Into the Book

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Literature/Philosophy


  1. A Landscape with Dragons is about battlegrounds and books and battlegrounds that are books. In it Michael O’Brien offers a critique of contemporary children’s literature, with a goal of pushing parents to think seriously about the impact such reading can have on their children – for good or ill.

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  2. “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, you are only half a writer.”

    Were I inclined to get a tattoo, I would probably have the above sentence etched into my forehead, that way every glance in the mirror might double as a piquant reminder: don’t forget to love what you do.

    For the first thing a writer should be is – excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms. Without such vigor, he might as well be picking out peaches or digging ditches; God knows it would be better for his health. 

    And there, in one paragraph, is The Reason Why you should read this book, Zen in the Art of Writing. It is a collection of eleven superlative essays, written by a writer who revels in his craft. Bradbury. Ray Bradbury. He of mechanical hounds and dark carnivals and wine made from dandelions. When I say he revels in what he does, you’d better believe it. Just picture, if you will, a man who throws himself into writing like a child into a freshly-raked pile of leaves. That’s Bradbury.

    From “Drunk, and In Charge of a Bicycle”:

    … you look around at a community of notions held by other writers, other intellectuals, and they make you blush with guilt. Writing is supposed to be difficult, agonizing, a dreadful exercise, a terrible occupation. 

    But, you see, my stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg – I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off. 

    That is the kind of life I’ve had. Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it. Drunk with life, that is, and not knowing where off to next. But you’re on your way before dawn. And the trip? Exactly one half terror, exactly one half exhilaration.

    From “The Secret Mind”:

    Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all.

    From “Zen in the Art of Writing”:

    The artist learns what to leave out. 

    His greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go. 

    The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers. 

    Writing is hard, yes. Mr. Bradbury would be the first to tell you so. But it need not be – indeed, should not be – a bland or joyless exercise. It should not merely be a matter of dropping in one word after the other without screwing up the grammar. If that’s how it feels, it’s time to step back and take a look at what you’re missing.

    Stoop down. Look low. See that? Buried beneath the pyramid of elements and style, beneath the smelly carcass of “writer’s block” and the panicky butterflies that circle it – beneath all of that you may find the body of a child. Set him loose. He knows where the leaf pile is.

    – Corey P.
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  3. Corey and I go back and forth on ND Wilson books. Sometimes I get one first, other times he’s way ahead of me. Scandalous that an ND Wilson fan such as myself should not have reviewed Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl yet! Like Death by Living, this is a typical ND Wilson book — which is to say that by every measure it’s nontraditional and fantastic.

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  4. I may as well begin by admitting that I am a rank amateur in all things Anglo-Saxon. The most dilettante of dilettante dilettantes. My favorite Anglo-Saxon word is probably merscmealuwe. Which means marshmallow. Which ought to tell you something about how many Anglo-Saxon words I know.

    Having said that, I Love – yes, capital ‘L’ intended – the story of Beowulf. Read it for the first time when I was twelve. Haven’t stopped reading it since. It is the Ultimate Epic, and I began to Love it even more when I discovered Seamus Heaney’s translation. I’ve read that one four or five times now (and counting).

    Yet lo and behold, my appreciation for this Saga of Sagas has been deepened further. I owe this deepening to Pastor Douglas Wilson, and to the very, very dear soul who sent me a copy of Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering.

    In a Grendel-sized nutshell? This thing is amazing.

    And I’m not just saying that because of the preposterously cool cover art.

    You’ll notice it is called a “rendering” rather than a translation. Wilson explains why in the Introduction:

    While I am limited in Old English, I do okay in New English, and know my way around, both with the regular stuff and in the reading and writing of poetry. So what I did was this. I took about five different translations of Beowulf, including my two favorites (Heaney and Chickering), got the sense of lines x, y, and/or z from them, and then cast that general sense into my own modern form of an Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative poetry. Then I did the same thing over again, and went on and on until I was done. Since I was making free to add words for the sake of the alliteration, and because I sometimes supplied my own imagery, the result is a loose paraphrase of the sense of the original and not a knock-off of any of the translations I used. At the same time, the poem can generally be followed “line by line,” give or take a couple of lines, and I am not saying I never looked at the original. What with one thing and another, this version of the poem has three more lines than respectable editions do. I don’t know. It was dark. They were big. Just think of it as more Beowulf than you would get with those other editions. But the sense of the original is there. 

