Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year’s Eve 1916

[“1917, in on Tiptoes, Keeps the Sabbath. Hardly a Horn to Herald Glad New Year’s Arrival in the Great Cabaret Belt. Few Out to Celebrate. Upper Broadway Mostly Dark and Deserted — Churches Get the Best Crowds.” The New York Times, January 1, 1917.]

December 31, 1916, was a Sunday. John P. Mitchel, New York City’s mayor (and party pooper), refused to grant the permits that would have allowed establishments to remain open past one o’clock. So for many hotels and restaurants, the night of January 1, 1917, became New Year’s Eve. How did those establishments fare? Tune in next year to find out.

A poem for the day

Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” appeared in the weekly newspaper The Graphic on December 28, 1900. “That I could think”: mere self-deception? But “Hope” is “the thing with feathers.”

Friday, December 30, 2016

Domestic comedy

[After deciding not to go to the fancy place to eat.]

“I’ll leave my thesaurus at home.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Unique Original Pretzel “Splits”

I found Unique Original Pretzel “Splits,” complete with quotation marks, in the local natural-foods store. Yes, an impulse purchase. They’re great pretzels, made of unbleached wheat flour, canola oil, salt, yeast, and soda. They’re pretzels of substance.

I will offer an analogy:

ordinary pretzels : “Splits” :: cardboard box : log cabin.

The company’s website: Unique Pretzel Store.

[Snyder’s is another great Pennsylvania name in pretzels. What is it about pretzels and Pennsylvania? Is it more than mere alliteration? Yes. Wikipedia explains.]

Thursday, December 29, 2016

“Technology is the only thing that really entertains us”

This television commercial for the ASUS T102 has a statement that I find terribly sad: “Technology is the only thing that really entertains us.” It’s spoken by one of the “Hulford quads,” quadruplet girls, eight-graders. We see them using Windows 10 in a windowless room, sitting at a table that resembles those one might see in a Microsoft Store (which resemble those one might see in an Apple Store).

I know that those words were written for one of the girls to say. The commercial itself appears to belie the claim: photographs show the girls sledding and hiking and looking out on a lake or ocean; in the windowless room, they dance. Or perhaps those activities are merely weak substitutes for what technology alone can provide. Poor quads.

Quotation marks and the Internet

From an Atlantic piece, “Has the Internet Killed Curly Quotes?”:

Paul Ford, a writer and programmer known for his thoughts about how code affects culture, notes that even on a mobile device “the energy to type a curly quote feels prohibitive. You have to hold down the quote. The effort of typing one on a regular keyboard [also] can be prohibitive.” Some software automatically swaps in the “smart” quote, but doesn’t always get the right curl (decades should always be ’90s, but autoformat software often drops in ‘90s). For wonks, you can find cheatsheets for explicit shortcuts on desktop machines, like Shift-Option-] for a curly apostrophe on the Mac, but it requires additional effort and memorization.
Oh, the arduousness. To my mind it’s a simple matter to make a curly quotation mark using an iPhone: the effort of “holding down” is only metaphorical when touching a finger to a glass screen. And the effort on a keyboard is hardly “prohibitive.” Shift-Option-] (or ⇧-⌥-], to be fancy about it) and other key combinations become second nature with a little practice. Typing Option-[ and Shift-Option-[ in sequence gives a pair of smart quotation marks — “” — that you can fill as you please. “Make something up,” he suggested.

As for “additional effort and memorization”: let us recall, say, WordStar commands.

Another good cheatsheet
Straight and curly quotes (Practical Typography)

“The Scope of Hate in 2016”

The fifth installment of the New York Times feature “This Week in Hate”: “The Scope of Hate in 2016.” You can find all installments here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

More “some rocks”

[From James Sowerby‘s British Mineralogy: or coloured figures intended to elucidate the mineralogy of Great Britain (London: 1804). Made available through the British Library’s Flickr account. Click for a larger view.]

Related reading
More “some rocks” posts : More “some rocks” from the British Library

Crafting nonsense

To the left, a motto for Yellow Springs Brewery, which I first spotted on the back of a delivery truck. “Crafting Truth to Power” is a most unseemly motto for a brewery, or for any business. Whether Yellow Springs knows it or not, the motto’s inspiration is a Quaker precept, part of the title of a 1955 publication, Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence:
Our title, Speak Truth to Power, taken from a charge given to Eighteenth Century Friends, suggests the effort that is made to speak from the deepest insight of the Quaker faith, as this faith is understood by those who prepared this study. We speak to power in three senses:
• To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace.

• To the American people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority.

• To the idea of Power itself, and its impact on Twentieth Century life.
The Yellow Springs motto seems to alter the meaning of to: here, it indicates not direction (speaking to power) but contact or proximity (welding truth to power). And it’s all semantic nonsense, as one cannot craft one abstraction (or one anything) to another. One more strike against the vogue verb craft.

Related reading
On the origins of “speaking truth to power” (Synonym)

[In color, the eagle looks cute. In black and white, ominously militaristic. The eagle appears in both forms on the Yellow Springs website. Rethink, rethink.]

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

EXchange names on screen

[Chinatown (dir. Roman Polanski, 1974). Click for a larger view.]

“Isn’t that your number?” a cop asks. But which one? The exchanges, clockwise: OX, OL, MA, CR. Let’s say OXford, OLympia, MAdison, CRestview. I’ve chosen those names from AT&T/Bell’s Notes on Nationwide Dialing, 1955. Why not choose an EXchange name for your number? It’s arrière-garde fun!

More exchange names on screen
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse : Armored Car Robbery : Baby Face : Blast of Silence : The Blue Dahlia : Boardwalk Empire : Born Yesterday : The Dark Corner : Deception : Dick Tracy’s Deception : Dream House : East Side, West Side : The Little Giant : The Man Who Cheated Himself : Modern Marvels : Murder by Contract : Murder, My Sweet : My Week with Marilyn : Naked City (1) : Naked City (2) : Naked City (3) : Naked City (4) : Naked City (5) : Naked City (6) : Naked City (7) : Nightmare Alley : The Public Enemy : Railroaded! : Side Street : Sweet Smell of Success : Tension : This Gun for Hire

”With no idea where he was going”

Stefan Zweig, “The Star Above the Forest.” 1904. The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. Trans. Anthea Bell (London: Pushkin Press, 2013).

I love these Zweig stories, which turn stock elements of fiction into the stuff of small masterpieces: a castle, footsteps on a gravel path, a distant forest, a weeping governess, a letter left on a breakfast table, an old painter, a waiter in a grand hotel.

