Archive for the ‘Writing Life’ Category

Reading Note:
Using It Wrong

Monday, January 18th, 2010


Some sort of internal sensor has always warned me away from William Zinnser’s On Writing Well. If there’s more to the avoidance than that, some more lucid explanation for my persistent discinlination even to have a look at On Writing Well , I’ve forgotten it. But a talk that Mr Zinsser delivered on the subject, to incoming international grad students at the J school, not only left my caution intact but reminded me why I have always regarded the “profession of journalism” as hostile to language in general and to writing in particular.

Mr Zinsser’s conception of writing appears to be a kind of service — perhaps the kind of service that leads its customers to feel serviced. There are five basic rules:

Short is better than long.
Simple is good.
Long Latin nouns are the enemy.
Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend.
One thought per sentence.

Do you know what that sounds like to me? That sounds like a quickie manual for quickie masculine sexual gratification. I can reduce those five precepts to one: “Let’s get this over with as quickly as possible.”

Simple may be good, but Mr Zinsser’s sketch of the history of the English language is simple-minded. First, he says, there’s Latin, “the florid language of ancient Rome.” The floridity of Latin is undoubtedly the virtue that generations of schoolboys had flogged into them at the better English schools.

Arma virumque cano…

Florid? Having noted the wrong-headedness of this judgment, we go  back to Mr Zinsser’s simple history. First, there’s Latin, which is bad; then there’s Anglo-Saxon, which is good. No connection, no interrelationship between these background families is traced. The criminal importation of Latinate words must have been effected by people who couldn’t speak English well enough to press nuance, suggestion, or abstract indeterminacy from hard-grained nuggets of Anglo-Saxon.

What a disservice Mr Zinsser does these students by drawing their attention to his cartoonish view of our language’s development! The very first thing to know about English, surely, is that it is the child of violent conquest and long-term social stratification. We not only know about these evils, but we’ve been talking about them for roughly a thousand years. A provincial early French was spoken by governing Normans and Angevins while the common people were divided by regional variations of a Teutonic dialect. Inevitably, these linguistic resources were made use of by the same people, and in the same sentence. My favorite example, a legal maxim that I can no longer source, defines “nuisance” as a situation in which

le noisomeness de la stench est plus que le utility de le use.

The best way to put this in clear contemporary English would probably be: “The stink outweighs the advantages,” and I don’t think that the final word, with its four syllables and its Romance parentage, can be improved on. And note that “use,” a nice, firm word of one syllable, is also Latinate in derivation.

English has been a battleground of highbrows and lowbrows since Chaucer’s day at least. The best writers get over their class-bound prejudices and and try to balance the short and plain against polysyllabic complexity. “Short is better than long” is simply stunting.

Daily Office:

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009


Matins: Jonah Lehrer meditates, briefly but beautifully, on a connection between the recent findings about social networks (the viral spread of obesity, &c) and free will.

Lauds: Barbra Streisand sings some great songs  (for a change) at a great venue — how like “the good old days” is that? (via Speakeasy)

Prime: A disturbing report finds that the profession of journalism is no longer open to the children of working-class families. (via MetaFilter)

Tierce: In the ancient port of Muscat, a photograph stabs an expatriate with nostalgic longing.

Sext: The McFarthest Map, at Strange Maps.

Nones: The decision to shut down two media outlets, already regretted by the Micheletti government, makes the fairness of the 29 November elections even less likely.

Vespers: James Wood aims his gimlet glance at the novels of Richard Powers. A bit of ouch, what?

Compline: Arthur Krystal’s essay, “When Writers Speak,” reminded us of a Bloomsbury anecdote.


Daily Office:

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009


¶ Matins: Truckers engage with communications devices — cell phones, on-baord computers — up to “90%” of their driving time. Efforts to curb that distraction are likely to meet with frustration.  

Lauds: Textile designer Ilisha Helfman, in Portland, Oregon, fashions outfits for her antique paper dolls from the covers of the Sunday Times Magazine.

