Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant
By Alan Jacobs
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2010 Alan Jacobs
All right reserved.
Chapter One Sentences
In her wonderful book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells this anecdote:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, 'Do you think I could be a writer?'
"Well," the writer said, "I don't know ... Do you like sentences?"
Since I first read this story many years ago, I have thought that the unnamed author — was it Dillard herself? — gave one of the best possible answers to that eternal question. For writing, the writing of prose anyway, is largely a matter of making sentences: hammering one together, connecting it to another, eventually framing a whole edifice. But one sentence at a time is the only way you can do it.
I may not be much of a writer, but I do like sentences; indeed I love them, and think about them a lot — shockingly often, really. I am one of the few remaining Americans blessed with the opportunity to walk to and from work each day, and as I walk I am likely to be rolling sentences around in my head. I have even stopped listening to This American Life on my iPod, the better to facilitate concentration. Sometimes, when I want extra time to consider my options — the walk is only about fifteen minutes — I take a detour to Starbucks. I enjoy the coffee, but I'm really just prolonging my commute for the sake of the sentences.
I am not sure that this obsession is wholly healthy. Not long ago I was writing an essay in which I planned to say a few words about a critic named Ilan Stavans, and I thought it appropriate to note that Stavans has a curious cultural situation: he was born Ilan Stavchansky, not in Russia or New York or anywhere else you might expect someone with such a name to grow up, but in Mexico City. As a boy he attended a Yiddish school there, and now — he teaches at Amherst College — he seems to live at the intersections of the Yiddish, Spanish, and English languages. (You can learn more about Stavans's internal multiculturalism in his fine book, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language.) All these reflections were appropriate, I thought, because the essay was about dictionaries, about language. But I found myself also wanting, perhaps without so much justification, to note that Stavans looks, in one photo anyway, rather like the actor Nick Nolte.
Now, at the time that I made the Nolte connection, I didn't know that Stavans was born Stavchansky; I wasn't sure what to make of the name Stavans. I just knew that he grew up in Mexico City and was Jewish. So I started trying to make a sentence based on my imperfect knowledge. Eventually I came up with something like this: "You wouldn't think Stavans was Jewish or Mexican, any more than you would think Nick Nolte (whom, to judge by the author photo on Dictionary Days, Stavans resembles) was Jewish or Mexican." But, I started asking myself, is that awkward? Does the parenthesis carry the point strongly enough? Perhaps I should use dashes instead. Now, "whom" — that's accurate, but it will sound wrong to some readers — should I rephrase? Maybe I should break the whole thing into two sentences, though getting it all into one sentence is the challenge, and therefore part of the fun ...
Lost in verbal carpentry, I did not for some time reflect that what the sentence said was probably not something I should commit to print. Of course, I was trying to make a little joke, but the reward of getting a smile from one or two readers was not worth the risk of sounding like a bigot: "Gee, he doesn't look Mexican! He doesn't look like a Jew!" Besides — the non-sentence-making portions of my brain creaked into action — Nick Nolte, though he looks pretty Northern European, did after all play an Italian in Lorenzo's Oil ... and come to think of it, one of the reasons Stavans looks like Nolte is that his eyeglasses resemble the ones that Nolte wore in that movie. But wait: was it in that movie that Nolte wore the glasses? Maybe it was some other film.
At this point it was obvious that the amount of research into film history and Nick Nolte's genealogy that I would have to do in order to justify the sentence made the sentence worse than useless to me, even if it didn't make me sound like a bigot. But the problem of how to make that point, how to construct that sentence, continued to occupy my walks to and from work long after I had decided that I wasn't even going to mention Stavans in my essay. It had detached itself from the world of purpose and meaning, and become a purely formal exercise in rhythm, balance, and the possibility of elegance. It was driving me nuts, but I couldn't let it go, and after a time I began to reflect that I was acting like a mathematician trying to solve something like Fermat's Last Theorem — except that for solving Fermat's Last Theorem Andrew Wiles won a lucrative prize and international renown, whereas for solving the Ilan Stavans/Nick Nolte Problem I would win nothing but a reputation for ethnic insensitivity.
