Style (Clean and Simple) For Anyone

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style | Benjamin Dreyer | Random House

Reviewed by David Kern

The dust jacket for Benjamin Dreyer’s new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, refers to Dreyer as “one of Twitter’s leading language gurus” which feels ironic in an on-the-nose sort of way, as if whoever penned that particular bit of ad-copy isn’t sure whether they want to sell books to people who would buy them because of Twitter. It’s a bit of sardonic cheekiness that is in keeping with the tone of Dreyer’s wonderful book.

Dreyer, who is Vice President, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House, offers both rules and principles for good writing. But more than simply a grammar handbook, Dreyer’s English is an apology for style. It’s a book about the issues that every writer runs into; but, more importantly, it’s a book about the nature of writing—of all human communication. And in that, it’s a deeply contemporary book with a strangely ancient heart.

Dreyer offers solutions for the tricky business of foreign languages, fiction and characterization, and the grammar of numbers. He defends the “en” dash (as a matter of fact, he spends nine strangely entertaining pages on hyphens and dashes), supports those who begin sentences with “but” or “and" (mercifully), clarifies a slew of words many of us mix-up regularly ("confusables," he calls them), and provides history’s most enjoyable page of writing about the subjunctive mood. But above all, he's obsessed with clarity. His arguments for (or against) certain usages are neither random nor based purely on preference (although Dreyer isn't shy on making his opinions known). They are always in service of a greater cause. Clear sentences, clear phrases, clear ideas. That's this book's raison d'etre.

Oh, and, bless him, Dreyer is an ardent supporter of the Oxford comma, which he prefers to call the “series comma” since, after all, the derivation of the “Oxford” attribution “verges on urbane legendarianism.” Dreyer’s English is full of that sort of thing.

At long last we have a replacement for Strunk and White’s disappointingly mundane but widely endorsed, The Elements of Style, a book which reads like John Dewey joined an eighth grade English class. Dreyer’s book is unpretentious in its approach but hilariously, wonderfully pretentious in its very ontology. It’s great fun and slightly irreverent while also standing in awe at the wonder of language. It’s a book for nerds and scholars and students and people who like funny stories and one-liners and anyone who fancies themselves smart enough to write a thing for anyone about anything. Truth is, it’s something of a page turner, right up to the last word, at which point it becomes the most readable reference book on your shelf.

David Kern is editor-in-chief of FORMA Journal, the director of the Close Reads Podcast Network, and head of multimedia for the CiRCE Institute.

If you enjoyed this review, which first appeared in the summer print issue, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal and the latest episodes of the FORMA podcast.

The Greeks and Their Tragedies Are Good for Us

Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us | Simon Critchley | Pantheon

Reviewed by Matthew Bianco

With friends like Simon Critchley, Greek tragedy may not need enemies. It may even turn out to have fewer enemies than Critchley himself imagines in his new book, Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us. He is certainly looking for a fight, though, as he labors to defend tragedy in an age-old dispute.

The Argument He Is Joining

History teems with dialog about the value of poetry: Socrates, for one, banned the poets from his ideal city, replacing them with scholars of math and science, claiming that those subjects raise a student's mind to a higher level of perception. Aristotle, Plotinus, and many others since, have defended the poets, some even taking on Socrates directly. And now Simon Crichtley enters that great conversation.

When Socrates banished all poets from his city, he seems to have meant Homer specifically, but also likely included Greek playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. As the conversation continued over the centuries, the interlocutors began to use the term “poets” more inclusively and “poetry” came to be known as “story,” referring to a range of works including fictional or semi-fictional histories, plays, poems, stories, or novels. Definitions of “poetry” and “poet” thus became an important area of contention within this particular debate.