Other Zweig posts
Destiny, out of one’s hands : Erasmus ekphrasis : Fanaticism and reason : Happy people, poor psychologists : Little world : “The safest shelter” : School v. city : “A tremendous desire for order” : Urban pastoral, with stationery : Zweig’s last address book

Monday, December 26, 2016

George Herriman’s Krazy Kat

At Dreamers Rise, an all-purpose appreciation of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat.

Still life with telephone

[Plunder Road (dir. Hubert Cornfield, 1957).]

Yes, that phone is about to ring. Click for a larger view and you can see the Interoffice Telephone Directory.

Plunder Road is one of our household’s YouTube finds.

Twelve more movies

[No spoilers.]

Sour Grapes (dir. Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell, 2016). A documentary about a con artist in the world of high-end wine. Two elements stood out for me: the collaboration between the con artist and his marks (who really, really want to believe that they’re getting their hands on rare wines) and the lawyerly effort to cast the con artist’s efforts as relatively benign.


Plunder Road (dir. Hubert Cornfield, 1957). In the tradition of The Asphalt Jungle (dir. John Huston, 1950) and The Killing (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1956): five men execute a perfectly plotted heist, and then everything goes wrong. Much of the story happens via radio: after the five split up to drive three trucks to California, it’s the radio that brings the news as things go wrong. And at one point a radio makes things go wrong. Now playing at at YouTube.


Edge of Doom (dir. Mark Robson, 1950). An odd, unnerving movie, with a crucifix as a murder weapon, and every human relationship slightly off. Dana Andrews plays a priest — an unfathomable casting choice. Farley Granger plays a desperate young man — a more fathomable casting choice. Paul Stewart (Raymond the butler in Citizen Kane) is a downstairs neighbor. At YouTube.


Chinatown (dir. Roman Polanski, 1974). Los Angeles, water rights, family dysfunction, plot convolutions, private detection, a generous application of Raymond Chandler. Watching again after many years, I realized that all I remembered of this film was water, a fence, and Jack Nicholson’s nose.


Behind Locked Doors (dir. Oscar Boetticher, 1948). A private investigator feigns mental illness to get inside a sanitarium where a crooked judge may be hiding to avoid arrest. Douglas Fowley is a fine sadistic orderly. The real treat: Tor Johnson (of Plan 9 from Outer Space) as “The Champ,” an ex-fighter and inmate. At YouTube.


Million Dollar Weekend (dir. Gene Raymond, 1948). Shouldn’t that be Million-Dollar? But this film is so low-budget that they probably couldn’t afford the hyphen. A stockbroker (Gene Raymond) skips town for Shanghai and promptly becomes involved in other people’s problems. Alternative description: an embezzler, a maybe-murderer (Osa Massen), and a blackmailer (Francis Lederer) walk onto a plane. At YouTube.


Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal (dir. Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, 2015). In 1968, ABC News attempted to generate interest in its condensed coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions by including mini-debates — which weren’t debates at all — between Willam F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. I avoided this documentary after seeing a trailer: its claim for the importance of these few minutes of television theatrics seemed far out of proportion to reality. What most struck me: the modest production values of 1968 news, the cattiness of Messrs. B. and V., and the way their insults and name-calling seem to foretell all that’s horrid in cable news.


Fort Tilden (dir. Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, 2014). Would-be adults, adrift in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, trying to get to Fort Tilden, a beach in Queens — by bike, by borrowed car, by car service, on foot. Wonderful social satire. As someone in the film might say, ”I’d love to see more of your work!” But I mean it. My favorite moment: Infinite Jest taken down from a shelf to serve as a seductive prop.


The Exiles (dir. Kent Mackenzie, 1961). The lives of young Native Americans adrift in Los Angeles: exiles from the reservation, exiles from the city itself. Comic books, cigarettes, beer, Thunderbird wine, cards, jukeboxes, and, even in these surroundings, tradition. Los Angeles neo-realism, with beautiful black-and-white cinematography and strong overtones of Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1956). (That I could recognize that connection tells me that I must really watch a lot of films.) More about The Exiles here.

[Exiles, the morning after.]


The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne (dir. Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina, 2013). Doris Payne, jewel thief of many years’ experience, was recently in the news once again, at the age of eighty-six, after stealing a diamond necklace from a store in Georgia. This documentary presents Payne as a charming, elegant, incisive fabulator, a woman who has turned her life into a story (complete with The First Time I Stole, and Why) and who will prop herself up with the flimsiest logic: “My being a thief has nothing to do with my moral fiber. It has to do with my behavior.” See also: the difference between stealing and not giving back what someone gave you.


Shock Corridor (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1963). A reporter feigns an incestuous obsession with his “sister” (she’s really his girlfriend) to get inside a mental institution and solve a patient’s murder. The premise recalls Behind Locked Doors, but this film is a world apart. The three witnesses to the murder, all patients, have been made mad by racism, war, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. American culture, on this film’s account, is no Great Society: it’s sick. Gripping scenes of violence and of “Main Street,” the long corridor where men act out their delusions or stand and stare inertly.


The Great Lie (dir. Edmund Goulding, 1941). Mary Astor, George Brent, and Bette Davis in a love triangle that turns into a quadrilateral — or a pentagon, if you include the piano. If the utter implausibility of the storyline is too much, just press the SD button on your remote.

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)
Fourteen more : Thirteen more : Twelve more : Another thirteen more : Another dozen : Yet another dozen : Another twelve : And another twelve : Still another twelve : Oh wait, twelve more : Twelve or thirteen more

[The SD button activates the suspension of disbelief for those who cannot activate it for themselves.]

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas 1916

[“Many Gifts for Convicts: One Anonymous Donor Sends 1,600 Mince Pies to Sing Sing.” The New York Times, December 25, 1916.]

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A song for these times

In The New York Times, Bruce Handy writes about “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: “if any single tune reflects the miseries of 2016, and the anxious uncertainty with which we greet 2017, it is this 72-year-old holiday chestnut.”

We will have to muddle through somehow.

Caroline, no!

Billboard reports that the Beach Boys are considering an invitation to perform at an upcoming presidential inauguration. This photograph and some recent history make me think that the response to this invitation will be yes we will Yes. And I suspect that members of Mike Love and Bruce Johnston’s supporting cast will not be allowed to opt out. They are not Rockettes.

I long ago learned, with some exceptions, to separate the art from the artist. So I won’t be burning my LPs and CDs. But this news is just one more dab of awful in awful times.

I’m dreaming of a liverwurst sandwich

Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) explains his theory of dreams to Betty Haynes (Rosemary Clooney). From White Christmas (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1954):

“I got a whole big theory about it, you know — different kinds of food make for different kinds of dreams. Now if I have a ham and cheese on rye like that, I dream about a tall cool blonde, sort of a first-sack attack, you know. Turkey, I dream about a brunette, a little on the scatback side, but oh, sexy, sexy.”

