Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Are word lovers "wordies?" Some thoughts on books about words

The end of summer means cleaning out the beach leftovers from my car…the orphaned flip flop, a broken beach chair, fraying towels, empty sunscreen bottles. Then there's that LL Bean bag stuffed with books I had planned back in June to start, finish or re-read.

A quick inventory tells me I've gotten at least halfway through almost every book. The same is true for a similar bag stuffed with yet more books I keep in the house. Plus, I also always have a book in my computer bag, bike backpack, car, gym bag and travel carry-on for those unanticipated moments where I can read a few pages. Almost every book is about words.

If someone who loves all things about food is a foodie, I guess those of us who love words could be called a "wordie." Not much makes me happier than an hour just browsing in a bookstore - independent, not a chain, of course (this earlier blog post makes the case for an indy bookstore in Columbia).

I’ve developed a travel habit of seeking out locally owned bookstores, buying several books I discover purely by wandering the aisles, and taking home a bookmark to remind me where each book came from (I threw that info in below in parentheses).

A friend recently asked me what I’d read this summer, but I wasn’t sure how to answer. I started a lot of books. I finished only a few – not because they didn’t hold my attention or weren’t interesting – I just had a lot of ground to cover because of recent travels to places that had great bookstores.

So if you like books about words, writing, writers, grammar or creativity, here are a few that have been riding around with me this summer.

http://bit.ly/2cEnwCqBetween You and Me, Confessions of a Comma Queen
Mary Norris (Malaprops, Asheville)

The author is a copy editor for The New Yorker. She had me at the chapter titles I read in the table of contents…"Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon" or "A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar."

She recounts with serious hilarity stories about the politics of dealing with editors, writers, proofreaders and typesetters. She describes the plague of the "indiscriminate sprinkling of commas." And, best of all, she devotes an entire 20-page chapter to the debate over gender pronouns. She makes grammar and punctuation fun and funny.

"Me/I " confusion grates on me like "2+2=5" would grate on an accountant...it's simply never right. This is my number one grammar pet peeve, as described in this earlier blog post. In this passage, Norris makes me realize I'm not alone in my dislike of this grammar disgrace:

Just between you and me, I suffer, and the whole body of the English language shutters, when, say a shoe salesman trying to gain my trust leans forward and says, "Between you and I…" Or when the winner of the Academy Award for best actress thanks a friend "for getting Sally and I together." Maybe it's the heat of the moment: maybe people think "me" might be OK at home, where you can afford to be a bit vulgar, but it can't possibly be right in a formal setting.

Bird by Bird
Anne Lamott (Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg)

Anyone who writes or wants to write must own a copy of this book. It’s not only a great primer on writing, but it’s also brimming with life lessons Lamott so humorously and authentically shares with her readers. I’m on my third copy of this book having given my first two to friends.

Joy just oozes from this book no matter how many times I’ve read it. Lamott’s central theme about writing – and life in general - is always “just get something started.” The title of the book comes from advice from her father to her brother when he was overwhelmed by writing a report on birds. “Just take it bird by bird,” her dad advised.

Lamott’s advice on “shitty first drafts,” or SFDs in polite company, sums up her philosophy:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something -- anything -- down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft -- you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft -- you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Once you've started, then writing is about practice. Get more wisdom from Anne Lamott in this earlier Random Connect Points post about writing and practice as a process.

The Elements of Style
William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (Litchfield Books, Pawleys Island)

My original version of this little nugget has followed me from college to a bookshelf in every office I’ve occupied. While admittedly my AP Stylebook has become my daily “go-to” for grammar, punctuation and style guidance, the cover of this 2007 edition of The Elements of Style caught my eye in an article about the book's illustrator. And, yes, I sought out the book for the cover.

Artist Maira Kalman illustrated this edition including the cover design with a self-satisfied basset hound which appealed to my soft spot for this breed. Dogs aside, however, the amusing illustrations subtly tell the stories of the grammar lessons being taught on the pages.

My favorite is the illustration for this example of a misplaced participial phrase:

Wondering irresolutely what to do, the clock struck twelve.

This whimsical illustration is on page 29 if you pick up the book.