    It seemed pretty clear to me that Wilson had more fun with this than is, strictly-speaking, legal. I believe I had the same amount in reading it. It’s stylish, it’s elegant, it’s clear, it’s bursting with cinematic moxie, and I enjoyed the heck out of every line. So much so, in fact, that at the conclusion of the story I had to be confined to a chair with zip ties until the irrepressible urge to slay something – or at least rip its arm off – had subsided.

    Yes. I have my moments.

    Included at the back of the book are two essays, one on Beowulf as “the unChrist” and another on the poem’s chiastic structure. The former was of particular interest to me. Wilson makes a brilliant case for seeing the poetry of Beowulf, not only as an artistic triumph, but also “as an evangelistic and apologetic tour de force.” Muchly good stuff.

    So. It is with great delight that I see two versions of Beowulf – Heaney and Wilson – living side by side on my shelf. It’s like having a really awesome best friend, and then learning that he has a really awesome twin brother, and now they’re both chillin’ in your living room having a bloody good time with the pie and the Guinness and the dart board. Or something like that.

    – Corey P.
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  5. When I went back to Singapore for the summer holidays, I got roped into giving an impromptu Sunday school class one Sunday. Well, since most of my family has been/is involved in children’s ministry one way or the other, I guess this isn’t so unusual. So when I started reading this book, I immediately thought of how I could use this the next time I’m giving the children’s sermon (although that may be a few years away).

    While the title sounds as though it’s a guide on how to create a story, it’s actually a guide on how to tell a story effectively. According to the book, the bible is 75% is in a story format because “God had it written this way to make it easier for people to learn, remember and share with others.” I’m not sure if this is true, but considering that most of my Sunday School lessons were taught through stories, effective storytelling is definitely going to be an asset.

    The book is divided into three sections. Section One is about how to create a captivating story. Section two is about how to present the story well (this section is not essential, but recommended for anyone who wants to improve their storytelling skills). Section three is about why storytelling is essential. The focus isn’t so much on how to come up with a good story, it’s about teaching you how to tell a story effectively.

    What I liked about this book was that story-telling wasn’t restricted to just kids, it’s presented as a way of sharing that can work for everyone. And while the first application for story-telling that came to mind was for sermons, this book also shows that it’s possible to use it in a classroom setting.

    If you’re looking for a book that will help you in Children’s ministry or in any ministry that requires public speaking, you should definitely pick up this book.

    Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a free and honest review.
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  6. The next best thing to writing is reading about writing. And if I were to gather my favorite writing books and pile them on the floor, I imagine it would look like this:

    Somewhere near bottom would be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It’s not that I don’t appreciate this book – remember, it’s still in my favorites pile – but I don’t love it the way others do. I see as it essential reading, but I don’t see it as the Holy Writ of writing guides.

    Next up would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir. The first is sharp, winsome, and delightful (I reviewed it here). The second is a gritty, unvarnished look at one man’s journey as a writer. After reading it, I had a deeper appreciation for King’s work and the life behind it.

    At the top of my favorites pile would be Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson. Though not a memoir, it is similar to King’s book in that it addresses not just writing, but the writing life. What sets the two apart is how they approach the subject. King has a treasure trove of wise and insightful observations, but his outlook is pagan, atheistic, and often pretty bleak. Wilson’s is staunchly Christian to the core.

    I don’t care if you plan to make a career of writing, or merely have a passing interest in it – this book should be on your shelf. It’s an immensely rewarding read for those who want to “sling ink” full time, but most of the tips are such that anybody can profit from them.

    The book is short – a mere 120 pages – but I think Wilson has inherited Lewis’ ability to pack into one sentence what most writers pack into three or four. He lays out and explains “a veritable Russian doll of writing tips”: seven exhortations for people who wish to cultivate the wordriht life.

    1. Know something about the world
    2. Read
    3. Read mechanical helps
    4. Stretch your routines
    5. Be at peace with being lousy for awhile
    6. Learn other languages
    7. Keep a commonplace book

    My favorite tip would have to be the first one: know something about the world.

    By this I mean the world outside of books. This might require joining the Marines, or working on an oil rig or as a hashslinger at a truck stop in Kentucky. Know what things smell like out there. If everything you write smells like a library, then your prospective audience will be limited to those who smell like libraries. (p. 10)

    An apt reminder for those of us who are tempted to think that the writer’s life happens almost exclusively behind closed doors with a stack of paper and a stack of books. As Thoreau put it, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

    – Corey P.