Prime: Felix Salmon comments on the economics of the Urban Diet.

Tierce: The cheeky devils at Improv Everywhere had some fun on the subway: the Class of ’09, Lexington Avenue Laughing Academy. (via

Sext: This time, the descent into the Dark Ages will be recorded — at craigslist.

Nones: President Obama will campaign on behalf of his wife’s hometown, seeking the 2016 Olympics for Chicago.

Vespers: Richard Crary gets round to Civilization and Its Discontents, enjoying the read for the most part but pricking his ears at Freud’s anthropology.

Compline: Don’t expect that famous writer sitting across the table to be a gifted conversationalist, critic Arthur Krystal warns.


Daily Office:

Friday, September 18th, 2009


Matins: An attempt to “urbanize” Tyson’s Corner, Virginia appears to have spooked the planners: they don’t want anything too urban!

Lauds: With Julie & Julia about to open in France, a number of critics are echoing Mme Brassart.

Prime: A word about arbitrage from Felix Salmon. Actually, two words:

  • Picking up nickels in front of a steamroller
  • Don’t try this at home.

Tierce: As if it had been waiting for rifts within the Anglican Communion to threatens its future, Canterbury Cathedral has begun to fall down in earnest. (via The Morning News)

Sext: Fast Food: The DeStyling.

Nones: Has or has not fighting broken out between China and India? Officially, not. But the media on both sides pipe a different tune. Amit Baruah reports from the BBC.

Vespers: A nice, long, faux-depressing, genuinely funny look at the publishing biz, by former Random House editor Daniel Menaker.

Compline: Paul Graham on The List of N Things: sometimes a simple list fits the case exactly, but, too often, it’s “a degenerate case of essay.” (via  Mnémoglyphes)

Bon weekend à tous!


Exercice de Style:

Sunday, August 30th, 2009


Having reviewed an assortment of errors in this occasional column, I should like to say a word about corrections. That is: to outline a protocol for suggesting corrections to Internet authors. This is fairly new territory for readers, who cannot (if sane) have been expected to take the trouble to bring each and every typographical error to the attention of book publishers. On the Internet, such helpfulness is no trouble at all; indeed, it is all too easy. For that reason, I counsel Internauts to bear in mind two general rules. Both derive from the principles of good and thoughtful manners.

First of all, try not to correct an author in public. Avoid the corrective comment. If the author has written “Louis XV” for “Louis XVI,” do not point this out in a manner visible to all and sundry, no matter how sure you are of being right. Corrections ought to be suggested in emails addressed to the author. If an address is not available, it is best to bite your tongue; the author has more or less pre-emptively decided to do without your help.

The only other rule is to keep the suggestion as readily intelligible as possible. A letter of correction ought to be free of all other material. Don’t begin by complimenting the writer on his or her great work. Don’t point out how long you’ve been reading the site. Don’t ask if the writer is going to read another book by the novelist named in the offending passage. And do not apologize for offering the correction.

Even when you’re sure of yourself, try to infuse your note with a tentative tone. Instead of saying anything declarative, such as “This is wrong!”, present your correction as the offering of an ordinary reader, not as that of a higher power. For example:

I think that you might have meant to say that ‘World War I,’ not ‘World War II,’ was concluded by the Peace of Versailles.

Note the italics. The detail requiring correction ought to leap out at the recipient, so that there’s no need to guess what you’re talking about. You may prefer to underline or bold-face these details.

Typographical errors ought to be highlighted without comment. Where the writer has typed “hisotry,” you might say,

As we see from the history of banking.

Make a point of incorporating your correction; do not simply repeat the error, leaving it to the writer to figure out what to do next.

No one enjoys being corrected, but seasoned writers understand both the inevitability of error and the utility of proofreaders. Your objective ought not to be to shame or embarrass the writer, but to elicit a genuinely grateful response — whether you receive one or not.