“What about liverwurst?”

“I dream about liverwurst.”
A truly weird moment, whose weirdness is compounded by the Crosby affect, a fleeting German accent, and a pitcher of buttermilk, which Crosby calls “the cow.” (And why buttermilk and not just milk?) That Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye are in the film doesn’t help. I don’t get Bing Crosby. I don’t get Vera-Ellen. And I don’t get Danny Kaye. But Rosemary Clooney, boy, could she sing.

You can relive this strange scene, as often as you like, at YouTube.

[Scatback: “an offensive back in football who is an especially fast and elusive ballcarrier.” So the brunette is hard to get? And the blonde is easily tackled? Bob, why are you talking so rudely to Betty?]

“Hypothesis Song”

Ben Leddy is at it again. With illustrations and hands-on experiments by Ben and Alison Slate.

More songs at Ben’s YouTube channel.

Relativity: LPs

Walking past a stand of vinyl in Barnes and Noble, I realized how large LPs now look: they’re easily mistaken for wall calendars. CDs have changed my sense of scale. And it doesn’t help that the LPs I most often see are the ones on my shelves, just spines, 1/8″ or 3/16″ or so wide.

The LP’s size has always been to its advantage: front and back covers and the occasional gatefold invite and reward attention, before, during, and after listening. No background music: only background looking and reading.

Related reading
All OCA relativity posts

Friday, December 23, 2016

John Ashbery, New Collages

At the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in Manhattan, an exhibit of art by John Ashbery, New Collages. Sixteen collages are on view via the link. Here is a work in which old masters meet:

John Ashbery, Storm at Castelfranco. Collage on paper. 2016. 12 1/4 x 8 3/4 inches.

Previous exhibits of Ashbery’s collages at Tibor de Nagy: 2011 and 2008. Thanks to the gallery for permission to reproduce this collage.

Bob Dylan, and not John Ashbery? Krazy.

Related reading
All OCA Ashbery posts (Pinboard)

[The collage places George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Offissa Bull Pupp in a detail of the Giorgione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco) painting The Tempest. “Storm at Castelfranco” is the title of a poem by Chester Kallman (and, later, the title of a book of poems). Some Ashbery and Kallman history here.]

From an old notebook

Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991). Click for a larger view. Nabokov wrote out his lectures: “meticulously chosen words” indeed.

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)

Other bits from an old notebook
Alfalfa, Ted Berrigan, Jack Kerouac, metaphors : Alfred Appel Jr. on twentieth-century art and literature : Barney : Beauty and the Beast and kid talk : Eleanor Roosevelt : Halloween observations : John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch : Plato, Shirley Temple, vulgarity, wisdom, Stan Laurel : Square dancing, poetry, criticism, slang

Thursday, December 22, 2016

“Missile Mail”

“Missile Mail: Regulus Scores Historic First” (1959). From British Pathé. Found via Sidedoor.

[YouTube’s embedded ads, impossible to remove, are the only ads that will ever appear in these pages. You can skip the ad after five seconds.]

Sidedoor, a podcast

Sidedoor is a new podcast from the Smithsonian: “stories about science, art, history, humanity and where they unexpectedly overlap.” My favorite episode: mail by missile, an orangutan being prepared for motherhood, and Phyllis Diller’s joke files. What brings those three stories together? Delivery!

The podcast’s delivery itself is sometimes a little hard to take: I cringe when I hear a phrase like “straight-up hubris.” But Sidedoor is a show to keep an eye on — that is, to listen to.

Words as money

“Money,” Wallace Stevens says, “is a kind of poetry.” Words and sentences, Harry R. Warfel says, are a kind of money. A surprising passage in a book about the place of grammar in education:

Language is the coin of the realm of thought. Like money, words and sentences interchange among people in the life processes of society. Just as the fiscal operations of a nation are intricate and infinitely complicated and yet seemingly simple to the child that exchanges a nickel for a candy bar, so the transfer of a few words — like “I love you” — produces a simple yet immense effect. That effect arises not merely from a momentary vocal noise or written scrawl but from a complexity of present and past experiences. Its very utterance portends a future of untold consequences of shared joys, pains, sorrows, griefs, and hopes.

Who Killed Grammar? (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1952).
Related posts
Money as poetry : The Warfel Law of Divided Usage

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Warfel Law of Divided Usage

Harry R. Warfel:

Several years ago I announced the Warfel Law of Divided Usage: “Whenever a variant is denounced as wrong by books or teachers, that ‘wrong’ usage will gain currency and will occur frequently in speech and writing.” The harping upon due to, different than, ain’t, and try and do has merely accelerated the adoption of these so-called errors by speakers and writers. . . . Emphasis creates a pattern that flashes automatically into the mind. For this reason wise teachers stress normative usages rather than “errors.”

Who Killed Grammar? (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1952).
See also David Lambuth’s Golden Book on Writing: “what the ’prentice writer needs to be told is what to do and not what not to do.”

But as one of Warfel’s examples suggests, emphasizing “normative usages” can itself lead to problems: She, he, and I (with I placed last), Warfel says, leads to Give some candy to he, she, and I. (And, I would add, to between he and I.) Misguided corrections also lead to problems: over many years of teaching, I often noticed students using in which where which alone was needed. (For instance: Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which shows us his difficulty in taking action.) I have long suspected that in which results from misguided teachers changing, say, the house I live in to the house in which I live. At some point, an in before which may become unfortunately automatic.

I hope some teacher somewhere finds the Warfel Law of Divided Usage useful in helping students to understand the sources of some of their writing problems.

A related post
Ending a sentence with it

[I noticed Why Grammar? mentioned in the first pages of Bryan Garner’s Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (2016). Among Warfel’s books: Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America (1936) and, as co-author, American College English: A Handbook of Usage and Composition (1949).]

Some winter rocks

The Google Doodle for the Northern Hemisphere’s first day of winter: some rocks, some shivering snow-capped rocks. Not, strictly speaking, “some rocks” — that is, three rocks — but some rocks. Or “some” rocks.

Thanks, Martha, for bringing these rocks to my attention.

[“Some rocks”: a motif in Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, and in these pages.]

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

“This Week in Hate”

At The New York Times, a fourth installment of “This Week in Hate.”

A Brooklyn bar menu

Why not make your own?

See also: “Adjective Foods.”

[Make here means “to generate by clicking.”]

Blue-light special

Not long ago I noticed pumpkins and squash bathed in an eerie orange light. Well, they had an orange light shining on them. There was no bathing, and nothing eerie. It was just the produce section.

Now I’ve noticed what The Crow mentioned seeing: blue light in the produce section.

