Wednesdays with Words on a Thursday – July 3, 2014

 

From To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Handwriting by Simon Garfield:

 

This is a book about a world without letters, or at least this possibility.  It is a book about what we have lost by replacing letters with email–the post, an envelope, a pen, a slower cerebral whirring, the use of the whole of our hands and not just the tips of our fingers. It is a celebration of what has gone before, and the value we place on literacy, good thinking and thinking ahead. I wonder if it is not also a book about kindness.

 

On reading this paragraph in Garfield’s book on letters, I was reminded of the box of letters from my mother I have tucked away in my garage.  My mother died several years ago but every time I read one of those letters, she is with me again.  I can hear her voice in those words and I enjoy looking at her handwriting and at the writing paper she has chosen for me and the fact that, at one point in both of our lives, she too handled that letter.  I can’t say that about emails and although I still have some emails from her, it is her letters I cherish.

Or sometimes I think about the little packet of letters from a boy I knew in high school.  Our fledgling love affair did not come to fruition but those few letters remind me of what it was like to be in love when I was very young–the thrill, the hopes and dreams, the songs I sang in my heart, the sweet words he said to me.  The letters are tied up with ribbons and hidden away in a drawer like so many love letters in the past.  I can’t do that with an email.

Writing an email is quick and easy but I miss the beautiful paper and cards, filling my pen, writing slowly and evenly across the page, crossing out the wrong word and wondering how many errors would require a rewrite (usually only for invitations and business letters; personal letters rarely were re-written).  I miss going to the post office and carefully choosing which stamps to use for my letters. I miss sealing the envelope and rushing madly to the post box before the mail was collected that day and then haunting the mail box daily for a reply as soon as I thought one could come.  I miss rifling through the mail and tossing aside bills in search for a letter.  I miss brightly colored postcards from far away places that came a week after a friend came home from vacation.

I love reading collections of people’s letters.  Some of my favorite books have been memoirs, stuffed with copies of letters.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Jane Austen, Thomas Jefferson, and Galileo are just some of the people whose letters I have read and enjoyed.  One of my very favorite books, 84 Charing Cross Road, is a book of letters.  Somehow I don’t think we will see collections of famous people’s emails being published and what a loss that will be as letters reveal so much about a person.

I think we’ve lost something dear since we have replaced writing letters with emails and texts.  I look forward to reading Mr. Garfield’s book about letter-writing.  I suspect he will be a “kindred spirit.”

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Wednesdays with Words – June 25, 2014

I’m nearing the end of Good Prose by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd.  My current chapter has not been as quotable as past chapters but here are a couple of thoughts:

The familiar rules about writing turn out to be more nearly half-truths, dangerous if taken literally.  They are handy as correctives, but not very useful as instruction.

‘Never use a five-dollar-word when a fifty-cent word will do’ said Mark Twain, and this advice seems to be universally accepted.  True, there is no faster way to make a passage impenetrable than to accumulate long Latinate words.  But much of the force of English derives from the conquests and invasions that gave it multiple sources.  It is almost impossible to write prose in English without blending short, blunt Anglo-Saxon with more formal Latinate words, and the way you blend them matters.  It is a little-noted fact that a reader’s eye, just glancing at a page, can tell something about the contents simply by registering its texture.  The mere look of your prose can invite readers to go on or can warn them off before they read a word.

 

Wednesdays with Words – June 18, 2014

 

This week I finally read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  I’ve had it on my TBR list for years but somehow or another I never picked it up to read.  The other day I saw it hanging out at the library, checked it out, brought it home, and reveled in it for four days.  What a wonderful story it is!

Although my childhood was immensely more privileged than Francie’s, I saw in her character much of my own love of books and words and reading as well as my enjoyment in simple pleasures.  The simple pleasure game* is one of my favorites to play with myself.

