I’ve decided to reinvent The Millions. The blog world is crowded. I cannot possibly add to or improve upon the innumerable blogs out there that are about music or politics. So many of the things that I have a casual interest in are covered so obsessively in the blog world that it is hard to find something to write about in any sort of compelling way. Nor do I have much interest in cataloging my daily life. I know from experience that my life is capable of producing, tops, a paragraph or two of mildly amusing reading every few weeks, which does not a blog make. Plus, I would like to try to lure some people into reading what I write, and writing about what I ate for lunch today will likely not do the trick. As for the two of you (you know who you are) who read this blog regularly, I hope you will not be disappointed by my change away from that format. And finally, after some thinking, I have figured out what these changes will be. The Millions will be about books. For a book lover without a whole lot of free time (not to mention money) it can be very hard to consistantly find new and interesting books. To do so, in my experience, requires reading dozens of book reviews weekly and trolling book stores looking for the new and interesting (or the old and interesting). The internet improves this process slightly, mainly by cutting out some of the time required, but it offers little help in locating a book that you might like to take a look at. I have yet to find anyone that has had much luck with Amazon’s recommendations. I recently realized, though, that I am singularly qualified to write a blog about books. I work in a great little book store and therefore, in pursuit of my paycheck, I see with my own eyes the hundreds of books that come out weekly and I read reviews in dozens of newspapers and magazines. Finally, I have always loved books and I have always loved telling people about books, and now I have myself a little blog that can serve both of these loves. I hope to update several times a week, if not daily, and hopefully this thing will be chock full of interesting books at all times. So there it is… it feels good to get started on this thing, and if anyone has any comments, questions or suggestions let me know.
Earlier this year, when the CIA’s style manual was released online (pdf), writers and editors across the web took note. Bureaucracies are often criticized for propagating opaque prose — the kind of double-speak that pronounces very little with an abundance of words. But here were CIA directives that sounded far more like Strunk and White than big government.
Keep the language crisp and pungent; prefer the forthright to the pompous and ornate.
Favor the active voice and shun streams of polysyllables and prepositional phrases.
Be frugal in the use of adjectives and adverbs; let nouns and verbs show their own power.
The stylistic advice was surprisingly insightful, applicable to novelists and bureau chiefs alike. As with all in-house style guides, there was also plenty of real estate devoted to the specific semantic battles at hand:
Use hyphens (not en dashes) in the compounds designating Russian submarine classes when the compounds are used adjectively. If the meaning is clear, refer to these submarines by the class designator alone. Yankee-class, Delta-class, Victor-class, etc.
Specific usage guidance is, of course, the hallmark of the in-house style guide. It attempts to systematize and make consistent the thousands of choices writers and editors make across the organization’s publications and websites. Should it be Web or web, Internet of internet, the Oxford comma (Tom, Dick, and Jane) or the AP-style comma (Tom, Dick and Jane)?
Many style manual enthusiasts — myself included — came away from reading the Directorate of Intelligence Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications impressed with its thoroughness, precision, and literary authority. It was a far cry from the stereotype of greybeard bureaucrats churning out impenetrable tomes of officialese.
In Steven Pinker’s new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, he argues that opaque prose is not a product of dubious intentions. Bureaucrats and business managers aren’t trying to sound smarter or more important than they really are, just as tech writers aren’t trying to provoke an aneurism when they write cryptic wi-fi installation instructions. Pinker sets aside the “bamboozlement theory” of bad writing and, instead, settles on the Curse of Knowledge as prime mover and impediment — a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.
As an antidote for stuffy or impenetrable prose, he offers us the paradigm of “classic style,” a model articulated by the literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner in their book Clear and Simple as the Truth. According to this model, “a writer of classic prose must simulate two experiences: showing the reader something in the world, and engaging her in conversation.” In order to achieve this, the writer must enlist the sensibilities and imagination of the reader. It’s not that far from Flannery O’Connor’s idea that fiction is like an essay that makes an argument to the reader’s senses. The argument is clear and concrete; there is something to see. The prose becomes a window onto the world.
In addition to debunking the idea that there’s a widespread conspiracy among fussy prose writers to delude their readers, Pinker also suggests that the grammar and usage police are often unnecessarily grumpy and shortsighted. “Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.” The language grows and adapts to our needs and it never stagnates. Strunk and White might have condemned contact as a verb because it seemed “vague and self-important,” but Pinker defends its very indeterminacy: “…the vagueness of to contact is exactly why it caught on: sometimes a writer doesn’t need to know how one person will get in touch with another, as long as he does.”
Pinker is on a mission to remove the heckling usage purists from the back of the linguistics classroom. As a psycholinguist and cognitive scientist, Pinker turns out to be oddly at ease when arguing that declining language standards — if they are declining at all — will not result in the fall of civilization. He’s not arguing for the abandonment of rules and guidelines, but for a middle way — “…writers will do themselves a favor, and increase the amount of pleasure in the world, if they use a word in the senses that are accepted by literate readers.”
