Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do
Plume (January 29, 2013), 250 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $10.98
As one who loves reading about writers and writing I found this book absolutely delightful. Meredith Maran asked twenty writers for their reflections on the writing life. The commentaries are arranged alphabetically so as to not inadvertently imply any sort of hierarchy, and Maran includes writers of both bestsellers and literary fiction (with a few nonfiction writers thrown in as well).
Each chapter is structured the same. Maran begins with an excerpt from that author’s work, followed by a generally witty and entertaining introduction. She then provides some biographical information and a complete (as of the 2013 publication date) bibliography of each writer’s works. Next she gives us the writer’s reflections in his or her own words, and concludes with the author’s advice to aspiring writers.
The book is a bit dated, having been published in 2013. For example, Meg Wolitzer was one of the writers included. Her novel The Interestings was one of the most enjoyable and engaging novels I have ever read, but it was published in 2013, the same year as Why We Write, so that novel wasn’t part of Wolitzer’s corpus as listed in her bibliography.
Nonetheless, there is a lot of interesting stuff here. And there are many common threads. Most of the writers offered some version of “I write because I have to” or “I write because I don’t know anything else.” With respect to advice, there were a number of variations of both “If you want to write well do a lot of reading“ and “If you want to write then keep writing. Don’t worry about whether you get published.”
That last bit of advice provides me with the impetus to keep on blogging. It’s time for me to get back to writing my blog more frequently.
No Time to Spare
Ursula K. Le Guin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, December 5, 2017
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $8.99
I have long been familiar with Ursula Le Guin. I read her Earthsea Trilogy (when it was still only a trilogy) during my year in exile in Laredo, Texas, 1977-78. I was interested to learn, then, that she maintained a blog from roughly 2010 to 2014. I’m sorry that I wasn’t aware of it when it was live, but I was happy that some of the entries were compiled in this volume.
I initially thought that the title meant that there is too much work to be done, so there is no time to spare, but early in the book Le Guin says that there is no time to spare because of her advanced age.
Le Guin covers the waterfront in this compilation. She writes about her rustic house in Oregon. She writes about her correspondences from fans, about feminism, politics, and society, and about attending concerts. In several entries she tells us about her feisty cat, Pard. When she feels strongly about something she does not mince words. We know where she stands.
I read No Time to Spare on my iPhone 8. I had a Kindle app on my old iPhone 5s, but the screen was simply too small to be practical for that purpose. The iPhone 8 screen is large enough to make a book readable. I wouldn’t recommend War and Peace, but a short book of essays like this one makes for enjoyable reading wherever I might be.
Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us
Narrated by John Lee
Random House Audio, April 16, 2019
$17.15 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit
As a classics major in college I took a semester-long Greek Tragedy course and read Greek tragedies in other classes as well. I was intrigued, then, when I read a positive review of this book.
Critchley offers some interesting insights here. He points out that in Greek tragedy the deceiver and the deceived have more insight than the non-deceiver and the non-deceived (Oedipus). He discusses how women in Greek tragedy are the polar opposite of how they were treated and expected to behave in classical Greek society (Clytemnestra, Antigone). Critchley is no elderly, doddering classicist. He makes references to social media, punk rock, and the Marx brothers. He sees Greek tragedy in the light of today’s world.
The author discusses how Greek tragedy was influenced (apparently) by the Sophists, and spends a lot of time analyzing Plato and Aristotle’s perspectives on tragedy. Plato saw no role for tragedy (or poetry) in his “just state” as set forth in The Republic. Such diversions would, Plato believed, take men’s (and only men in classical Greek society) minds away from more essential pursuits. Aristotle, on the other hand, analyzed tragedy in considerable detail and discussed what tragedy should and should not be.
The book is expertly read by John Lee, who does so in a rather declamatory manner, appropriate for both the subject matter and Critchley’s text. This was time well spent.