Writing Down the Bones
Natalie Goldberg (Kramer Books and Afterwords Cafe, Washington DC)

Kramer Books was the first independent bookstore I ever experienced back in the ‘80s when I lived in Washington, DC. Several years ago, I came across this book at Kramer when I was visiting  DC. What better place to read a book about writing than in the store's cafĂ© on a cold rainy winter afternoon while I sipped hot tea and nibbled on cheesecake so I wouldn't get kicked out.

The chapters are short - most only two to three pages - and all can stand alone. I have kept this book in my reading sack for several years now because I like to pick it up and randomly open to a chapter. In rereading this book over the summer, I found a passage that stayed with me as I'm increasingly drawn to the creative flow of writing by hand instead of with a keyboard:

First, consider the pen you write with. It should be a fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand. You don’t want to slow up your hand even more with a slow pen.

Much truth there. I've written before about my fear of writing with a pen.

Why We Write About Ourselves
Compilation of essays edited by Meredith Maran (College of William and Mary bookstore)

I’ve become fascinated by how different types of writers think, and how they use their own experiences in their writing. What better way to get inside their heads than to read essays about why they write about themselves. Some of my favorites like Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Pat Conroy and Sue Monk Kidd are among the 20 authors who give a peek into their creative processes and where they get the courage to write about their own experiences.

Each chapter includes an essay by the editor and an essay by the author. With honesty and diverse insights, they share perspective and advice about how they go about remembering experiences from their past to include in their writing. Each chapter ends with two or three bullets of wisdom from each author.

One of my favorite bits of wisdom was from Anne Lamott:

Don’t wait for inspiration. Point your finger at your head and march yourself to your desk. It’s a great dream to do something that connects us with antiquity and with last week’s news. So don’t be a big whiny baby. Woman up and write.

In the process of reading this book, I discovered several authors I’d never read before. What a treat to learn about David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped.

The Typewriter Revolution
Richard Polt (M Judson Books, Greenville)

I found this jewel propped up next to a vintage Underwood typewriter in the new downtown Greenville bookstore.

Typewriters have always fascinated me. I learned to type on a very rudimentary electric version when I was in the ninth grade (girls took typing, boys took PE) and hauled a lightweight electric Brother to college. A clunky blue Selectric greeted me at my first “real job.” I'll occasionally run my fingers across the keys of our orphan office typewriter just because I can.

Everything about this book visually appealed to me…its merchandising next to the old typewriter, the luxurious feel of the sturdy cover stock, the smooth texture of the heavy page stock, the cloth bookmark that looks like typewriter ribbon, the appealing large courier typeface of the title.

The contents didn't disappoint either. The evolution of this history-changing machine is fascinating. And I had no idea there is a whole movement of people who hold type-ins in city parks, get typewriter tattoos and participate in the "typewriter insurgency." This revolution invites you to take time out from the “data stream”:

The typewriter insurgency doesn’t ask you to chuck all your digital devices, but it does ask you to take time out from the Paradigm. Try digital detox for a day. Dance, cycle, read a novel (on paper), take a walk in the woods – and sit at your typewriter, which doesn’t process words at all, but just puts them on a page, mediating between you and the paper without remembering the information, without meddling with your choices…You may find that language and thought aren’t just information processing, but a matter of waking up to your own situation and the world around you…

This is a fun easy read. Plus, I found it makes a great conversation starter…everyone over 40 has a memory of using a typewriter at some point and those under 40 find them fascinating relics of another time.

Drunk, Naked and Writing
Adair Lara

This San Francisco-based columnist, teacher and writing coach focuses on the structure and craft of writing. The book is written in easy-to-digest bites of advice that sometimes read like a funny textbook. She admonishes the reader to get rid of "mushy adverbs and adjectives" and "flabby verbs." Bottom line, she reiterates writing is about getting starting and keeping going.

The most valuable lesson I took from my most recent pass through this book addresses one of my chronic editing challenges:

You know you are finished when you catch yourself changing stuff and then putting it back the way you had it before.

The appendix includes lots of fun writing prompts and exercises.

I still have a few books on my list to buy next time I find a good local bookstore. Tops on my list include:
  • The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
  • The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSavlo
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The Artful Edit by Susan Bell
  • Buy the Book, a compilation of essays from the New York Times book review column of the same name
Other suggestions?

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