And here’s why:

[Turnips, radishes, rutabagas, parsley, kohlrabi, rhubarb, and leeks with a blue light shining on them. Why do some vegetables lack separate plural forms?]

Monday, December 19, 2016

Reaching for a book

Eliot Weinberger, quoted in a New Yorker piece about his writing: “‘When I hear the word “Trump,”’ he said, ‘I reach for a book.’”

What books are you reaching for? Me: Stefan Zweig’s Collected Stories (trans. Anthea Bell), Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, Harry R. Warfel’s Who Killed Grammar? And Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, which leads back to current events.

M-W Word of the Year

Not fascism, which was never a contender. Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year is surreal.

Long overdue

The New York Times reports that a copy of Gone with the Wind has been returned to the library, fifty-seven years late.

Related posts
A real-life Bookman : Spanish-English dictionary returned to library after fifty-four years

A 2017 calendar

Free for the downloading: a 2017 calendar, by me, in Gill Sans, three months per page, rather dowdy in appearance. I’ve kept the traditional black and dark red (licorice and cayenne, as Apple would have it) and added hints of green (clover) and orange (tangerine). Right-click the link above to download a copy.

And for anyone who’d like to try Dropbox (where I’ve stashed a copy of the calendar for downloading), here’s a referral link, which gets you (and me) 500 MB extra storage. But you don’t need Dropbox to get the calendar.

Not from The Onion

[The New York Times, December 19, 2016.]

I suppose that a genuine Onion headline would have Stallone agreeing to chair the National Endowment for the Arts.

In other news, the Times introduced an error in subject-verb agreement in reporting this story:

[Trump] later said that an education in critical thinking, reading, writing and math are “the keys to economic success,” but he added that “a holistic education that includes literature and the arts is just as critical to creating good citizens.”
In the Washington Post article that the Times is quoting, Trump (or whoever wrote his responses) got the subject and verb right:
Critical thinking skills, the ability to read, write and do basic math are still the keys to economic success.
It’s possible to read the Times sentence as making “an education in critical thinking” the first item in a series, followed by “reading, writing and math,” but I think that’s a stretch. “An education in [four things]” is the sensible way to read the sentence.

Back in our lead story: the Times also reports that Stallone thinks “he would be more effective in helping military veterans.”

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Man, oh man

From a November New York Times book review:

Man has sped up his own response times. It now takes us only 10-15 years to get used to the sort of technological changes that we used to absorb in a couple of generations.
But the response time of that sentence isn’t anything like adequate. “Man has sped up”: that language stands out as painfully dated. The Times’s Manual of Style and Usage has cautioned against the language of man since 1999 (and perhaps earlier):
Expressions built on man or mankind strike many readers as a slight to the role of women through history. In a few cases, those expressions may result unavoidably from idiom or a literary allusion. But the writer and editor should weigh the graceful alternatives: humanity, perhaps, or human race or people.
I like humankind, which always takes me back to T. S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton: “Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”

Scott Pelley of the CBS Evening News has the man problem too. And yes, in 2016 it’s a problem.

[How did “Man has sped up” get past an editor?]


Vladimir Putin dropped in (literally) on Donald Trump last night to tell of Russia’s joy about Trump’s election:

“We think you are the best candidate—”


“The smartest candidate—”

“No doubt.”

“The Manchurian candidate.”

“I don’t know what that means, but it sounds tremendous.”
The last two lines drew significant laughs. Good on the SNL audience for getting the joke. Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate was made into a film in 1962 and 2004. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to miss the joke.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


The vitamin and mineral supplement Airborne is “crafted.” In fact (or in adspeak), it’s “specially crafted.” I am reassured to know that the powder in those little packets isn’t made of random ingredients. Can Emergen-C make that claim?

Elaine caught crafted last night, when I wasn’t paying attention to a commercial. Thanks, Elaine.

Related posts
Craft vogue
Words I can live without (Including crafted)

Friday, December 16, 2016

Make it known

John D’Agata’s The Making of the American Essay (2016) has a witty sequence of epigraphs from Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and John Ashbery, one epigraph to a page: “Make it plain.” “Make it new.” “Make it sweet again.”

D’Agata does not identify sources. If there is a source for Whitman, I’m unable to find it. Two children’s biographies of Whitman have him writing these words:

“Make it plain,” he wrote. “Lumber the writing with nothing — let it go as lightly as a bird flies,” &c.

Catherine Reef, Walt Whitman (1995).

“Make it plain,“ he advised himself. “Lumber the writing with nothing — let it go as lightly as a bird flies,” &c.

Milton Meltzer, Walt Whitman: A Biography (2002).
But the relevant passage from Whitman’s prose is missing “Make it plain”:
Make no quotations, and no references to any other writers.—

Lumber the writing with nothing, — let it go as lightly as a bird flies in the air — or a fish swims in the sea.

Selected Poems, 1855–1892, ed. Gary Schmidgall (1999).
There are various accounts of Whitman using the words “make it plain” in conversation. He is reported to have said, in speaking of slavery, “I never lost any opportunity to make it plain where I stood.” But I can find nothing that suggests a Whitmanic imperative related to writing.

Pound’s imperative “Make It New” (properly capitalized) long ago became a motto of literary modernism. Here is a fine account of the imperative’s history.

Ashbery’s words, followed by an exclamation point, end the poem “But What Is the Reader to Make of This?” (A Wave, 1984):

And what is the reader to make of “it”? Is “it” “the general life”? Or the mood? These lines give us Ashbery in Romantic mode, with the hope of recovering something lost (as in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”) and with echoes of Shelley (“Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass”) and Stevens (“Alas, that they should wear our colors there, / The silken weavings of our afternoons”). But Ashbery’s words are hardly a precept for writing.

What most surprised me in looking into these epigraphs is that they have appeared together before, in Douglas Crase’s introduction to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays: First and Second Series (1990):

No one owns these words, of course. But it’s clear that Crase got there first. I still don’t know what to make of “Make it plain.”


January 19, 2017: A source for “make it plain,” from a Whitman notebook page:
Rule in all addresses — and poems and other writings, etc. — Do not undertake to say any thing however plain to you, unless you are positive are making it perfectly plain to those who hear or read. — Make it plain.

Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, ed. Edward F. Grier, vol. 1, Family Notes and Autobiography, Brooklyn and New York (New York: New York University Press, 1984).
“[Y]ou are positive are making it”: not a typo. Grier dates the materials on this notebook page to “probably before and shortly after 1855.” “Make it plain” seems to have first seen print in Paul Zweig’s Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet (New York: Basic Books, 1984). Thanks to the reader who pointed me to these sources.

A related post
Deresiewicz v. D ’Agata

Yoda, n.