Socrates’ argument for banning the poets has less to do with the utility of their work and more to do with the morality of it. Stories should not be used in the education of a city's people, he claimed, especially its children, because these stories fail in two ways. First, they often misrepresent the Good: They make the gods look fickle (as when Homer gives us a Zeus who goes from supporting the Greeks to supporting the Trojans in the Iliad); they make the heroes look weak (as when Homer gives us an Achilles dishonoring Hector's body); they promote the dishonorable (as when Euripides gives us “the wailings of Electra”) or minimize the honorable (as when Homer presents Hades as a place to fear in the Odyssey). For, as Socrates would argue, the city ought to be a place where the citizens fear God, love one another, and do the right thing.

Furthermore, they fail to accurately represent truth. For Socrates, the craftsman who makes tables knows the idea—the essential form—of a table as it exists in the mind of God, then he constructs that table for use in our world. The artist, however, does not know the table as it exists in God's mind. He only knows the craftsman's product. So, when the artist constructs a table in pictures (painting) or in words (poetry), he is constructing a less accurate copy (his work) of a copy (the craftsman's work) of the actual thing (God's idea). With respect to tables, this is probably not a big deal. When, however, one is trying to understand justice or goodness or mercy, the copy of a copy can be utterly undependable. How can one be educated in justice if the representations through which we are to learn about justice are undependable?

The debate, then, offers us three streams: Socrates is right, so how do we educate children apart from stories? Socrates is mostly wrong, but we must make sure we aren't using bad stories. Or Socrates is completely wrong, and thus we can use any stories because stories don't actually teach us in any meaningful way.

Critchley's Contributions

For his part, Simon Critchley is most interested in defending tragic drama from Socrates, but he frustrates, almost immediately, because of his blunt transparency. He is swimming in the third stream and, tragedies aside, has a point to make: “One of the axes I will be grinding in this book is a critique of the very idea of moral psychology and the attempted moralization of the psyche that is at work in philosophy and in much else besides, especially Christianity” (emphasis in “original”). He wants it to be clear: “Theater is not just about ideas. Nor is it about a message of any kind.... It is rather about being permitted, allowing oneself to be permitted, to enter what Peter Brook called 'the empty space'”. Socrates is wrong: There are no ideas (even copies of ideas) presented in tragedies from which we can learn. Tragedy has no ideas, no message. It is just empty space.

The bulk of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is an argument with philosophy, with Socrates and Aristotle especially. Socrates becomes for Critchley what Homer is for Socrates in the Republic. And here another frustration arises. Though trained in philosophy, Critchley—who admits he was never very good at Greek—appears to read Plato's Socratic dialogues very haphazardly. In one instance, after describing Socrates' banishment of the poets from the city, he declares:

Socrates then makes the apparent concession that poetry might be welcomed back into the just city if an argument can be made for it. But this argument for poetry, Socrates insists, must not itself be poetic, but must be stated “without meter” (607d), namely in the rational prose of philosophical dialogue.

Oddly, that is not at all what Socrates said, though Critchley conveniently uses quotation marks and gives reference to the section number of the Republic wherein this rule is supposedly given. In fact, every translator I checked translates the passage in a way that sounds something like this one, by C.D.C. Reeve:

Nonetheless, if the poetry that aims at pleasure and imitation has any argument to bring forward that proves it ought to have a place in a well-governed city, we at least would be glad to admit it, for we are well aware of the charm it exercises....Therefore, isn't it just that such poetry should return from exile when it has successfully defended itself, whether in lyric or any other meter? ...Then we'll allow its defenders, who aren't poets themselves but lovers of poetry, to speak in prose on its behalf and to show that it not only gives pleasure but is beneficial both to constitutions and to human life. (607c-d)

The gist of Socrates' point is that poetry can defend itself and return from exile if it can offer a defense for itself, an apology. That defense can be offered by the poets in verse. However, if a lover of poetry who is not a poet himself would like, he too can offer a defense (in prose if necessary).

Yet as frustrating as Critchley is in his arguments with Socrates and Aristotle, he offers much in defense of tragedy (even if I find myself swimming with one leg in the first stream and another in the second).