Alas, it's not just my own sentences that occupy me thus: I can get just as occupied by the equally pointless challenge of rewriting the sentences of others. For instance, in his book How Soccer Explains the World Franklin Foer gives us this: "Barcelona fans threw projectiles on the field, including sandwiches, fruit, golf balls, mobile phones, whiskey bottles, bike chains, and a severed bloody boar's head." Now, when I read that sentence this was my first and virtually my only thought: Should it really be "severed bloody boar's head"? That doesn't sound right. How about "bloody severed boar's head"? — no, that's not any better, probably because of the unnecessary information: if you have a bloody boar's head to throw, doesn't it go without saying that it has been severed? I mean, otherwise you'd just have a whole boar, wouldn't you? Clearly, the sentence would have been stronger had it ended, "... whiskey bottles, bike chains, and a bloody boar's head." Yes! Much better!
This is perhaps not the path of sanity, or virtue either for that matter. John Updike was widely reviled, and rightly so I think, for using the collapse of the World Trade Center towers as an opportunity for making beautiful sentences: "Smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure's vertically corrugated surface," he wrote in The New Yorker; one of the towers "fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air." Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic offered the most incisive critique of Updike's approach: "Such writing defeats its representational purpose, because it steals attention away from reality and toward language. It is provoked by nothing so much as its own delicacy. Its precision is a trick: it appears to bring the reader near, but it keeps the reader far. It is in fact a kind of armor: an armor of adjectives and adverbs. The loveliness is invincible." The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda made the same point in one of his poems: "and the blood of children ran through the street / without fuss, like children's blood." Neruda, among the most metaphorically extravagant of poets, knew that in this case metaphor or simile would be obscene.
Similarly, Charles Williams once wrote, "When the means are autonomous, they are deadly." When the "means" of art, its various instruments, become detached from the human world of moral action and spiritual meaning, the damage they can do is beyond estimation. And yet the world is also full of people who, in their eagerness to tell the truth they see, ignore those instruments or employ them carelessly. It's vital to attend to the world as it is, refusing to don the armor of aestheticism; it's vital to use the "means" with the utmost skill and care, to be as vivid and elegant as possible. This is why writing is hard.
Chapter Two A Commonplace Book
A while back, I started keeping a commonplace book. Commonplace book is an odd phrase, perhaps, because what you are supposed to record in such a book is, from one point of view, anything but commonplace. It's likely that, as long as people have been able to write, some have recorded memorable ideas, wise sayings, or beautiful lines of poetry — words of rare value, distinctive enough that we dare not trust them only to our memories.
It was in the sixteenth century, especially in England, that the practice of such recording became widespread and recommended by the learned to all thoughtful and literate persons. This happened for two reasons. First, in that time paper became more widely available and considerably cheaper than it had been — developments prompted by the invention of the printing press but beneficial to the private scribbler as well. And the printing press had another consequence: By making it so much faster and easier to disseminate texts of every kind — from Bibles (and commentaries thereon) to ghost stories, breathless accounts of notorious murders, and scurrilous poems on leading politicians — the world of print created a panic, the kind of panic distinctive to people who feel swamped by information.
Ann Blair is a historian at Harvard who has been exploring early-modern information overload, and her work — so far a handful of articles, though a book is on the way — wonderfully reveals the sheer anxiety of those readers. By the latter part of the seventeenth century, some people had come to believe that the constant onrushing freight of words was threatening to undermine European culture altogether: One Adrien Baillet wrote, "We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire."
The commonplace book arose as a means of mastering or at least fighting off this "multitude of books." For much of the history of reading and writing, books have been rare and expensive things, enormously time-consuming to produce. Their owners therefore took good care of them, pored over them repeatedly until the words had been all but memorized, and passed them on to their children. Individual books are frequently mentioned in early wills; and, when the great tinker-turned-writer John Bunyan married, the dowry he received from his new father-in-law consisted of two popular devotional books. But in the sixteenth century, the relatively wealthy and those who lived in large cities found themselves with access to more books than they could read, or at any rate read with care. Thus the need to select the best and wisest passages from those books — passages that were commonplace in an etymological sense, from locus communis, the "communal place," the thing of general use and value — in short, the kind of writing that you expect will repay repeated consideration. A book full of such passages would be a treasure-house, something even worth passing on to your children.