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  7. I’ve read a number of writing books over the past several years, and the two which have taught me the most are Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy and Stephen King’s A Memoir. If you take the whole writing business seriously, I can’t recommend those books highly enough. But there’s another book you should have on your shelf, too – On Writing Well by William Zinsser. I only just discovered it myself, but it already holds a place among my favorites.

    This self-proclaimed “informal guide to writing non-fiction” is exactly that – informal. It’s not a textbook, and it doesn’t want to be, which is one the many reasons I enjoyed it so much. Zinsser’s style is warm and honest, his passion for words contagious. Sure, he gets a little cranky now and then (at one point, he calls Ben-Hur “junk”), but it’s clear that he loves writing, and he wants us to love it, too.

    Now don’t get the wrong idea: this isn’t a book for “softies”. Mincing words is not Zinsser’s forte, and when he takes a swing at something he considers silly, he usually hits hard (and with stinging accuracy). According to his way of thinking, it’s not enough for you to want to write – you must also want to write well.

    This book can help you do just that.

    Instead of throwing myself into a detailed explanation of how it can help you – and why you should let it – I think I’ll just step aside and let the author speak for himself. If that doesn’t convince you of the book’s worth, I don’t know what will.

    From chapter two, Simplicity:

    Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon… Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating considerable precipitation wouldn’t dream of saying that it may rain. The sentence is too simple – there must be something wrong with it. (p. 7)

    Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this as a consolation in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do. (p. 13)

    From chapter five, The Audience:

    In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing the reader through sloppy workmanship. If he drowses off in the middle of your article because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours. But on the larger issue of whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying or how you are saying it, or agrees with it, or feels an affinity for your sense of humor or your vision of life, don’t give him a moment’s worry. You are who you are, he is who he is, and either you will get along or you won’t. (p. 28)

    From chapter six, Words:

    Also bear in mind, when you are choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But actually they hear what they are reading – in their inner ear – far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence. (p. 38)

    From chapter eleven, The Ending:

    The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said. But they know it when they see it. Like a good lead, it works. It’s like the curtain line in a theatrical comedy. We are in the middle of a scene (we think) when suddenly one of the actors says something funny, or outrageous, and the lights go out. We are momentarily startled to find the scene over, and then delighted by the aptness of how it ended. What delights us, subconsciously, is the playwright’s perfect control. (p. 76-77)

    From chapter thirteen, Writing About a Place:

    The other big trap [in travel writing] is style. Nowhere else in nonfiction do writers use such syrupy words and groaning platitudes. Adjectives that you would squirm to use in conversation – “roseate,” “wondrous,” “fabled,” “scudding,” – are common currency. Half the sights seen in a day’s sightseeing are “quaint,” especially windmills and covered bridges. They are certified for quaintness. (p. 95)

    From chapter fourteen, Bits & Pieces:

    Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs. So are countless adjectives and other parts of speech: “effortlessly easy,” “slightly spartan,” “totally flabbergasted.” The beauty of “flabbergasted” is that it implies an astonishment that is total; I can’t picture someone being partly flabbergasted. If an action is so easy as to be effortless, use “effortless.” And what is “slightly spartan”? Perhaps a monk’s cell with wall-to-wall carpeting. Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work. Spare us the news that the losing athlete moped dejectedly and the winner grinned widely. (p. 109-110)

    Among good writers it is the short sentence that predominates, and don’t tell me about Norman Mailer – he’s a genius. If you want to write long sentences, be a genius. Or at least make sure that the sentence is under control from beginning to end, in syntax and punctuation, so that the reader knows where he is at every step if the winding trail. (p. 112)

    Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it – there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change. If you need relief from too many sentences beginning with “but,” switch to “however.” It is, however, a weaker word and therefore needs careful placement. Don’t start a sentence with “however” – it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however” – by that time it has lost its howeverness. Put it as early as you reasonably can – as I did three sentences ago. It’s abruptness then becomes a virtue. (p. 114)

    From chapter eighteen, Criticism:

