Oliver Sacks on Writing (Why Use One Adjective When Six Could Apply?)

On the move

In On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks’s recently published memoir, we become better acquainted with the complicated human being whose popular case studies have given us insight into rare neurological conditions and whose commentary in the New York Times has both made us better appreciate the Periodic Table (not that I ever needed that kind of encouragement) and look forward to turning 80.

In The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding), published on the cusp of his 80th birthday in July of 2013, he wrote:

“My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”

Less than two years later, however, he received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He has chosen to live out his days in the “richest, deepest, most productive way” he can, saying:

“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”

I have thought about his joyful approach to aging and his determination to feel alive in the face of death quite often over the last few months as the mainstream media — and this blog — have been obsessed with another octogenarian, the mysterious Harper Lee. It’s hard to know how old age has affected her, but her lawyer’s attempts to ruin her legacy cast doubt on her competence (particularly when the lawyer acts as though she’s representing an estate rather than a living, breathing person).

But I digress, a tendency that I apparently share with Dr. Sacks.

In On the Move, he describes his penchant for “tangential thoughts” and his love of adjectives:

“… I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing… often my writings need extensive pruning and editing, because I may express the same thought in many different ways. I can get waylaid by tangential thoughts and associations in mid-sentence, and this leads to parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences of paragraphic length. I never use one adjective if six seem to me better and, in their cumulative effect, more incisive.”

When it comes to “sentences of paragraphic length,” Dr. Sacks reminds me of my other half, Mr. AMB, who in real-life is a far more prolific and accomplished writer than I am. I am often the person who slashes adjectives from his swollen, but beautiful, sentences. Meanwhile, he’s the one who points out when I‘ve been succinct when I should’ve been concise, two words that aren’t interchangeable in my book.

I’m one of those writers who never exceeds a word limit. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even come close to the limit without “tangential thoughts” packaged in short sentences separated by returns.

How about you? Are you “guilty” of sentences of paragraphic length (like Dr. Sacks and Mr. AMB) or paragraphs that consist of short, solitary sentences (like yours truly)?

Posted in Books, NonFiction | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Enid Blyton Who?

BlytonIf you happen to have an extra 1.85 million pounds lying around, you could become the next proud owner of Enid Blyton’s charming “cottage (in quotes because, really, it’s a sizable home with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and three reception rooms).

I’d convert 1.85 million pounds into American dollars for my fellow countrymen and women — according to the stats, most of my readers are American — but, well, would any of them care? My bet is that many of them don’t know who Enid Blyton was.

Britain’s Blyton died almost half a century ago, but she remains one of the the most beloved children’s book authors in the world — except in the United States.*

I didn’t know who she was until the late 1980s when my Australian cousins sent a box of her books over to us. None of these books were available at my local bookstore.  They’re more widely available now, thanks to online retailers, but Blyton’s books still haven’t reached the popularity they have in other places.

I’ve often wondered why that’s the case. Is it that the American market was already saturated with our Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys (then) and our Fancy Nancys and the like (now)? Is it lingering unease about the UK (some 200 years after Independence)? Or is it a case of American self-absorption (do we only want to read about ourselves?).

Who knows.

Interestingly, one of the most popular posts on my blog is actually one about Blyton. Its readers aren’t the usual folks. They’re people from all over the world who google some permutation of “Enid Blyton racism sexism” and land on Enid Blyton, Are We Mistaken?

In that post, I discussed the controversy around some of the content in Blyton’s books that modern readers have deemed racist and sexist. At the time, back when some people in Blyton’s hometown opposed the town’s decision to hold a festival in her honor, I wondered “whether an author’s antiquated, abhorrent views should outweigh the historical importance, literary merit, and entertainment value of [his/her] books.”

Is it fair to judge an author from the past by modern standards? Generally speaking, I would say no, though I might support a publishing company’s decision to cleanse the controversial content to some limited extent (a degree of censorship — a tactic I am usually against — that I discuss in More Thoughts on the Censorship Spectrum: Cleansing Racist Themes from Children’s Books).

As for Blyton, there are some who just can’t look beyond the racial epithets and sexist attitudes in her books. Meanwhile, there are others who either don’t mind the content or see it as uncomfortable but forgivable remnants from the past.

Blyton’s books may be somewhat less popular than they were in the last century, but there remains a great deal of interest in her work and also in her former home — except in the United States, where few probably care that 1.85 million pounds is about 2.8 million dollars.

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*There must be other countries where she isn’t well known (perhaps countries that were never part of the British empire). However, her books have been translated into more than 80 languages.

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Is Questioning Harper Lee’s Authorship Sexist?

TKaMB_cold metal and soft pages_misfortuneofknowing blog “Why is it only women who are ever accused of not writing their own books?”

