Condensed Books

One of the local shops in Stonington, The Dry Dock, always has a bookshelf in front of the store that offers free books.  It’s impossible not to stop and take a gander at what’s available, and yesterday I noticed a book that brought back memories — a volume of  Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

I’m not sure whether Reader’s Digest still comes up with “condensed books” — or, for that matter, whether Reader’s Digest itself is still published — but there was a time in the ’60s and early ’70s when our family subscribed to the magazine and got the condensed books, too.  I remember Mom reading the condensed books and remarking that you wouldn’t even have known that the books were condensed.  Of course, unless you had done a side-by-side comparison of the actual novel and the condensed book, you wouldn’t know what had hit the cutting room floor in the “condensation” process.  Significant subplots, back stories, ancillary characters, scenes that helped to fully flesh out the contours and personalities of the main characters — they all could be lopped out by the Reader’s Digest editors who wanted to shrink novels and non-fiction works down to a manageable size for the busy person who just didn’t have the time to read a full-blown book.

I don’t recall ever reading one of the condensed books that were delivered to our house, although I occasionally wished that Reader‘s Digest had done condensed versions of some of the ponderous tomes we had to read in high school.  (This was before I discovered Cliff’s Notes.)  I always wondered, though, how the authors involved reacted to the finished, condensed product.  I’m sure they liked the payment they received for allowing their work to be condensed, but how did they feel about the liberal editing that occurred as part of the process?  Did the authors actually read the condensed versions to see how their work was affected?  Did they think that the condensation cut the heart out of their books, or changed their focus, or did they feel deep down that the editing process had actually improved their work?  Given the amount of time and effort writers put into a novel, it would be tough to come to the conclusion that the book you labored over was better without some of the subplots and character-building scenes.

 

Emphasis Added

Anyone who does much writing will eventually confront the question of the best way to give emphasis to a particular word or phrase in what they have written.  Maybe it’s a desire to attach special significance to part of a quote, or a need to make absolutely sure that the reader doesn’t miss a central point — but the time will come where, to be on the safe side, emphasis must be added.

9154299_web1_171030-pan-m-alexander-browne-top-hat-1So, what’s the best way to emphasize the written word?  The basic options, currently, are using underlines, italics, or boldface.  Some people then use a combination of the three to give even more emphasis.  (Back when I first started working, in the days long before social media and texting, some people used all caps to provide emphasis.  Now the all-caps look is generally perceived by the reader as screaming, and there’s very little being written about that needs that much emphasis.  What you want is for the reader’s internal voice to “think” the word being emphasized just a bit louder than the rest of the text, and not have them mentally screaming like a character in a bad teen horror movie.)

My emphasis tastes vary depending on what I’m writing.  For blog entries like this one, I prefer to use italics to give a word that special nudge.  For legal briefs, however, where case names are italicized and section headings are in bold print, I tend to use simple underlining to emphasize specific text.  That way, there’s no mixing up the message.

And I don’t like using various combinations of bold, italics, and underlining to give extra-special emphasis to certain words or passages.  For one thing, I think random mixtures of “emphasis-adders” is confusing to the reader; it suggests that there is some emphasis hierarchy that the readers hasn’t been told about, which may leave them wondering about relative emphasis rather than concentrating on what is written.  (“Let’s see — is don’t supposed to get more emphasis than don’t, or is it the other way around?”)  And using multiple combinations for some words seems to devalue the words that merit only a single emphasizer.  I think emphasis-adders should be used sparingly, and if you’ve got to use combinations you’re probably overdoing emphasis to the point where the message is being lost.  You might want to think about editing your sentences to be shorter and clearer, instead.  Plus, the use of random combinations of emphasizers makes the printed page look messy, like a riotous fruit salad.

So, my rule of thumb on adding emphasis is to stick to one — and only one — technique, and to use it sparingly.  If you write clearly, you’ll be just fine with that.

Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Yesterday Bob Dylan, the beat folk musician who turned electric and helped make the ’60s the ’60s, won the Nobel Prize for literature.  Dylan is the first musician ever to have won the award — and, not surprisingly, the decision to give one of literature’s great prizes to a rock singer immediately produced criticism.  One writer said “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.”

50-shades-bob-dylanMost of the criticism of the decision to give the Nobel Prize to Dylan focuses on whether lyrics can ever rise to the level of “literature.”  It’s a kind of snooty argument that necessarily comes off as dismissive of songwriters, suggesting that poets and novelists labor over their craft, think big thoughts and wrestle with the big issues, and produce timeless works of literary art — while songwriters simply dash off a ditty and consult their rhyming dictionary as necessary.  Still others argue that Dylan has received enough awards — he’s won a lot of Grammys, for example — and he doesn’t need the Nobel Prize.  As one critic of the award put it, reading is declining, writers and poets are struggling for recognition, and “awarding the Nobel to a novelist or a poet is a way of affirming that fiction and poetry still matter, that they are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition.”

