Book Review: Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, by Ward Farnsworth

The main argument made in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is that good writing involves the balancing of contrasts. Many of these contrasts are rhythmic, and one good way to vary rhythmic flow, treated extensively in the first part of Farnsworth’s book, is to set off polysyllabic Latinate words from monosyllabic Saxon ones. Other contrasts that distinguish good writing are those between abstract and concrete imagery and front-loaded and back-loaded sentences. Farnsworth’s general watchword, however, is variation.  

This stress on ebb and flow as a hallmark of good prose counts as a rebuke to the modern arbiters of style who have instilled in recent generations of writers the imperative always to compress and economize. While efficiency in writing is certainly an object, Farnsworth argues, it should not be pursued to monotonous extremes. Doing so, he laments, is like removing some of the instruments – long words, long sentences, and formal language – from the orchestra a writer conducts, altogether a “rhetorical misfortune.” (pp. xiv-xv) In another musical simile, Farnsworth asserts that “skilled writers, like musicians, don’t always play at the same speed.” (p. 12) Summing up the rule of variation, Farnsworth notes:

Good writing has variety in the sounds that it makes, in whether it is more or less refined, in whether it is abstract or concrete, and in whether it appeals to the heart or mind. All those variations create rhetorical energy that can be put to various uses, as by enabling a writing or a speech to convince, inspire, or scathe. (p. 12)

As easily as I’m convinced by Farnsworth’s argument, and as illuminating as I find his book, I am almost sorry I read it. To maintain the musical analogy: We should simply recall the words of Duke Ellington – “If it sounds good, it is good” – and be confident that the goodness of a piece of writing is self-evident. I would hate to lose my instinct for a pleasing cadence while self-consciously debating between the anapestic and the dactylic. I guess the important thing is to be clear about how the book is to be used (maybe “approached” would have been a better word). Farnsworth’s is a pleasure to read, and the examples of good writing it provides may establish themselves in the reader’s mind in such a way as to inform, subliminally, his choices as a writer; but its terminologies, while helpful for purposes of discussion, will be of no aid to creativity. “If I Fell” is a catchy Beatles song, in part because of the tritone substitution in its intro, but John Lennon didn’t necessarily know what a tritone substitution was, much less read about it in a reference book and decide to write a song with one. Such a notion is – how should I put it? – risible, nonsensical, horseshit.  (I wanted a parenthetical interrupter with a strong Saxon finish.)

This is a good book.

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami

I’ve theorized that Japanese literature seems to be the best adjusted to modern life. A singular lack of angst distinguishes novels such as Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, in which I take vicarious delight as its protagonists go about their lives at such places as diners, noodle shops, convenience stores, bus stations, bookstores, museums, and other mundane oases. Of course, Murakami’s characters aren’t simply going about their lives but are engaged in quests that are of great consequence to themselves if not to the universe as a whole. Isn’t that what we’re all doing: adventuring through the turnpike rest areas and shopping malls, like Don Quixote without the satire, discovering meaning wherever it is to be found?

Japanese fiction doesn’t abstract itself from the humdrum environment that produces it. Rather than to imagine more exciting times and places via historical fiction, say, Japanese writers make do with where and when they are. Or as Mr. Hoshino says in this book:

“We’re all pretty much empty, don’t you think? You eat, take a dump, do your crummy job for your lousy pay, and get laid occasionally, if you’re lucky. What else is there? Still, you know, interesting things do happen in life – like with us now.” (p. 306)

As a matter of fact, Mr. Hoshino is addressing his remarks to a man with the ability to talk to cats and to make it rain leeches.

But this book, like all of Murakami’s books, isn’t really about the paranormal. It’s about those not supernatural but nonetheless magical things that give our modern lives meaning: music and books and libraries.

A deserted library in the morning – there’s something about it that really gets to me. All possible worlds and ideas are there, resting quietly. (p. 313)

A library, even in the middle of a boring place like Takamatsu or Tacoma (or Taipei, as in the photograph), gives us all the magic we need. The same could be said of this dream of a book.


Listening to Dvorak with God

The second movement of the American Quartet commenced, and even as the beautiful arpeggios began carrying me away to Spillville and beyond, the perfectionist in me wondered if it was loud enough. However, my heavy limbs could not be moved to reach for the remote to turn up the volume, and I rationalized my inertness by dismissing my perfectionism: If I gave up trying to create the perfect experience (at the ideal volume) and simply let it come to me, then perhaps it would.

At that moment of surrender, the whirring clothes dryer in the next room shut off, and the Dvorak came through in all its purity. I smiled and thanked God for rewarding my faith.

And then the air conditioner clicked on.