Daily Office:

Friday, August 7th, 2009


Matins: Food for thought this weekend: Alain de Botton proposes “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success,” in a presentation at TED. The main point: make sure that your idea of success is your own idea.

Lauds: Every time Jeremy Denk adds a new bit of music appreciation to his blog, the technical support gets better. Now, we think, it has caught up, in a piece about one of Brahms’s three sonatas for violin and piano (all beauties).

Prime: Felix Salmon: “When Stretching the Accordion Makes Sense.” Makes sense! It sounds like the best idea ever. But it does pit one idea of growth against another.

Tierce: Meet Judy Natkins — you can see her in court.

Sext: For those of you who haven’t seen Elizabeth Moss off the Mad Men screen, there’s Amy Heckerling’s Intervention parody.

Nones: We thought it might be Iran aiming to shut down Twitter, but it was more likely Russia and Georgia, trying to shut down one another — propaganda-wise, at least.

Vespers: Some Friday fun from Tao Lin, at The Stranger. “The Levels of Greatness a Fiction Writer Can Achieve in America (From Lowest to Highest).”

Compline: The weekend must-read: Jonah Lehrer’s “The Truth About Grit.” At last, a truly cogent demolition job on IQ testing (and testing in general).

Bon weekend à tous!


Exercice de Style:

Sunday, July 26th, 2009


In an entry at The Rumpus, “The Inevitability of Fashion,” Ted Wilson dangles:

As a society, there are specific fashion trends we all look back on and can pretty much agree were horrible mistakes. But some of these trends were only mistakes until recently, when they again became fashionable, mostly to people who weren’t alive when they happened the first time. Other trends are new, but equally unpleasant.

As dangling modifiers go, this is not a howler, but it’s as erroneous as any, betraying the impatience with preliminaries to which excited writers are liable.

Because danglers are only rarely misleading, one might ask why they’re the capital sin that we find them to be. If we “know what you mean,” then why get testy? Here’s why: syntactical carelessness is structural. It has nothing to do with the “typo” class of innocent error — typing “that” for “than,” or “1789” for “1792.” Those are details. The dangler betrays a faulty grasp of the ideas in a sentence, an unwarranted shifting of point-of-view that illegitimately converts subjects into objects and vice versa.

The classic, and comical, dangler is this:

Walking down the lane, the house came into view.

Technically, what’s wrong here is that the person walking down the lane — the implied subject of the opening clause — is replaced, without warning, by the house, which stands as the subject of a statement in the passive mood. (Houses come into view, but they do not walk down lanes.)  Psychologically, what’s wrong with the sentence is the ramming together of two statements without cleaning up the debris. 

I was walking down the lane, and the house came into view.

As I walked down the lane, the house came into view.

Both of these correct statements are easy enough to say. If you believe that “As I walked down the lane” and “Walking down the lane” are somehow “functionally equivalent,” then you ought to find something else to do with your time, and leave writing to people who do not allow considerations of functional equivalence to operate their pencils.

What Mr Wilson ought to have written:

As a society, we all look back on specific fashion trends and can pretty much agree that they were horrible mistakes.

Dangling is not a horrible mistake, just an insidious one. Good writers just don’t.

Daily Office:

Friday, July 24th, 2009


Matins: Two related safety stories this week, at Infrastructurist: Rail/Road Safety; Cells and Speed.

Lauds: Alexander Hemon’s playlist for writing.

Prime: In “Too Small to Fail?“, Jay Goltz issues a call for better training for small business owners.

Tierce: Even though the 13 week-old Marshall trial hasn’t even gotten to the defense, there seems to be a wilting factor, as if everyone from the judge on down were just too tired of all this nonsense. In any case, no reports have been filed this evening with any of the papers. Or hadn’t been, when we last looked an hour or so ago.

