Monday, June 30, 2014

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish

As we continue our exploration of the theme of sentence writing, let's learn from Stanley Fish, who is a highly regarded American literary theorist, legal scholar and a public intellectual. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

When Good People Write Bad Sentences, by Robert Harris

All great writing starts with a sentence. But what is it that makes a sentence great?  Could it be grammar, syntax, style, word choice, information, meaning, common sense, passion etc? According to one author, there is only one rule for writing a great sentence. And this is the rule:  "whether you're Christian, Jew, Muslim, or a disciple of the church of Penn Jillette, when you sit down to write, the Reader is thy god." The rule is certainly thought-provoking but one has to wonder if one rule would be enough for writing a great sentence.

Robert Harris, in his book, "When Good People Write Bad Sentences," offers "12 Steps to Verbal Enlightenment" that can cure any eager to learn "bad writing addict." Besides, the 12 steps don’t just provide solutions to well-known problems in the categories of punctuation, syntax, diction, and style but also help bad writers understand the emotional foundations and psychological forces behind those problems. Harris argues, not without humor, that only with this deep understanding can permanent changes take place. He identifies nine types of ineffective sentences that arise from unexamined emotions and self-destructive needs, and offers an integrated approach which could help writers learn to take a broader and healthier perspective on sentence construction.

When it comes to the malady of writing badly, which he calls "malescribism,"--an uncontrollable urge to write carelessly and unpersuasively--Harris warns that this malady "is no respecter of status, nor does it take into account social, ethnic, or religious orientation." He also notes that malescribes could be black and white, male and female, believer and nonbeliever, liberal and conservative.

Since we all would like to write better sentences consistently, let's look at the advice offered by Robert Harris, and also share some of the great sentences that we have come across in our reading.


 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Six Great Ideas, by Mortimer Adler


Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, who was chairman of the Board of Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, an editor of the Great Books of Western Civilization, and a senior associate at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, in his thought-provoking discussions of the six philosophical ideas--truth, goodness, beauty, freedom, equality and justice--argues that philosophy is not the exclusive concern of the specialist but “everybody's business," and that a better understanding of these ideas, is essential if human beings are to cope with the political, moral, and social issues that confront them in an increasingly complex, interconnected and interdependent world. To Adler, philosophy is all about ideas, especially the “great ideas.” He urges that a philosopher should begin with these six ideas, and how they relate to each other, because of our shared and common call to be good citizens and thoughtful human beings. Truth, goodness and beauty are ideas we judge by. And freedom, equality and justice are ideas we live by. Noting that these ideas are prominent in some of the foundational documents in American history such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address, Dr. Adler describes difficult philosophical concepts in non-techincal language, to contemporary audiences who might not have a background in philosophy.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Elementary Guide to Literary Criticism, by Franklin Newton Painter

“As a rule,” urges Franklin Newton Painter in his critically acclaimed classic, Elementary Guide to Literary Criticism,  “we should read only books of recognized excellence, and read them with sympathetic intelligence. Trashy books, whatever pleasure they may give, add but little to knowledge or culture; and immoral books often leave an ineradicable stain upon the soul.”

The ideas of “recognized excellence,” “sympathetic intelligence” and “ineradicable stain upon the soul” make one wonder about the criteria by which Painter determines and advocates such notions. Although the criteria for evaluating literature are as old as Homer, they have undergone massive expansion in the 20th century. Besides, in view of new trends in literary theory and criticism, it is also worth pausing for a moment to reconsider the meaning of "theory" itself. According to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, today the term "theory" entails a mode of questioning and analysis that goes beyond the earlier criteria of "literariness" of literature.  To an earlier generation, it seems that theory is more of an advocacy rather than a disinterested, objective inquiry into poetics of literature. Because of the effects new social movements, especially the women's and civil rights movements, theory now entails skepticism towards previously taken for granted systems, institutions, and norms. Now theory shows a readiness to take critical stands and to engage in resistance, an interest in blind spots, contradictions, and distortions,  and a habit of linking local and personal practices to the larger economic, political, historical, and ethical forces of culture. How and why did that happen in the world of literature?

Please join us at Brooklyn Book Talk, as we compare Painter’s classical criteria from the beginnings of the 20th century to newer perspectives such as formalism, Marxism,  psychoanalysis, structuralism, post-structuralism, reader-response , feminism, deconstruction, queer theory, cultural studies, new historicism, post-colonial, race, and ethnicity studies, etcetera.

The electronic version of Painter's Elementary Guide to Literary Criticism is in the public domain and can be accessed from Project Gutenberg online at:

 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sketch for a Self-Analysis, by Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu, a philosopher by education, and an anthropologist and sociologist by choice, is one of the most esteemed names in twentieth-century French thought. With his election in 1981 to the chair of sociology at the College de France, he joined the distinguished ranks of the most respected French social scientists, Raymond Aron and Claude Levi-Strauss. Prolific writer, Bourdieu has published more than 30 books and 340 articles over the period 1958 to 1995. The Social Science Citation Index ranking from high to low in 1989 for leading French thinkers was the following: Foucault, Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Althusser, Sartre, Poulantzas, Touraine, Lacan, Baudrillard, and Aron.

