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Posts Tagged ‘Writing

“I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself.”*…

Agatha Christie was in her mid-20s when, in 1916, she took up what seemed the improbable endeavor of penning her first detective novel. It was so unlikely, in fact, that her elder sister, Madge, with whom she had always competed, dared Agatha to accomplish the feat, certain of her sibling’s eventual failure.

At the time, Christie was married to an officer in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and working at a hospital in Torquay, England, first as a nurse and subsequently in the dispensary, preparing and providing medicines. It was in the latter job that she developed a fascination with poisons that would endure over the next six decades, supplying murderous means in many of her best-known books, including that very first one, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published 100 years ago this month.

Styles was an early and influential contribution to what’s now called the Golden Age of detective fiction, a period that stretched arguably from the 1920s through the 1940s…

Christie’s debut novel was famously rejected by a host of publishers. Many, many editions later, it’s an iconic mystery: “The Agatha Christie Centennial- 100 years of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.”

* Hercule Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles

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As we muse on mysteries, we might send powerfully-composed birthday greetings to another prolific author, Abbott Joseph “A. J.” Liebling; he was born on this date in 1904. A journalist and essayist, he is considered a patron saint of New Journalism for his World War II coverage and work like the essays in The Sweet Science (named by Sports Illustrated, in 2002, the best sports book of all time).

His longest association (from 1935 until his death in 1963) was with the New Yorker. Current editor David Remnick writes:

Joy, pure and immediate, is a rare literary experience. Liebling provides it. And, from everything we know, joy is what he felt in the creating. No matter what else he may have been facing in his life—misery in marriage, persistent debt, the obesity and sickness that were the price of his appetites—he revelled in his work. Liebling so enjoyed himself at the offices of The New Yorker, where he worked for twenty-eight years, that he could be heard humming and snorting with laughter as he pulled the sheets from his typewriter and read them over. He knocked himself out, if he did say so himself. Reticence was not his way. Like Trollope polishing off several thousand words before leaving for his day job as surveyor general of Waltham Cross, Liebling wrote at a blinding rate, publishing hundreds of pieces, of all lengths, colors, and moods. He was occasionally seen in the magazine’s bathroom stripped to the waist, washing up after a night’s exertion at his Remington.

Reporting It All

Oh, and it was Liebling who coined the epithet “Second City” for Chicago.

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“I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a very useful little chap.”*…

 

semicolon

 

Consider the semicolon. It’s beloved by some and assailed by others; in the annals of punctuation lore, no other symbol has sparked as much debate. A handful of years ago it was even the subject of a very funny parody song by The Lonely Island and Solange that poked fun at hashtag rap. (Though, in fairness to the semicolon, the song’s punchline is that it was using the semicolon incorrectly all along.) In her new book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, Cecelia Watson ventures into the long history and usage of semicolons, and the results are tremendously enlightening.

Semicolon is a slim book, but it deftly covers a lot of ground. Watson explores the origin of the semicolon, demonstrates how it’s gone in and out of linguistic favor over the centuries, and thoughtfully explored how a host of disparate writers — including Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — have memorably used it in their work. Watson also explores some of the surprisingly severe impacts the semicolon has had on society, such as the semicolon in a Massachusetts law that wreaked havoc on the state’s alcohol consumption, or the way the semicolon in a judicial sentence caused one man’s life to hang in the balance…

Tobias Carroll gets the lowdown from Cecelia Watson on how she learned to stop worrying and love the semicolon: “My Teachers Said We Weren’t Allowed To Use Them.”

* Abraham Lincoln

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As we pause to connect, we might spare a thought for Georges Joseph Christian Simenon; he died on this date in 1984.  A prolific author (who published nearly 500 novels and numerous short works), he is best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret.  His work is featured in the collection La Pléiade (inspiration for the Library of America), and in 1966 he was awarded the Mystery Writers of America’shighest honor, the Grand Master Award.

Georges_Simenon_(1963)_without_hat_by_Erling_Mandelmann

SIMENON, Georges, 1963, Ecrivain (F) © ERLING MANDELMANN ©

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Written by LW

September 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

“As names have power, words have power”*…

 

gender1

 

My book club was reading The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. In the middle of an otherwise unremarkable plot, we found a 35-page interlude about a highly attractive fairy, describing her body in minute, eye-rolling detail.

After slogging through that book, I began paying attention to similarly stereotyped descriptions of bodies in other books. Women are all soft thighs and red lips. Men, strong muscles and rough hands.