We were going to invent something, and tell you that the Marshalls, having followed our coverage of the coverage, took advantage of an early recess to drop by our apartment, and that, while Mr Marshall took a little nap, Mrs Marshall turned on her Southern charm (to which we’re so susceptible!), and we suddenly realized what a lovely woman she is. That we’d be posting soon from a guest room at North Cove, or Cove Point, or Cape Fear, or whatever they call the place up in Maine.

Sext: Coming soon to Pi Mensae: Howdy Doody.

Nones: Kudos to President Obama for weighing in on the “stupidity” of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in his own Cambridge home.

Vespers: Mark Athitakis, at The Second Pass, writes about an out-of-print novel by Ward Just, a writer whose work we almost always find totally engaging.

Compline: This weekend’s indispensable reading is Slavoj Žižek’s essay, in the London Review of Books, “Berlusconi in Tehran.” New meaning is given to the phrase, “constitutional democracy.”  

Bon weekend à tous!


Daily Office:

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009


Matins: At Coming Anarchy, the entry “Microstate Madness” describes potential breakaway statelets across Europe, from Sardegna to Scotland. (via Joe.My.God)

Lauds: Now that the bubbling (not to say gaseous) wake of the Venice Biennale has subsided into the barcarolle of the canals, Barry Schwabsky’s lucid report, “Hubbub and Stillness,” in The Nation, is an even greater pleasure to read.

Prime: Variation on an old Chinese curse: business narratives have become (Titanically) interesting.

Tierce: What if the Marshall case veers from incompetence to duress? It’s just as bad.

Sext: How TV news would cover a first moon landing today.

Nones: Honduran would-be president (the only kind, these days) Manuel Zelaya might well take a look at what his opponents are afraid of, as it plays out in Venezuela’s Barinas State.

Vespers: At Intelligent Life, Tom Shone inquires:  Is sobriety good for literary types? (via The Morning News)

Compline: Boudicca Downes discusses her parents’ decision — somewhat more controversial in the case of her conductor father, Sir Edward — to take their lives at Dignitas, a clinic in Switzerland.


Exercice de Style:

Sunday, July 12th, 2009


A  very pet peeve. So pet, in fact, that I may have complained about it before, if not, I trust, in this column.

At The Awl, Dave Bry concludes one of his mortifying but compulsively-readable apologies by assuring the musician, Bob Mould,

I’m different than that now.

<Screech of grating chalk!>

“Different than” is the most ill-tutored solecism that I know of that does not involve the misuse of a personal pronoun.

This was what got Tim and I started.

I’m always astonished to hear this sort of thing from smart, presumably educated people. (In this case, Matt Thompson at Snarkmarket.)

Whereas the misuse of personal pronouns appears to be strongly linked to socio-economic background (yet another reason to shun it), different than has not been as strenuously weeded out in the better schools. It places speakers in the class not of rich or poor but of inattentive.

For an adverb, such as than, to have a function in this formulation, the adjective that it modifies must be a comparative, so that the adverb can point to a  difference in the degree to which the adjectival quality obtains.

He is smarter and better-looking than I am.


He is smart and good-looking than I am.

Similarly, we might say,

You are more different than I am.

(If this sounds wrong, it’s only because we prefer to use unusual when making comparisons about personal singularity.)

Without the comparative, there is nothing for an adverb to do in Mr Bry’s sentence; at the same time, there is the need for a preposition — from — to mark the distance, literal or figurative, between two states or things.

The curious thing is that, to reflect his thought more clearly (if less modestly), the word that Mr Bry ought to change is not than but different.

I’m better than that now.

And perhaps his sense is betrayed by his mistake.

Exercice de Style:

Friday, June 19th, 2009


This is to announce a policy that I have already implemented. When stating names, I no longer recognize “middle initials,” as my countrymen rather thoughtlessly call them, when they follow a full given name. The usage is peculiar to the United States (and to Canada, I suppose), and it is very, very ugly.

