Ben Yagoda writes in his recent Memoir: A History (Riverhead, 291 pp., $25.95), a survey of personal narratives the from 5th-century Confessions of St. Augustine to the present:
“In the 1980s, an unfamiliar pronoun began to appear in works of academic philosophy, history, literary criticism, anthropology, and other fields: ‘I.’ An especially popular formation was ‘I want to argue that,’ introducing a clause that, twenty years earlier, would have been the entire sentence.”
Most books about William Shakespeare focus on one aspect of his life or work and skirt the big question that underlies both: What was Shakespeare’s point of view on life? An answer came from the literary critic and Princeton University professor Christian Gauss as quoted by his former student Edmund Wilson:
Wilson writes that Gauss began one of his lectures by saying:
“There are several fundamental philosophies that one can bring to one’s life in the world — or rather, there are several ways of taking life. One of these ways of taking the world is not to have any philosophy at all – that is the way that most people take it. Another is to regard the world as unreal and God as the only reality; Buddhism is an example of this. Another way may be summed up in the words Sic transit gloria mundi – that is the point of view you find in Shakespeare.”
From “Christian Gauss as a Teacher of Literature” in The Portable Edmund Wilson (Viking Penguin, 1983), edited, with an introduction and notes, by Lewis M. Dabney.
The most unpromising first sentence of a book I’ve read this year …
“Of all the crap, crap, crappy nights I’ve ever had in the whole of my crap life.”
— The first sentence of Sophie Kinsella’s novel Remember Me? (Dell, 2009)
Did you know …?
“At 11:00 AM on Veterans Day, Americans stop what they are doing for two minutes. They pay their respects to wartime and peacetime heroes. This is a Veterans Day tradition.”
— From Arlene Worsley’s children’s book Veterans Day: American Holidays (Weigl, 2007)
How did New Yorkers react when the market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929? Catherine Gourley writes:
“On that overcast autumn morning in New York City, rumors swirled through the narrow streets like wind. Something had gone terribly wrong. The stock values weren’t just dropping. They were crashing. America’s banks and businesses were losing money. By afternoon ten thousand people had jammed the streets and sidewalks. Some had climbed onto the statue of Alexander Hamilton outside the stock exchange building because it was the only space left to stand and wait. A reporter for the New York Times described the crowd as ‘wild-eyed’ with fear. Men wept. A few days ago they had been wealthy. Now they were penniless.”
From Gourley’s “Black Tuesday” in War, Women, and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover the World War II (Atheneum, $21.99, ages 10–14, 2007), a nonfiction book about great war correspondents.
This post first appeared in 2008.
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
I mentioned in a review of The Lost Symbol earlier today that Dan Brown seemed unsure of whether he wanted to write a thriller, lecture, homily, defense of Freemasonry, or tourist brochure for Washington, D.C. Here’s line that suggests that he may also have hoped to add a dash of the gadgetry of Tom Clancy‘s technothrillers:
“According to Nola’s spec sheet, the UH-60 had a chassis-mounted, laser-sighted, six-gigahertz magnetron with a fifty-dB-gain horn that yielded a ten-gigawatt pulse.”
A lot of publishers seem to be trying to save money these days by skimping on copyediting and issuing more books with felonious typos. What’s wrong with that? I love this comment by one of the great muckraking journalists of the 20th century, which reflects the sentiments of many of us who have worked for daily newspapers:
“Typos are worse than Fascism!”
— I. F. Stone, as quoted by his daughter, Celia Gilbert, at his funeral in 1989
You could earn more per hour as a migrant grape-picker than you can by reviewing for many newspapers, and the odds are that an editor will ask you to write about a bad book and that the author will hate you afterward. So why volunteer for the work?
One of the best answers I’ve heard came from the novelist and critic Rebecca West in a Paris Review interview, collected in Writers at Work: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984) and in Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Modern Library, 1998). Marina Warner asked West if she enjoyed reviewing for the Sunday Telegraph, then as now a leading national newspaper in Britain. West replied:
“Yes, I do. I do. I would feel awfully cut off if I didn’t review; I think it’s such a good discipline. It makes you really open your mind to a book. Probably you wouldn’t, if you just read it.”
Many critics like the serendipity or reviewing, or getting assigned books they wouldn’t otherwise have picked up, and I do, too. But I also like having to focus on books in a way that I don’t usually do when I’m reading for pleasure. You have to look harder at books when you’re reviewing them – you can never skim, ever — and when you do, you see more.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda
“So in other words, we’re looking for a bunch of pissed-off Druids.”
— Georgina Rowe, an agent with the elite Sigma Force, in The Doomsday Key (Morrow, 431 pp., $27.99), James Rollins’s new technothriller about a global conspiracy that involves murders in Mali, at the Vatican at Princeton University.
“Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?”
— Henry Ward Beecher, as quoted in the new The Book Shopper: A Life in Review from Paul Dry Books.