All posts by Phil W

Cliches and Lowing the Boom

I learned through Rebecca of Rebecca Writes about ClicheSite.com and the handy Cliche of the Day. At first, I thought this a cool little resource. Now, I think I’ll avoid it. If I fill my head with cliches, I’ll become a twisted and disturbed old man. Maybe I just need the cup of tea I just steeped for a better mood. Maybe I should go out for some live steel combat.

You know, that reminds me of the warning the thespians gave before the start of Julius Caesar at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern. They told us to go the bathroom before or during the intermission, because afterward angry men with real swords could be running through the hallway at any time–which they did. It was great.

Subjects Worth Writing About

Mark Bertrand quotes Melville’s Moby Dick on what great book should tackle: ” . . . Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” Read the rest of this short post and tell him what you think.

Mencken on Dull Writers and William J. Bryan

With the Scopes Trial Reenactment coming this weekend in Dayton, TN, I am reposted a bit I wrote back on October 24, 2004.

H.L. Mencken biographer and terrific New York drama/music/etc. critic Terry Teachout recently learned of a piece Mencken wrote for Vanity Fair in 1923 in response to a question about boring writers. The famous critical thinker (1880-1956) listed ten authors with a few additional thoughts: “Dostoevski, for some reason that I don’t know, simply stumps me; I have never been able to get through any of his novels. George Eliot I started to read too young, and got thereby a taste against her that is unsound but incurable. Against Cooper and Browning I was prejudiced by school-masters who admired them. As for Lawrence and Miss Stein, what makes them hard reading for me is simply the ineradicable conviction that beneath all their pompous manner there is nothing but tosh.”

Speaking of Terry’s biography, I saw it in an interesting rare book and memorabilia collection at my alma mater, Bryan College. Bryan is named for William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), an orator for progressive politics and Biblical principles as well as a former candidate for presidency and the secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Bryan’s name is known to many as the man who argued against Clarence Darrow in the trial of John Scopes. The Scopes Trial drew a lot of media attention by design; the men behind the lawsuit, the ones who recruited Scopes to take blame for teaching evolution in public school, hoped to make a name for themselves and business for the area. Publicity encouraged Bryan threw his hat into the ring for the prosecution’s side which spurred Mencken to urge Darrow to join the defense. Mencken said, “Nobody gives a damn about that yap schoolteacher. The thing to do is to make a fool out of Bryan.”

The trial did not accomplish the planners objectives. It became a media event beyond their control. Darrow did put Bryan to an interrogation on the stand in an effort to make a fool out of him, and he cheated him out of a final address, in which Bryan planned to make his rebuttal. If you want to know what really happened there, forget about Inherit the Wind. Start here.

Bryan College wants to collect Bryan’s personal books and those about him, so they have worked toward that goal. A couple years ago they were offered even more–a large Mencken collection through a friendly association with a member of the H.L. Mencken Society. Representatives of the society came south to view an annual reenactment of the Scopes Trial in Dayton, TN. One of the members struck up a friendship with one of my English professors which eventually resulted in the generous donations of Mencken-related books and many copies of American Mercury, a journal he published. Today, Bryan’s library houses a unique and ironic collection of Bryan and Mencken material, side by side. With Terry’s book on the right side toward the back of the room.

James Thurber’s Guide to English Usage

[first posted October 22, 2004] In an earlier post, I referred to this collection of useful usage articles by James Thurber. On the question of using “bad” or “badly” within a sentence like “I feel bad(ly),” Thurber advises not to use either word.

There is, of course, a special problem presented by the type of person who looks well even when he doesn’t feel well, and who is not likely to be believed if he says he doesn’t feel well. In such cases, the sufferer should say, “I look well, but I don’t feel well.” While this usage has the merit of avoiding the troublesome words “bad” and “badly,” it also has the disadvantage of being a negative statement. If a person is actually ill, the important thing is to find out not how he doesn’t feel, but how he does feel. He should state his symptoms more specifically—“I have a gnawing pain here, that comes and goes,” or something of the sort. There is always the danger, of course, that one’s listeners will cut in with a long description of how they feel; this can usually be avoided by screaming.

Tell It Like It Is

I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

This spring I finally got around to reading Moby Dick. (I told you I was a bad reader.) Its opening sentence is one of the most famous in English fiction. “Call me Ishmael”—this is something strange. This is something beyond myself. And yet I’m then plunged into a story that is lavishly involved with the real world of whaling and the anatomy of whales, of ships and the anatomy of ships, of the ocean, and not least of the human heart.

And this is the most basic test for quality in fiction, it seems to me: is it absolutely faithful to the real, and absolutely faithful to what is strange and extraordinary within the real? For the Christian this is another way of saying, is it about grace? Because grace is the interruption of the unexpected in the real. Cheap stories barely touch reality—they present a simplified simulacrum of reality, a version that is easier for the storyteller and for the reader alike. And cheap stories are never really surprising. No one was ever surprised by a game of solitaire.

From Andy Crouch’s address at the 2005 Christy Awards.

