The Dictionary Project

I picked up my youngest son at school the other day. After getting in the car, instead of immediately buckling up, he started searching his book bag for something. I sat patiently and waited util he was ready to go. He found what he was looking for and got buckled up. I started driving toward his favorite restaurant, where I’d promised to take him the day before. As we were driving, I noticed in the rear view mirror he was reading through a book. Great, I thought. We stopped at a traffic light and he asked me to turn and look at a map and a sign language chart in the book. He had the air of a kid who knew his dad liked books and so he wanted to show this one off. I was happily obliged to let him.

After parking the car, my son quickly unbuckled and started showing me sections of the book. At first, because he showed me a section with short bios of U.S. Presidents and a section of U.S. state maps, I thought it might have been some type of encyclopedia but I still wasn’t sure yet. After about my third question, my son finally handed me the book. The cover of the book had me immediately.

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There in vivid color were the starry heavens, mother earth, an a profound quote by one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. I have to say the quote of Ludwig Wittgenstein really sealed the deal. It’s one of my favorite quotes, and for a dictionary meant for 3rd graders this philosophically enlightening statement on the cover was just the type of display in intellectual presumptiveness I find very encouraging. A quote like that ignites reflection before you even open the book.

Books should, at a minimum, be a value added experience, an in some cases, like this little dictionary, a potentially mind stretching (“world” expanding) one also.

This Dictionary was given to my son as part of The Dictionary Project (DP). The DP’s goal is to “assist all students in becoming good writers, active readers, creative thinkers, and resourceful learners by providing them with their own personal dictionary.” There are many great causes in life to dedicate yourself to, but this has to rank as one of the most important. So much of the personal and professional success that young people ultimately have in life stems directly from the quality of their education at the primary school level.

In the opening pages of this dictionary there’s a short, concise essay that cuts to the central reason why students (at school and throughout life) need to use and refer to a dictionary regularly:

To succeed in school and in life, you must be able to use the English language effectively. You simply cannot learn all that you need to know without being able to understand the words you hear and read, and without knowing how to use the right words to convey your thoughts and ideas clearly.

For someone who admires intelligence, creativity, and the artful use of language and the power that words can carry (as I’m sure you all do), it was a nice little reminder that there are so many people and groups—teachers, parents, and private Foundations—constantly striving, in big and little ways, to improve the lives of our most precious resource, our children.

Upping my Twain

My study and my home, for that matter, are starting to become overrun with books. Actually, this started a long time ago but I prefer to ignore the realization as long as possible. Regardless of sagging shelves, loaded boxes and growing stacks, I continue to collect books. I recently told my wife I would address this addiction immediately. I would attack it with energetic vigor and a dogged determination. I will hold the line!

So with that in mind this past week, I added three more books to my Mark Twain collection.

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I already have the Complete 29 Volume Oxford Collection of Mark Twain’s works, a CD collection of his private letters, and a couple boxes of his books in various paperback editions. You see, when I read I use a pencil to underline memorable passages and make marginalia. I’m a slow reader, taking in every word and every punctuation mark. If I don’t underline passages I’m not likely to find them when I go looking for them. I can’t bring myself to write in most of my hardcover books. That’s irreverent! Well at least not in the one’s I consider my collection stock. This means I collect the hardcover books and in some cases, like my Mark Twain collection, I buy a paperback version so I can write in that book.

If you don’t already, one day I’ll have to write a post on why you should read Mark Twain. But that’s for another day.

So as for the books pictured above:

Well if you weren’t already aware, Mark Twain’s writings, beside being humorous, a work of art and fun to read, mark a transition in the history of American literature. Ernest Hemingway famously commented:

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

That’s high praise coming from a winner of the nobel prize for literature. A part of Hemingway’s renown as a writer comes from his adopting a Twainesque style of writing. Not the humor so much, but the rule that a writer “Employ a simple and straightforward style,” and “Eschew surplusage.” Of course there’s a lot more to Hemingway’s particular art but he was clearly influenced by Twain.

Anyone who likes to read and write is usually attentive to prose style. I pick up books all the time and skim a few passages in order to get some feel for the writer’s prose. For me, this attentiveness to writing tends to spill over into an attentiveness to everyday speech, because good writing, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, is “the shadow of good talk.” This has become a habit. I find listening carefully to good talkers can help improve your writing. I listen for organization, rhythm, cadence, word choice, and structure. All the elements of an individual style or personality. People’s individuality and their particular way of thinking and expressing themselves is truly fascinating.

So naturally with a writer I admire, I’m interested in how they developed as a writer. What influenced and shaped their style. This is why I picked up The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff. This history book outlines the beginning of Samuel Clemens’s (Mark Twain’s) career and how he and some other prominent writers of that time helped reinvent American literature.

Then we have the recently released Chasing the Last Laugh  by Richard Zacks. This book is about Twain’s great world wide tour. Mark Twain didn’t have much luck with investments and business ventures. He made a lot of money and he lost a lot of money. He got heavily in debt. He decided this wasn’t the way his story was going to end, he wasn’t leaving his family with massive debts to pay off. So Twain set out on very successful world wide tour. This book focuses on Twain’s tour around the world—chasing the last laugh.

