Book Notes and Quotes

You can find all the new ideas in the old books, only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas. The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and all the answers to it as well. -GK Chesterton
Pastor Wilson and Dr. Grant's guidelines on Words and Reading have been very helpful. Some of my favorite book quotes - like the GKC one above, are from Dr. and Mrs. Grant's coffee table book "Shelf Life" - it has been helpful also.
Word Fussers and Whowhomers
Lit Crit - Literary Notes
Written by Douglas Wilson
Thursday, June 17, 2010 2:47 am
In my recent seven-fold set of admonitions for writers, my third bit of advice for them was this:
"Read mechanical helps. By this I mean dictionaries, etymological histories, books of anecdotes, dictionaries of foreign phrases, books of quotations, books on how to write dialog, and so on. The plot will usually fail to grip, so just read a page a day. If you think it makes you out to be too much of a word-dork, then don't tell anybody about it."
Under this head, allow me to break it out into seven separate elements, but with a brief caution first.
Having the eggs doesn't mean that you know how to make the omelet. But if you don't have the eggs, it doesn't matter if you do know how to make the omelet. Writing is like cooking, and words are your ingredients. In order to write well, you need to have those ingredients, and you need to know those ingredients. And having them means collecting them, and studying them once you have them.<
That said, here we go.
1. Learn a foreign language. If you already did, but learned it like everybody learns Spanish in high school and then forgot it, pick it up again. Or learn a different one, for real this time. If you have a choice, I would recommend a language that is upstream (with regard to vocabulary) from modern English, which would limit your choices to Greek, Latin, and Anglo Saxon. Die hards can have a go at Indo-European, which nobody knows, but there are some word root dictionaries that gesture helplessly in that direction.
Greek and Latin open up the formations of many modern English words. Laudare, to praise, for example, gets you laud, applaud, laudatory, and so on. And Anglo Saxon is a different kind of blast. Attercop is Anglo Saxon for spider, which I thought told us something fun about Bilbo, and rimcraft is arithmetic, and of course merscmealuwe means marshmallow.
2. Collect and read dictionaries. First, read regular old dictionaries. Take a couple of minutes every day to read a page. Highlight fun words you didn't know before, and write them down somewhere else. I read a paperback American Heritage once, up through the M's, but then I lost it in a move or something.
There are other kinds of dictionaries you want to read also. Read dictionaries of odd and unusual words. Read dictionaries for specialized vocations or settings. Find out what abaft the beam means, so you can describe somebody's Ford F250 in that spot. Or read baseball dictionaries. That's a good idea.
But for real color, and for the highest levels of usability, read dictionaries of slang. There are many of them out there, and they have high levels of linguistic fiber for your diet. C.S. Lewis once commended the Elizabethans for their use of color in language, a virtue, he said, which they apparently bequeathed to their American cousins. Dictionaries of American slang are a great repository of this kind of thing. Along the way you may discover that some of your expressions are really quite vulgar, explaining that expression on your mother's face all these years, and you ought to stop using them.
3. Read books of complaint about the decline of our language by word fussers and whowhomers, and read the hilarious refutations of those word fussers by word libertines. You can learn a lot from both. Anyone who can't learn from a word fusser ought to have their head examined. A word fusser is one who would have a problem with the previous sentence.
4. Read etymological histories, or dictionaries of word roots. Every word in the English language has countless little dents in it, which contribute to the patina. But don't fall for the etymological fallacy, which assumes that any meaning of a word in its history must be a meaning of the word now. Rather, etymologies should help you with the flavoring, helping you pick a word with traces of oak, licorice, charcoal, or tobacco in it.
5. Read books of proverbs and cliches. A proverb is frequently a cliche that went into retirement to get its groove back, and you may be the one to bring it back into circulation again. Read books of cliches so that you learn to notice them and avoid them, or phrases that sound just like them. But don't get overly precise -- make a distinction between cliches and linguistic roughage. Some phrases are used all the time, but are not really cliches (e.g. "on the other hand"), while others may be entirely your own and come off sounding just like a cliche (e.g. "her eyes were limpid pools reflecting the full moon"). Closely related to books of proverbs would be books of lists and rules, like Paul Dickson's assorted books. It was from Dickison that I learned the Gadarene Swine Rule -- just because a group is in formation doesn't mean it knows where it is going.
6. Read books of quotations and anecdotes. Charles Williams once sniffed at encyclopedias as being "slums of the mind," but I think that being above those sorts of collections is being overly precious. Some people collect things, and other people can profit greatly by browsing in those collections. Read collections of Chesterton quotes, Churchill quotes, and Samuel Johnson quotes. Read books of general quotations. Read books of anecdotes. Read books of presidential anecdotes. Read collections of great toasts.
7. Read wordcraft books. Wordsmithers love to write, and a lot of them love to write about how they write. Other writers love to read about how accomplished writers write. Their advice ranges from how to ungarble the syntax of something to counsel on the disciplines of actually writing. Read books on plot structure, on writing dialogue, on pestering editors, on writing memoirs, on editing your own stuff, and so on. I try to be reading at least one wordsmithing book all the time. They will frequently includes samples from other writers to illustrate their point. I am currently in the middle of The Art of War for Writers, and here is an example he cited from the "hard boiled tradition" that just made me happy.
"The sun that brief December day shone weakly through the west-facing window of Garret Kingsley's office. It made a thin yellow oblong splash on his Persian carpet and gave up."
A Lifetime of Reading
Eleventary Blog, written by Dr. George Grant
1. Read
--“A broad interest in books usually means a broad interest in life.” Lyman Abbott
2. Read Deeply
--“ Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. Richard Steele
3. Read Out of Your Time
--“I hate to read new books. Contemporary writers may generally be divided into two classes—one’s friends or one’s foes. Of the first we are compelled to think too well, and of the last we are disposed to think too ill, to receive much genuine pleasure from the perusal, or to judge fairly of the merits of either.” William Hazlitt
4. Read Classically--
“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” Italo Calvino
5. Read Above Your Head--
“You may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very well worthwhile to be tormented for two or three years of one’s life, for the sake of being able to read all the rest of it.” Jane Austen
6. Read and Re-Read-- "
Re-reading, we always find a new book." C.S. Lewis
7. Have a Plan--
“It is a good plan to have a book with you in all places and at all times.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
8. Medium Is Nearly as Vital as Message--
“If you cannot read all your books, at any rate handle, or as it were, fondle them.” Winston Churchill
9. Follow the Footnote Trail--
“If a book is worth reading, it is worth buying.” John Ruskin
10. Leave a Legacy--
“A little library, growing every year, is an honorable part of a man’s history.” Henry Ward Beecher
11. Joy in the Journey--
“When I get a little money, I buy books; and if there is any left, I buy food and clothes.” Desiderius Erasmus