Although his subject was mainly Algerian and French society,  Bourdieu’s approach is useful in analyzing power in many more illuminating ways than offered by Foucault. While Foucault sees power as "ubiquitous" and beyond agency or structure, Bourdieu sees power as economically, culturally, socially and symbolically created, and constantly re-legitimized through an interplay of agency and structure. The main way this comes about is through what he calls "habitus" or socialized norms or tendencies that unconsciously guide behavior, choices and thinking. In Bourdieu’s stipulation, habitus is "the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them."
In his Sketch for a Self-Analysis, written shortly before his death in January 2002, Bourdieu offers a "self-socioanalysis," in only 113 pages, and provides a compelling narrative of his life and career, and insights from his lifelong preoccupation with sociology, including intimate insights into the ideas of Foucault, Sartre, Althusser and de Beauvoir, among others, as well as his reflections on his own formative years at boarding school and his moral outrage at the colonial war in Algeria. Please join us as at Brooklyn Book Talk, as we explore some of the most stimulating thoughts of one of the greatest sociologists of the twentieth-century.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Discipline and Punish, by Michel Foucault


Discipline and Punish (1975), is a genealogy of power based on particulars of penal history, and is considered Foucault’s “out-of-the-ordinary,” “intellectually charismatic,” and “soundly subversive” work, in which he also reveals his passionate empathy for the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, and a desire to trace the overt and covert networks of power, which underlie modern societies. Highly interdisciplinary and thought-provoking in its content, the book is at once a work of history, sociology, philosophy, penology, legal analysis and cultural criticism, therby making it difficult to categorize in any given literature or tradition.
Foucault, who is hailed as a “theorist of paradox” by highly acclaimed critics, was influenced by some of the greatest European philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Beaufret—Martin Heidegger’s major interpreter in France—and Louis Althusser. He earned his License de philosophie in 1948 and DiplĂ´me de psycho-pathologie in 1952, and taught in Sweden, Poland, and Germany before his appointment as the head of the philosophy department at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. The range of his creative (and massively subversive) thought knows no bounds but throughout his many studies, on subjects as varied as madness, medicine, modern discourse, sexuality, there is a definite tendency to reverse “taken-for-granted” understandings and to discover, not unlike Freud, the latent behind the manifest--especially when it come to the nature of power and its pervasive effects in the human condition.
Moreover, Foucault in his major works, has undertaken a sustained assault upon what he regards as the myths of "the Enlightenment," "Reason," "science," "freedom," "justice," and "democracy"--all these salient features of modern civilization, and has exposed their “hidden side.” Foucault has also argued that the hidden side usually stays hidden because the “production of discourse” in modern societies is controlled, selected, and organized according to certain behind-the-scenes procedures. He suggests that when an idea appears before us repeatedly through different modalities, we are unaware of the prodigious machinery behind, which is diligently doing discourse selection and dissemination.
To make sense of this incredibly crucial work for our times, please join us at Brooklyn Book Talk and share your views about matters of power and punishment, and their subtle manifestations, which ought to concern us all, if we are to leave this world a little better than the way we found it.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant

“And last are the few whose delight is in meditation and understanding; who yearn not for goods, nor for victory, but for knowledge; who leave both market and battlefield to lose themselves in the quiet clarity of secluded thought; whose will is a light rather than a fire, whose haven is not power but truth: these are the men of wisdom, who stand aside unused by the world.”
― Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy

Considered one of the finest introductions to the lives and opinions of some of the world’s greatest Western philosophers, Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (1926), was such a huge success (it sold more than two million copies in less than three decades), that it gave him the necessary and sufficient leisure, for almost fifty years, to work on his critically acclaimed 11-volume series, The Story of Civilization. Given the contributions he had made for the writing of popular history and philosophy, and championing freedom and human rights, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.

Please join us at Brooklyn Book Talk, for a discussion on philosophy and philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Kant, Schopenhauer, Spencer, Nietzsche, Bergson, Croce, Russell, Santayana, James and Dewey, whose ideas have formed the enduring foundations of Western civilization. Philosophy, which has also been defined as  “what we don’t know,” comes alive in the delightful prose and passion of Will Durant who towards the end of his life was humble enough to admit: “Sixty years ago I knew everything; now I know nothing; education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Green Knowe Books & Multiculturalism in Children's Literature

Recently while listening to WNYC, I heard a segment about the lack of diversity in children's literature. While the US's population is becoming more diverse, it is apparently not reflected in children's books. Lucy Maria Boston was a head of the curve since four of the Green Knowe books could be regarded as multicultural since they contain not only Asian and African main characters but also a physically disabled character and deal with the issues of slavery and exile due to war.