Tragedy—especially ancient tragedy—is important, he claims, because “when the ancients speak, they do not merely tell us about themselves. They tell us about us.” Tragedy gives us a sight that is more than physical, as the blinding of Oedipus gave him a sight he had not previously had. The “lies” or “fictions” that these stories or plays tell become the means for “the acquisition of wisdom through deception, through an emotionally psychotropic experience that generates a powerful emotion.”

Tragedy, as it wrestles with competing claims for justice and the inscrutable motivations of distant gods, gives the human participant (actor or audience) an awareness and sense for ambiguity. Critchley, in fact, sees this as the starting point, the grounds, for the ultimate disagreement between Socrates and the poets. “It is this ambiguity that philosophy, in the person of Socrates and all the way to Husserl and Heidegger, cannot bear. For philosophy, ambiguity is a sign of crisis that has to be arrested....For tragedy, that crisis is life and has to be lived as such.”

This is very likely an untrue understanding of Socrates' views of philosophy and ambiguity. Socrates almost never ends a dialogue with a strict, unambiguous answer. Socrates may believe that there is a universal, objective truth to be known and that it is the business of the philosopher to discover it, but he does not see this as a simple task and is happy to live with the ambiguity. In fact, as he attests of himself with great regularity in the dialogues, “All I know is that I know nothing.”

The dialectic of the Socratic or Platonic philosophy amounts to living in and through the ambiguities of our world and our life. And, insofar as Critchley has made the case that tragedy helps us to navigate the ambiguous waters of life, he has made a case for tragedy, one that may even override Socrates' objections in the Republic. But, we do not have to pretend that the acceptance of tragedy into education necessitates the rejection of philosophy. That is a case that has not yet been made.

Matthew Bianco is a curriculum developer, speaker, and teacher with the CiRCE Institute, a classical education non-profit. He is a senior editor of FORMA Journal.

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal and the latest episodes of the FORMA podcast.

How Writing Shaped the Empire

Empire of Letters: Writing in Roman Literature and Thought from Lucretius to Ovid | Stephanie Ann Frampton | Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Heidi White

The Roman poet Lucretius’ epic work “De rerum natura,” or “On the Nature of Things,” is the oldest known natural philosophy poem in Latin. An Epicurean, Lucretius wanted to explain the fundamental nature of the cosmos in terms of imperceptible atomic matter alone. To do so, he turned to a linguistic metaphor. Atoms, Lucretius wrote, are like letters. Indeed, both atoms and letters are called “elementa” in Latin. Just as we can manipulate letters to create meaning (the Latin word for wood, “lignum,” becomes the word for fire, “ignes,” by altering a few letters) so we can manipulate the natural world (wood becomes fire by adding heat). Readers of Lucretius steep themselves in “the combinatory potential of nature and language,” writes Stephanie Frampton, Associate Professor of Literature at MIT, in Empire of Letters, her new book on the art of writing in the Roman world.

Dr. Frampton traces this and many other threads that weave ancient writing customs into the tapestry of Roman society. Conventional wisdom among scholars of ancient literature holds that the poetic tradition in antiquity was primarily oral and thus Roman writing was essentially an afterthought, a cultural blip. But Dr. Frampton challenges that perception in Empire of Letters, arguing that Lucretius and other Roman writers demonstrate that Roman forms of writing profoundly shaped Roman ways of thinking and acting.

“Everyone says the ancients are really into spoken and performed poetry, and don’t care about the written word,” Frampton says. “But look at Lucretius, who’s the first person writing a scientific text in Latin—the way that he explains his scientific insight is through this metaphor founded upon the written word.” To Frampton, this is significant because it indicates that the physical act of writing was common enough among Romans to use it as a metaphor to prove a philosophical point in a scholarly treatise. Lucretius' elemental metaphor is one of many examples explored in Empire of Letters that demonstrates the widespread impact of writing practices on Roman society.