So: no more Robert A M Stern, no more Michael J Fox — just to pick two names out of the air. Either Robert Stern, R A M Stern (a wonderful British custom),  or some permutation of Robert Arthur Morton Stern (“Robert Morton Stern” is pretty fantastic, don’t you think?). Either Michael Fox, M J Fox, or (his real name) Michael Andrew Fox. The only person allowed to go by one initial and a surname is R Crumb, and when he’s no longer with us, nobody has the privilege. You will see why in a minute.

You’ll also note another policy, one that has been in force at this site since its inception. If I dislike solitary letters (other, of course, than the indefinite pronoun and the very definite “I”), I execrate what, again rather thoughtlessly, are called “periods,” when they do not mark the ends of sentences.

Given the rule to which “R Crumb” is an exception, there ought to be no uncertainty about what the “M” in “M Poirot” stands for.

I don’t for a moment claim that any of these policies of mine are “correct.” I believe that they are readily comprehensible, and as integral to my prose style as my fondess for the kind of thought that requires semicolons. That is all that matters.

Exercice de Style:

Friday, May 15th, 2009


Reading Tony Judt’s Postwar, I was surprised, given the excellence of the prose, to come across the solecism “to try and [infintive].” Such usage has no place in expository prose.

There is certainly a place for the phrase, but it is limited to informal speech. When we say, “I’m going to try and get to the museum this weekend,” we don’t mean that we’re going to try to get to the museum. We mean that we’re going to see what happens and to do our best. In a history text, the phrase is luridly shambolic. Tut!

Daily Office:

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009


Matins: And here we thought that Janet Napolitano had effected a crackdown on smuggling American-bought guns into Mexico. Seems not. Loopholes!

Lauds: Handel meant Handel! Okay, Händel meant business — when it came to business. Everyone knows that he lost his shirt as an opera impresario. It seems that he had another shirt! (Via Arts Journal)

Prime: Margaret Drabble will write no more novels, claiming that she’s too old to remember what she’s already written. This can mean only one thing, and it does —

Tierce: The number of days — as in “days are numbered” — for totally free Internet access to most print publications continues to drop. Journalism Online LLC plans to be operational “by the fall.”

Sext: Interior designers with newly-rich clients have long had ways of dealing with the problem of stocking beautifully paneled libraries with bulk purchases of snazzily-spined volumes, but I was unaware of an online service until yesterday. (via Brainiac)

Nones: Moldovans who want their country, the poorest in Europe, to merge with Romania ought to have a confab with some Flemish Belgians, or some Catalonians, before getting too worked up.

Vespers: At Asylum, John Self writes about Every Man Dies Alone, the newly-translated novel that Hans Fallada (the pseudonym of Rudolf Ditzen, 1893-1947) wrote in a month, right before killing himself. (via The Second Pass)

Compline: From Waking Up, an elegant rebuttal of Wingnut claims that gay marriage is inimical to religious freedom. Step by step, and perfectly lucid. (Via Joe.My.God) (more…)

Daily Office:

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009


Matins: China’s purchase of American debt has slowed down, according to a recent report. As long as it doesn’t simply stop altogether (gulp)….

Lauds: Green Porno, with Isabella Rosselini. These birds-‘n’-bees audio-visuals are almost okay for kids. Except of course for Ms Rosselini’s delicious naughtiness.

Prime: Geoffrey Pullum, a professor of English and linguistics at Edinburgh, doesn’t think much of The Elements of Style, and will not be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. (via Arts Journal)

Tierce: The Ford Foundation, our second largest, has streamlined its operations. This is not a cutback so much as a reconception of “lines of work” — an intellectual advance.

Sext: Culinary professional Peter Hertzmann may convince you that you need an iPod Touch more than a new KitchenAid stand mixer. Wholly Apps!

Nones: Jonathan Head’s BBC report, appraising the latest, and inevitable, wave of unrest in Thailand highlights the core problem for most sovereignties since 1789: nurturing an élite that has the common sense to avoid disenfranchising the lower strata of society.