Yoda is a new addition to the Oxford English Dictionary: “A person who embodies the characteristics of Yoda, esp. in being wise; an elder, sage, or guru.”

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Sardine disco balls

That is all ye need to know to want to know more: sardine disco balls.

Related reading
All OCA sardines posts (Pinboard)

Martinis or cheap cigars

Henry Threadgill, on the importance of adjusting to the economic difficulties of life as an artist, filmmaker, musician, writer:

“You won’t feel like you’re being tossed around in life because, you know, you’re not able to have martinis every day at two. So stop it. Get a cheap cigar and be happy.” [Laughs.]
From a 2009 interview with Phoebe Legere for Roulette TV.

A related post
Henry Threadgill in a 1998 Dewar’s advertisement

From The Day of the Owl

Captain Bellodi is telling the story of a doctor in a Sicilian prison who decides to remove Mafia members from permanent residence in the prison hospital, where they enjoy preferential treatment. When the prison administrators ignore his directive, the doctor appeals to higher authorities:

Leonardo Sciascia, The Day of the Owl. 1961. Trans. Arcibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver (New York: New York Review Books, 2003).

The Day of the Owl an excellent novella (in an occasionally awkward translation): a chain of murders, an enigmatic investigator (no first name), and what the narrator calls “the problem of the South,” a criminal enterprise whose existence cannot be officially acknowledged.

I picked up this book in June at I AM Books, an Italian-American bookstore in Boston’s North End. The New York Review Books spine caught my eye. And now I want to read more of Leonardo Sciascia. And NYRB has four more Sciascia titles in print.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Truman Capote meets Willa Cather

“‘I ought to tell you —’ She paused; then, in a rushing voice, more or less whispered: ‘I wrote those books.’”

From an unfinished account that Truman Capote began writing the day before his death. It was published in Vanity Fair in 2006, but I discovered it just days ago.

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Griffith and Keane

[Zippy, December 14, 2016.]

Bil Griffith’s affection for The Family Circus is well known. But Did You Know that Bil Keane once collaborated with Griffith on a series of Zippy strips in which Zippy entered the world of Family Circus? And that Griffith on one occasion drew Zippy into a Family Circus panel? The collaborations appear in Griffith’s “Bil Keane: An Appreciation” (The Comics Journal).

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

[Notice the text on the left border.]

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

No TV news

Daughter Number Three wrote a post about the idea of giving up television news and linked to a brief account from someone who’s done just that.

Elaine and I haven’t watched a minute of cable news since November 8. The only television news we have watched: the PBS NewsHour episode that paid tribute to Gwen Ifill. Our not watching benefits our mental health and serves as a private (and inefficacious) act of protest. CNN and company gave one presidential candidate scads of free airtime, treated another as an inevitable nominee, and utterly marginalized the campaign of a third. (I bet you can guess who’s who.) So include us out. There is plenty of news to be had from The New York Times and NPR and other sources in print and (motionless) pixels, minus hack pundits and false drama. I have in mind CNN’s disconcerting “Breaking news!” announcement, followed, almost always, by yet another rehash of an already reported story.

I realize only now how my weekdays had fallen into a pattern before the election: do things, various things, all day, and then put the news on in the late afternoon and feel besieged. I dread what the next four years might mean for my country, but I don’t need a television to know about it.

Reader, have your news habits changed since the election?

[Full disclosure: I will most likely go back to the PBS NewsHour, but not anytime soon.]

“This Week in Hate”

The third installment of a new New York Times feature: “This Week in Hate.” You can find all installments here.


[Henry, December 13, 2016.]

Trailing clouds of glory, Henry approaches a two-dimensional variety store. Today, “variety store” has become another name for a dollar store, but in earlier times, the variety store sold a great range of brand-name goods. In kidhood I bought Aurora and Revell model kits (cars, monsters, planes) at a variety store — Cheap Charlie’s, on Thirteenth Avenue in Brooklyn. A vivid memory: the shelves in the front-right corner of the store, dark wood, built into the wall, with Elmer’s Glue-All, LePage Mucilage, and unlined notepads. I always found mucilage a little horrifying — partly because of the nipple-like applicator cap, but mostly because of the word mucilage itself. I was eight or nine or ten, and we were an Elmer’s family.

There’s still a Cheap Charlie’s elsewhere in Brooklyn, perhaps a descendant, perhaps an unrelated Charlie. If the epithet fits. . . .

Related reading
All OCA Henry posts (Pinboard)

Klinkenborg’s snow

Verlyn Klinkenborg:

“December,” The Rural Life (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002).

The sane part of me thinks that snow is best appreciated not from the interior of a moving car but from an unmoving sofa or chair, with a thick layer of insulation — in other words, a house — between me and the weather. But another part of me sides with Klinkenborg. I know that feeling of driving into a vacuum, and I know that I like it, at least in retrospect. See also Robert Bly’s poem “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter.”

I’ve been waiting for snow to post this passage. It is snowing.

Related reading
All OCA Verlyn Klinkenborg posts (Pinboard)

[“Abyssal vacuum”: a pun on “a Bissell vacuum”? I hope not. But that’s what Mac Dictation thought I was saying.]

Monday, December 12, 2016

Deresiewicz v. D’Agata

“It kills me to think that there are going to be people walking around who believe that Socrates was an essayist because a self-important ignoramus named D’Agata told them so”: William Deresiewicz writes in the Atlantic about John D’Agata’s conception of the essay and his blithe disregard for fact.

I gave up on D’Agata on the second page of The Lifespan of a Fact (2012, co-authored with Jim Fingal). Curious about the anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay (2009), I just looked at Amazon to see what D’Agata says about Thomas Browne. A sourceless sentence that D’Agata presents as George Orwell’s made me curious:

It is Browne’s introspection which shifted us from the outside world of rhetoric, to the inner and private world of mystery and wonder.
It turns out that the sentence is impossible to find online. As far as I can tell, it cannot be found in Orwell’s work. And it turns out that a reviewer wondered about this very sentence in 2010. I did find a version of the sentence in David Shields‘s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010):
It is Sir Thomas Browne’s introspection that shifted us from the outside world of rhetoric to the inner and private world of mystery and wonder.
In Shields’s book the sentence is attributed only to “Orwell,” without further detail. Shields quotes from or cites D’Agata frequently. I think it’s reasonable to wonder whether the sentence about Browne is really from Orwell. Surely D’Agata must know.

But that’s the end of my look at John D’Agata’s work. Arthur Schopenhauer: “A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.”

[Does the sentence even sound like Orwell?]


December 15: I e-mailed D’Agata asking about a source for the sentence and received an automated “away” message making it clear that he will not be replying.

