Archive for February, 2015

‘The Sense of Style’ by Steven Pinker

February 16, 2015

This is a style manual by one of my favorite popular-science authors (the other is Richard Dawkins [just mentioning the name will presumably boost my readership, hooray!]). Pinker is an excellent stylist himself, if I am any judge, and the book is (as usual) both very enjoyable and written very lucidly. Of course, much depends on whether you want to (or have to) write yourself: if neither, parts of the book will be boring to you. Still, even then you may enjoy large parts of the book, just for learning about how language is processed and understood, and what that implies for how to write (you may understand a bit better just why certain authors annoy you so much). And there are cartoons in the book. And it is fun to read about how many oft-repeated precepts for good writing are really bullshit: idiosyncratic preferences of someone or some age which were later uncritically canonized.

(Regarding good and bad writing, it makes me wonder why David Foster Wallace, who’s presumably such a great writer, doesn’t seem to put any effort into streamlining his thinking in Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Seems like his readers’ interests aren’t close to his heart at all. Or he didn’t have the time?)

So, if you are looking for a style manual, I recommend this one emphatically (although I must admit I haven’t read any other, unless Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style counts, which is exemplary of its subject matter too). If you are just looking for good popular science, then better read Pinker’s The Language Instinct or one of his many later books (or of course Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchmaker or …). Considered as popular science, The Sense of Style is satisfying too, but not at the top of the list, because that is not its main purpose.

‘The Fortress of Solitude’ by Jonathan Lethem

February 16, 2015

The Fortress of Solitude is certainly a very good book, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn. To be sure, there are superheroes in FoS, or at least superpowers (at least, one superpower …), but there wasn’t much adventure. Rather, there were typical topics of highbrow literature: family relations, friendship, race — doubtless many more, which I forgot (it’s been quite a while since I read the book) or didn’t get in the first place. In MB, on the other hand, there’s some kind of crime story, some adventure, and the story reaches some kind of satisfying resolution. (I don’t remember what exactly the story was, never mind the resolution [one never remembers the resolutions of crime stories], because this reading lies even farther back.)

If you enjoy good highbrow literature, albeit tainted by popular culture (superhero comics, graffiti, soul music …), then FoS may well be a book for you. (‘Oooh, yes, I’d really enjoy a week of splendid ennui!’ — Nah, it’s not that bad …) If, like me, you prefer literature with a higher entertainment value, though it be of literary worth [is that correct English?? Or should I write, ‘be it though …’??], then better read MB.