Kind of sad, isn’t it?  Years after Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth, and Hemingway, people are arguing that the Nobel Prize is what is needed to show that writing poetry and prose matters?  And, in a way, that argument is self-defeating, isn’t it?  After all, the Nobel Prizes in literature that have been awarded pre-Dylan – and you can see the list here — haven’t exactly prevented the worldwide decline in reading and recognition of writers and poets that some people are bemoaning.

The notion that the Nobel Prize somehow legitimizes literature seems pretty silly to me.  Nobel Prizes always appear to be highly politicized, and the concept of honoring writers and poets through the selection of one award winner doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The Nobel Prize for literature in 2011, for example, was given to Tomas Transtromer “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”  How does the award to Tomas Transtromer affirm the value of authors and poets who write in different genres and different styles?

Words are words, and the Nobel Prize for literature recognizes that words have power.  Whether the words appear in a book, a poem, or a recorded song, the key point is whether those words are being used in a memorable, beautiful way to send a lasting message to the reader — or the listener.  No one who has listened to Bob Dylan’s music has failed to appreciate the lyrics, which undeniably have their own unique, poetic power.  Dylan’s writing — like, apparently, the writing of Tomas Transtromer — makes us think about words and their message.  I think he’s a fitting recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature.

Comma Trauma

Look, I admit it.  I care about the Oxford comma.  In fact, I care enough to call it the “Oxford comma” rather than the “serial comma.”  Oxford comma makes the comma sound sophisticated and worldly, whereas serial comma makes it sound like the poor comma is getting ready to join the ranks of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.

For those who don’t care passionately about this important topic, the Oxford comma is the comma that should come before the conjunction when you list three or more words or phrases.  So, if you’re talking about greatness, LeBron James, and how Cleveland bashers can go pound sand, the Oxford comma is the little guy that follows LeBron James.

the-oxford-comma_52c855ed979ed_w1500Some style guides, like the AP style guide that most American newspapers follow, say that when the sentence involves just a simple series, you should get rid of that comma and go directly to the conjunction.  I think the AP’s reckless and inexplicable decision in that regard is almost certainly solely responsible for the general decline of newspaper circulation in the United States over the past 50 years.

Why do I care about the Oxford comma?  It has nothing to do with dueling grammarians, punctuation prissiness, or trying to trace commas back to the English of Chaucer.  Instead, I think the Oxford comma is essential because writing and reading is all about cadence and the little voice in my head.  When I’m really reading something, and not just scanning a sign or an internet pop-up ad, a little voice in my head is reading the words along with me.  When I write something, that little voice is there, too, writing along with me.  The little voice cares about punctuation, and flow.  And when I write about sadism, Ramsay Bolton, and starving dogs, the little voice wants to pause for a moment after Ramsay Bolton, to savor his richly deserved demise, before moving on to the agents of his destruction.  The alternative is an unseemly headlong rush to the end of the sentence.

The Oxford comma is the literary difference between a cool walk on a spring morning, where you’ve got time to admire the tulips, the budding greenery, and the sun’s warming rays, and driving by in a stuffy car.  That’s why I’m a proponent of the Oxford comma.

Stephen King

Recently Richard got me Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep as a present.  It’s the sequel to The Shining, which I had never read.  I’d seen the Stanley Kubrick/Jack Nicholson movie, but had heard the book is different (and it definitely is) so I decided to read the book first.

The Shining was an enjoyable, page-turning airplane read that I finished on the return leg of our recent trip to Phoenix, and I was looking forward to starting the sequel that seemingly just came out.  As we were walking through the airport on our way to our car, however, we passed the bookstore and I noticed that Stephen King had another new book out, called Revival.  My God, I thought:  how many books has Stephen King written?

The answer is . . . a lot.  According to King’s website, if you just count novels, there are more than 50.  50!  Indeed, in between Doctor Sleep and Revival there was at least one other book, Mr. Mercedes — and perhaps two, because I can’t tell whether Doctor Sleep was published before or after Joyland.  And that is just novels; there are countless essays, short stories, and other pieces in a listing of written works that seems impossibly long.

By anyone’s definition, Stephen King has been astonishingly prolific.  Those of us who aren’t creative can only marvel at where he could come up with so many ideas for books — but what really impresses me is King’s obvious dedication to his work and his craft.  You can only publish that many books, short stories, and writings if you are willing to sit down at your writing desk, day after day, and work.  And Stephen King is still doing it, at age 67.

Critics will probably never look upon Stephen King with the same affection they have for, say, Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace.  I don’t pretend to know precisely what separates fiction from “fine literature,” but I do know this:  Stephen King has stayed atop the bestseller lists for decades now, producing book after book that people want to read, and he has done it by working hard, grinding away at new stories when he presumably could kick back, live off his royalties and speaking fees, and become a man of leisure.

If you want a living testament to the merits of a strong work ethic, consider Stephen King.  We should all be able to find some inspiration in his example.

The Terror Of Typos

Wired recently published an interesting article about the bane of any writer’s existence:  typos.  Why do we make them in the first place, and once we do, why it is so darned difficult to see them so we can fix them?