Vespers: What, exactly, is a novella? A short novel, or a long story? At hitheringandthithering waters, John Madera collects a number of reasonably learned opinions — or, at least (and what is better), reading lists. (via The Second Pass)

Compline: Simon Blackburn argues (at some length, alas) that David Hume is very much the man for our times.

I suspect that many professional philosophers, including ones such as myself who have no religious beliefs at all, are slightly embarrassed, or even annoyed, by the voluble disputes between militant atheists and religious apologists. As Michael Frayn points out in his delightful book The Human Touch, the polite English are embarrassed when the subject of religion crops up at all. But we have more cause to be uncomfortable.

The annoyance comes partly because of the strong sense of deja vu. But it is not just that old tunes are being replayed, but that they are being replayed badly. The classic performance was given by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, written in the middle of the 18th century. Hume himself said that nothing could be more artful than the Dialogues, and it is the failure to appreciate that art that is annoying.


Daily Office:

Monday, March 30th, 2009


Matins: Apprehensive about the future of newspapers? Hugging those quaint little object called “books”? Here’s a story to round out your apoplexy profile: “Stop Teaching Handwriting,” by Anne Trubeck.

Lauds: First the good news; then the bad news. It’s the same story, really: Isabel Kershner’s report on a concert given by Palestinian youths for Holocaust survivors gets updated by Khaled Abu Aker, to take account of the fallout.

Prime: If you are not in the mood for it to be Monday, Jonathan Soma’s interactive Singles in America map will make your day. Be sure to play with the slider at the top of the screen, and don’t overlook the cocktail party “feed” down below. (via  Things Magazine)

Tierce: It’s not much of a story, really; and its topic — ostensibly the soon-to-end GM career of Rick Wagoner — is, when you get down to it, inertia. Because only inertia could explain “The Steadfast Optimist Who Oversaw GM’s Long Decline.” You have to wonder where anybody got the idea that corporate America is “dynamic.”

Sext: Far and away my favorite New York City bridge, the Queensboro turns 100.

Nones: If the Obama Administration is really unhappy about the Spanish prosecution of the Bush Torture Team (Gonzales, Addington, Feith &c), it can pre-empt the proceedings by seeking indictments here in the United States.

Vespers: If you’re a mystery buff, you may well know about Sarah Weinman’s blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind: Crime fiction, and more. It looks to be a depot for all sorts of information about the more serious side of murder ink. (via The Morning News)

Compline: From the Matter of Time Dept: “Hard-Pressed Colleges Accept More Applicants Who Can Pay Full Cost.” Depressing, but no surprise.


Daily Office:

Monday, March 16th, 2009


Matins: Is President Obama going too far on the economy, or not far enough? Both, says The Economist, in a piece that explicitly opposes voters’ interests (“rage”) and “market confidence.”

Lauds: Steve Martin will “produce” a high school performance of Picasso at the Lapin Agile. That is, he’ll contribute (mightily) toward the costs, after parents banned the play from the high school itself.

Prime: What to do when a much-loved blogger dies? That’s what Robert Guskind’s executor will have to decide, vis-à-vis Gowanus Lounge.

Tierce: Louis Uchitelle’s report on using the railway bailout of the 1970s as a template for saving Detroit reminds me of the importance of taxonomy.

Sext: “How to Write Like an Architect,” Doug Patt’s brisk clip at YouTube, is more than a primer on stylish block printing. Like the most seductive advertising, it holds out the promise of a life well-lived. (via

Nones: You know things are bad if the best thing the Irish can think up at the moment is how to repatriate Irish-Americans.

Vespers: Lance Mannion won’t be reading Blake Bailey’s new biography of John Cheever.

Compline: They’re looking for qualified workers in the Auvergne (“backwater” is a serious understatement) — and beginning to find them.


Daily Office:

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009


Matins: Davos is shaping up to be the party not to be seen at this year. Our Governor Paterson is the latest defector. The White House is sending Valerie Jarrett.