A related post
Make it known (Four sources for three D’Agata epigraphs: Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, John Ashbery, and the poet who first put those three together, Douglas Crase)

Quadrille revival

From Honoré de Balzac’s novella The Duchesse de Langeais:

“What is the matter, my dear Antoinette? You look frightful.”

“I will revive after a quadrille,” she answered, giving her hand to a young man who had just appeared.
The Human Comedy: Selected Stories , trans. from the French by Linda Asher, Carol Cosman, and Jordan Stump (New York: New York Review Books, 2014). This story translated by Cosman.

Also from Balzac
“Easily five foot eight or nine”

Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams

Washington Phillips. Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams. Dust-to-Digital. 2016.

Mother’s Last Word to Her Son : Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There : Paul and Silas in Jail : Lift Him Up That’s All : Denomination Blues — Part 1 : Denomination Blues — Part 2 : I Am Born to Preach the Gospel : Train Your Child : Jesus Is My Friend : What Are They Doing in Heaven Today : A Mother’s Last Word to Her Daughter : I’ve Got the Keys to the Kingdom : You Can’t Stop a Tattler — Part 1 : You Can’t Stop a Tattler — Part 2 : I Had a Good Father and Mother : The Church Needs Good Deacons

Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952) was first issued with extraordinary cover art: a Theodor de Bry drawing of a celestial monochord, a one-stringed instrument, tuned by a hand emerging from a cloud. The instrument is a representation of musica universalis, the music of the spheres, the harmonies of heavenly bodies in motion. In the 1960s the mystical gave way to social realism: Folkways replaced the de Bry drawing with a photograph of a Depression farmer. But the monochord returned for the anthology’s 1997 CD reissue. There is no getting away from the music of the spheres.

It’s unfortunate that Washington Phillips did not find a place in the Smith anthology. A monochord is, in essence, a zither, and Phillips (1880–1954) was a zitherist of extraordinary ability, playing, it seems, two zithers, joined (again, it seems) to make a single instrument played with two hands. Phillips called his instrument the manzarene (a play perhaps on “Nazarene”). Its sound is unique in American music. It suggests to my ears a celeste, a harp, a kora. Between 1927 and 1929 Phillips’s manzarene and voice were preserved on eight 78s, not by a folklorist or musicologist but by Frank Walker, a producer and talent scout for Columbia Records, who discovered Bessie Smith and later signed Hank Williams.

Phillips’s music is blissful stuff, a plaintive tenor voice with celestial-sounding accompaniment. Where Blind Willie Johnson knocks you down with his power, Phillips invites you to sit and visit a while. He sings of Jesus as a friend and easer of burdens, and as the one truth that makes all theological disputes irrelevant: “But you better have Jesus, I tell you that’s all” (“Denomination Blues”). Several songs concern relations between parents and children, and the necessity of having children “under good control” (“The Church Needs Good Deacons”). Phillips is skeptical of book learning, twice rhyming school and fool. Consider this maxim:

Education is all right
I will tell you before you start,
Before you educate the head,
Try to educate the heart (“Train Your Child”)
And though Phillips sings of hell, his depiction of the world’s badness is fairly mild, centering on everyday pleasures and domestic treachery: card playing, dancing, making dates with married men, buying dresses for women other than one’s wife. A lost two-part recording, “The World Is in a Bad Fix Everywhere,” may present a more dire picture.

The most affecting performance here is from Phillips’s final recording session, “I Had a Good Father and Mother.” Its story is poignant but without self-pity, with Phillips alternating between his tenor voice and an ethereal, wordless falsetto. This song might be the music of the spheres.

Dust-to-Digital has produced the definitive edition of Washington Phillips’s recordings, with excellent remastering. For the listener who (like me) knows the music from previous reissues, Michael Corcoran’s liner notes make this release a must, with photographs, extensive documentation of Phillips’s life, recollections from neighbors and relatives, and the clearest account we are likely to have of Phillips’s instrument. Misconceptions corrected, one after another.

Here’s a page about this release: Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams. Thanks to Dust-to-Digital for a review copy of this recording.


11:28 a.m.: The link to the image of the celestial monochord is fixed. It was a Blogger problem.

[An aside: I first saw de Bry’s drawing of the celestial monochord in the April/May 1969 issue of Sing Out! magazine, still on my bookshelves. That issue had the first installment of a John Cohen interview with Harry Smith.]

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A new rubric

“Because I can no longer claim with any credibility that reading, writing, and critical thinking are essential skills for 21st-century success, I have revised the grading rubric for your papers accordingly”: Daveena Tauber, “Post-Election College Paper Grading Rubric” (McSweeney’s).

But shouldn’t it be “Post-Election College-Paper Grading Rubric”? Or “Post-Election College Paper-Grading Rubric”? I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.

A related post
Matthew Crawford on making judgments (Against rubrics)

Thanks, Elaine, Jim, and Luanne.

Lies and inconsistencies

At Daring Fireball, John Gruber unpacks the lies and illogicalities in a three-sentence statement from the president-elect’s transition team: 235 words to parse just 42.

I recall the long-infamous 2002 statement from “a senior adviser” to George W. Bush, widely reported to be Karl Rove:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
And we know how well that worked out through eight years of W. “We create our own reality,” or more recently, “There‘s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts”: it’s postmodernism with a vengeance.

See also George Orwell on historical truth and totalitarian history.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

For Nancy Ritz

[Nancy, June 13, 1949. Notice the deep-focus camerawork.]

A post with some perhaps unobvious bits of advice: How to do well on a final exam. A comment on the post: “This teacher is amazing :) I listened to him and got a 90 on my final exam!”

[To the commenter: Thanks. Your check is (still) in the mail.]

Christian music

“Wholly Cats” (Benny Goodman) and “Royal Garden Blues” (Clarence Williams–Spencer Williams). Benny Goodman and His Sextet: Goodman, clarinet; Georgie Auld, tenor sax; Cootie Williams, trumpet; Count Basie, piano; Charlie Christian, electric guitar; Artie Bernstein, bass; Harry Jaeger, drums. November 7, 1940.

I’m still making my way through my dad’s CDs: Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Ivie Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Mildred Bailey, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Art Blakey, Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins, Clifford Brown, Dave Brubeck, Joe Bushkin, Hoagy Carmichael, Betty Carter, Ray Charles, and now, Charlie Christian.

Also from these CDs
Mildred Bailey sings “Georgia on My Mind” and “Honeysuckle Rose” : Tony Bennett sings “Sweet Lorraine”

[Damn those YouTube ads: there’s no way to avoid them when embedding.]

From the Saturday Stumper

A beautifully clever clue from today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Frank Longo. It’s 28-Across, seven letters: “Inflationary spiral?” No spoilers: the answer is in the comments.