The article contends that typos occur because the brain is occupied with the complex task of communicating concepts via the written word and operates on autopilot in performing the lower-level tasks of creating words and sentences.  And then, during the proofreading run after you’ve made the little mistake, your brain knows what you intended to convey and just assumes that it is there in all its glory.  That makes it hard to see the extra s or the extraneous word that you failed to delete.  Technology, too, plays a role.  When you are creating a document on a computer you are keyboarding, editing, cutting and pasting, and moving blocks of text here and there, and inevitably errors will occur.

And, just as people develop “chicken fatigue” after eating too much poultry, so the brain can develop “writing fatigue.”  Often you’ve read and re-read your piece so many times that your bored brain just skims the surface of the words, leaving you defenseless against the little, irritating errors.  That’s the way my brain works, so my typo-termination technique is to try to let time pass (overnight if possible) before making my proofreading run.  I want to see the work with fresher eyes and, I hope, catch things I didn’t catch before.

Given the prevalence of typos, and the human elements that inevitably produce them, you’d think that people would be more forgiving when they see them.  But we aren’t, of course.  Instead, we equate typos with carelessness and lack of attention to detail and allow their presence to undercut the high-level concepts that, according to the Wired piece, caused the writer’s brain to make the mistakes in the first place.  Perverse, isn’t it?  It’s why writers hate typos so much — and why anyone applying for a job would do well to enlist the services of a careful resume proofreader.

The Rewards Of Blogging

I like blogging.  I’ve always enjoyed writing, which I think is fun and mentally relaxing.  Blogging helps to satiate that nagging creative impulse brooding just below the surface.  I feel good when I hit the “publish” button after I’ve finished a piece, and I really appreciate it when one of my postings receives a positive comment.

IMG_5421Sometimes, however, the rewards of blogging can be more tangible.  My recent posting about purchasing new cookie sheets and getting ready to bake Christmas cookies apparently caused Aunt Corinne and her long-time friend, our Loyal Akron Reader, to reach out to Kish with ideas for an early Christmas gift for yours truly.  Yesterday Kish presented me with two first-class cookie sheets, some reusable parchment paper, the King Arthur Flour cookie and cupcake decorating set, and the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion, the Essential Cookie Cookbook.  The book includes hundreds of cookie recipes, as well as tips on cookie preparation, ingredients, and baking tools.

When baking time rolls around after Thanksgiving, I’ll be diving into the Cookie Companion for new concoctions and helpful guidance.  Thanks to Aunt Corinne, the Loyal Akron Reader, and my lovely wife for their thoughtfulness!  With this influx of equipment, recipes, and advice, this is shaping up to be the best holiday baking season ever.

Knowing When To Get To The (Exclamation) Point

If, like me, you were schooled in the proper use of the written word by a stern, ruler-wielding English teacher who applied her red editing pen with liberal glee, it’s been a tough few years.

The advent of email and texting and Twitter have stretched the old rules for written communications past the breaking point.  If my old teachers read some of what passes for writing on those new media, they would loosen their hair buns, put their heads down on their well-worn copies of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, and weep bitter tears.

Consider the exclamation point.  We were taught that the exclamation point was a form of punctuation to be used rarely, if at all.  It might, potentially, be useful to highlight an expression of surprise or a forceful statement, but mostly it was dismissed as a crutch for a poor writer who couldn’t drum up excitement with the story itself.  When I got to journalism school, our acerbic, chain-smoking faculty advisor instructed that exclamation points were never used in a news story.

But now, exclamation points are ridiculously common.  If you look at your recently received texts or emails, you’ll likely see dozens of exclamation points — sometimes even double or triple exclamation points (as well as emoticons, made-up-on-the-spot abbreviations, and other recent linguistic developments).  In fact, at times not using an exclamation point can be interpreted as rude or sarcastic.  You can’t just say “Thanks.”  It has to be “Thanks!” or maybe even “Thanks!!” — or you’re viewed as a surly jerk who isn’t sufficiently appreciative.

For a guy in his 50s, the trick is to avoid sounding like an over-excited teenager (“OMG!!!!”) while at the same time not inadvertently giving offense because you adhere to outdated strictures that used to govern the King’s English.  Where’s the rulebook?  For now, I’ll loosen my use of the exclamation point — but I’m drawing the line at emoticons or substituting numbers or single letters for words!

Ohio Books And Authors

The Ohioana Book Festival is Saturday, May 8 at the Ohioana Library and State Library building at 274 E. First Avenue in Columbus.  It promises to be an exceptional day, beginning at 10 a.m. and running until 4:30 p.m.  There will be readings from authors, a chance to get books signed by authors, the presentation of awards to young writers, and a series of panel presentations.

All of the panel discussions look interesting, but some in particular have caught my eye.  One is Mentors & Muses:  The Writers and Books That Inspired Me, in which David Catrow and Martha Moody will discuss books and writers that inspired them.  In my view, when people start talking about their favorites of anything, it is usually revealing.  Another presentation that looks interesting for the same reason is How We Write, What We Write, in which Lisa Klein and Lucy A. Snyder will discuss their creative processes.

Ohio is full of really good writers, and the Ohioana Book Festival is a good way to get to know some of them.  Information about the 2010 Ohioana Book Festival is available here.