2006 Christy Awards

The Christy Awards winners were announced last Saturday. Editor Terry Whalin says the event was fun and gives a list of the winners, which aren’t on The Christy Awards site or in the news sources I’ve searched. FaithfulReader.com has the list and some reviews. Editor David Long has kicked up some discussion.

According the website, “the Christy Award is designed to:

  1. Nurture and encourage creativity and quality in the writing and publishing of fiction written from a Christian worldview.
  2. Bring a new awareness of the breadth and depth of fiction choices available, helping to broaden the readership.
  3. Provide opportunity to recognize novelists whose work may not have reached bestseller status.

Book Meme

Sherry’s daughter Rachael is blogging for her next week. Her first post this afternoon is an interesting book meme which I refuse to answer at this time but will pass on to you.

  1. A book that made you cry
  2. A book that scared you
  3. A book that made you laugh
  4. A book that disgusted you
  5. A book you loved in elementary school
  6. A book you loved in middle school
  7. A book you loved in high school
  8. A book you loved in college
  9. A book that challenged your identity or your faith
  10. A series that you love
  11. Your favorite horror book
  12. Your favorite science-fiction book
  13. Your favorite fantasy book
  14. Your favorite mystery book
  15. Your favorite biography
  16. Your favorite coming-of-age book
  17. Your favorite book not on this list

Why God Couldn’t Get Tenure at a University

I found this in the Brandywine Books archives. Erin O’Connor passes on a list of reasons why God couldn’t get tenure, and reader Kris at Berkley offers up an opposite list for why He could. From the first list:

  1. He’s authored only one paper
  2. That paper was in Hebrew
  3. His work appeared in an obscure, unimportant publication
  4. He never references other authors
  5. Workers in the field can’t replicate His results.

From the second list:

  1. The one publication was a Citation Classic.
  2. The Hebrew original was widely translated courtesy of the author.
  3. Being written before journals existed, references were hard to come by.

Read on

Longest English Words

[first posted May 29, 2004] According to Ask Oxford, from the Oxford U.P., “Most of the words which are given as ‘the longest word’ are merely inventions, and when they occur it is almost always as examples of long words, rather than as genuine examples of use” i.e. ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,’ which is supposed to be a lung disease. Of course, there are real words of extreme length. A couple good examples of these superduperlong words are ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ and ‘pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism.’ They just roll off the tongue, what?

For the trivia nerd or engineer in your family, Ask Oxford explains, “The formal names of chemical compounds are almost unlimited in length (for example, ‘aminoheptafluorocyclotetraphosphonitrile,’ 40 letters), but longer ones tend to be sprinkled with numerals, Roman and Greek letters, and other arcane symbols. Dictionary writers tend to regard such names as `verbal formulae’, rather than as English words.”

Nicer Children If Possible

I love these lines from an Aline Kilmer poem:

When people inquire I always just state:

“I have four nice children and hope to have eight.

Though the first four are pretty and certain to please,

Who knows but the rest may be nicer than these?”

Even if they aren’t nicer, they will be my children, and I will love them better, I hope, than I have in the past.

Mormons Complain: “We’re Christians Too.”

A ticket agent says the movie States of Grace is “being advertised as a Christian film, but it’s really a Mormon film,” and Mormons are shocked, claiming to be Christians. Ted Olson, Christianity Today’s online managing editor, reports on other complaints Mormons have had in the news and concludes with this:

Even more [evangelicals] see Mormons as non-Christians—-or worse—-while seeing liberal Protestants as “bad Christians”—-though both groups equally deny classical Christian doctrine on revelation, the full divinity of Christ, the nature of man, and other key points.

With their strong family values, constant Jesus talk, and passion for evangelism, Mormons seem almost like evangelicals’ cultural twins. In some ways, they represent our ideal. Maybe that’s one reason why so many evangelicals are more comfortable with liberal Protestantism than with Mormonism. We like our differences stark, with red-and-blue color coding.

Is Ted being snarky here? I suggest the real difference b/w Mormons and liberals when evangelicals want to label them is a desire to avoid generalizations. Mormon doctrine is not Biblically sound, so a faithful Mormon can be safely label non-Christian, whereas Methodist or Episcopal doctrine may be sound despite what individual churches teach or what certain bishops say to reporters. You can’t broadbrush all Episcopals by calling them non-Christians. They aren’t, no matter how liberal their denomination appears to be. And you can’t call Mormons Christians no matter how much they talk about Jesus. They aren’t talking about the God/Man who words are recording in Scripture, and He never spoke to Joseph Smith either. [seen on Open Book]

Is One Writer Really Better than Another? Isn’t It All Personal Taste?

J. Mark Bertrand points out a couple podcasts he participated in during this summer’s Worldview Academy. (part 1, part 2)They are the two parts of an interesting discussion on why we should care about literature.

In the second part, I believe Mark makes a great point about the instincts of his students. Though they may question how someone can say one writer is better than another, they fully understand how someone can say one band is better than another. Personal taste does come into play a bit, but an experienced listener can make a good case that one band, even a band he doesn’t enjoy, is more skilled than another. The same with writers. There’s more to be said, but I’ll leave it there.