ForeWord Reviews

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Thoughts on Nonreading

If you’re like me, the luxury of longer days during the summer months will inevitably summon the desire for self-improvement. And while it can often be too easy to identify something we want to change about our bodies, taking our words and ideas to task may not always be second nature.

Those of us who write professionally are bound to fall back on sluggish prose from time to time; fortunately, Helen Sword’s new Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 978-0-674-06448-5) is an exceptional guide. Don’t let the title send you elsewhere; this is a concise and clever book for anyone who wants to strengthen her compositions, whether in or outside of the ivory tower. Sword’s efforts will tone and polish our language and entertain us in the process. Under her tutelage, we’ll choose concrete language and avoid nominalizations (abstract nouns), shorten the distance between nouns and their accompanying verbs, pare down the use of adverbs and adjectives, and spot the prevalence—and ensuing dullness—of the be verb in our sentences. The author’s “Things to Try” section in each chapter includes such advice, along with the mention of a nifty website (http://www.WritersDiet.com/) that analyzes a paragraph or two of prose to identify any flab.

Bibliophiles intent on bulking up their collections this season will embrace a fellow addict whom James Salter likens to “the sultan with countless wives already but for whom another two or three are always irresistible.” Publisher, translator, and writer Jacques Bonnet’s Phantoms on the Bookshelves (The Overlook Press, 978-1-59020-759-8) describes the origins of his tens of thousands of books, how he’s ordered them (by category and genre), and when it became clear that he could never move from his Parisian apartment. Bonnet also addresses the ideal reading speed (varies by book type) and reveals the locale of an underground car park that’s been transformed into a public library of castoff titles. Most importantly, he underscores the intimacy it’s possible to cultivate with our favorites, explaining, “The title of a book you have read (conquered?) has nothing in common with what is represented before. The book will now pursue its own life in your memory.”

For those whose cerebral workouts typically take a left-brain turn, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton University Press, 978-0-691-11417-0) by Leah Price celebrates a history of using books as objects apart from their content, asking, “In what operations other than reading can books be enlisted?” She explains, “Material value trumps textual value in times and places where paper is particularly scarce, including among the poor [and] in wartime … Servants continued to eyeball how much animal gelatin had been used to “size” a page; they knew, therefore, which pages were suitable for sealing food and which for absorbing dirt. Masters, in contrast, now noticed only whether the text was absorbing.”

Always far easier than transforming ourselves is finding things to improve in others. Take, for example, this collar I crafted for my dog Finn to represent our town’s library in its annual parade. Although I’ve never read I’m Okay, You’re Okay, the 1969 self-help blockbuster by Thomas A. Harris, I now know this faded paperback copy intimately, the crease of its brittle pages, the smell of stored age, and the promise of all those unmurmured words.