Seven days, seven books — here’s the why
There’s been a Facebook challenge running around in my circle lately: post the covers of seven books you’ve loved, one cover a day, with no explanation. Each day, nominate someone from your network to do the same.
Well, seven covers! I mean, really. How to whittle the list down to only seven? And then, to post like that, splat, with absolutely no explanation?
That’s a hard task.
Nominated by a friend, I did it. But the only way to manage the selection was to go in with a sharp and exacting blade, for a finely honed slice, and the only way not to explain was to postpone that explanation. (And so, in other words, at some point actually to explain. How could a writer not? For that matter, how could any reader not?)
This book stands as a proxy for all the books I loved as a child, many of which had to do with fantasy and magic. I loved all of Edward Eager’s books, though most particularly Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, Knight’s Castle, The Time Garden, and Seven-Day Magic, and of those, most particularly Half Magic and Knight’s Castle. Almost the whole of my childhood reading could be encapsulated in those two books. (Well, as distilled by the passage of time and neglecting entirely all the many tales of dogs and horses that also filled those hours.)
But for the seven-day journey through books that I had in mind, this one made for the best start. I loved it both for the tale it told and for the way the author told it. Edward Eager was a lyricist and a playwright, and he brought a most delightful sense of story and storytelling to these books that he wrote for his son — and for the pleasure of reading to that child the sorts of books that as a father he could not find enough of.
This is the cover of the book I knew then, and just seeing it is transporting still.
Where to from childhood but into the turbulence of adolescence? And what better book to represent those years than Wuthering Heights, which I discovered at about age 14 and which shook me to my core. Wuthering Heights may be the reason that I later felt so drawn to Brit lit and studied it almost exclusively in the lit portion of my program. Or it may be that Brit lit simply resonated with me from the start.
Or context may have played a role. In those years, my family lived in Connecticut, and the architecture and the landscape and the history pointed me toward the early days of this country and to England. Had we stayed in sweltering South Florida, with its tropical sensibilities and flora and fauna either wildly colorful and exotic or rawly prehistoric, would I have discovered England, My England? Would it have felt so like coming home? I wonder.
This is not the actual book I read then, or its cover — this is the version I found many years later, along with a copy of Jane Eyre, at a library book sale — but these are the interior illustrations I remember from the volume many years ago, when I first read the many-layered tale of Heathcliff and Cathy, as told through the eyes of another member of the household, a witness to their story, long after those events had passed.
And so with this selection, once again a focus both on the tale and the telling.
I discovered Emma the first time in my early twenties, but I did not get to know the protagonist or her story at that time. I had a lovely copy from the late 19th century, and I longed to know its mysteries, but — I could not properly read it. The style, the language, I could not weave myself into the narrative, could not ride it through long enough to make good sense of it. I generally gave up at the first chapter. I’d been used to picking up and reading what came naturally to me, which did mean primarily contemporary works (even if set in other times), and for the last two or three years, living in tumultuous times, I’d not been reading much at all. When my father gave my beautiful copy away, along with an entire box of books he deemed unnecessary, that was that for Emma. For the moment.
That moment sat between the years after high school in which I wandered and the years, a little later on, in which I settled in to become a disciplined and voracious student. So, some five or six years after that first encounter with Emma, when I had the pleasure of picking up the novel again in a class on Jane Austen (taught by the exceptional David Bell), I was delighted at the ease with which the story of Emma and her many misunderstandings and subsequent delightful to read, but rather serious meddling unfolded. All of Jane Austen’s insight and wit, all the charm and grace of her storytelling, were now laid before me. Jane Austen became one of my favorite authors, and she remains so to this day.
If you’re interested in novels, there’s little that studying Austen can’t teach you. She invented what is now known as free indirect speech or the free indirect style, and deepened the experience of novel reading as a result. For my purposes, once again, the tale and the telling of it. And also the interesting tension between the writers whose passions surged through their prose, as with the Brontës, and writers who tuck those passions in more carefully, below a seemingly calm surface, as Austen did. Charlotte didn’t get Jane at all for this reason. I suspect Jane, in her turn, would have understood Charlotte perfectly.
And then there was lit crit. My first encounter with the classics of literary criticism (in Western lit) was in this book, also in a class taught by David Bell. This collection was full of hard reading and deep insight. We read Ion, portions of the Republic, the Poetics. We read Horace’s Art of Poetry and Longinus’ On the Sublime. We read Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry, Dryden’s An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare, Coleridge’s Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius and selections from other essays, Arnold’s Preface to the 1853 Edition of Poems, and James’ The Art of Fiction.
We read closely, deeply. With notes from Dr. Bell on the literary currents of the time and the controversies.
Working through these classics of criticism opened up another world, both in the discipline of the study and in the content of the essays and critiques themselves. It was glorious.
