The Reader: Diary, 7/1 to 7/6/21

The Reader Over Your Shoulder (book); movie reviews including Interstellar, Bright Star, and others; Hemlock Club meeting; colons and semicolons.

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar

{7/1/21}  Weight 212.4 at 6:05 am!  Dehydration.

My swamp cooler is a feeble thing; but when it went out yesterday, I surely missed it.  It reached 100° inside yesterday.  83° this morning, 79° outside.  It quit again today, now running.

{7/4/21}  Weight 215.8 at 6:30 am.

Watched Return of the Magnificent Seven, which was made six years after The Magnificent Seven.  It has Yul Brynner, the music of Elmer Bernstein, and apparently the same village as used in the “original,” but alas, it’s a silly movie and a wasted opportunity.  Most of the original magic is gone, and the garb of “the man in black” has become gray.

Yesterday the Hemlock Club met at Panera Bread, where I had breakfast.  Nog and I arrived early and met a woman writer named Buffy; she had come there to attend a writer’s group, “Kingdom Writers” I think, but no one showed up; I gave her a card.  When she left, we discussed Kick Me, my memoir, which he had read, and he returned it to me with written comments.  When Pablo arrived he seemed mostly fixated on Freud versus Jung and a movie about them, A Dangerous Method, which I have not seen.  He said that “Jung won”; I said that William James won, at least as far as American psychology was concerned, but he may have been referring to something less weighty.  Some quips:  “The camel is dead and we’re piling straw on it,” by Nog in reference to the environment (I think); Pablo recited a haiku and I said, “I want to know about the low-ku.”  Nog, regarding his previous work on fixing cars, said he didn’t do that any more because “I don’t want to sharpen the executioner’s axe.”  At some point Pablo said, “Several tangents ago…” which I thought particularly useful.

Then the three of us retired to my place and, at my urging over other DVDs, watched Interstellar, which was thoroughly enjoyed by all.  There were some doubts about the physics and I think the ending is a bit pat, but it remains one of my all-time favorites (I’ve seen it probably four times now).  My swamp cooler quit before the movie; I called my landlord and it was running again before the movie was over—good service, but that’s the third day of the last four that it’s quit.

Received Robert Graves and Alan Hodge:  The Reader Over Your Shoulder:  A Handbook for Writers of English Prose, “Second Edition, revised and abridged by the authors.”  I’ve had this book twice before and always found it tedious; this time I’m hoping to be bored but educated, stay tuned.  The first chapter, “The Peculiar Qualities of English,” was educational and I think valuable, but not boring.  Some quotes (Random House, New York, 1943-1971):

“[English] is, indeed, an immense, formless aggregate not merely of foreign assimilations and local dialects but of occupational and household dialects and personal eccentricities.” p. 4.

“The English method [of composition] tends to ambiguity and obscurity of expression in any but the most careful writing; the French to limitation of thought.” p. 5.

“English writers seldom have any feeling for purity of literary form in the Classical sense: it is both their strength and their weakness that imaginative exuberance breaks down literary restraint.” p. 6.

“One feature of the happy-go-lucky development of English was that adjectives were made to do service for nouns, nouns for verbs, and so on; until by Elizabethan times it could be said that all parts of speech in English were interchangeable.” p. 8.

“English dictionaries are collections of precedents rather than official code-books of meaning.” p. 15.

“There is not, and cannot be, any permanent model of literary English; but there are everywhere obvious differences between written and spoken English…. But the only relevant standard by which to judge any straightforward piece of prose is the ease with which it conveys its full intended sense to the readers to whom it is addressed, rather than its correctness by the laws of formal English grammar.” p. 17.

“There is an instinctive mistrust of grammarians in Britain a[n]d the United States, and a pride in following one’s natural course in writing. Deliberate obscurity is rare. We suggest that whenever anyone sits down to write he should imagine a crowd of his prospective readers (rather than a grammarian in cap and gown) looking over his shoulder. They will be asking such questions as: ‘What does this sentence mean?’ ‘Why do you trouble to tell me that again?’ ‘Why have you chosen such a ridiculous metaphor?’ ‘Must I really read this long, limping sentence?’ ‘Haven’t you got your ideas muddled here?’ By anticipating and listing as many questions of this sort as possible, the writer will discover certain tests of intelligibility to which he may regularly submit his work before he sends it off to the printer.” p. 19.

The last quote seems very much to the point, the rest maybe not so much—though I’m doubtful that a “list of questions” will be all that useful.  One must have “the ear.”  [I’m not sure that I mean anything more than reading with full attention and mindfulness.] There will be more to follow, including a summary of the authors’ main points, if I get so ambitious.

Later, I’m finding their twenty-five “Principles of Clear Statement” to be unnecessarily detailed and not that helpful.  For example, “Principle One” states:  “It should always be made clear who is addressing whom, and on the subject of whom.”  “Principle Two” states:  “It should always be made clear which of two or more things mentioned is being discussed.”  Together these amount to, “at every point, be clear about who or what you are discussing.”