Frampton investigates more than just the content of the written record. Much of the book explores how the physical act of writing—its customs and technologies—in Roman society formed the way Roman citizens thought and acted on a daily basis. For example, Roman students used wax tablets to practice writing. Before a new lesson, they would wipe their tablets clean. This meant that they could not preserve their work beyond the present lesson, necessitating Roman students to commit each lesson to memory. Writing, then, was not a substitute for memory—as it has become in the modern world—but an aid to it. Indeed, Cicero, that consummate Roman, called memory and writing “most similar, though in a different medium.” Due to the physical nature of wax tablet technology, writing and memory were inextricably connected to the Roman mind, while to the moderns they are nearly opposites. Romans wrote in order to remember; we write so that we do not have to.

This and other explorations in the book illuminate not only Roman society, but our own. By comparing the techniques of writing in the ancient world to the modern one, Dr. Frampton examines the foundations of technology in western culture, shedding light on how the innovations of Roman writing compare to more recent cultural advancements, like the computer, which profoundly shape the way we think and act today. Thoughtful readers will draw parallels between the progressive impact of ancient writing customs on Roman culture to the technological innovations in the modern world.

For those bibliophiles who love the sensory experience of holding a well-made book in your hands, Empire of Letters offers fascinating insights into the historical craft of book-making. The grammarian Quintillian, for example, apparently bewailed the distraction of dipping the nib of his reed pen in ink. Pliny the Elder recorded a papyrus shortage during the reign of the emperor Tiberius which would have “sent life into chaos” if not for the intervention of the senate. Not only do these charming anecdotes throw the writing life of antiquity into sharp relief, they also enable us to enter vicariously into the physical realm of beloved ancient writers, bringing Virgil and Cicero that much closer to those of us who read their work on, say, the hottest new e-reader.

Empire of Letters is a book-lover's book. In it, Dr. Frampton explores the fascinating minutiae of the physical act of writing in Roman antiquity. From Lucretius' famous elemental metaphor to wax tablet technology to the trials and tribulations of Roman letter-writing and the manufacture of scrolls, Dr. Frampton argues that writing, and the tools of writing, helped shape the Roman world. For those of us who love the Roman literary tradition, Empire of Letters immerses us in the grit and gravel of Lucretius' and Virgil's tools of the trade, giving classically-minded readers the delightful opportunity to feel the papyrus and smell the wax.

Heidi White is managing editor of the Forma Journal, host of the FORMA Podcast, and a regular contributor to the Close Reads Podcast. She lives and teaches in Colorado Springs, CO.

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal and the latest episodes of the FORMA podcast.

Julia Child Wasn't a Chef

Julia Child: The Last Interview and Other Conversations / Melville House

Reviewed by Sean Johnson

Julia Child never forgot her first French meal. “It was so good! We had oysters and sole meuniere and crème fraiche and beautiful wine…and I’ve never turned back!” The moment would not only mark the beginning of a new life for Child, it would furnish her with a vital principle: to be any good as a cook, and to really determine what good food is, “first, I think you have to learn how to eat.” A new collection of interviews affords a unique way of tracing the impact of that meal through the rest of her life. Julia Child: The Last Interview collects six conversations spanning the length of Child’s career as a public figure and culminating in what would prove to be her final interview before her death in 2004.

Child was almost fifty when the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I marked her entrée into the public eye in 1961. Though no single conversation provides a complete biography, the six taken together make up a picture of the years before she became the world’s most recognizable cook. She spent nearly a decade working for the OSS (precursor to the CIA) in Ceylon and China before moving to France, attending Le Cordon Bleu, opening her own cooking school for American ex-pats, and finally returning to the U.S. to publish the first of many bestselling cookbooks and become one of the first television cooks in history.

The interviews vary in their emphasis—one includes a lengthy discussion of U.S. foreign policy, while another includes an abundance of behind-the-scenes details about Child’s first television program, The French Chef— but at some point in every interview Child meditates on her job description. “I’m not a chef,” she insists, “I’m a teacher and a cook.” Over and over she reiterates the conviction that she is first and foremost an educator. This distinction allows her to differentiate her work from the new breed of food programming she saw on the rise in her later years. “I’m very much interested in the Food Network, but they have to make money, so they have to have entertainment,” she says, contrasting their model with the kind of “serious teaching show” she could produce on PBS.