Recently, Glynnis MacNicol asked this question in The Guardian, claiming only women like Harper Lee are accused of perpetrating such lies while simultaneously contradicting herself by admitting that President Obama has been on the receiving end of similar accusations.

As commenters were quick to point out, MacNicol forgot that the President isn’t the only male victim of such attacks. For example, one person (anavidreader) said:

“Point taken obviously. It is profoundly idiotic and speaks to an anxiety about women with authority…That said, *cough* Shakespeare *cough*”

Setting this omission aside, though, MacNicol raises an important issue. Women’s contributions are undervalued in many fields.

We have a pervasive cultural norm that sees women as lacking the intelligence, motivation, and ability to compete with men successfully.

So, yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if female authors are more likely than male authors to be the recipients of criticisms surrounding the authenticity of their work.

In Harper Lee’s case, rumors have swirled for years that others, like Truman Capote, were actually behind her book.

I have never thought someone else was the principal author of To Kill a Mockingbird. However, what I’ve read about the difference between the earlier draft, Go Set a Watchman, and the final product has made me think more about the extent to which heavy editing impacts the authorship of a novel. (See here for a profile of Lee’s editor, Therese von Hohoff Torrey).***

As I wrote in “Killing Our Heroes”: Atticus Finch and Harper Lee:

If Watchman is Lee’s original version of what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m left asking the same question Michiko Kakutani raised in the New York Times review: “How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father?”

To what extent is Mockingbird the product of New York City rather than Monroeville, Alabama?

I’ve always known that Mockingbird was a heavily revised manuscript, but I’ve never known how much of Lee and her hometown remained in the final result. Now, I don’t want to find out.

Remember those people in college who submitted drafts of their papers to their teaching assistant enough times that, after the TA’s comments were incorporated, the TA had effectively written the paper by the end of the process?****

Well, as annoying as I thought those classmates were, I’d still consider them the primary authors of those papers. Their role was instrumental in producing the final product, and I believe the same is true of Harper Lee, even if we assume that New York City editors had a heavy influence on the town in Alabama we see in To Kill a Mockingbird. What masterpiece doesn’t go through many rounds of revision? What masterpiece is really the result of only one influence?

The same would be true of books by men, especially those published at a time when agents and editors didn’t simply throw promising, but imperfect, manuscripts into the trash.

New “stylometric” research seems to support Harper Lee’s claim to authorship. Without getting into the math, two professors in Poland used statistics to compare the 100-650 most frequently used words in Watchman and Mockingbird with each other and with works from several Southern authors, including Capote, Faulkner, and Welty.

The most basic form of that analysis showed that Watchman and Mockingbird were more closely related to each other than to any of the other books compared. The more interesting part to me, however, is the second analysis performed by the professors that still showed Watchman and Mockingbird to be related, but showed a rather large difference between their styles — a much larger difference than that seen between, say, any of Eudora Welty’s books included in the analysis, or any of Faulkner’s books after 1930.

The professors themselves recognized “a more heterogeneous pattern” for Mockingbird than Watchman, in that the latter shared similarities largely with Capote (with a modest similarity to Faulkner), whereas the former had more balanced similarities to Capote, Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor. To me, that transformation indicates the work of a skilled and learned editor.

Maybe we never needed research to tell us Lee is the author of both Watchman and Mockingbird. That’s what MacNicol seems to be saying when she labels questions about Lee’s authorship as “sexist.”

Lee’s gender likely plays a role in these beliefs, but so do the mysteries surrounding her, from her reclusive behavior and dearth of additional publications to the differences between Watchman and the classic coming-of-age story it became. For these reasons, questions about Mockingbird might be more reasonable than they otherwise appear.

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*The image: My copies of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s one of my favorite novels.

**Of course, examples of the discrepancy between the treatment of women and men are too numerous to recount here (but please feel free to leave additional examples in the comments!).

***Thank you to Vickie Lester of Beguiling Hollywood for sending me the article about Lee’s editor!

****That wasn’t you in college, right? ;)

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Encouraging Bookish “Indoor” Kids To Go Outside

Thumbelina Supersized Pink“We don’t want to go outside. It’s too hot.”

My children had a point. The temperature was already in the 80s with a projected high of 100 degrees by mid-day.

That’s Philadelphia in July.

Knowing the risks associated with heat, I made sure my children were well hydrated and outside before the thermometer reached triple digits.

To encourage them to play in the dirt, I consulted a book my mother-in-law sent us called Roots, Shoots, Buckets, & Boots: Gardening Together with Children (1999) by Sharon Lovejoy.