    Every writer wants at some time to be a critic. Small-town reporters dream of the moment when their editor will summon them to cover the Russian ballet troupe, the concert pianist, the touring repertory company that has been booked into the local auditorium. Then they will trot out the hard-won awards of their college education – “intuit” and “sensibility” and “Kafkaesque” – and show the whole country that they know a glissando from an entrechat. They will discern more symbolism in Ibsen than Ibsen ever thought of. (p. 172)

    From chapter twenty three, Write As Well As You Can:

    My favorite definition of a careful writer comes from Joe DiMaggio, though he didn’t know that’s what he was defining. DiMaggio was the greatest player I ever saw, and nobody looked more relaxed. He covered vast distances in the outfield, moving in graceful strides, always arriving ahead of the ball, making the hardest catch look routine, and even when he was at the bat, hitting the ball with tremendous power, he didn’t appear to be exerting himself. I marveled at how effortless he looked because what he did could only be achieved by great daily effort. A reporter once asked him how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said: “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.” (p. 273)

    – Corey P.


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  8. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a strange book (I mean that in an entirely good, Pulitzer-prize winning sort of way). Your sense of nature around you will be not only sharpened but also simultaneously destroyed: Annie Dillard brings so much to your attention that any ordinary walk now seems like an adventure, filled with tiny events of huge importance that you are doubtless missing. This is a book about nature, and someone who loves nature and takes time to observe it.

    (more…)

  9. Let’s Write a Short Story by Joe Bunting is the sort of writing book we need more of (Okay, so I’m always in favor of more writing books). This book is specifically about short stories, as is obvious from the title. Better still, it’s practical, realistic, and an excellent book for any writer who needs to step their writing to the next level.

    A writer who wants to be a good writer practices his writing. And there are few better ways than short stories. Short stories have a much lower time investment than, say, a novel, and you can write many in a year, whereas a novel may take an entire year. Short stories can be recycled from bits and chapters of abandoned novels or other writing you’ve collected. Not to mention, you’re a writer, and you’ll write in whatever medium you can, right?

    Having showed us the importance of the short story, the author now sets about helping you to write short stories. The main thrust of this book is writing and submitting a short story to a publisher or magazine. In Joe’s own words,

    “If you’re reading this book I want you to promise me something. You have to promise to write and submit a short story in a literary magazine. […] If you can’t make that, then this book isn’t for you. I’d rather you put it down right now. But if you’re ready to improve at the craft of writing, kick off your career, impress agents, dive into new characters, and do what you love: write, then let’s write a short story.”

    The book spends a lot of time explaining what a short story is, and more importantly, what it is not. It explains how to write good short stories. Practical ‘Short Story Prompts’ throughout this section ensure that you’re writing and practicing the concepts that are being discussed. The advice you’ll find in this part of the book is useful for any writer, though it’s geared specifically towards short story writers. Especially interesting to me, as a poet, were the sections on actually making language sound beautiful through word choice. The chapter on Writer’s Block is also especially useful to any writers in particular.

    Given the goal of the book as described by the author, it follows that a substantial chunk of the book, in addition to explaining about writing short stories, focuses on submitting and publishing the short stories. This isn’t a theoretical book to read and forget about: it’s completely filled with practical applications to actually bring you closer to submitting a short story to a magazine. From a checklist for your cover letters to advice about which magazines to choose and when to submit, this section is incredible. The help given in this section is enough to make me want to submit a short story myself (I suppose, by reading the book, I promised Joe that I would…)

    Overall, this is a fantastic book. It’s clear, concise, and practical, and it’s written by someone who loves writing, because it seeps out of every word he types. It’s a challenge to take writing beyond a hobby and into the real world. As much as I love to hide behind the obscurity of my writing, and write for writing’s sake, Let’s Write a Short Story is a challenge to take things to the next level, and to improve my writing even further. Whether you write epic novels or experimental interpretive poetry this book will help your writing. Don’t let the fact that short stories aren’t ‘your thing’ stand in the way.

    ~ Andrew


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  10. One day, God willing, I want to meet Anthony Esolen face-to-face. I want to shake his hand. And I want to thank him for blowing my mind.

    Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child is a book I might never have picked up had I not first read The Politically-Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, also by Esolen (he has a thing for long titles). His contribution to the P.I.G. series was terrific, to say the least, sooooo… I decided to look up more of his work.

    Whoa. Didn’t expect me to do that, didya?

    I mean, come on: whoever heard of finding a good writer and then reading just one of his books? Might as well eat just one potato chip. Only idiots do that.

