Classic style for the modern temperamentNov 3, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 08 • By DAVID SKINNER
Vladimir Nabokov, who knew a thing or two about the subject, once wrote, “Style is not a tool, it is not a method, it is not a choice of words alone. Being much more than all this, style constitutes an intrinsic component or characteristic of the author’s personality.” I happened to run across this line while in the midst of reading The Sense of Style. Nabokov, I thought, had summed up the major part of what was missing from this otherwise laudable book.
Not that its author is lacking in personality. Steven Pinker has plenty, and a cheerful kind of intelligence, even about difficult questions, that wears well. His politics and associations are openly conceded as he quotes genuinely impressive passages from his favorite writers: first, the arch-atheist Richard Dawkins; next, Pinker’s own wife, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein; then, the physicist Brian Greene; later, Goldstein again. In another chapter, Pinker, who has written a book arguing that violence has been on a great downward swing in human history, finds many faults in a difficult passage in A History of Warfare by John Keegan.
If all this sounds a little too secular-humanist-triumphalist for you, at least consider another source from Pinker’s literary honor roll, one even more fundamental to his argument here: a great but not-very-well-known book called Clear and Simple as the Truth by the American scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. For the nonfiction writer who thinks seriously about his craft and finds the competing lists of do’s and don’ts in most guides to be inadequate, Clear and Simple is an excellent alternative, a book that can actually deepen your awareness of the basic assumptions behind any style of writing. It is not, however, a general guide to writing: Thomas and Turner are primarily concerned with “classic style,” the strikingly confident prose style developed by such French writers as Descartes, La Rochefoucauld, and Madame de Sévigné. Their book identifies its key premises, and elaborates further by a close examination of classic style in English, from the Declaration of Independence to the reportage of A. J. Liebling.
Pinker, to his credit, aims to popularize the key ideas of classic style, which he says can be applied as an antidote to academese, bureaucratese, and other subspecies of language marred by the distracting tendency to encode even ordinary phenomena in the language of the specialist. What is so unclassic about the prose of the postmodern academic, for example, is that such language revels in its own obscurity. It is aimed at fellow initiates in a belief system founded on suspicion.
Classic style, by contrast, is stylistically and philosophically optimistic. It takes as a given that truth exists and that we are all competent to recognize it. Classic prose—invariably described in visual metaphors, emphasizing presentation—is a window to truth. It becomes the writer’s job simply to direct the reader’s gaze in the appropriate direction, never dirtying the window-panes with distracting meta-commentary that belabors the writer’s own effort. Without footnotes, unnecessary hedging, or jargon, the classic writer says: Look, here it is.
Pinker transforms this into practical writing tips, such as: Keep the signposting—writing about what you’re going to write before you write about it—to a minimum. Another is to imagine your writing as a conversation—not that it should seem talky or especially casual, but rather modeled on an ideal of one-to-one directness. Pinker gives an apt side-by-side of two sentences. The unclassic sentence: “There is a significant positive correlation between measures of food intake and body mass index.” The rewrite: “The more you eat, the fatter you get.” One sounds like a book, the other like a human being with a point to make.
Where Pinker breaks ranks with most enemies of tendentious writing is on the question of motive. He cites Hanlon’s razor—“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”—and turns to cognitive science for explanations of why we are so bad at presenting our hard-earned knowledge to others. A major reason, he says, is that once we learn something, it is very hard for us to know what it is like not to know it. This “curse of knowledge” leads us to under-explain and rely on abbreviation, shorthand, and jargon, as we assume our readers know much more than they actually do.
David Skinner, aging jock.Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By DAVID SKINNER
Twice now, as I enter my forties, I have picked up a new sport. First I took up tennis, which I have always enjoyed watching and is known to be a game one can play well into the gray-haired years. And a couple months ago I started playing Gaelic football, a bruising, I hope not bone-crushing, but definitely high-speed, um, melee more than an actual sport, which perhaps no one of any age should play and about which I knew almost nothing.
