calendar's count, seems unduly strained and almost intolerant....

A.D. is another story. Dominus means ''lord,'' and when the lord referred to is Jesus, not God, a religious statement is made. Thus, ''the year of our Lord'' invites the query ''Whose lord?'' and we're in an argument we don't need.

I think "Christ" expresses as much divinity as "Lord."

And I think you should go one way or the other on  B.C./A.D. or B.C.E./C.E. To split and go with B.C. and C.E. — based on the comparative religiosity of "Lord" is just bizarre. But maybe that's what the NYT has been doing all these years, and I'd never noticed. 

Am I nit picking?


Back to the comb: The archeologist said "finding the comb with a plea against lice was like 'finding a plate that says, "Put food on this plate."' It’s simple, functional and reflective, in some ways, of our nature. It’s something very human. What were you expecting? A love song? A recipe to make pizza?'"

We find the oldest message and it states the obvious. So much for the deep mysteries of the past. They had a comb and it was a comb.

"He writes for five hours a day and spends the evening at home listening to music. On top of this he gets up at dawn to run every morning...."

"... 'To keep writing for 30, 40 years is not easy,' he says. 'It’s very difficult to keep up your standards. I did everything to keep on writing books, so I sacrificed other things in order to do that. Other pleasures — for instance, nightlife. I didn’t make so many friends, especially in the literary world. I don’t want those relationships and connections. I don’t like dinner parties.... I try to imagine there’s another Haruki Murakami... He’s famous and popular and has many fans. But I’m a different Haruki Murakami and I live a quiet life. Most of the time I forget that I’m a famous writer. I ride the subway or take a bus and go to some used record shop or bookstore, and in those times I’m just nobody. When I write fiction I’m somebody else, but when I’m not writing I don’t feel any ego. Ego is a kind of burden to man, and I don’t like those burdens. I just want to live lightly.'"

From "Haruki Murakami: ‘Ego is a burden’ new/For decades the Norwegian Wood novelist rejected fame. In a rare interview he reveals why he has quit the quiet life and answers accusations of misogyny in his writing" (London Times).

I see there is a new Murakami book coming out in 3 days — "Novelist as a Vocation." 

Judges ought to write in a way that "ordinary citizens can understand" because it "constrains the power of politicians or talking heads to shape or warp the narrative."

Said Stephanos Bibas, a Trump appointee on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, quoted in a Reuters article with, ironically, a headline that's hard to understand, "'Judges gone wild': Trump-appointed judge says too many write for Twitter." 

I thought, from that headline, that some judges were actually posting on Twitter and going wild there! 

But Bibas was talking about opinion-writing. He objected to...

... filling [opinions] with distracting jargon, bad jokes and pop culture references, such as Star Wars in one case, rather than delivering "clear and succinct" rulings.

"For the show off, it seems to be all about the judge's musings, even the judge's ambitions to be noticed," Bibas said. "'Look at me, look at me, I'm so cool.' That is not authoritative. It is even disrespectful."

Asked by a student how judges feel when a big ruling like his election decisions garners them "newfound fame"....

I wonder if the student used the word "garner."

... Bibas said "the kind of cheerleading you get from Twitter is really dangerous," yet some judges seem to seek that attention.

"Try to be on Twitter less than you otherwise would," he said. "Try not to be searching for the feedback or the plaudits or anything else. Just focus on the craft and find as much internal satisfaction in the craft of judging and writing as you can."

"The private individual is not a proper name—not 'Virginia Woolf' or 'Elizabeth Hardwick,' not 'Joan Didion' or 'Zadie Smith' or whoever it is you consider your favorite personal essayist to be."

"Rather, it is the idea that animates all these figures, the powerful, unobtrusive concept that gives the personal essay the appearance of ventriloquizing a singular and spontaneous subjectivity. Most essayists and scholars who write about the personal essay agree that its 'I' is, by necessity and choice, an artful construction...."

Writes Merve Emre in "The Illusion of the First Person/A historical survey of the personal essay shows it to be the purest expression of the lie that individual subjectivity exists prior to the social formations that gave rise to it" (NYRB).

"In many ways, they each offered the other a different kind of legitimacy and power. For him, it was the legitimacy of high-minded activism..."