The Dictionary Wars: The American Fight over the English Language
Princeton University Press (May 28, 2019)
Kindle edition $9.88, Amazon Hardcover $19.03
Noah Webster is known, obviously, for his dictionary of American English. He was, however, not a skilled lexicographer, he was rather thin-skinned, and inserted his religious and moral beliefs into his dictionary entries. The Dictionary Wars describes this complex man and his lexicographical legacy.
It turns out that Webster was highly inconsistent in his original dictionary and was really bad at etymology. He also had some odd ideas about Americanizing spelling to distinguish American English from British. Some of his reforms caught on (“theater” rather than “theatre”), but many of his proposals were just weird, and were reversed in later editions.
The dictionary process became quite the family affair as he recruited his sons-in-law to assist in revisions and abridgements (he had three daughters). All of this was rather interesting, but the descriptions of ongoing battles after Webster’s death over ownership of various editions and whether competing dictionaries had plagiarized Webster became tedious while occupying something like the last third of the book. Those battles ended only with the deaths of those involved in the disputes.
There is some engaging material here, but one has to be a real language nerd to make it all the way through this book. As it was I skimmed the last several chapters.
What Is Real?: The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics
Narrated by Greg Tremblay
Blackstone Audio, Inc., March 20, 2018
$13.99 for Audible members, more for non-members
Adam Becker is a science writer with a PhD in astrophysics and a B.A. in philosophy and physics. As such, he is well qualified to write this book, which discusses both theories in quantum physics and the lives of those involved in developing those theories. He goes back to the beginning, with a lot of attention being given to Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Bohr was one of the originators of quantum theory, while Einstein questioned it. Becker takes us through the twentieth century, documenting Hitler and his anti-Jewish policies (which robbed Germany of many brilliant physicists), the creation of the atom bomb, and the effect that military spending and the cold war had on the direction taken by physics.
Becker discusses the Stockholm interpretation of quantum theory, which essentially says that the quantum subatomic world behaves differently from the physical world that we perceive with our senses, and we shouldn’t worry about why. He talks about those who developed alternatives to the Stockholm interpretation and the poor reception they got. David Bohm was blacklisted due to his activities with the Communist party in his younger days and ended up teaching in Brazil. Hugh Everett left academia for the Pentagon and industry because he preferred fine dining and sexual affairs to debating theoretical physics. At the end of the book Becker wonders how these debates might have turned out differently had these two remained in the conversation.
The book is capably narrated by Greg Tremblay. His convention of changing the tone and pitch of his voice when reading quotations was slightly annoying, but, I suppose, necessary to distinguish that material from the the author’s narrative. In some respects I might have been better off with a print or Kindle edition so I could flip back and review certain material, but for the most part this was enjoyable and educational listening.
When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation
Yale University Press (October 23, 2018)
Kindle edition $9.62, Amazon Hardcover $19.02
Although this book is published by Yale University Press, it is definitely a popular book. It wasn’t written for the scholarly community. It is, however, very heavily annotated. Nearly half the book is footnotes, bibliography, and other end matter.
Fredriksen discusses the first generation of the followers of Jesus. She talks about the Essenes and how their notion of the end time varied from and was similar to that of the followers of Jesus. She discusses the discrepancies between Paul as he is portrayed in the book of Acts and how he writes about himself in his letters. She explains how it was not Jesus who had the Romans upset, but the crowds he incited. The Romans were always nervous about angry crowds.
I have a couple of problems with Fredriksen’s approach. She places the books of Luke and Acts (written by the same author) in the early second century, when most scholars place it at the end of the first century. She uses the Revised Standard Version of the Bible for her English translation, which is odd. The RSV was published in 1949, while the New Revised Standard Version was published in 1989. The latter is regarded as a solid, reliable translation, so why she uses an earlier one baffles me.
There is one oddity with the footnotes in this Kindle edition. Clicking the footnotes takes you to the footnote section in the back of the book. In all other Kindle books that contain footnotes which I have read in the last couple of years the footnote appears as a pop-up. Very odd.
The book had some interesting insights, but there wasn’t really anything in it that I hadn’t picked up elsewhere.