If there are impediments to a clear, evocative, and forceful style, they can be organized under a few descriptive headings: metadiscourse (the classic, self-referential preamble about why this topic matters), the burden of cliché, the curse of knowledge, false reasoning, apologizing, mixed metaphors, a blindness to the engineering of syntax. Zombie nouns, a term borrowed from the writing scholar Helen Sword, deserve special scrutiny. This apocalyptic vision occurs when the writer turns a “perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix…rather than postponing something, you implement its postponement.” Sword and Pinker call them zombie nouns because “they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion.”
You can feel Pinker having fun on the page as he slays the demons of soggy prose and the purist’s irrational scorn with equal zeal. Ultimately he’s not just interested in explaining why pedants get it wrong when they say “describe yourself in 50 words or less” should be “describe yourself in 50 words or fewer.” He’s happy to school us in the misapplication of the count noun rule, but he’s happier when enticing us to reverse engineer the web of words and meanings imbedded in a beautiful passage. Language is personal with Pinker and he even offers us a passage written by his novelist wife so we can meditate on its loveliness. This is ultimately why style matters in the first place, Pinker argues, because it allows us to create a window onto the world for others to look through. The CIA’s correct hyphenation of a Russian submarine class is part of that, but so too is the expansion of clarity and beauty.
Despite my best intentions, 2015 went and happened before I even opened the copy of David Copperfield I’d purchased months earlier. I wanted to better acquaint myself with the genius of Charles Dickens — or so I had told myself. Thankfully, my friend Meaghan O’Connell, author of the forthcoming essay collection And Now We Have Everything, had told herself the same thing. And she’d been just as delinquent. So we decided to read the book at the same time, in a two-person book club, reveling in our shared ignorance and eventual education. What follows is part one of our email correspondence about the novel.
Edan Lepucki: I realized, before I began reading David Copperfield with you, that it’s been more than four years since I’ve read a ye olden classic. I spent a lot of my 20s tearing through famous books I’d failed to read as an English major in college: Wuthering Heights; Anna Karenina; Tess of the d’Urbervilles; Middlemarch. But when I turned 30 and had a baby, I stopped. I’ve basically read nothing but contemporary fiction for the last four and a half years. Why? I primarily blame sleeplessness — when you haven’t slept, your brain doesn’t want unfamiliar syntax! Also, maybe because I never go out anymore, reading the latest greatest novel is my way of being social with people? (God that is dorky.) All I know is, on my book tour I went alone to a bar with a Henry James novel. I ordered a glass of sparkling wine. I took a sip. I opened the book. I took another sip of wine. Then I closed the book. The James remains on my bookshelf, unread.
But now that I’m 11 chapters into David Copperfield, I recall how wonderful it is to read lit-er-a-ture. For one, a 19th-century novel is dramatic and juicy. The book is appealing to the part of me that needs plot (what is going to happen to Davy next?!), as well as the part of me that needs to be moved. Leave it to Dickens to make me worry about a poor little British boy — who would’ve guessed? The language, too, has been inspiring me. For instance, the series of questions early on, regarding Copperfield’s mother:
Can I say of her face — altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is — that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocence and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night?
He goes on with this, “Can I say…” motif for another line or two and it kills me — the present narrator negotiating memory with present day objectivity and the demands of storytelling! What a feat!
Meaghan O’Connell: Right! Like, hey, who knew? Charles Dickens is a really great writer! The voice of the narrator — David Copperfield, looking back on his life — is so charming and funny and in my opinion effectively makes the case that people CAN speak in parentheses.
The fact that he was being paid by the word, that the book was published in monthly installments, is definitely laughably clear when you hold the 850-page book in your hands (D.F.W., what’s your excuse?), and clearer still when you read a few chapters a night and realize this was how it was meant to be read. Ideal reading experience: have a friend force you to read two chapters of this book every night in February.
And yes, I did need to be forced. Or, okay, cajoled. I knew that if I could just get into it, get over that initial hump, it would be such a great book, and not just in a “get it under my belt so I don’t have to vaguely nod and change the subject at parties” way. It’s not a difficult book at all; Dickens, when he wrote this, was a really famous, popular writer. It’s really, really entertaining. But my god, I opened the first page and my eyes crossed.
Is it just expectations, and the hugeness of the book? That we associate reading the classics with undergraduate reading assignments? The last time I read Dickens was eighth grade, Great Expectations. I’m sure it was some textbook abridged thing and I remember it feeling like a slog despite enjoying all sorts of jokes about Miss Havisham.
I think you’re right, a lot of what I read is in an effort to participate in something. I really do like reading a just-published book and enthusing about it publicly or shit-talking it privately. I like the conversation, and discovery, and following a thread of my own interest. Rarely do I read a book that leads me to Charles Dickens, especially considering I tend to read either autobiographical fiction or semi-experimental nonfiction written by women. So who is gonna fave my David Copperfield tweets, I guess is my point?!