"... the idea that he was deeper than his screen image, who chomped on food with gusto and had a light, almost breezy touch. For her... [t]he relationship reaffirmed that Jolie’s stardom was born of a private life made public. Pitt was a magnet for the ravenous press, and she gained a level of visibility she hadn’t quite inhabited before. But it also bolstered her as an artist, a reciprocal dynamic that would persist throughout their relationship.... The beginning of the end of Jolie and Pitt’s intertwined star personae became evident with a single pale leg jutting dramatically out of a black velvet Versace gown at the 2012 Academy Awards.... An endless ream of memes lambasting the actress for seeming forced in her sexiness followed, placing her leg on a variety of figures or doubling it on the other side to make her look like a couture crab. It was the first time she seemed like a punch line...."

From "What Was Brangelina? They were known for their image-making savvy. As their divorce reenters the press cycle, we’re reminded of who’s better at it" by Angelica Jade Bastién (The Vulture).

An endless ream of memes lambasting.... What think you of the torrid, florid writing?

Do these intertwined star personae deserve this prodigious, ridiculous writing?


Overheard at Meadhouse:

I need a rhyme for "prodigious"?


"Good writing, I think, ultimately exists between the twin goal posts of as-few-words-as-you-need and as-many-words-as-you-want."

"I, a natural natterer, lean toward the latterer. But one must draw the line somewhere. I recommend striking out 'actually' at every opportunity, unless it’s in a discussion of the movie 'Love Actually,' in which case we might want to focus on the title’s confounding commalessness. Similarly, though I would never fault the supreme lyricist Johnny Mercer for the gorgeous 'You’re much too much / And just too very very,' I am on constant alert for 'very,' always looking for the chance to dispose of it."

From "Writers, be wary of Throat-Clearers and Wan Intensifiers. Very, very wary" by Benjamin Dreyer (WaPo).

Here's Dreyer's book: "Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style."

And here's that song (which is about not being able to come up with words to express how marvelous this person is):


As for the missing comma in "Love Actually," I think there's some widely held belief that commas in titles are too fussy and you should strike them without worrying about the rules of punctuation. But "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" even has an Oxford comma.

"I thought the memo had gone out that the word 'luminous' had been banned from book reviews."

I wrote in December 2009, recalling a wonderful 2007 essay by Joe Queenan.

In "Astonish Me," Queenan wrote:
Several years ago, overwhelmed by the flood of material unleashed annually by the publishing industry, I decided to establish a screening program by purchasing only books that at least one reviewer had described as ''astonishing.'' 

Previously, I had limited my purchases to merchandise deemed ''luminous'' or ''incandescent,'' but this meant I ended up with an awful lot of novels about bees, Provence or Vermeer. The problem with incandescent or luminous books is that they veer toward the introspective, the arcane or the wise, while I prefer books that go off like a Roman candle. When I buy a book, I don't want to come away wiser or happier or even better informed. I want to get blown right out of the water by the author's breathtaking pyrotechnics. I want to come away astonished. 

He was making fun of the absurd overuse of the verb "astonish" in book promotions.

[T]he truth is, if nobody describes a book as astonishing, it probably isn’t astonishing, and if it isn’t astonishing, who needs it?

I remembered that essay 2 years after I read it, as I was reading the New York Times piece "10 Best Books of 2009," which called a memoir "luminous." I said "How can I trust their judgment? To be fair, they didn't call anything 'incandescent' or 'astonishing.'" 

And I'm remembering it again, now 15 years later, as I'm seeing — at Grammarphobia — that there's a new book, "Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A–Z of Literary Persuasion," by Louise Willder. 
The blub is ‘my 100 words of little white lies’, she says. ‘There has to be some kind of sugar coating and, yes, lying.’ Of course, one has to draw the line somewhere, and Willder would like to see fewer shopworn adjectives on book covers, specifically ‘luminous’, ‘dazzling’, ‘incandescent’, ‘stunning’, ‘shimmering’, ‘sparkling’, ‘glittering’, ‘devastating’, ‘searing’, ‘shattering’, ‘explosive’, ‘epic’, ‘electrifying’, ‘dizzying’, ‘chilling’, ‘staggering’, ‘deeply personal’ and the ubiquitous ‘haunting’. 
Hooray! Publishers (and reviewers), take note. I never could understand ‘incandescent’. Even light bulbs aren’t incandescent anymore. And while we’re at it, I’d like to blue-pencil the noun phrases ‘rite of passage’, ‘coming of age’ and ‘richly woven tapestry’....

What words can you use when all the words have been used before? It's promotion, so you can't just use the truth as your guiding light. So I'll just say let your guiding light be never go toward the light. If you're describing a text, never use metaphors suggesting that the words are emitting light. So no "luminous,"  no "incandescent," no "glittering" or "shimmering" or "sparkling." 

"Good writing, I think, ultimately exists between the twin goal posts of as-few-words-as-you-need and as-many-words-as-you-want."

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