I find that I increasingly prefer the plain difficulty and flashes of wit in Newsday puzzles to the strained humor of The New York Times.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Netflix DVD problem

It can be summed up thusly:

Queue: twenty-nine movies, some of which we don’t really even want to see.

Saved: fifty-eight movies, twice as many, all of which one or the other or both of us would really like to see, all with availability “Unknown.”

What’s not available from Netflix on DVD is often more interesting to us than what is available.

John Glenn (1921–2016)

[“Fish eye view of Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn training in a mock up of the planned space capsule.” Photograph by Ralph Morse. 1959. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for a larger view.]

The New York Times obituary: “John Glenn, American Hero of the Space Age, Dies at 95.”

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Windrip’s universities

In the new United States of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, scores of small private colleges are shut down, and state schools are “absorbed” into “central” universities. No Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, or Hebrew allowed. Philosophy and other subjects are taught only with new textbooks written under government supervision. As for modern languages and literature:

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1931).

At the university where I taught for thirty years, there is now talk of doing away with foreign-language study and philosophy (and much else). And “so-called ‘literature’” has become an increasingly peripheral element in English studies, with reading and writing about literary works no longer a part of the first-year composition sequence. One branding-minded faculty member has suggested that each of the university’s colleges pick some specialty and “market the hell out of it.” A claim to be a university, however, requires very different kinds of commitments.


The New York Times reports that even one cigarette a day is bad for your health:

A person who habitually smokes just one cigarette a day is nine times as likely to die from lung cancer as a nonsmoker, and even if he or she quits at age 50, still has a 44 percent increased risk of premature death.
It would be especially awful to smoke just one cigarette a day and die from a smoking-related illness, no? Quit.

Related reading
All OCA cigarette posts (Pinboard)

[Four or five cigarettes a day was my habit, many years ago.]

Ann Patchett’s favorite bookstores

The novelist and bookstore co-owner Ann Patchett writes in The New York Times about her favorite bookstores. I am happy to see the Corner Bookstore and Three Lives & Company among her recommendations. Great inventory and friendly booksellers.

Related reading
All OCA bookstore posts (Pinboard)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Lambuth serendipity

Bryan Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day today includes a passage from The Golden Book on Writing:

Writing too largely in abstract terms is one of the worst and most wide-spread of literary faults. It sounds learned; it saves the writer from having to use his eyes and ears; and it makes slovenly thinking possible because it does not require definiteness.
A related post
The other little book

A David Lambuth sampler

David Lambuth appears not to have been an especially prolific scholar. But he was an excellent writer. Here are two samples of his prose:

Every good novel is autobiography. Spiritual autobiography, not factual. That the characters are not to be identified nor the events of the story duplicated in the writer’s life is no matter. Beyond such externals we have to penetrate. When we have done that, we discover that what gives a book life is the veracity with which expresses some inner drama through which the writer has passed, the intimacy with which it renders that never-ending process by which the individual adjusts himself to the world around him. The story itself may be realism; it maybe romance; it may be high fantasy: it is again no matter. A man’s vision of life may have many phases and it may express itself in many forms, but without the individual vision, all forms fall short of that communicable vitality which we call art.

Now “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” is quite peculiarly the record of such a vision and the record of the process by which the vision was achieved.

The first paragraphs of the introduction to George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (New York: Macmillan, 1926).


In speaking of the strange work of words and metaphors in poetry, Frost himself has used the word “displacement.” At first it seems an awkward term. Then its rightness begins to grow. As we read his own poetry at its high moments, suddenly there envelops us, as it were, an awareness of having stepped into another world of an other and somehow older reality. A moment ago and we were ‘here’; now ‘there’ and ‘here’ have fallen together into a different order of space. We have been transported into the mystery which is the heart of man. It is the magic of the fourth dimension. Revolve a simple cube upon its axis and suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, a new world is born, time and space fuse.

Other poets have spoken — wisely, courageously, poignantly — about living. At its greatest, the speech of Robert Frost is not about living — it is living. This is a strange power, and in it resides the majesty of the man. Not to have felt this is not to have known his stature.

The final paragraphs of the foreword to W. B. Shubrick Clymer and Charles R. Green’s Robert Frost: A Bibliography (Amherst,MA: Jones Library, 1958).
A related post
The other little book

[Just two details that I like: the smartness of ending the the single-sentence paragraph with achieved, not vision, and the inventive image of a cube becoming a sphere.]

The other little book

David Lambuth et al. The Golden Book on Writing. Foreword by Budd Schulberg. New York. Viking Press. 1964. xiv + 81 pages.

I first encountered The Golden Book on Writing by way of a sentence quoted in Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage:

The habit of beginning statements with the impersonal and usually vague there is or there are shoves the really significant verb into subordinate place instead of letting it stand vigorously on its own feet.
A title that begins with “The Golden Book” suggests something written for children. But that sentence isn’t kid stuff. The writing is lively and nicely colloquial, suggesting the voice of a teacher who can convey ideas with plainspoken energy: “shoves”! I had to find out more about David Lambuth and his book.

It dates not from 1964 but from 1923. The original title: On Writing. David Lambuth (1879–1948), a professor (and, in 1923, chair) of English at Dartmouth, wrote the book with unspecified contributions from four Dartmouth colleagues: Hewette E. Joyce, Benfield Pressey, Anton A. Raven, and Kenneth Allen Robinson (Lambuth’s son-in-law). The five were writing for their students; their book (or pamphlet, 50 pages, never copyrighted) was distributed in-house for six years before disappearing. (It was preceded by joint efforts in 1920 and 1921, each titled A Handbook of Composition. The 1921 version ran 44 pages.) In 1963, S. Heagan Bayles, a Dartmouth alumnus and Lambuth student, reprinted On Writing for use in his advertising agency, adding a chapter on business communication by the writer (and one-time ad man) Walter O’Meara. In 1964 Viking Press released a trade edition, titled The Golden Book on Writing, with a foreword by Budd Schulberg, another Lambuth student. The book was well received: Time praised it; in a New York Times review, J. Donald Adams called it “the best brief handbook on writing I have seen.” Take that, Elements of Style. Penguin reprinted The Golden Book in 1976 and 1996. It is now out of print.

[The “little book,” 1959 edition, and William Strunk Jr. Click for a larger book.]

[The Golden Book, 1964 edition, and David Lambuth, as he appeared in a 1934 film of Darmouth personalities. Click for a larger book.]