The rift toward which Child points has only widened since her death. We now have a preponderance of cooking shows (some of them beautifully shot and well produced) that highlight the skill of professional chefs and the artful difficulty of their craft—from highbrow examples like open-flame cooking in Patagonia, to more popular competitions pitting trained cooks against each other in a race to make something edible from a basket of duck breast, eggplant, and cotton candy. But to hear Child tell it, she was never interested in difficult cooking. Indeed, “It’s very easy” is a common refrain in these pages. Child's unflappable TV persona is unmistakable even here, flattened into transcripts. “Why should you have [salad dressing] bottled? It’s so easy to make.” If the culinary entertainer wants to convince his audience that what he does is difficult, the good culinary teacher clearly has the opposite aim.

When she was asked in 1984, “What advice would you give to someone who is just learning to cook—to a real beginner?” Child answered, “Find a good friend who’s also a good cook…and get a good cookbook…follow it seriously and just start cooking…Plunge in fearlessly!” Whether it’s a book or a cook, she seems to say, cooking can be easy if you apprentice yourself to a good teacher. By being that teacher for millions, Julia Child did more than make cooking look easy; she made it so.

Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the Forma Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal. The late-summer issue will be mailing in a few weeks. 

Maryanne Wolf's Positive Way Forward for the Modern, Distracted Reader

Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World | Maryanne Wolf | Harper Collins

Reviewed by Emily Andrews

Perhaps this has happened to you: Finally finding a minute to settle in with a good book, you curl up on the sofa and crack open the cover of a book you have been eagerly looking forward to reading. At first, the sensation of the text in your hands and the smell of the crisp, new pages feels, oh, so good. You savor the first few paragraphs. But before long, a panicky twitch starts in your gut and works its way up to your brain. The desire to turn your eyes away to something else becomes irresistible. The window, the next room, your phone. You can no longer bear to pay attention to the words on the page, forgetting most of what you have just read. To dedicated bibliophiles, the sensation is alarming. What happened to those long hours of quiet bliss?

If this isn’t something you experience, I am truly happy for you. But for the rest of us who live in the digital age, a shift has begun to take place in the way we interact with words. Our brains have been rewired to require a constant stream of new information. We are physically hindered in our attempts to read well.

Where did our focus go and how can we reclaim it? Cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid) is out to answer these questions in her latest title: Reader, Come Home. The argument for unplugging is hardly a novel one. Perhaps the most renowned advocate for a return to print, Neil Postman made his case over 30 years ago. But Wolf’s ability to look under the hood of the human brain is her special contribution to the conversation, giving us laymen a glimpse into how digital media is changing our physical makeup.

Wolf begins by demonstrating the miracle of reading. Lest we forget, she reminds us that human beings are not born with the ability to read. If we are lucky, it is something we train our brains to do over the course of many childhood years. During this process the brain must build new pathways so that countless signals can fire across the multiple areas of cognition. Her description of the activity required to register a single letter is awe-inspiring. And strangely, our neurology adapts even though there is no immediate, practical benefit to this function. In Wolf’s words, “the act of reading embodies as no other function the brain’s semi-miraculous ability to go beyond its original, genetically programmed capacities such as vision and language.” Reading surpasses the basic senses required for survival. It is apparently unnecessary, and yet it has the power to entirely revolutionize an individual life.

But what does this science have to do with the discussion surrounding modern, digital culture? Wolf outlines three major concerns with the way digital media affects the malleable neurology of our reading brain. The first is the way in which it encourages our novelty bias. Already wired to give primary attention to new signals in our environment, a feature which protects us in the event of danger, it takes concentrated effort and time to teach the brain to focus on letters and words. However, the scrolling and constantly updating sound bytes of the internet split our attention. As Wolf describes it, “In multitasking, we unknowingly enter an addiction loop as the brain’s novelty centers becomes rewarded for processing shiny new stimuli, to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex, which wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention.” As we give into this rhythm of reading, we lose what she calls cognitive patience. Not only do we struggle to focus our attention on the page, but we fail to spend time with the content of our reading. The digitally-trained brain has a harder time pausing to digest the meaning and implications of what has been read. In this way, the highest purposes of reading, self-reflection and the pursuit of wisdom, are lost.