    Then, lo and behold, what sight did meet mine Elven eyes, but that of Ten Ways residing on my Mother’s shelf. I’m not sure why she never told me it was there; perhaps she forgot, or (what is more likely) she was concealing its whereabouts in hopes of getting to it first. Whatever the reason, I found it, and it was begging to be read. So I obliged.

    I will say that the title is potentially misleading: this is not a book exclusively for parents, nor is it a “parenting book” (at least, not in the usual sense). Whether you’re a teacher or a student, whether you’re young or old, with ten kids or none at all, you should read this book. Anyone and everyone can benefit from Esolen’s keen writing and even keener insight. Clear enough? Let’s move on…

    Ten Ways is a witty, gritty, and delightfully subversive assault on the Bastions of Modern Educational Theory and Practice. With a satiric flair worthy of Uncle Screwtape himself, Esolen offers his readers a way of “extinguishing the minds (and souls) of our children in ten easy steps.”

    I do not claim that it is an exhaustive list. No doubt, many of my readers, blessed with a keener attention to the needs of the child, will have come up with others. But I am sure that a judicious application of even three of four of these methods will suffice to kill the imagination of an Einstein, a Beethoven, a Dante, or a Michaelangelo. Good luck! (p. xiii)

    From beginning to end, the author’s pen drips with irony; his sense of humor is biting and bleakly funny. Remember the serrated edge? He wields it like a surgeon, and every cut is deep, precise, and painful. The truth hurts – and Esolen isn’t big on anesthetics.

    Of all the endorsements I’ve read of this book, Father Dwight Longnecker’s is by far the most imaginative and (in my opinion) the most accurate: “Esolen rides forth like a noble knight to joust with the dragons of modern thought, the giants of contemporary culture, and the bevy of beasts that inhabit our post-modern wasteland.” I like it, don’t you?

    Over the course of two-hundred forty pages, Esolen demonstrates how imagination is being strangled at nearly every turn: in the rearing of children almost entirely indoors; in the scorning of the true, the heroic, and the patriotic; in the reduction of love to mere narcissism and sex; in the leveling of the distinctions between men and women; in the way we preoccupy children with the shallow and the unreal; and in our stalwart, stone-hearted denial of the transcendent.

    I like to imagine a blaring sign over a gigantic shopping mall, with these messages alternating every five seconds, forever and ever: 

    WELCOME TO THE MALL OF THE WORLD
    ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE 

    And not only hope, but community life, personal independence, common sense, virtue, and money. 

    For the great threat of the imagination, roused to life like Lazarus from the grave by the faintly heard voice of God, is that it makes a man a man, not a consumer, nor a clotpoll to be counted off in some mass survey. The praise of God is inscribed upon the heart of man, says Saint Augustine, “man who bears within himself his mortality, who bears about within himself testimony to his sin and testimony that you resist the proud.” Yet even so man longs to praise and cannot truly be himself unless he praises God, for as Augustine says in Confessions, “you rouse him to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until is rests in you.” If we have love of God, the saints all testify, what do we need from anything else? And if we do not have that love, not all the creature comforts and tricksy gadgetry and rubbings and itchings of appetite can fill up the tiniest corner of the chasm that remains. Yet we will try to fill the chasm anyway. That is what shopping malls are for. (p. 230)

    I wanted to include the entire quote, except that it’s much too long to share here. Which brings me to the one complaint I have about this book: it’s too bloody quotable. Writing down all the magnificent passages that caught my eye proved impossible, since there were passages like that on just about every page. Highlighting? Forget it. The entire book would be yellow by the time you’re done. It’s too rich, too well-written. The unconvinced would do well to think of it this way: Esolen’s book is like a three-course meal, in an age when most people are content with dishing up McPamphlets. Get the picture?

    Obviously, I loved this book. I think you will, too. On the other hand…

    Egalitarians will hate this book for its affirmation of biblical manhood and womanhood. Proponents of government-run “education” will hate this book for its savaging of the public school system. Multiculti fanboys will hate this book for its support of patriotism and love of country. And liberal statists will hate this book for the same reasons they hate anything Judeo-Christian and conservative – because it’s radical, reasonable, and right.

    If you are any one of the above, I would almost advise you to skip Esolen’s writing entirely. But I can’t. Because of all the people who need this book, you need it most of all.

    – Corey P.


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