Here are a few quotes from this lovely book:

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”

“Dear God,” she prayed, “let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry…have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere – be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

“People always think that happiness is a faraway thing,” thought Francie, “something complicated and hard to get. Yet, what little things can make it up; a place of shelter when it rains – a cup of strong hot coffee when you’re blue; for a man, a cigarette for contentment; a book to read when you’re alone – just to be with someone you love. Those things make happiness.”

 

*The simple pleasure game is just finding pleasure in the little things of life:  like a hot cup of tea on a cold day or a iced coffee on a hot one; the smell of newly mown grass; stopping to smell a flower; watching a bird in a tree; putting your feet in a river; eating one piece of good chocolate; hearing your favorite sonata on the radio; putting your hands in the warm earth as you plant the first plants of the year; and so forth.  It’s making every moment count and finding the little pleasures that God brings every single day if only you open your eyes to them.

Wednesdays with Words – June 4, 2014

This past winter I borrowed Madeleine L’Engle’s book The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth via interlibrary loan.  I had to return it before I finished it and I hope to one day own it because there was so much wisdom and such a wealth of understanding and beauty in it.  One of the things that challenged my thinking was her contrasting mere fact with truth.  I was very uncomfortable with the idea of selecting some facts and omitting others and of her idea that sometimes facts can mask truth.  I know that many times the Greeks kept important events off-stage in their dramas and that sometimes truth cannot be approached directly but only out of the corner of our eyes, so to speak.  In reading Good Prose: The Art of Non-Fiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd this week, I ran across this same idea:

We know that as soon as writers begin to tell a story they shape experience and that stories are always, at best, partial versions of reality, and thus objectivity is a myth. More worrisome are people who want to pursue the other line of argument that ‘everything is subjective.’ Well, of course, everything is subjective, once you get beyond the very barest of facts.  p. 84

 

Subjectivity simply acknowledges the presence of  a mediator between the facts and the truth.  That mediator is you, the writer.  Acknowledging subjectivity absolves you of nothing.  On the contrary, it makes you the one who has to explore the facts, discover what you can of the truth, and find the way to express that truth in prose–knowing as you look for the way to do this that you cannot be complete, that every inclusion implies countless exclusions, that you must strive to do no violence to those facts and those truths that compete for your attention. p. 85

 

Facts and truth: not only are they not synonymous, but they often have a very tangential relationship.  Although the truth must always be found in facts, some facts, sometimes obscure the truth.  Sometimes that essential effort of writing, making some things small and others big, includes making something invisible.  p. 89

 

In reading this, I was reminded of something the Apostle John wrote in his gospel:

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. — John 20:30-31

John did not include every fact of every thing that Jesus said and did although he was witness to most of it and probably knew the facts of many of the things he missed.  However, he included only those facts that presented the truth of who Christ is and what He has done for our salvation.

So, I’m left with mulling over this idea of selecting facts in order to communicate truth.  Is this something we do everyday?  Is the lack of complete transparency with our facts a lie?  Or are we wise in choosing which facts to present so that we can most clearly tell the truth of a matter?

It is something to consider…

 

Wednesdays with Words – May 28, 2014

Continuing with Good Prose: The Art of Non-Fiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. This week I read about essays. I love to read essays. Like short stories, you can dip into a book of essays and read just one while you are having a cup of coffee or tea, then put the book away, and think about what you read. Did I agree or disagree? How would I say it differently? Why do I like this essay (or essayist) or why do I dislike what I’ve read?

Here are a few quotes about writing essays:

Most of the work that we call personal essay goes beyond logic and fact into the sovereign claims of idiosyncrasy. This is not to suggest that essays should be illogical, but they may be, and generally should be, extra-logical–governed by associative more than by strictly linear thought.