It was probably inevitable that commonplace books would eventually blend with another early-modern invention, the journal. By 1720, when Jonathan Swift writes "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet" and recommends the keeping of a commonplace book, he seems to have something very like a journal in mind: "A book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day's reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there." It's interesting that Swift thinks that by writing down the thoughts and ideas of others you are "making them your own"; elsewhere in the letter he refers to such a book as a bank from which you can make withdrawals of wit and wisdom. As T. S. Eliot would later say, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." Swift recommends theft.
My own commonplace book is of the earlier variety, in that it contains few words of my own: It is made up almost wholly of other people's writings — but also their images, still and moving, and sounds. For my book exists online: It is a Web phenomenon only, employing no paper. Ah, you say, you're referring to your blog! To which I reply, well, yes and no.
It is curious that the history of the weblog, insofar as it can be fully understood, mirrors that of the commonplace book. The term weblog seems to have been coined by a very strange man named Jorn Barger, and for him it is simply a log of interesting stories he discovers on the Web. It consists of links with brief descriptions, nothing more. But of course what most of us now think of when we use the word blog is a kind of online journal or diary; and that is indeed the path the weblog or blog has, generally speaking, followed. What was once a log of things other people said on the Web is now a log of my own life, which I make available to readers, and which may (but need not) contain links and references. So when we speak of blogs we don't mean what Jorn Barger does; we mean — well, something like what Jonathan Swift recommended to his young poet friend: "a record of what occurs remarkable in every day's reading [or viewing or iPod-listening] or conversation."
My commonplace book certainly isn't a blog in the sense of a diary or journal, since it doesn't feature my writing; it's closer to what Jorn Barger does but not identical to that either. The three or four words that Barger appends to his links tell us little about what, exactly, interested him in the linked article, what he thinks especially important or worthwhile. By contrast, I present excerpts from what I've been reading that I think capture the spirit of it; or, if it's a poem (I post a lot of poems), I give the whole thing. This is not primarily an act of courtesy to my readers, of whom I can't possibly have many, but rather an act of intellectual discipline on my part, whereby I hope to capture for my later reading self the significance of what I've posted.
(I should pause here to dispel any solemnity: I post and link to plenty of comical things as well. And, while I wouldn't post photos of me or my family, I do occasionally share images of my Shetland sheepdog, Malcolm. He's really cute.)
One could think in many different ways about how my commonplace book resembles or differs from those that emerged in the sixteenth century. Were I keeping my book on paper, with a pen, I would be making wise words "my own" by writing them out in my own script, my own "hand": This physical act of mimicry was something the early-modern world took quite seriously, though we do not. But should we? Select-cut-paste is a very different act from copying laboriously by hand, but how might that difference manifest itself in my mind?
Likewise, how, and how much, does it matter that my commonplace book is fully public, accessible by any stranger? And that it is not something that I can pass on to my son, at least not in a way recognizable to earlier book owners? There's no way for readers to comment on my book, which makes the environment a little less like a Hyde Park Corner harangue or an Iowa caucus; it brings me a little closer to those old anthologists, makes it more fully mine. (On the other hand, just this morning a reader took the trouble to find my email address and send me a message saying, "I love Malcolm!" And I didn't mind that at all.)
Some of these questions will not have clear answers anytime soon. The blog, in any and all of its variants, is quite a recent phenomenon, and in the long run we may well develop distinct terms for each of those variants, rather than lumping them all in a single catchall category. Bernard Williams, that fine philosopher, used to say that "we suffer from a poverty of concepts," and I think that that's certainly true in our discussions of life online: "Is the Internet good or bad for us?" is a meaningless question because there is no one thing called "the Internet." As our concepts for describing these cyberspatial interactions multiply and become more precise, we will be better equipped to understand how closely these forms of writing and reading resemble earlier ones.
Excerpted from Wayfaring by Alan Jacobs Copyright © 2010 by Alan Jacobs. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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