Plus, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if literature generally has not improved as a whole, it has improved, if nothing else, at opening chapters. Novelists, now, know how to HOOK you. Charles Dickens is a master of many things but not a master of an opening chapter. Yes, fine, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” is, I’ll grant you, a great line. Though I do humbly submit that this line would be better felt as say, the last line of the first chapter? We don’t know our narrator yet! We aren’t invested! The line is lost! We only notice it because we’ve seen it posted on Tumblrs the world over.
(I am interested in what you think, as a novelist, about the challenges of writing a book that is literally like, chapter one, I was born, and goes from there — doesn’t that mean the most spotty recollections and boring things happen in the beginning?)
Edan: Honestly, I have been down on Dickens since the ninth grade, when my English teacher divided us into groups and assigned a different novel of his to each. Of course mine got the biggest book, Bleak House. I was the only person in the group to read it and I did all the work so that we didn’t collectively fail the class. Before now, Dickens has always — to no fault of his own — made me feel resentful, like I’m just a goody-goody the cool kids can take advantage of. Sort of like Copperfield himself, who is so tenderhearted that he will stay up late retelling Tom Jones to the popular boy at school, or give away his money to a waiter, and so on.
But I digress.
I too have been thinking about the paid-by-the-word aspect of Dickens and how he clearly planned these prolonged comic “bits” that in his day must’ve had people laughing uproariously and discussing with friends; it’s the 19th-century equivalent of sharing clips and .GIFS from our favorite shows. (Dickens = Dick in a Box!) Right now I’m interested in how many of these comedic parts are concerned with class. Dickens loves to parody various British accents, and I wonder how intriguing Davy was to his readers; he’s this boy who is able to (or is required to) skip from one social class to another, and thus belonged nowhere.
As for the opening, I actually really liked it! Once I figured out what the hell “who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins in a drawer upstairs” meant, I was intrigued. I love a semi-omniscient first person narrator. It’s impossible and the conceit recognizes that, and moves ahead with it anyway. It reminds me of the Alice Munro story “My Mother’s Dream,” wherein the narrator talks about life and her mother’s life (and subconscious life!) when the narrator was but a wee infant. It’s such a magical device.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the fictional autobiography as I read this, and what I’d do, were I to write a contemporary one. I think the drama actually lies in the spotty recollections and the double vision of retrospection. I like, too, how David’s narration becomes more mature as he gets older. Can you think of any modern day versions of this form?
Here’s another question: Are you reading this in public — and if so, has anyone approached you? I haven’t read Infinite Jest yet (gah, I know, I know) because I don’t want to read it in public and suffer feedback from Wallace superfans (gah again). This is such a silly reason not to read a book. And yet…
Meaghan:Ha! I haven’t read it in public but am embarrassed just at the thought of slamming it onto the table of some coffee shop. I’ve been reading it every night before bed and really enjoying breaking the spine and measuring how far along I am and whether I’m halfway yet. This is usually not a good sign for me, when I start counting pages and viewing reading as a sort of endurance challenge. You know, when you sort of see how many pages are left in a chapter and weigh how tired you are? “You can do it!!!” Which is to say, THIS BOOK HAS A HIT A SLUMP.
You texted me today asking if I had given up but I haven’t. I do cheat on it sometimes with other faster-paced contemporary novels (Novels By People I Follow on Twitter, a large-looming genre of my nightstand), and sort of feel like I’m betraying you. I think Dickens has timed his little slump well, though, because it slowed down a bit right when I started feeling so IN IT, so invested in old Davey/Daisy that there’s no way I’d give up and not find out what’s gonna happen. I mean, it’s fucking David Copperfield, I trust some good shit will go down. But right now he is like, deciding about whether to be a lawyer? And checking out apartments with his aunt? And yeah I feel I miss the subtlety of a lot of these bits, so when it drags it’s like, come on, man.
And I will say the inevitable: it reminds me of Karl Ove Knausgaard in this way. I have read so many damned My Struggle books, the next book could be themed like, Shits I Took in the ’80s and I would feel compelled read it. (Okay obviously that would be an amazing book, but you get what I mean.) I need to know what Karl Ove does! It’s like watching a TV show that gets bad the last few seasons but my god, you’ve sunk so much time into it already, why not see it through? Also it’s just familiar. I’m invested. I’m in, I’ll follow you anywhere.
D-Copp is this sweet little boy, still nine years old in my head though I think now he is a teen, and I need to know who he ends up with. I pray to god there is some sex in this book though I imagine it’s the coy kind. I’m already annoyed.
Edan: I doubt there will be sex, alas. I’ve been pretty bored by the book as well. But even through my boredom I have literally gasped aloud at the power and genius of Chapter XVIII “A Retrospect,” which introduces — in summary! — David as a sexual adolescent, compressing time through the lens of the crushes he gets. I loved it. I also love the writhing, disgusting Uriah Heep (again with the class issues!), the obviously duplicitous Steerforth, and the fact that David’s aunt mourns David’s nonexistent twin sister. My pretend dissertation will be about the unreal yet ever present and performed females in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Um, right, Daisy?
Will we finish the book? Will we be able to define Dickensian? Find out next time, in part two of our discussion!