Friday, February 19, 2016

How to improve writing (no. 63)

Here’s a sentence from a piece about David Foster Wallace at the The New Yorker website. The books in question are Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion :

Both books have fans, but I think it’s safe to say that no twenty-year-old will ever stick either of them in his or her backpack alongside Infinite Jest when they go trekking in Nepal.
The shift from “his or her” to a singular “they” is awkward. Sticking with singular pronouns — “his or her backpack when he or she goes trekking” — would be awkward too. The sentence needs rethinking. Or as we say in east-central Illinois, the sentence needs rethought:
Both books have fans, but I think it’s safe to say that no twenty-year-old will ever stick either of them in a backpack alongside Infinite Jest when trekking in Nepal.
I’d go further:
Each book has fans, but I doubt that a twenty-year-old will pack either book alongside Infinite Jest for a trek through Nepal.
I’ve removed the boilerplate “I think it’s safe to say,” reduced “stick either of them in a backpack” to “pack,” and made the work of packing precede the trek. And why “either book”? Look at the work “either of them” does in the original sentence:
Both books have fans, but I think it’s safe to say that no twenty-year-old will ever stick either of them . . . .
Having noticed that glitch, I find it impossible to un-notice it. Adding the word “book” keeps those fans out of the backpack.

Related reading
All OCA How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)

[I’ve tried to set a good example by replacing quotation marks with italics for the title Infinite Jest . This post is no. 63 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 8

Elaine Fine said...

There's a joke about keeping books out of the fanny pack somewhere in there!

Michael Leddy said...

But where? Nothing’s coming to me.

Fresca said...

I really enjoy this series of yours.
I would leave "backpack" in the sentence somewhere, [could be "twenty-year-old backpacker"]-- since it emphasizes that the trekker has to carry the book on their back. Weight matters. I wonder how many pack Infinite Jest, but leave it on the roadside... Nepal is probably littered with copies.

Michael Leddy said...

I think the word “trek” implies carrying, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep the backpack in there.

There must be many partly read copies of Infinite Jest lying around. The funny thing is that the book doesn’t (at least in my experience) seem to show up in used-book stores. Too much shame in selling it? Or the hope to someday get back to it?

Frex said...

Frex = Fresca

Isn't there some thing about how guys keep copies of IJ on their bookshelves, even if they haven't read it? Like, it's a totem of some sort? (Hence, not reselling it.)
Maybe I heard this (sneeringly?) around the time the DFW movie came out?

When I was biking around Ireland, I was reading Name of the Rose---
I tore out chapters as I went along, to shed weight.

Michael Leddy said...

There’s a lot of guy stuff that gets attached to DFW, so to speak.

“You should come meet the graduate students. They’re creative writers and Wallace fans.”


Is there a story somewhere about someone feeding the pages of a book into a fire to keep warm? Reading and burning?

Frex said...

A mashup of Jack London's "To Build a Fire" and Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451?

Michael Leddy said...