Lauds: Terry Teachout writes about the unglamorous side of being an opera librettist. Asked how he does it all, the man of letters gives the manly answer:

I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do. I work extremely hard and all the time.

Prime: Now that it’s over, I can read about it: the era of Press Bush. Errol Morris asks three wire-service photographers to talk about their most illustrative photographs of the late President. (via

Tierce: Preserving the death camp at Auschwitz poses a peculiar problem: the installation wasn’t built to last. And parts of it were blown up by the evacuating Germans, who assuredly weren’t concerned about the difficulty of maintaining a ruin.

Sext: Clyde Haberman talks about “nontraditional ‘shaming punishments’,” but I thought that shaming punishments were traditional. It’s prison time that’s new and “improved” (not).

Nones: And here I thought that “slumdog” was a standard insult in Mumbai, applied to anyone (particularly anyone Muslim) from the city’s rather ghastly slums. Not so.

The screenplay writer, Simon Beaufoy, said people should not read too much into the title. “I just made up the word. I liked the idea. I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” he said.


Vespers: Notwithstanding his prodigious output, John Updike was too young, at 76, to leave us. The commodore of American letters, he guided a convoy of writers from the avowedly amoral shoals of modernism to a native harbor of immanence, and he set his ships a high example for polished decks.

Compline: It were churlish not to wish long lives to the eight children born tout d’un coup, in the Miracle of Kaiser Bellflower. What a Mozartstag! John Updike dead, a human octopus born!


Daily Office:

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009


Matins: Wei Jingsheng, twice-imprisoned Chinese dissident and winner of the Sakharov and Kennedy prizes, sees nothing less than collapse in his country’s future, if it does not offer ordinary Chinese a version of the New Deal.

Lauds: Google Earth presents Fine Art: a dozen-odd masterpieces from the Prado in thread-count detail.

Prime: To avoid the worst of post-holiday slump, I’ve been repairing to Café Muscato for refreshment. For witty ribaldry (glossing over-the-top images), Muscato can’t be beat.

Tierce: Living in Manhattan means encountering neighborhood bulletins from Times to Times. This morning, in an article by Alex Tarquino that I almost skipped, “More Manhattan Shop Windows Are Expected to Be Empty This Year” — this is news? — I read that the Barnes & Noble branch that’s catercorner from my house is going to “move around the corner,” presumably into the new Brompton apartment building (the one designed by Robert A M Stern).

Sext: As Alexander Pope demonstrated a while back (with Peri Bathos, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry), the quickest recipe for a fun read is to parody a how-to book by replacing the exemplary extracts with total trash. Jason Roeder revisits a much-loved usage manual with The Elements of Spam, at McSweeney’s.

Nones: In Riga, a peaceful demonstration against the government’s economic policies got riotous, when a bunch of drunk young men attacked the parliament building.

Vespers: For some time now, Jason Epstein has looked like the only book person out there who knows (a) what’s wrong with publishing and (b) how to fix it. His latest exhortation — elegant and brief as always — appears at The Daily Beast.

Compline: From Joan Didion, an acerbic reminder to those who, in their excitement about an inauguration that is ripe with historical momentousness, have forgotten (as I am sure that Barack Obama himself has not) our absurd expectations of dancing in the streets in Baghdad, nearly six years ago…


Weekend Update:
After the Wedding

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

Elizabeth and Catherine Yow, Megan’s cousins and very unabashed flower girls. Kathleen is convinced that they’ll both grow up to be lawyers, like their parents.

This weekend’s lovely wedding party, at which Megan and Ryan reaffirmed their vows before a reasonably full complement of family and friends, finished me off. There wasn’t much left. Providentially, I’m about to escape to a patio overlooking the Caribbean.

The good news, I suppose, is that I’m not going to shut down The Daily Blague. That I should even think of doing so may give you some idea  of how extensively the ground has shifted beneath my writing life. Every idea that I’ve got needs a fresh screen test.