When Graves and Hodge come to summarize their Principles, numbers one through seven are reduced to one or two words:  Who, Which, What, Where, When, How Much, and How Many.  These are discussed, each by each, over twenty pages.  The remaining Principles are more varied.

When the authors later analyze sample passages for violations of their principles, they include as superscripts the various number and sub-numbers, as though the reader will thereby be reminded of the principle in question.  Following each passage, the errors are explained.

I’m not sure why this approach irritates me.  Perhaps I’d prefer a less “canned” approach, such as:  present a passage and note, sentence by sentence, the questions raised in the sensitive reader’s mind.  This would be close to my “Subjective Microscope” approach, which I naturally prefer.  Of course, I have not written a book—but maybe I should.  Alas, I am a mere bungler without credentials.

{7/6/21}  Weight 215.8 at 4:52 am.

Caught the last hour of Battle of Britain on cable TV yesterday.  It’s a big-budget, all-star, reverential telling of the, I suppose, official story from WWII.  Made in 1969 with music by William Walton, Malcolm Arnold, et al.  I was surprised at how moved I was by the bombing of London and the mad chaos of the dogfights.

Jane Campion’s Bright Star was a quite wonderfully made love story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne (Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, respectively), with some jaw-droppingly beautiful scenes and sweet, minimalist music.  A true story of the year 1818, released in 2009.  Cornish is quite an amazing actress and very beautiful.  Supporting players are good, especially Paul Schneider as Keats’s stalwart, prickly friend and benefactor, Charles Brown.  The story is tragic and in some ways astonishing and memorable, the poetry is effective, yet I was “not much moved” (Othello).  I was totally absorbed, however, and recommend this one highly.  A stingy but understandable 82% from Rotten Tomatoes, 68% “audience score.”

I’ve also been enjoying episodes of Harley Quinn, season two, and a thoroughly disgusting wallow in materialism and sap from the Hallmark Channel TV-movie called Two Turtle Doves—in the spirit of full disclosure, the attraction for me was the charming Michaela Russell, a child actress who looked very familiar.  That she was in Ant Man and the Wasp, which I saw in the theater I think, might explain the familiarity.

More quotes from Graves and Hodge (see 7/4/21 for publication data):

“We do not suggest that writers should indulge busy readers by writing down to them—given [sic!] them nothing but short passages simply phrased; but only that sentences and paragraphs should follow one another so easily and inevitably, and with such economy of phrase, that a reader will have no encouragement to skip.

“There is a hasty way of writing which is a counterpart to the hasty way of reading. It is becoming more common every year and raising less and less protest. A speech, or an article, has to be written by a certain day; there are the usual interruptions and distractions. The writer is hurried but confident, with a fairly clear notion of what he wants to say. He [or she?] dashes down or dictates a first draft, reads it through quickly, or has it read back to him, makes a few verbal alterations, calls it done and immediately turns to some other business. The greater the haste in which the draft is written, the closer it will come to ordinary conversational style; and will therefore have a certain intimate charm of expression, unless of course he has trained himself to think wholly in clichés.” p. 21-22.  Haste is evident in the first paragraph, but I approve of the advice.

“The haywire innovations [footnote omitted] of conversational English—not merely the slang vocabulary but the logical confusion—have worked their way into literary prose, chiefly because the growing prejudice against academic writing as pompous and sterile of ideas tempts writers to disguise their commonplaces.” p. 22-23.

“…nowadays an individual style usually means merely a peculiar range of inaccuracies, ambiguities, logical weaknesses and stylistic extravagancies. Trained journalists use a flat, over-simplified style, based on a study of what sells a paper and what does not, which is inadequate for most literary purposes.” p. 38-39.

“… faults in English prose derived not so much from lack of knowledge, intelligence or art as from lack of thought, patience or goodwill.” p. 39.

“Expressions such as ‘the former, the latter’, ‘the first, the second’, should be used as seldom as possible: they are invitations to the reader’s eye to travel back—and it should be encouraged always to read straight on at an even pace.” p. 159-160.

“The quotations we use are chosen ‘almost at random’: which means that, having decided that so-and-so was eminent in such and such a profession, we took up the first popular book, pamphlet or article by him that came our way and read on at our usual speed until we found ourselves bogged in a difficult passage. This passage became the subject of our analysis.” p. 175-176.  Unfortunately, the quoted passages are all from 1940 or earlier, and all nonfiction.

“But [the writer] must remember that even phrases which can be justified both grammatically and from the point of view of sense may give his reader a wrong first impression, or check his reading speed, tempting him to skip.” p. 177.

Finally (so far in my reading), here is an example critical “explanation” of one small part, useful for understanding colons and semicolons, starting with the sample text:

“(c) the effect of the process is, of course, to worsen the quality of the mass mind; to render it less and less capable of sound judgment.

“The semi-colon makes the phrases ‘to worsen the quality’ and ‘to render it less capable’ parallel and independent of each other. What is needed is a colon, to show that the second phrase is an interpretative enlargement of the first.”  p. 184.

I think The Reader Over Your Shoulder is useful but dated, and less useful or interesting for the fiction writer than for others.  At this point, I’m glad my edition is an abridgement.  It’s annoying that I don’t know of better books that cover the same ground.

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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