One of the interesting things about reading is the words that strike a chord, the phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that make you stop. Sometimes you stop because they make you think, sometimes because the words say it so perfectly, sometimes just because you like the way they sound. Here are a few things that have struck a chord with me recently.
I just finished Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes. I read all her books years ago but I don't really remember them. They are great spy and intrigue novels, fun and enthralling. In this one MacInnes writes an introduction in which she discusses how accurate her novels are in regard to history and location. She has this to say about an author's responsibilities to an audience.
If we demand an honest statement of the ingredients of every package of food we buy, it seems odd that we should treat our minds more carelessly than we do our stomachs. False pretenses in the world of ideas (and literature conveys ideas, or opens a new door to the view of the world outside our own lives, or discloses a different light on what we have either accepted as fact or dismissed as exaggeration) can be as deadly in their effect as the adulteration of food. The writer who alters the facts of history, or twists events into a false pattern, to suit his own ideas, is providing his readers with his own package of particular poisoning. The mind is more vulnerable than the stomach, because it can be poisoned without feeling immediate pain.
If you have read this blog for any length of time then you have realized that I am fascinated by the British home front during WWII. Last week I read Keep Smiling Through by Susan Briggs. It was a more basic overview of life during the war but I did still find it interesting. It was filled with many more photos than some of the other books I have read. I found this extract from a booklet given to every American soldier entering Britain to be interesting.
Britain may look a little shop-worn and grimy to you. There's been a war on since 1939. The houses haven't been painted, because factories are not making paint-they're making planes. British trains are cold because power is used for industry, not for heating. The British people are anxious for you to know that in normal times Britain looks much prettier, cleaner, neater. Don't be misled by the British tendency to be soft-spoken and polite. They can be plenty tough, too. The English language didn't spread across the oceans, mountains, jungles and swamps of the world because these people were "panty-waists". Remember that crossing the ocean doesn't automatically make you a hero. There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants who have lived through more high explosives than many soldiers saw in the last war. If your British host exhorts you to "eat up- there's plenty on the table", go easy- it might be the family's ration for a week, spread out to show their hospitality.
I frequently borrow books from my dad. They are almost always books I wouldn't pick up on my own, he is interested in government and history and politics. My father is a retired newspaper man so many of his books are about writing and the newspaper field. This time I borrowed Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. I have heard of this little book, it seems to be a Bible for writers with basic information about grammar and style written in an engaging fashion. I like this about an approach to style.
The use of language begins with imitation. The infant imitates the sounds made by its parents; the child imitates first the spoken language, then the stuff of books. The imitative life continues long after the writer is on his own in the language, for it is almost impossible to avoid imitating what one admires. Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator; take pains instead to admire what is good. Then when you write in a way that comes naturally, you will echo the halloos that bear repeating.
I also borrowed The Writer Who Stayed, a collection of essays by the journalist William Zinsser. This is what he said in reply to a question about his favorite word.
I don't have a favorite word like williwaw that I keep in a display case to moon over....Those words please me when I see (and hear) them, but unless they fill a precise need-oscillate, lapidary, filigree-I abstain, fearful of being sucked into the bog of academic prose where monsters like adumbrate and ineluctable lurk. My favorites are the hundreds of vivid replacements for words that are just too dull-too humdrum-to make writing come alive. Brazen, used instead of bold, not only catches the reader off guard with the fanciful z; its sound exactly conveys its meaning. A brazen scheme is more than merely bold; listen and you'll hear a mountebank.
I love words and phrases and paragraphs. I love the sentences that make me stop and think, stare into the distance, and then reread. I love the way words can be put together to touch your mind and heart and imagination. What words have made you stop and take a second look?