Lovejoy’s book contains a series of child-friendly gardening projects, from turning old boots into planters to more complicated projects like growing a “house” with sunflower walls and a morning glory roof. Lovejoy reminds us of the fun of magnifiers in the garden, collecting seeds, and gathering sprigs of mint for tea. She writes of the wonders of the garden in an effusive way that anyone who loves Anne of Green Gables as much as my twins do would appreciate.

Between looking at bugs with the magnifying glass and picking raspberries, my girls helped me in the garden all morning. No one complained about the heat even once.

In our front yard, we’ve been gradually replacing the fescue and crabgrass with flowering annuals and perennials. Last April, over my twins’ spring break, we added an annual bed. We started with a rainbow of snapdragons, which were beautiful through June, when the cheery zinnias took over. My girls planted each zinnia from seed.

They are very proud of the final result:

Gardening Twins_Their Zinnia Bed

Sometimes it takes a book to encourage kids to go outside.

Do you have any outdoorsy books to recommend?

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*Speaking of gardening inspiration, check out Donna’s Garden Walk Garden Talk.

**Most of these zinnias are “Thumbelina.” They weren’t supposed to grow taller than 6 inches. Was the packet labeled wrong?

Posted in Books, Children's Books, Parenting | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

Missing “The”: More On The Importance Of Our Disappearing Definite Article

TheAN

Earlier this year, I learned that “the,” our trusty definite article, isn’t around as much as it used to be. As I wrote in Missing “The”: Is There An Upside to Ambiguity?:

Linguist Mark Liberman first recognized this trend while analyzing State of the Union addresses, concluding that [the disappearance of the definite article] could be a sign of increasing informality in the speeches. With the help of an impressive undergraduate paper at Penn, he later discovered that there is an overall trend of “decreasing definiteness” in our language: “the frequency of the has decreased by about half; the frequency of a/an has increased by about a third (though of course the overall frequency of a/an is much lower).” The collections he assessed were mostly of written works in American English, which makes me wonder if this trend is also happening to our north and across various “ponds.”

Back then, I suggested that our decreased usage of “the” could be “a sign that we’re less inclined these days to convey superiority in our diverse society,” using the example of framing parenting advice as “a way to raise children” instead of “the way to do it.” (maybe someday).

I also wondered about when “the” still matters*–when it cannot be replaced by “a” or “an.”

A few weeks ago, Mr. AMB came across a good example of the continuing importance of “the,” a word that even a mighty insurance company couldn’t circumvent in an attempt to deny coverage to a policyholder.

Yes, the example comes from a court case about insurance coverage, Mutual Benefit Insurance Company v. Politsopoulos, which the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided on May 26, 2015. My husband sent me the decision shortly after it came out, but it took me forever to read it. The opinion is only 16 pages long, but the subject matter is very, very boring (though important).

Hopefully, my effort to explain it won’t be equally dull. Here goes:

The case is about a commercial liability insurance policy that covered more than one entity at the same time. In this case, it covered a restaurant and the owners of the property where the restaurant was located.

The insurance policy contained an exclusion. As explained in the opinion, “the policy did not provide coverage pertaining to liability for injury to ‘[a]n employee of the insured arising out of and in the course of… [e]mployment by the insured[.].’”

The Justices had to decide this question: What could the “the” in “the insured” possibly mean????

The insurance company essentially argued that “the” was interchangeable with “an,” meaning any entity insured under the policy wouldn’t have insurance coverage when sued by employees of any of its co-insured entities (not just when it was sued by its own employees).

The insurance company lost. As the court explained:

“[W]e are persuaded that, at least where a commercial general liability policy makes varied use of the definite and indefinite articles, this, as a general rule, creates an ambiguity relative to the former, such that “the insured” may be reasonably taken as signifying the particular insured against whom a claim is asserted.”

If the insurance company wanted the exclusion to apply more broadly, it shouldn’t have used the definite article in the provision.

We can glean at least three lessons from this case: (1) Words matter; (2) “The” and “A/an” aren’t the same; and (3) Insurance cases are incredibly boring.

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*And, like last time, Mr. AMB quips, “It makes all the difference.”

Posted in Law | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

On “Killing Our Heroes”: Atticus Finch & Harper Lee

A.M.B.:

Tonja Carter, the lawyer currently serving as Harper Lee’s new “watchman,” is still at it. Now, she says that Lee may have written a third novel (a rumor that’s been around since the Watchman announcement, as I mention in my “Killing Our Heroes” post).

In the Wall Street Journal (July 13, 2015), Carter speculates: “What of the other pages that have for decades sat in the Lord & Taylor box on top of ‘Watchman’? Was it an earlier draft of ‘Watchman,’ or of ‘Mockingbird,’ or even, as early correspondence indicates it might be, a third book bridging the two? I don’t know.”

Carter’s uncertainty would make sense if she were managing a literary estate. However, Harper Lee is still alive.

