Friday, January 18, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 7: Harold Bloom on Shakespeare

"Nothing explains Shakespeare, or can explain him away." — Harold Bloom, Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? p. 99)

Now if ever a sentence is worth an entire essay, it is that one, and literary critic Harold Bloom does follow it with a treatise on The Bard of Avon's contributions to cultural history. 

What makes the sentence so pleasurable is its ambiguity. Are we about to read why nothing explains Shakespeare the man? Shakespeare the plays and poems? Shakespeare the legend? And what does Bloom mean by "explaining away" Shakespeare? Where Shakespeare stands in the pantheon of drama and poetry giants? How to position him in the history of English literature? Whether we should discount his status at the beginning and center of all English prose? Read the chapter "Cervantes and Shakespeare" to find out.

An important point to make here: While business and technical writers should avoid ambiguity in their messages, such is the stuff of great fiction, drama, and poetry. It is the mix of ambiguity and realism that inspires us readers to imagine ourselves as Don Quixote or Juliet Capulet as we experience the composer's words.

Read previous installments of "Splendid Sentences" on Words on the Line:

Friday, January 11, 2019

Splendid Sentences, Part 6: Carl Sagan on the Environment

Science writer and Cornell professor Carl Sagan was a rare media star from the scientific community. He was also a powerful writer, explaining to the general public highly complex ideas  about mathematics, technology, and the cosmos. In Sagan's essay "The Environment: Where Does Prudence Lie?', which appears in his 1997 book Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, he writes this 43-word sentence:
Science and technology have saved billions of lives, improved the well-being of many more, bound up the planet in a slowly anastomosing unity—and at the same time changed the world so much that many people no longer feel at home in it. 
Besides delighting in Sagan's choice of anastomosing, I like the way he begins the sentence with the idea of people's lives being saved and ends it with their lives being detached: two contradictory results emerging from one cause.

Read previous installments of "Splendid Sentences" on Words on the Line:

Friday, January 04, 2019

14th Anniversary for WORDS ON THE LINE

Speaking of resolutions, this, the 825th post of this blog, celebrates the fourteenth anniversary of launching WORDS ON THE LINE. When I began this blog on January 4, 2005, I modestly resolved to post at least once a week about practical tips, useful resources, and inspirational ideas for developing, experienced, and reluctant writers at work, school, and home. This has been a promise kept, and I intend to run the string for a while longer. 

You can celebrate with me by browsing some of the pages here on topics like book reviews, famous writer viewpoints, email tipsactive and passive voice, parallel structure, punctuation, grammar, and much more.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

On New-Year Resolutions

I'm a big believer in making resolutions and, of course, sticking to them. My resolutions have been life-changing. I resolved on specific dates to accept a job offer that led me to a 19-year career and other opportunities, to have children, to buy a house, to publish my writing, to obtain a doctorate, to quit my secure job for a successful freelance career, to become a Christian, and to buy a second house, among many other transformative decisions. 

But I made none of these resolutions on January 1. They were on such random dates as April 16, July 28, August 2, September 25, and November 9. The point? I have three:

  1. Don't beat yourself up if you fail to keep a resolution. You're not a welsher or a loser. You're human.
  2. Don't wait until next New Year's Day to make the same resolution. If you break the resolution on January 6, then re-resolve on that same day. 
  3. Stop being a perfectionist. Big deal if you break the resolution on 2 of 365 days. You're still doing far better than if you hadn't resolved at all. Mastery will follow.

So resolve now, regardless of when you read this.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 5: Andrew Sullivan on Religious Fundamentalism

Here is the penultimate sentence of Andrew Sullivan's 4,272 essay "This Is a Religious War" (The New York Times, October 7, 2001):
We are fighting for religion against one of the deepest strains in religion there is. 
In this article, Sullivan claims that religion is at the core of the United States-led Middle East war, despite claims to the contrary by politicians across the world. It's a powerful concluding sentence considering it appeared in print less than a month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when America was still enraged about what happened, confused as to why it happened, uncertain about what to do in its wake, and divided about how long any effort to avenge the terrorist acts would take.

The sentence is also profound. It turns religion on its head. It asserts that the United States, a purportedly secular society, is engaged in a holy war of sorts against a movement that makes no illusions about its divine edict to destroy infidels. Such wars, which at their root show total contempt for reason, are likely to cause more senseless bloodshed and global instability than most. They amount to a zero-sum approach to resolving differences in which losers take nothing and everyone is a loser.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 4: Martin Luther King Jr. on Injustice

Toward the end of his fabled 8,000-word "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" (April 1963), Martin Luther King Jr. juxtaposes these two sentences:
If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable patience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
While King's essay served as an open letter to society for any newspaper or magazine that would publish it—and many did—he actually opened it with "My dear Fellow Clergymen," in response to those ministers, priests, and rabbis who claimed that his brand of civil disobedience was not akin to Gandhi's nonviolent protest movement of a generation earlier, but tantamount to a criminal conduct that threatened to undermine the very goals he set for his civil rights campaign. 

Why are these two sentences so powerful? I can think of at least three reasons.

  • Rhetorical repetition figures prominently in King's speeches and not so much in his prose, but not here. The first 18 words of both sentences are identical, except for the one in polar opposite of the other (overstatement and understatement), creating a rhythm that makes the prose dance.
  • Dramatic contradiction is another device King uses, not at all unique to him. (Remember "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," or "Some men see things as they are, and ask why; I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.") He shows his human limitations by admitting to the possibility of overstating to the point of inappropriate fervency toward jurisprudence and law enforcement, as well as understating to the point of unforgivable indifference to humanity. 
  • Divine refutation borders on divine fallacy in most cases, but we must remember the men of the cloth who were the intended recipients of these sentences. They are in the God business. King asks them to forgive his overstating his point, which he believes can hardly be overstated; however, he asks the far greater authority of God to forgive any chance of his standing where his opponents do. And, of course, we can forgive impatience toward injustice quicker than we can a contempt toward brotherhood.
"Letter from Birmingham City Jail" contains numerous other rhetorical devices that make it worth reading in full.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Splendid Sentences, Part 3: Steven Pinker on Human Progress

Steven Pinker, award-winning Harvard professor and author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, among many other outstanding books, wrote this sentence in his article "Follow the Trendlines", appearing in The Economist special issue The World in 2019:
Since the 18th-century Enlightenment, life expectancy across the world has increased from 30 to 71 years, extreme poverty has fallen from 90% to 10 %, literacy has risen from 12% to 83%, and the share of people living in democracies has leapt from 1% to two-thirds.
The obvious optimism of this 45-word sentence is refreshing, but what impresses me more is how Pinker hits these high notes after rendering a realistic picture of how we get news about our world. Reporting failure, he writes, is the job of journalism while reporting success seems like public relations. He uses statistics to make his indisputable case that humanity has continually progressed for the better over the centuries. Numbers are rarely sexy, but they are here.