What gives you license to write essays? Only the presence of an idea and the ability to make it your own. People speak of the “personal essay” as a form, but all essays are personal. They may make sweeping pronouncements, but they bear the stamp of an individual mind. Original ideas, those hinges on which an era turns, are rare. It is unlikely that you will write The Origin of Species. Or that you will be Emerson. But originality and profundity are not identical. Profound ideas bear repeating, or rediscovery, and many original ideas do not. Essays are like poems in that they may confront old wisdom in a fresh way.

Self-doubt, fatal in so many enterprises, fortifies the essay.

Every essayist deals with the same general ingredients–self and experience and idea–but everyone deals with them differently. Good essayists share the ability and the confidence to use the power of their own highly specified convictions.

We read many of the essayists from past centuries: Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Charles Lamb, Emerson and Thoreau. We also like to read more modern essays be G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers.

I also enjoy reading essays by Virginia Woolf, Jan Struther, Wendell Berry, and Anne Fadiman.

Here are some links to essays that I especially appreciate. I hope these whet your appetite to read more of this wonderful genre of writing and perhaps they will even inspire you to try your hand at writing an essay of your own.

 

On Learning in War-Time – by C.S. Lewis

On Lying in Bed by G.K. Chesterton

Of Age by Montaigne

The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf

The Two Races of Men by Charles Lamb

AINSWORTH-ZAZOULIAN by Jan Struther

Never Do That to a Book by Anne Fadiman

Wednesdays with Words – May 21, 2014

As school winds down and graduation approaches, time to read and think about “real” things has been almost non-existent.  However, I am still crawling slowly through Beauty in the Word by Stratford Caldecott.  Here are a few quotes from Chapter 2:

 

True human memory is not mechanical repetition; it is an organic assimilation and appropriation. What is remembered is not something other than the self, but something experienced and known through the self. This means that we must probe a little more deeply into the meaning of memory, before we try to work out how to recover it.

 

Thus by speaking of Memory or Remembering we are really speaking of the foundations of attention, of the integration of the personality, and of the road to contemplation. We are also speaking of ‘conscience.’ Remembering is the gathering-together of the self in the light of consciousness, which in us tends to be a piecemeal process, but in God is complete and ‘instantaneous.’ For us, therefore, the training of memory is essential if we are to discover and enlarge our human identity in the image of God. It is an essential foundation for any education worthy of the name.

 

The Hall of Fire in Rivendell … represents the place where tradition is passed on through story, where meaning is revealed, where language expresses itself in the making and interpretation of worlds. The ambience of fire, of a friendly hearth where all strangers are made welcome and find consolation, speaks of a place where humanity can take root and flourish, a true home—the ‘Last Homely House.’ Here prose is subordinate to poetry, and poetry to song.

 

He shared with other English Romantics the sense that something vital had been lost from our civilization in the new industrial and scientific age. That something was a poetic consciousness, a mode of knowing through feeling and intuition that connected us with nature and with the natural law, with the reading of God’s intentions expressed in nature and the divine wisdom manifest in creation. He believed we had become increasingly alienated from nature (the natural world around us and increasingly our own human nature as well) by our determination to know it solely by conquest, through experiment and measurement. He would have supported the educational idea that children should be brought up on a rich diet of folklore and story, with plenty of experience of natural, growing things in the garden and countryside.

Through story—the right kind of story, including traditional legends and fairy-tales—that ability to see all things with a pure heart and in the light of heaven could be evoked. [Tolkien] wanted to prove that poetic knowledge, George MacDonald’s ‘wise imagination,’ could be awoken even in a world apparently closed to its very possibility.

We have spent many an hour memorizing Scripture, poetry, and songs in our homeschool rather than lists of facts.  At times I have wondered if I was doing the right thing but after reading this section of Caldecott’s book, I am instead wondering if I spent too little time with Scripture, poetry, and song.  Helping them to acquire a storehouse of beautiful, good, and true words in their minds for all of their lives has to be the greatest gift I could have given to my children other than the Gospel.  I am glad we have spent so much of our time reading and memorizing and reciting and singing.  I hope that one day they do the same with my grandchildren.