So, now I’m wondering: If Harper Lee has the competence to publish Watchman, why can’t she just tell us how many novels she wrote?

Originally posted on The Misfortune Of Knowing:

Harper Lees Lumpy Tale

Did you hear that Atticus Finch is an unapologetic racist in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird?

The novel has been marketed as a sequel to Lee’s Mockingbird — an agent of Lee’s even suggested that Watchman was meant to be the final installment of a trilogy — but, as the La Times says in its guarded review of Lee’s latest publication, “It would be a mistake to read Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as a sequel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” (Just as I thought).

The stories surrounding the origin and discovery of Watchman have never made any sense. HarperCollins and Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, have claimed that Carter herself was the one who discovered the draft in the fall of 2014, even going so far as to quote then-88-year-old Lee as…

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On “Killing Our Heroes”: Atticus Finch & Harper Lee

Harper Lees Lumpy Tale

Did you hear that Atticus Finch is an unapologetic racist in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird?

The novel has been marketed as a sequel to Lee’s Mockingbird — an agent of Lee’s even suggested that Watchman was meant to be the final installment of a trilogy — but, as the La Times says in its guarded review of Lee’s latest publication, “It would be a mistake to read Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as a sequel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’” (Just as I thought).

The stories surrounding the origin and discovery of Watchman have never made any sense. HarperCollins and Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, have claimed that Carter herself was the one who discovered the draft in the fall of 2014, even going so far as to quote then-88-year-old Lee as saying, “I hadn’t realized it had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it.” (See this ridiculous press release).

That quote is particularly interesting in light of evidence suggesting that the Watchman manuscript may have been found several years earlier, when a rare books expert assessed a manuscript that had been in a Lord & Taylor box presented to him by Carter and Lee’s then-agent Samuel Pinkus (whom I’ve written about on this blog before, though the recent mysteries surrounding Lee have moderated my view of him; maybe he really was following Lee’s wishes—rather than Carter’s?).

Carter acknowledges having been at the meeting with this rare books expert and Pinkus, but, according to The New York Times, “She said that she was sent from the room to run an errand before any review of the materials occurred. She denied ever learning that a different manuscript had been found that day and would not elaborate on whether she had later asked what had happened.”

As Jaclyn of Covered in Flour, a fellow lawyer, tweeted yesterday:

Jaclyn TweetYeah, Carter’s statement about running an errand has the “ring of bullshit,” and it calls into question everything she’s said thus far.

If the Watchman manuscript was found in 2011, why didn’t Lee consent to its publication then?

Is Lee really aware that Carter has published Watchman now?

There has been a long debate about Lee’s competence due to her failing health. I’ve discussed the sad circumstances surrounding Lee’s odd public exposure several times on this blog, from her lawsuit against Pinkus to her actions against her hometown museum.

Last March, I updated my post questioning Carter’s role in the Watchman publication — Can We Trust Harper Lee’s New Watchman (Can She)?to say that the state of Alabama had investigated Lee’s competence  and made the determination based on an interview with Ms. Lee that she was aware that her book was being published.

I accepted that determination because, well, it’s a supposedly neutral third party’s finding (not that Alabama doesn’t have something to gain from Lee’s popularity) and any additional investigation of Lee would be intrusive.

Still, I know that people diagnosed with dementia — and I have no idea what Lee’s diagnoses are — can appear lucid from time to time and that a great deal depends on what the questions were, how they were asked, and who was present during the interview.

Whether or not Lee actually consented to the publication, though, is now moot. The book will be published on Tuesday, July 14th.

The earliest reviews are out, and they aren’t pretty (see this recap from The Daily Mail). Maybe the commentary on the writing style, plot, and characters wouldn’t have been so negative had Carter and HarperCollins been honest that Watchman is not a separate book but merely an early draft that only those with an interest in the evolution of To Kill a Mockingbird would find worthwhile.

If Watchman is Lee’s original version of what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, I’m left asking the same question Michiko Kakutani raised in the New York Times review:

“How did a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views evolve into a classic coming-of-age story about two children and their devoted widower father?”

To what extent is Mockingbird the product of New York City rather than Monroeville, Alabama?

I’ve always known that Mockingbird was a heavily revised manuscript, but I’ve never known how much of Lee and her hometown remained in the final result. Now, I don’t want to find out.

I love To Kill a Mockingbird, the man who defended Tom Robinson, and my understanding of the person and the place that created them. To keep that fiction intact, I’m going to pass on Go Set a Watchman.

My final question is this: Did Carter and HarperCollins publish and market Watchman to make a quick buck at the expense of Harper Lee’s legacy?

Posted in Books, Children's Books, Law | Tagged , , , , , , | 35 Comments