Now, I haven’t read this book yet but I know Twain was able to pay back his debts and substantially rebuild his wealth. Full length biographies typically require a good investment of time, whereas books aimed at capturing a brief period or event in a Life are usually shorter reads and yet very informative. So this book along with, say, Man in White are good, short reads if you’re interested.

Finally, I picked up the 125th edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  This edition is a copy of the original first edition with illustrations and notes as Twain originally approved. My goal is to read this one through carefully and write a review—eventually.

Matters of Style

Anyone who likes to write usually struggles with matters of style. Serious writers want to develop a particular voice in their writing. And while they may settle on a style of writing that comes “natural” to them, they’re always looking, consciously or not, for ways to personalize their prose. The searching question is always: How do I create a particular sound on the page?

Most writers learn to write from doing a lot of reading. I for one am a slow reader. I read slow because I not only want to take in what the author has to say about the topic, I also want to absorb—at least from the good writers—their particular style: the syntax, rhythm, and word play. The question for me as I read along is: How does this writer do what they do?   

I have a whole book shelf of books about style and writing. It’s standard practice for me to buy any new books on style by well known authors once I’m aware of them. For example, recently Steven Pinker released a new book on style called The Sense of Style: the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. Well, of course, I pre-ordered it before its release. My new copy now sits on a stack of other books I hope to eventually read. The stack keeps growing. Eventually, I’ll get around to reading Pinker’s new style book and posting my thoughts about it on this blog.

So my thoughts on writing and style will be topics I’ll post about on this blog. I’ll talk about what I liked or didn’t like about a writer’s style in a book review or essay. And then there are a number of great essays on style and writing by famous authors that I’d like to write about on this blog. I think style is the essential element of all writers. It reflects a certain quality of mind in the writer, so it’s something I pay close attention to in writing. 

One never masters the craft of writing, I know I certainly haven’t, but one works diligently as an admiring student of the craft. I’m rarely satisfied completely with what I write, though I’m starting to be less critical of my writing since I’ve come to accept Voltaire’s adage that we shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good. I generally have two thoughts after reading through something I’ve written on a blog, at work, or in some other medium over the years, and that’s the thought of either “Hey, not too bad. I actually come across as a somewhat intelligent and skillful writer,” or “This is complete drivel.” The later thought tends to predominant with me.

Of course my problem is more than just perfectionism and disappointment. It’s also partly a lack of focus and the sometimes horrible fear that I’m just never going to be really any good at this craft. The fear of failure has kept me from writing for long periods of time. But I have a passion for writing so I always return to the craft, even if I’m not as good as I’d like to be. The best thing I can do, the best that any of us can do, is do the best we can. And that should be good enough.  

I recently posted this comment on another blog about my struggle with writing:

For the most part I go back and read things I’ve written and think ‘I could have done a lot better.’ That feeling of failure has at various times kept me from writing or blogging for long periods. Most successful writers struggle with their writing because they’re usually perfectionists. And most of them, if they want to continue to write, eventually learn that perfection is an illusion. You write and craft sentences and tell stories because you want to, because it’s a passion you have, it’s an aesthetic experience you enjoy. At some point writing is an act of faith. We do it believing that what we do, while not perfect, is an act of reverence for the power of words and the belief that what we do matters in some way to someone.

Well those thoughts basically sum up why I continue to write and why I continue to be so passionate about the craft.

Why I Write

The Power of Words

When I considered why I wanted to start this blog, my first thoughts were of George Orwell’s piece Why I Write. Orwell, in his trademark candor, laid out four general motives that he believed animated every writer in varying degrees. So instead of me trying to find the words to explain why I write (or blog), I’ll just let Orwell explain:

They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose.Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

All four of Orwell’s motives, in varying degrees, at different times, are what animate me to write. For example, If I had to choose I’d say aesthetic enthusiasm followed closely by historical impulse are the strongest motives in me at the moment. But maybe that’s just sheer egoism to say that.

As for political purpose, well, as Waldo Emerson said: “You can no more keep out of politics than you can keep out of the frost.” Regardless of how much distance one tries to keep or how much “objectivity” one tries to maintain, It’s impossible to affirm, criticize, or comment on any public policy, debate, proposal or political figure without appearing to take sides. The best any writer can do is write what he or she feels or thinks is the case based on the available facts and evidence at the time. In the Orwellian sense, my main political purpose is the hope that maybe something I write may alter someone’s idea about the kind of society (or way of life) we should strive for.

Lastly, there is one additional motive for writing glanced over by Orwell, and that’s about leaving something of myself behind beyond just memories and material things. So much of who we are — what we think and feel — is trapped inside our head. When we pass from this world there is nothing left but the memories of us in pictures, videos, and stories told by others. When we’re gone our material possessions are dispersed and sold off. But by writing (blogging) we can leave behind, locked in computer servers around the world long after we’re gone, our thoughts, opinions, concerns, loves, dislikes and traces of all the other intentional qualities that really make up the essence of who we really are. We may be gone physically, but our thoughts and feelings (in words) can be captured forever. The Reaper may steal us from this world, but we can leave behind for our children, grandchildren, friends, and future generations these distant echoes of our essential spirit to remember us by. As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote: “Every word that you write is a blow that smites the Devil.”