Her second concern addresses the substantive nature of the page. The physical dimension of print provides readers “a knowledge of where they are in time and space” and “allows them to return to things over and over again and learn from them.” She calls this the recursive dimension of reading. Screens do not have quite the same “thereness” as hard copy. The words disappear as we scroll, and we therefore lose the sense of their permanence. In early years the recursive dimension is especially important as children experience repeat encounters with a book. Wolf says, “It involves their whole bodies; they see, smell, hear, and feel books.”

Such repetition allows them to develop the quality which comprises her third concern: background knowledge. Human beings can only acquire insight by comparing new concepts with those they already know. Wolf recounts her attempt to read Ethiopian children a story about an octopus. They had never seen or heard of such a creature and could not comprehend the context in which the story took place. For modern children of the West, Wolf sees a similar problem: “That environment is providentially rich in what it gives, but paradoxically today, it may give too much and ask too little.”

When our world is oversaturated with knowledge, we often fail to grapple with information in a way that makes it ours. We prefer seeking new information to retaining the old. Whether it be an octopus, Achilles, or Ebenezer Scrooge, failure to stockpile cultural background knowledge impedes a reader’s ability to think analogically. Without analogy, a human being cannot formulate a new thought. And more than simply providing background information, reading gives us experiences. For those who have read the ending of Anna Karenina, Wolf claims, “In all likelihood the same neurons you deploy when you move your legs and trunk were also activated when you read that Anna jumped before the train.” Books truly do allow us to become a thousand men and yet remain ourselves, as C.S. Lewis argued long ago.

Wolf’s fears about the effects which these neurological changes will produce in humanity are no surprise. The loss of cognitive patience, the recursive dimension, and background knowledge are sure to diminish the quality of the reading experience, thereby severing future generations from humanity’s long heritage. She laments the loss of deep reading, which produces joy and wisdom responsible for carrying sufferers of all kinds through unspeakable tragedy. She worries for a narrow-minded society that fails to “welcome the Other as a guest within ourselves” through deep reading. As many before her, she cautions us against how easily we have given up slow, reflective reading.

Yet Wolf's optimism for the future is surprising and is what sets her work apart. Recognizing that it is unadvisable to leap unthinking into new technologies, but also futile (even undesirable) to escape our digital present, she imagines a third way forward. Building on research done on the bilingual brain, Wolf hypothesizes a similar binary approach to reading education. Just as a child may easily develop separate neural pathways for English and Spanish language processing, she believes we can develop separate pathways for print and digital reading. A good reader then becomes a “code switcher,” toggling between modes of “light” and “deep” reading as the situation demands. Furthermore, she expands these hypotheses to include not just the training of new readers, but the restoring of adult readers as well. Advances in neurology have shown us how the plasticity of the brain provides a way to reverse negative neural patterns. Wolf suggests that this is also possible for the reading brain.

Whether or not Wolf has landed on the answer, her hopeful outlook is a breath of fresh air. We have no lack of alarmists voicing the dangers of technology today. However, if we only remain alarmed, longing for days gone by, we will soon give way to isolation and despair. Wolf instead searches for a solution that will safeguard tradition while simultaneously embracing the benefits of our digital present. This willingness to thoughtfully occupy her own place in history is a timely example to all anxious readers. She looks forward in good faith to a development we have not yet reached. Thus Reader, Come Home successfully calls its audience into what Wolf proclaims as the goal of good reading: to know what we do not know.

Emily Andrews is an Associate Director at CenterForLit in Spokane, Washington, where she teaches, writes, podcasts, and develops teacher resources. She is an Associate Editor for FORMA.

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal. The late-summer issue will be mailing in a few weeks. 

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