Ping, a young refugee from Burma, is the main human character in A Stranger at Greene Knowe and a supporting character in The River at Green Knowe and An Enemy at Green Knowe. Ping has spent most of his life in a hostel for displaced children and goes to stay at Green Knowe during his summer holiday. He is eventually asked by Mrs. Oldknow to live with her and Tolly at Green Knowe. His experiences as a homeless child trapped in the grey world of the London home cause him to appreciate not only the natural world around the house but also to empathize with the escaped gorilla, Hanno. Boston wanted to dedicate Stranger to a gorilla keeper that she knew but was forbidden to do so by the zoo since it portrayed captivity for animals as cruel and harmful to the animal. When Green Knowe is under siege from evil in Enemy, Ping calls back Hanno with a traditional prayer to help save the house.

Jacob, in Treasure at Green Knowe, is bought as a child in a slave auction by Captain Oldknowe as a companion for the Captain's blind daughter, Susan. Susan's mother is uninterested in Susan since she views her as an unmarriageable burden. Susan's blindness puts her outside of the normal constraints for an upper-class girl so she can spend her time climbing trees with Jacob and learning how to write with him and their tutor Jonathan. Susan's brother Sefton views Jacob as less than human, buying him clothes patterned on those of an organ-grinder's monkey. Both Jacob and Susan rely on each other to navigate the rules of a society that views them as worthless because of their respective race and disability. They work together to educate themselves and lead successful adult lives despite their differences in race, sex, and station.

Despite the fifty or so years since they were written, the books still hold up due to the quality of the writing, the strong characterizations, and the universal themes. They are well-worth being placed on any reading list, multicultural or not. Good children's books should be read whether or not they are written by US authors.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Childhood and Exploring Nature

When I reread the Green Knowe books, what struck me most about them was how much time the children in the books - Tolly, Ping, Ida, Oskar, Susan,and Jacob spent exploring the outdoors. Tolly climbs the beech tree to pretend that he is a sailor boy on the mast of a ship:



He spends hours searching through shrubbery to find a lost tunnel, feeds birds, rescues carp, trims the chess men and pets the green deer:




In Treasure of Green Knowe, Tolly overlaps with Jacob and Susan, two eighteen-century children who also spend their days exploring the garden and the river.

Ping learns not only the secrets of the bamboo grove in the garden in A Stranger at Green Knowe, but also of the islands surrounding the house. In The River at Green Knowe, Ping, Ida, and Oskar spend their time exploring the River Ouse on a canoe. They wake up before dawn so that they can explore before the river is taken over by tourists, and map the islands surrounding the house. Much of their time is spent observing birds such as swans and owls, the terrain of the different islands, and the people who adapted their lives to live on them. In one episode, the three children take the canoe out after a storm and are rescued by River Patrol. Ida's aunt, when told that she will be presented with a bill for the rescue, comments only that it will be cheaper than three funerals. The writing in River is particuarly evocative since the children are not used to going outside at night, and are therefore sensitive to their physical environment.

The children themselves feel a sense of welcome and protection from the house. They know that they can go out and explore the unknown world around them, but always have the safety of the house at the end of the day. Tolly plays that the house is Noah's Ark in Children of Green Knowe, safe in the midst of the flood waters of the Ouse, which have caused the moat to overflow and turn the house into an island.

This freedom to explore is not something readily available to a twenty-first century child. Most parks are sanitized, with little shrubbery and playground equipment designed to produce the least physical damage. Children are rarely let out alone and unsupervised to play, even in yards; no child would be allowed to play alone for hours in the ramble at Central Park or the ravine at Prospect Park. While adults kayak on the Hudson, three children would not be allowed to do so without adult supervision; they would need an adult present even on the Staten Island ferry. While children in less urban areas might have some more freedom, they will still have little unstructured free time outside of school and extracurricular activities to just explore.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Visiting Lucy Boston's House, Part 2

Since we were early for our 2 PM house tour, we decided to explore the gardens. Lucy talks about designing and building the gardens in her memoir Memory in a House, which also contains some black and white photos of the gardens back when she published the book. However, I did not realize until her daughter-in-law Diana Boston gave us the tour how much of the gardens Lucy build from scratch. Apparently most of the yard was just meadow until she set to work.

What stunned me, Val, and Dave was how large the gardens were in size. We split up in the gardens, and they saw only the more cultivated side:


 
 
 


until I took them to see the the other side of the house, which has a  moat that surrounds three sides of it, a flowering meadow, and a bamboo thicket:







The bamboo thicket is where the gorilla Hanno lives in A Stranger at Green Knowe. The moat is a a constant presence in the books because when it floods, the house is cut off on an island, the way it was originally designed to be by its Norman builder, Payne Osmundson. The story of the builders of the house is told in The Stones of Green Knowe, which is the last of the series. The River Ouse features in The River at Green Knowe, and can be seen from the yard and the windows of the house.

One of my friends commented that the house and garden must be smaller than I expected since I had read the books first as a child and was now an adult. This is not quite true. Although the house was small - the walls are three feet thick so the exterior is larger than the interior, the gardens were bigger than expected. Boston gardened in the warm weather and wrote and created patchwork in the cold weather. It is amazing to see the variety of garden sections that she created. In my next post, I will discuss the gardens in terms of the books and of my experiences as a child both as her reader and as someone who grew up in a decent-sized yard and in fine public parks.