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: