Like most writers, I’m an omnivorous reader. Friends ask me, "What are you reading now?" and I have a hard time answering because when I stop to think, I realize I’m reading a dozen books at once, dipping into this one, skimming through that one.
My wife Ellen thinks I’m nuts. She reads one book at a time. When she starts reading, she almost always keeps going from the title page straight through to "The End." To me her method seems unnecessarily strict; to her my method seems carelessly random. Somehow our marriage has survived this radical difference in reading styles, but here, in my defense, I present to you, an impartial jury of my peers, a few of the diamonds and duds that my "random" style has turned up.
In The Swerve, Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt tells how avid book collectors helped kickstart the Italian Renaissance in the 1400s by rediscovering and reprinting Lucretius’ magnificent Latin poem, On the Nature of Things. Along the way Greenblatt gives fascinating descriptions of how monks and clerics made and copied books before Gutenberg’s printing press—I summarized some of these in a column last July.
Yet picking the book up recently and dipping into it here and there, I noticed something I’d missed the first time: apparently no English teacher ever taught Professor Greenblatt the value of active verbs. In paragraph after paragraph, he builds his sentences in the passive voice—for example:
Rolls of papyrus…were produced from tall reeds.…the reeds were harvested; their stalks were cut open and sliced into thin strips. The strips were laid side by side, slightly overlapping one another; another layer was placed on top, …and then the sheet was gently pounded with a mallet…and the individual sheets were then glued into rolls.
All these passives create a curiously unpopulated world. Who was doing all the harvesting, slicing, placing, pounding, and glueing? Greenblatt doesn’t tell us. Had he used active verb constructions:
Craftsmen produced the papyrus rolls from tall harvested reeds, cutting open the stalks and slicing them into thin strips, then laying the strips side by side, slightly overlapping one another. The workers then placed another layer on top and gently pounded the sheet with a mallet, finally gluing the individual sheets into rolls.
—he could have painted a workshop busy with workmen, and our connection with them could have stimulated our imaginations to see their sweating brows and the hot Egyptian sun above.
Here’s a diamond I found on a recent dip: P.G. Wodehouse is rolling through Chapter 11 of Bertie Wooster Sees It Through, up to his usual tricks of oddball locutions, when, for plot reasons he needs to show us how contented Bertie felt strolling one evening through the gardens of his Aunt Dahlia’s stately home, Brinkley Court. He writes:
…the air was full of mumurous summer scents and a brave breeze sang like a bugle from a sky liberally studded with stars.
Aha, I said to myself, there is a master at work. How do you paint the perfumed tranquility of an English garden in June? With a burst of alliterative, assonant sonority, that’s how, "murmurous" linking with "summer," "summer" linking with "scents," "a brave breeze…like a bugle," a sky "studded with stars." Even if we didn’t know the meaning of the words, the music of the words would tell us all we need to know.
Another diamond, this one found on opening Trampling Out the Vintage, a history of the long struggle by migrant farm workers in California for living wages and livable housing. As he started what turned out to be an eight hundred-page book, author Frank Bardacke knew that he had many miles to go and many stories to tell, so he began with a down-to-earth picture of the crowded cars that made the migrant life possible:
Most California farm workers do not ride to work alone. They travel in company buses and vans, or squeeze together in private cars with other workers, who often are their relatives or lifelong friends. For three quarters of a century, people have been driving their cars up and down and across the Golden State looking for work. Caravans of cars…loved and hated by mechanically skilled Joads of all nationalities… Studebakers, Fords, and Chevys…that may also be their homes, death beds, and birth beds.
That picture of rattletraps packed with tired workers rolling along endless highways, following the seasonal cycles of the grape, lettuce, and celery harvests year after year after year, struck me, grounding the complex details of the tangled, and often tragic history of César Chavez and his United Farm Workers union.
Here’s a dud, a book-length dud in my opinion, though I know many readers will disagree: Wolf Hall. Not only could I make little or no sense of this historical fiction, I found author Hilary Mantel’s tone insufferably pompous and affected. One of her many annoying mannerisms: the use of "he" as the primary word to designate her hero, Thomas Cromwell:
He doesn’t eat for a day or so; it hurts too much…He knows by the way people look at him that his face is still bruised…. He walks around the docks saying to people, do you know where there’s a war just now?....he finds he will leave Dover richer than he arrived….He adds up what he’s got and what he’s spent.
Use of this device, as far as I know unprecedented in English fiction, adds nothing but confusion to the text. Here’s the opening of Chapter II:
So: Stephen Gardiner. Going out as he’s coming in. It’s wet, and for a night in April, unseasonably warm, but Gardiner wears furs, which look like oily and dense black feathers; he stands now, ruffling them, gathering his clothes about his tall straight person like black angel wings.
"Late," Master Stephen says unpleasantly.
He is bland. "Me, or your good self?"
The "he" of "he stands now" I take to be Gardiner, and the "he" of "He is bland" I take to be Cromwell, but here and in hundreds of similar instances I doubt I’m right, and that doubt tugs me away from the story and back a paragraph or two to figure out the noun-pronoun chain.
The biggest nail in Wolf Hall’s coffin, however, is that in repeated attempts to get through its 600 pages, I found Cromwell an unbelievable character. Mantel paints him as an existentialist superhero, monosyllabically laconic:
"How was Yorkshire?"
He doesn’t eat for a day or so; it hurts too much. But by the time he reaches Dover the big gash on his head has closed, and the tender parts inside, he trusts, have mended themselves: kidney, lungs and heart.
—and dazzlingly intelligent:
He is the very man if an argument about God breaks out… for telling your tenants twelve good reasons their rent is fair. He is the man to cut through some legal entanglement that’s ensnared you for three generations….With animals, women, and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a reasonable rate.
Sorry, Hilary, but humans like Cromwell live only in comic books, so enough on this dud—let’s close with a diamond from Theodore Dreiser’s The Bulwark, modest Solon Barnes learning from a snake in his garden that "good intent is of itself a universal language":
… if our intention is good, all creatures in their particular way understand, and so it was that this puff adder understood me just as I understood it. It had no ill intent, but was only afraid. And then, my intent being not only good but loving, it understood me and had no fear, but came back to me crossing the toe of my shoe…
Whether found by determined reading or by random dipping, that’s good writing!