David Skinner, dedicated dishwasherJul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By DAVID SKINNER
Recently I was fingerprinted for a work ID. Sitting at a little table across from a gentleman who, like many federal employees, wore his ID badge and metro card around his neck, I concentrated on rolling my right thumb just so over the scanner between us, from the leftmost edge of the nail to the flat, fleshy center before lifting straight up. Then I did it again. And again. And again.
David Skinner in the eye of the beholderMar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By DAVID SKINNER
In our dining room, there was a small glass-top table that looked like an old-fashioned pushcart. On it my mother kept several small plants that made a mess of the glass top as they shed their leaves and, when watered, dripped soil from the holes at the bottom of their pots. To clean the table you had to remove all the plants, wipe down the glass, clean off the bottoms of the pots, and return them to the glass. It was a chore we always put off, except when Aunt Eileen was coming to visit.
David Skinner, cheering section.Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By DAVID SKINNER
I was on the sidelines at my daughter’s 11-and-under travel soccer game. It had been a successful season, but today they were being outmuscled by a very physical team from Warrenton. With a strong wind blowing against them and only one substitute on the bench, the Alexandria Heat were on the wrong side of a 5-0 rout.
From the January 19, 2004 issue: The Dean camp's Internet impresario.Jan 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 18 • By DAVID SKINNER
IF HOWARD DEAN'S VAUNTED Internet campaign has a guru, it's arguably Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community," "Smart Mobs," and other works of techno-sociology. Rheingold, once called the "first citizen of the Internet," established himself during the early '90s as the leading proponent of the idea that the Internet would have profound social consequences.
From the December 22, 2003 issue: David Skinner, death of the party.Dec 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 15 • By DAVID SKINNER
IN ONE CHRISTMAS MEMORY of mine all the kids and parents are finishing dessert. I light a cigarette. A particularly outspoken relative, who's been bossing the conversation all night, says he's read that cigarette smoke can damage children's hearing. I reply, "No more than the voices of opinionated old men."
For the next four years, the blowhard refuses to attend any family function where I might make an appearance.
They don't make TV specials with scenes like the ones that fill my Christmas memories (or, to be fair, with characters like me).
The prestigious Booker Prize goes to Peter Finlay's silly, but anti-American, "Vernon God Little."11:00 PM, Dec 8, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
WEEKS BEFORE British flash mobs were quickening to the rings of their cell phones, barking furiously in the steps of President George W. Bush as he visited London, the Booker Prize committee sent its own signal regarding the United States of America. But instead of a thousand shouts and protest signs, the judges condensed their message into three words: "Vernon God Little."
The "Tell Us the Truth" tour hits Washington, with Janeane Garofalo, Tom Morello, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and other sages.11:00 PM, Nov 25, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
THE FIRST THING I noticed coming through the doors of the 9:30 Club was a button on the shoulder bag of the woman in front of me. "Regime Change 2004," it said. Next was the long banner hanging behind blues singer Lester Chambers on stage.
"Tell Us the Truth," the banner read in tall capital letters.
But, no, no one was demanding information. The primary task of the Tell Us the Truth Tour is to sound the alarm for media diversity. This I learned from the website, not the show.
The New Republic screens "Shattered Glass" and holds a Q&A about Stephen Glass, the movie, and the magazine.6:00 AM, Oct 31, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
THE NEW REPUBLIC and its editor-in-chief Marty Peretz, along with Lions Gate Films, hosted a screening of the new movie "Shattered Glass" in Washington Thursday night.
Don't call him an "activist," he's been here for years. The artist formerly known as Spicoli speaks out about sensing the war.12:00 AM, Oct 15, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
AMONG THE MOST fatuous devices of political debate, the tactic of disowning "labels" stands proudly: like the Washington hack who catches his breath by saying he does not want to talk about "left" or "right," and then immediately exhales a billowy cumulus cloud of unmistakable partisanship. Next to, say, the nondenial denial, the beyond-labels parry holds its head high.
The annoying thing about labels, however, isn't that they're restricting (the ol' pigeonhole problem), but that they are accurate. Which can be very inconvenient. You may, at some point, want a different label.