Stories that start off with somebody dying always feel like a con to me. We all know the place in the story that the dying happens. Once you understand how the card trick works – look over here, keep your eyes on this hand, there is no other hand – the magic is gone, and it’s just sleight-of-hand.


Some days I make the sentences; some days, the sentences make me.

Slate has a piece regarding Stanley Fish’s forthcoming book How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One that has five of the Professor’s favorite examples of excellent sentences. The comments section is open for readers to make arguments for their favorite sentences; so far, 120 people have chimed in with their contenders. What’s yours?

More bs about cutting and pasting.

Thanks a bunch, rap culture. Excerpts:

[An unnamed professor notes that] “This represents a shift away from the view of education as the process of intellectual engagement through which we learn to think critically and toward the view of education as mere training. In training, you are trying to find the right answer at any cost, not trying to improve your mind.”
Like many other professors, he no longer sees traditional term papers as a valid index of student competence. To get an accurate, Internet-free reading of how much students have learned, he gives them written assignments in class — where they can be watched.
…Nationally, discussions about plagiarism tend to focus on questions of ethics. But as David Pritchard, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me recently: “The big sleeping dog here is not the moral issue. The problem is that kids don’t learn if they don’t do the work.”
…The Pritchard axiom — that repetitive cheating undermines learning — has ominous implications for a world in which even junior high school students cut and paste from the Internet instead of producing their own writing.
If we look closely at plagiarism as practiced by youngsters, we can see that they have a different relationship to the printed word than did the generations before them. When many young people think of writing, they don’t think of fashioning original sentences into a sustained thought. They think of making something like a collage of found passages and ideas from the Internet.
They become like rap musicians who construct what they describe as new works by “sampling” (which is to say, cutting and pasting) beats and refrains from the works of others.

Maybe it’s specious to say, but the ratio of paintings to collages in the world’s art museums probably is indicative of something. Anyone who wants a cheap copy of David Shields’ Reality Hunger – and doesn’t have a remainders table within driving distance – is welcome to mine.

Six from Five Books.

David of the fine Largehearted Boy website called my attention to Five Books, where various thinkers/writers/experts are asked to name what they believe are the five most important books on a given subject. The archives are fairly extensive; here’s some of what I tossed into Instapaper for later.

Aleksandar Hemon on Man’s Inhumanity to Man

Alain de Botton on Illuminating Essays

Michael Morpurgo on Books for Children

Joanna Kavenna on Parallel Worlds

Peter Lilley MP on Samuel Johnson

Sophie King on Creative Writing

Giving yourself permission to write.

William Zinsser’s most recent entry at The American Scholar struck a cord with me, as I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin. Linchpin is concerned with, among other related things, giving yourself permission to practice your art (broadly defined) despite obstacles and expectations. Godin’s primary thrust is to convince the reader that the present-day workplace demands and rewards those who are willing to figure out what their “art” is, do the emotional labor of connecting with others, and find ways to make oneself invaluable (hence the title) by pursuing that “art.” That’s a very brief summary; the book seems to me more a book along the lines of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift than some “four hour work week” “captain of industry” business book nonsense. 

Zinsser touches on some of the same ideas, but with a focus on writing. Excerpts: 

…permission is a scarce commodity in this land of multiple freedoms. I’m also in the permission business. As a teacher and as a mentor I give people permission to be who they want to be, and sometimes I think: How did I get stuck with this job? Isn’t that what our schools are supposed to be doing? The answer, I’ve found, is that most Americans look back on their education as a permission-denying experience–a long trail of don’ts and can’ts and shouldn’ts.I’ve made that point in talks to college presidents and school administrators, and not one has ever argued back. All of them remember the prohibitions that were put in the path of their own advancement: the niggling caveats of dissertation committees, the envious gibes of peer reviewers, the dire threats that they will perish if they don’t continue to publish… 

 …In the adult memoir class that I’ve long taught at the New School, in New York, teasing memories out of bright and accomplished women eager to make sense of their lives through an act of writing, I’m struck by how apologetic they are, how unconfident of the worthiness of the story they want to tell. They want to be given permission to tell it. 

Women writers! You must give yourself permission, by a daily act of will, to believe in your remembered truth. Do not remain nameless to yourself. Only you can turn on the switch; nobody is going to do it for you. Nobody gave George Gershwin permission to write “Rhapsody in Blue” at the age of 25, when he had only written 32-bar popular songs. Nobody gave Frank Lloyd Wright permission to design a round museum.

The whole article is worth a read, as the above excerpts are presented in the context of a great anecdote regarding a letter Richard P. Feynman wrote to an admirer.