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So many books, so little time

When Sarah Quinn of the Poynter Institute called to get some remarks for a question-and-answer feature, she wanted to know what models of prose I would recommend for people serious about their writing. That’s a fair question. As a copy editor, I am, like a pathologist, more occupied with diseased tissue. When I encounter healthy tissue, I leave it alone. But it is the best writing I encounter that shapes my sense of what prose ought to be, and can be.

So I have some idiosyncratic suggestions for you, books I have read, valued and sometimes re-read over the years.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War

That should clear the room fast of the casual browsers.

No, really. My college roommate at Michigan State, was reading Thucydides during the Vietnam War. I finally got around to it during our involvement in Iraq. If you want an illustration of what happens when democracy, imperial ambitions, power politics and misguided foreign adventures entangle, no one has drawn a clearer picture. The Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert B. Strassler, has extremely helpful notes, and the maps will benefit readers whose sense of Mediterranean geography in the fifth century B.C. may be a little shaky.

John McPhee, Pieces of the Frame and Giving Good Weight

These two anthologies of McPhee’s shorter work are excellent introductions to his lucid prose. But he has written a shelf of books, and his various volumes on geology are models of how a highly technical subject can be brought within the compass of a non-specialist reader’s understanding.

Of Laphraoig, a single-malt Scotch Whisky, he writes: “His whisky is so smoky, so heavy, so redolently peaty that a consumer feels he is somehow drinking a slab of bacon.”

Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Didion’s sensibility may be famously neurasthenic, but this omnibus incorporating seven books of her nonfiction repays repeated reading. Her eye for the telling detail, her ear for the revelatory scrap of dialogue and her nose for pretense and self-deceit do not fail her. Or you.

“California Dreaming,” about Robert M. Hutchins’ Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, ends with this quotation from the wife of a contribution to the deep-thinking sessions: “ ‘These sessions are way over my head,’ she confided, ‘but I go out floating on air.’ “

H.L. Mencken, Happy Days, Newspaper Days and Heathen Days

The Johns Hopkins University Press has reprinted Mencken’s three volumes of memoirs, selections from which have been available for some time in a single volume, A Choice of Days. Mencken’s exuberance flashes on every page.

Paul Fussell, Class

A very funny analysis of the class distinctions that Americans observe without acknowledging that they do so.

“The deployment of the male bowtie is an illustration. If neatly tied, centered, and balanced, the effect is middle-class. When tied askew, as if carelessly or incompetently, the effect is upper-middle or even, if sufficiently inept, upper. The worst thing is being neat when, socially, you;re supposed to be sloppy, or clean when you’re supposed to be filthy.”

Or this: “Actually, only six things can be made of black leatrher without causing class damage to the owner: belts, shoes, handbags, gloves, camera cases, and dog leashes.”

Stock up your bookshelves:

Stephen Jay Gould: Any of his books, but particularly the collections of essays on biology first published in Natural History.

Garry Wills: His wide-ranging knowledge is impressive. He has written about Richard Nixon, St. Augustine, the Roman Catholic Church in American, Thomas Jefferson’s presidency and any number of other subjects, clearly and emphatically.

Frances Fitzgerald: Books on the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake; on American visionary communities, Cities on a Hill; on why American history is taught so badly in the schools, America Revised.

Karen Armstrong: A life of the Buddha, an introduction to Islam, an account of monotheism (A History of God), a sharp analysis of fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam (The Battle for God).

Claire Tomalin: Excellent biographies of Samuel Pepys and Jane Austen, along with several others that I haven’t gotten to yet.

Bill Bryson: Mother Tongue, for a highly accessible history and survey of the English language; Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, for reference; A Short History of Nearly Everything, for nearly everything; and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, for fun.

When you’ve read these, come back for more.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:42 AM | | Comments (9)


An excellent selection. I've read many of the books, and will make an effort to read most of the others. But I have to criticize the inclusion of Bryson's "Mother Tongue." I generally like Bryson, but that book is slipshod work, full of errors and undigested or misunderstood research. It could have used a good copy editor.

Why no fiction? Dorthy L. Sayers, James Gould Cozzens, and T.H. White, for instance. There's even a passage in Sayers' "Gaudy Night" about writing.

After you've read all your nonfiction, then you can have your dessert.

This is a fantastic list. McPhee is a master of prose, and his self-effacing style is memorable. I'd add Loren Eiseley, Annie Dillard, and Maxine Hong Kingston to the list.

After you've read all your nonfiction, then you can have your dessert.

Nonsense. Life is short. Pass the Austen.

(And on a completely tangential note, if Austen's books were a dessert, they'd be a superb lemon tart with raspberry coulis.)

Well, I just sent you the two usage books by Bill Bryson, so that's a nice coincidence.

Early Didion is far superior to Later Didion. I thought CLASS was mean and smug, but I worship Paul Fusell for having written ABROAD and THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY. And may I recommend, self-servingly enough, as I am his editor, not that he thanks me, THE SELECTED ESSAYS OF GORE VIDAL?

Happy to mention Mr. Vidal, whose essays I have been reading avidly for more than 30 years (though the increasingly strident tone in his later work is a little off-putting).

Class is indeed smug but entertaining, and The Great War and Modern Memory is a splendid and substantial book.

I left off Phillip Lopate, too. And collections of letters, Evelyn Waugh and Philip Larkin.

I have it from an eyewitness that Gore Vidal was capable of stunningly boorish behavior on at least one occasion. Somehow that puts me off his prose.

Probably not a good idea to dwell too much on writers as persons. It wouldn't have been a good idea to lend money to James Joyce. What Boswell describes of Samuel Johnson's table manners does not leave you wishing you could have sat next to him. Robert Lowell had wild manic episodes. Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway were drunks, and not necessarily the charming kind. Stick to the books.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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