I was frustrated by this lazy writing. I want to read books that explore the full humanity of their characters, not stories that reduce both men and women to weak stereotypes of their gender.

Before getting too upset, I wanted to see if this approach to writing was as widespread as it seemed, or if I was succumbing to selective reading. Do authors really mention particular body parts more for men than for women? Are women’s bodies described using different adjectives than those attributed to men?

To do this, I selected 2,000 books spanning Pulitzer-winning classics to pulpy best-sellers, and ran them through a parser that identified sentences mentioning body parts. I then extracted the owner of the body parts and any adjectives describing them…

gender2

It’s easy to dismiss or overlook the differences in the way men’s and women’s bodies are depicted because they can be subtle and hard to discern in one particular book—one or two extra mentions of “his bushy hair” may not register over 300 pages.

But when you zoom out and look at thousands of books, the patterns are clear…

All the details from Erin Davis (@erindataviz) in The Pudding: “The physical traits that define men & women in literature.”

(Via Walt Hickey at Numlock, who observes, “honestly, now I just want to read a book about a women who’s all knuckles and a dude who’s got rockin’ hips.”)

* Patrick Rothfuss, author of the novel that occasioned the study cited above, in a different work, The Name of the Wind

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As we lose the lens, we might send fictional birthday greetings to award-winning journalist Lois Lane; she was “born” on this date (according to the 1976 DC Comics Calendar). She has been wildly differently depicted through the years, as one can see here (among other places).

Superman27

The Golden Age Lois Lane and Superman, from the cover of Superman #27 (March–April 1944), art by Wayne Boring.

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“There’s no such thing as an unabridged dictionary”*…

 

dictionary

 

Write with a better dictionary. Modern dictionaries have lazy definitions that focus too much on simplicity at the cost of precision. Instead of using the default one on your computer, bookmark this site, and start using the Webster’s 1913 dictionary…  – @david_perell

The connoisseur’s reference to American English – a dictionary for writers and wordsmiths: Webster’s 1913.

[TotH to @Frauenfelder and Recommendo]

* Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Pro 

per” English, from Shakespeare to South Park

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As we choose our words carefully, we might send amusingly-composed birthday greetings to Don Knotts; he was born on this date in 1924,  An actor, screenwriter, and comedian, he’s best known for his role as Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, a 1960s sitcom for which he earned five Emmy Awards (though he’s also pretty well-known for having played Ralph Furley on Three’s Company and for several films, including The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and The Incredible Mr. Limpet.  In 1979, TV Guide ranked him #27 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list.

When you work with words, words are your work  – Don Knotts

Don_Knotts_Barney_Fife_1966 source

 

“We communicate through art with symbols that transcend the boundaries of time and culture”*…

 

consistent-doodles

 

While studying some of the oldest art in the world found in caves and engraved on animal bones or shells, paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has found evidence of a proto-writing system that perhaps developed in Africa and then spread throughout the world.

The research also reveals that modern humans were using two-thirds of these signs when they first settled in Europe, which creates another intriguing possibility. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” von Petzinger writes in her recently published book, The First Signs: Unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols (Simon and Schuster). In other words, when modern humans first started moving into Europe from Africa, they must have brought a mental dictionary of symbols with them…

A painstaking investigation of Europe’s cave art has revealed 32 shapes and lines that crop up again and again and could be the world’s oldest code– its ur-language: “Stone Age Cave Symbols May All Be Part of a Single Prehistoric Proto-Writing System.”

* Richard Clar

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As we honor ancestral accomplishment, we might send carefully-excavated birthday greetings to Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae; he was born on this date in 1821.  An archaeologist and historian, and the second director of the National Museum of Denmark, he played a key role in the foundation of scientific archaeology.

Worsaae was the first to excavate and use stratigraphy to prove C. J. Thomsen’s sequence of the Three-age system: Stone, Bronze, Iron.  He was a pioneer in the development of paleobotany through his excavation work in the peat bogs of Jutland. And he contributed to the discussion of the origins of human populations around the world.  He proposed a route by which prehistoric people spread from Africa, through Asia, across the Bering Strait to the Americas, and from South America to Australia and the South Sea islands.  (Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition a century later [see here and here] proved the latter voyage to be possible.)  He suggested that Europe was populated later, with Scandinavia one of the last areas to be reached by humankind.

220px-Jens_Jacob_Asmussen_Worsaae_from_Familj-Journalen1885 source

 

Written by LW

March 14, 2019 at 12:01 am

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