In terms of chronology, this book actually preceded books 3 and 4. This is the book that turned me from the journey I’d embarked on over the past few years into science — biology, chemistry, various math classes up to and including precalc (as far as I’d ever take that study) — and landed me firmly, wholly, joyously back in the embrace of language and lit. From here on out, it was the humanities, and most particularly the English department, all the way.
But I place this book here in the lineup of the seven because it represents the study of the mechanics of a language, a language from which our own today (with the help of other influences) springs. The study of Old English was both my introduction to case grammar and the start of my study of English itself.
Books 1, 2, and 3 were all about fiction: three touchstones in my life in terms of novels. Book 4 was about the study of fiction, the meaning of fiction, the means of judging fiction. Book 5 is about the mechanics of language.
Language is, after all, the tool we use when writing, whether fiction or non. It is the means by which we both encode and decode meaning. If one is going to study writing, it’s as important to study language itself as it is the principles and techniques of the various genres.
With this book continues my study, post-college, of the nuts and bolts of sentences and paragraphs. While in school, I’d studied writing like an academic. I knew a lot about theory. I’d read many fine works, many classics. I’d traced the history of the novel and the essay. I’d read many of the best writers in the English language since there was an English language, and many before that point as well. I knew quite a lot about critiquing fine writing. Less did I know, at that time, how to take something that fell short of being fine writing and improve it not on the basis of what I would do with it, but on the basis of how and where, precisely, it missed its mark. How to improve it, in other words, based on what the writer herself wanted to do with it. For paragraphs and sentences that fell flat, why did they fall flat? If unclear, how or why were they so? How and where less effective, less rhythmic, less cohesive than they might be?
Oh, I could go in and fiddle with them, rewrite — but naively. I knew that something didn’t sound right or work right and I could generally fix it. But I didn’t know why. And I didn’t know that I was making the best, or the right, fix. I was only doing what I myself might have done were I the writer. Not the best approach for a budding editor. I had no system for approaching the work I wanted to do. Even though, I’d studied the language, had studied how it worked, I hadn’t a system yet for judging how and why a sentence, though perfectly correct, might not work as well as it could. How a collection of those sentences thus did not work in concert the way they might have. In other words, I’d not studied the mechanics of effective writing in any deep and meaningful way.
This book began that study.
To represent that study properly, this cover ought instead to be a whole constellation of covers. This is the book I began with, but I then jumped to the “Ten Lessons” version (later, simply “Lessons”), the version that had been revised and streamlined for use in the classroom, with exercises added. I worked through these same principles, rearranged and often with new exercises, again and again over the years. This first time, when I encountered the original book, twice through with a teacher who was also a fine developmental editor. A couple of years later, once through again with another editor-cum-teacher. Later that decade, on my own. Then some ten years or more later, again with a group of editors and a master editor, who was also an amazing teacher.
It was working through several of the Clarity and Grace books — and all the study that came with it and all the practice — that taught me how to edit. Thank you, John Bergez, for being my first guide through these books, and for taking a group of us through those principles, one last time, before you left teaching forever.
And finally, book the last in my selection of seven. With this book, I turned teacher.
I took what I’d learned about grammar (deep grammar, of the language itself) and about writing, and I shared it with others, developing a class in rhetorical grammar for UC Santa Cruz Extension. I put that first run of the class together with this edition. When the third edition came out, soon after (or perhaps during) that first semester, I switched. I taught the class through three, perhaps four, times before the workload of my day job combined with the workload of teaching became too much to continue with.
That was a great class though. As is always the case with teaching, gathering all that material together, creating exercises, worksheets, and tests, answering questions — all the work of marshaling resources to explain something detailed and complex to others, comprehensively, over many weeks — was deeply, deeply satisfying. It also served to inculcate those principles more firmly in my own mind. “To teach is to learn twice,” as the 19th-century French essayist Joseph Joubert said.
I found this book originally through another. The author of this book, Martha Kolln, was the author also of my favorite grammar book to that point, the book with which I had really, deeply, and truly come to understand Modern English grammar; and this second book of hers, which focuses on grammar as a tool for writing, teased out and developed the concepts that the grammar book had concluded with. Kolln’s perspective and insights are very much in line with the perspective and insights of Joseph Williams, and so this book (in various editions over time) formed the perfect companion to the Clarity and Grace series. I studied them both at various times, reinforcing and deepening what I’d already learned in the process.
Rhetorical Grammar, now in its 8th edition, and Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, now in its 12th, together make for an excellent program of study for any writer or editor, though you must come to them with a foundation of English grammar firmly in place. (Though RG will deepen that grammatical understanding.) These are not books about simple, mechanical corrections, but about writing well. And as always, you must read. Only wide reading can train your ear to the music of the language, in its many varieties, its many, many possibilities.