Sunday, November 23, 2014

Confessions of a book snob

Unless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority,
the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates
unless someone in the family sets standards of
good taste, good conduct, and simple justice.

E. B. White

          I'll freely admit it:  I'm a book snob of the highest order.
          Whenever I get into a discussion that involves the question, "What are you reading now?" I always warn the other person that I'm fairly opinionated on the subject.  You won't catch me reading a title just because it's a best seller or is on whatever booklist is catchy these days.  I don't read formula or fan fiction.  And if the story doesn't interest me within the first twenty pages, I move on.  Actually, my general rule is ten pages, but as an author I know it can take a little time to build some steam.
          Still, I've been pretty steamed at some authors who've written books which initially captured my attention so much so that I slogged through a poorly written second half just to see if the story would improve.  In every case it didn't and I felt cheated out of the hours I spent invested in a book that yielded a very unsatisfying ending.  By no means do I need all the characters to be likable or to have the storylines tied up in a neat little package.  But if there is no authentic narrative arc, no character development or evolution, then I'm left feeling as though I was promised a good meal and all I ended up with was cheap fast food.  Perhaps I have a chip on my shoulder, but it's truly difficult for me to embrace popular fiction that has a hook or a catch or a gimmick, yet always leaves me wanting more substance. 
         I can't remember a time when I didn't love to read.  My mother took to me to our local library when I was little and I can clearly remember how proud I was to receive my own peach-colored card.  Some of my favorite childhood memories are of wandering among the shelves of cloth covered books and choosing two or three to take home and enjoy in the peaceful sanctuary of my bedroom.  I saved my allowance to buy every one of the Little House Books, then moved on to the Great Brain series.  I devoured the Betsy Books more than once and during last year's long winter, borrowed every single one from Sanger Library.  How delightful to discover that Carolyn Haywood's colorful prose was just as charming to read in my mid-forties as it was during my elementary school years. 
          In college I was busy slogging through textbooks, but a few of my classes offered other choices.  A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes to mind, a book that has haunted me for decades only to resurface this summer while I was doing some research.  Solzhenitsyn's style was difficult to read back in school, and to be honest, I had a hard time with this year as well.  But like any well-written novel, it was worth the effort, then and now.  
         Some who've perused my collection say I'm a fairly eclectic reader.  My bookshelves are lined with the complete works of Khalil Gibran, Barbara Kingsover, and Shakespeare.  I have a handful of Christopher Moore's novels at the ready when nothing but a satire will do.  There are a few of Henry Miller's works in my office whenever I need to commiserate about the trials and tribulations of writing.  
          Perhaps the writer who utterly and forever spoiled me is E. B. White.  My first grade teacher read our class Charlotte's Web and from the first sentence, I was mesmerized.  When I read it to my own first graders decades later, I appreciated the finer nuances of the prose.  The witty dialogue.  White's famous lists and descriptions.  The story of friendship that is told in his quiet and unassuming quality.  For generations, I imagine millions of us love the book not only for the heartwarming story, but also because it is eloquently told by one of the great masters of the English language.
          Recently I purchased a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk and updated by E. B. White.  It's chock full of writing rules, some that I rigidly abide by, and others I've learned to break for effect (thanks to my high school English teacher). This little book is a gem and one I wish every writer (whether of emails or letters or blogs) would have at the ready.  I imagine all you grammar Nazis out there might have a dog-eared copy at the ready whenever you're trying to prove the difference between your and you're
         While I'm a big fan of the internet and my new NOOK, I don't text.  I don't tweet.  I don't communicate in ways that are easily misunderstood or swept under the rug to make room for the next post, the next comment, the next sound bite.   In many ways, this form of writing is ruining our ability to appreciate the more tangible and accessible forms of connection.
          Maybe it's the devoted teacher in me, or maybe I'm just old school, but I find that with access to a plethora of ways we can exchange a few words, not a whole of people are really communicating.  For there's a big difference between listening (or comprehending) and waiting for your turn to speak (or reply).  
          I wonder what Mr. White would have to say on the subject.  Perhaps he might just shake his head and go back to his faithful typewriter.
          As for me, whether I'm posting to my professional page on Facebook, writing an email, or composing a blog, I keep in mind the most vital rule found in The Elements of Styleomit needless words.
          Would that we all could abide by these very wise words...while writing or speaking

          If I invited you over for supper, you'd soon learn that while the food is alright, I'm not a chef in any sense of word.  If I walked into a charity event, I'd have no clue as to how well it was organized.  I can't service my own car or furnace or cut my own hair.  There's no way on earth that I could juggle the work of a city planner.
          But I've been reading books since I was old enough to hold one.  I've been avidly writing since I was thirteen.  In the past twenty years I've studied and edited and rewritten thousands of pages of manuscripts.  I've learned to cut and gut and polish a novel until it shines.  I know my strengths and I play toward those.  I know my weaknesses as well and always strive to improve my work.  Writing has become a full time job and one that I love with every image that passes through my imagination and onto the journal, the letter, or the computer screen.  It's become my life's work and a vocation that I value now more than ever.  
         Writing is one of the most transformative modes of creativity and artistic expression in any culture.  When it's done well, there's no end to its influence.  Language, like anything, grows and flourishes when we nurture and prune it. Which is why, when I choose to read for pleasure or for inspiration, quality trumps quantity.