There have been a few clarifying surprises. A month or so of fun at Facebook has convinced me I’ll being doing my conventional blogging, the how-I’m-feeling-right-now thing, either there or at some other social site. I have a lot to learn about social sites, but I now know what they’re for, and, correspondingly, what my own sites are not for. I hope that The Daily Blague will become even more reflective as I go on; but it will certainly be even less newsy. Such news as appears will be presented in the focus of bourgeois humanism.

What’s “bourgeois humanism”? (I can hear your groan. You want to hear about the wedding!) That’s what we’re going to find out.

It is not “secular humanism” because it does not propose alternatives to the various strands of religious humanism that have sprouted in the West. It concerns itself with religion only to the extent that different faiths — including the belief that there is nothing to believe in — must learn to get along. I was tempted by the concept of “public humanism” for a while, but that sounds too politically-centered. Bourgeois humanism is a highly centrist outlook that finds, on the one hand, the puritanical calls to environmental austerity to be misanthropic, and, on the other, unthinking consumerism to be inexcusably stupid. Even if I tend to leave the lights on when I go out, I have always been interested in the idea of frugal comfort. I’m honest enough about being bourgeois to admit — no, to insist — that comfort is a human priority. In my ideal world, everyone would be good at making other people comfortable, and yet nobody would be expected to act like a servant.

But enough about abstractions. It’s time for a break. Kathleen and I are taking off for ten days in St Croix, and now I’m looking forward to it. What seemed the other day to be an annoying break in carefully-constructed routine now looks like an extremely well-timed pause. I won’t stop blogging; I intend to post at least one entry every day. But the Daily Office will be suspended, not just because I want to reconsider its purpose but because filling it out requires me to pay attention to everyday chatter. Being a primate, I like everyday chatter as much as anybody, but right now I need a rest.

And this is a pretty good time for that, no? One of the two major news stories, about the election of the next President, has been achieved. The other, about mounting economic disaster, has clouded over with complication, as “related stories” multiply, ramify, and terrify. The meaning of specific developments, none of them isolated, will emerge only over the long term — unless and until some overwhelming cataclysm sweeps away life as we know it, in which case “news” itself will be massively redefined. I don’t expect anything terribly exciting to happen in the next two weeks — not that I don’t hope I’m right!

Aside from putting myself at the mercy of aeronautics — a matter of four flights — I have no reason not to be sanguine about the next two weeks. For the moment, though, I’m too pooped.

Exercice du Style:
Had better!

Saturday, September 27th, 2008


The following bit of pidgin appeared in an editorial in Tuesday’s Times:

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, better urge his recalcitrants to get over it and start delivering that Washington Change they proclaim so loudly on the hustings.

There is, in English, an idiomatic expression, “to have better/best X,” meaning, “to have a possibly unacknowledged duty or responsibility,” where X is the verb describing the prescribed action.

You’d better get out of here!

He had best do his homework before dinner.

In vernacular speech, the auxiliary part of this expression is sometimes omitted.

I better get my ass in gear.

Pidgin is the minimal version of a language that can still be understood by others. It is pardonable in speakers in a language that is not their first. It is barbarous on the editorial page of The New York Times.

It will be tiresomely argued that everybody knows what the sentence means. This is not true. The New York Times is read by many foreigners — let’s at least hope that it is! — and while many of them doubtless have fluent reading comprehension of English, some undoubtedly do not. A struggling reader might well seize on “urge” as the verb in the sentence’s first clause. This makes some sense, but not very much, and such a reader could be forgiven for doubting his or her own comprehension.

It is also true that attentive readers of English will trip on the omission of “had.” There is no reason in the world for any reader to be obliged to pause over this sloppiness.

The only readers who won’t be inconvenienced by this solecism are the one’s who matter least: those who don’t read the Times.

English is endowed with loads of idiomatic expressions that mix verbs with other parts of speech. They must  be used, if not sparingly, then with great care. And they must always be used properly and in full.