This story of publication and rediscovery recalls, of course, the story of The Elements of Style, another in-house effort rediscovered by a former student, revised and reissued with additional material decades after its first publication. Viking’s book design seems to invite comparison to The Elements; a 1964 advertisement for The Golden Book refers to it twice as “little,” recalling the well-known characterization of The Elements as “the little book.” Like William Strunk Jr., Lambuth appears to have been something of a character. Strunk though was a dapper pedagogue (“Omit needless words!”). Lambuth was a more glamorous figure: white suit and shoes, black cape and beret, pince-nez, beard, cigar. He was friends with Robert Frost. Lambuth’s scholarly productivity appears modest: a Master's thesis on pre-Raphaelite poetry (1901), several letters and essays in newspapers and magazines, editorial work with the Far East Review and Missionary Review, an introduction to an edition of a George Meredith novel (1925), a foreword to a Frost bibliography (1937). And imagine: a department chair working with colleagues on a handbook for their students. It was a more spacious time.

Lambuth and his colleagues (hereafter I will let the name Lambuth stand for all five writers) created a brilliant short guide to writing everyday prose. Like any book of writing instruction, it’s a mixed bag: cursory discussions of organization, paragraphs, punctuation, letter writing, and style, and extended discussions of sentences and words. (O’Meara’s chapter on business writing emphasizes planning, revision, and the avoidance of businessese.) Lambuth is a refreshingly direct and unpretentious writer, suspicious of rules and impatient with taxonomy (the very stuff of a twenty-first-century handbook). Consider these excerpts:
Nobody can lay down rules for anybody else’s writing.

Nobody has ever yet learned how to write well by memorizing rules or trying consciously to write by them.

There is nothing hard and fast about paragraph structure — and never was.

It would be only pedantry to list here the varieties of subordinate clauses and their shifting shades of meaning. The proper handling of clauses doesn’t depend on a knowledge of their names.

The man who writes with one eye on the textbook of rhetoric, or one half of his brain trying to remember rules, is like the man who can’t tell whether to take off his hat or to use his fork or his spoon until he has remembered what was said on page 74 or 135 of some so-called “Book of Etiquette.”¹

[T]rying to imitate another’s style is much the same thing as trying to disguise one’s identity behind a papier-mâché mask that looks like Bernard Shaw or G. K. Chesterton. It might be amusing for a fancy dress ball, but only a lunatic would attempt to go about that way in ordinary life.
The breezy wit is engaging, but It’s what Lambuth says about sentences and words that gives The Golden Book its real value. He presents a strikingly modern conception of the sentence: “A sentence is only a sort of moving picture of thought.” To make the picture move, make an agent its subject, keep subject and verb close together, place elements in a logical order (arranged by time, cause and effect, or order of importance), and bear in mind that a sentence’s points of greatest emphasis are its beginning and end. But again, no rule is absolute. Lambuth trusts the undergraduate reader to catch the wit in these sentences:
The well-known advice against ending a sentence with a preposition is valid only against unimportant prepositions. In certain cases a preposition is the most emphatic word to end a sentence with.
In his discussion of words, Lambuth advocates plainness, knowing that students often think otherwise:
As far as possible a writer should write in the very words in which he does his thinking. These are usually simple, homely words. To translate such words into what is too often considered “literary” language results in sacrificing directness, lessening individuality — the greatest of all literary virtues — smudging out the color, and often obscuring even the sense.

The best rule for writing — as well as for speaking — is to always use the simplest words that will accurately convey your thought.
If a sentence is a moving picture, it’s nouns and verbs that make it move:
Nouns and verbs are the bones and sinews of speech. Nouns build up the bony structure of the sentence, verbs produce motion.
And Lambuth recognizes the inanity of elegant variation, which leads, he says, to “inelegant results.”² He goes so far as to suggest that the student writer emulate Flaubert: “There is rarely more than one right word to express an idea exactly. See that you get that one right word.” Or more colloquially: “If you have a nail to hit, hit it on the head.” The only way to develop good aim is by reading:
The adequate vocabulary and the feeling for this good usage and idiom which are so essential to good writing can be acquired only by wide and intelligent reading. And in no other way whatsoever.

Use your eyes and ears. Think. Read . . . read . . . and still read.
Lambuth’s discussion of misused words and phrases is less persnickety than Strunk and White’s, focusing more on undebatable error (it’s for its) and too-colloquial phrasing (anywheres for anywhere). Lambuth is more flexible than Strunk and White, recognizing, for instance, that none is sometimes plural, something that White didn’t concede until the 1972 edition of The Elements of Style. Other bits of Lambuth guidance — to write, for instance, “He stayed at home,” not “He stayed home” — are better left in 1923. The Golden Book goes off the rails just once, in a five-and-a-half-page discussion of will and shall, would and should, ending in an admission that judging which word is right is “often difficult.” Whoever was riding that hobbyhorse should have been thrown off.

The great strength of The Golden Book is its presentation of the sentence as the key element in teaching writing. Lambuth’s exposition of his idea of the sentence makes Strunk and White’s assortment of dos and don’ts look unwieldy by comparison. But The Elements still rules: it’s Amazon’s best-selling book in three categories (Grammar, Reference, and Writing Skills), and it’s the most often assigned book listed at The Open Syllabus Project. As for The Golden Book on Writing: it’s exceedingly scarce. AbeBooks and Alibris list only 44 and 38 copies of The Golden Book for sale, at least some of which must be the same copies. The WorldCat shows copies at fewer than 500 libraries. The Open Syllabus Project shows the book on a single syllabus.

E. B. White described Strunk’s 1918 Elements as containing “rich deposits of gold.” To my mind, David Lambuth’s book has more substantial deposits (as befits its title) and deserves to be better known. Get the little book — I mean, the other little book, while there are still copies to be had.

¹ Here and elsewhere, Lambuth’s androcentric diction grates. But he was writing for Dartmouth students. The school began admitting women as students in 1972.

² The term “elegant variation” suggests that Lambuth had read the Fowler brothers’ The King’s English (1908).

Details of Lambuth’s life come from Schulberg’s foreword, a New York Times obituary (August 24, 1948), and time spent poking around the WorldCat.

[David Lambuth, from the jacket of the 1964 hardcover. Photographer unidentified. No date. Click for a larger view.]

Related posts
A David Lambuth sampler
The Elements of Style, one more time
A review of Ben Yagoda’s Hot to Not Write Bad
A review of Christopher Lasch’s Plain Style
A review of Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

“This Week in Hate”

The second installment of a new New York Times feature: “This Week in Hate.”

The De Palma-Dunning-Kruger effect

From the Taxi episode “The Ten Percent Solution,“ first aired January 7, 1981. Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito) to Tony Banta (Tony Danza):

“Banta, sometimes I wish you were smarter, just so you’d know how dumb you are.”
Almost nineteen years before the 1999 paper that introduced the Dunning-Kruger effect, Louie (or, really, the episode’s writer, Pat Allee) was on the right track.

Related reading
All OCA Dunning-Kruger posts