Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Fantastic Typewritten Letter

1934 Smith-Corona
I've previously mentioned that the actor, writer, and producer Tom Hanks collects and regularly uses manual typewriters.  Recently he wrote an excellent article in the NY Times titled, "I Am TOM. I like to TYPE.  Hear That?" In which he goes on to tells us all the different reasons he enjoys pounding away on an old manual.  It is an excellent piece.  So recently I was amused to see his funny response to the folks from Nerdist when they gave Mr. Hanks a 1934 Smith-Corona manual typewriter as a gift in an effort to get him on their show.  Here's his hilarious typewritten response to the folks at Nerdist:

Via UPI

A great sport and not a bad gift either.  A 1934 Smith Corona is a nice typewriter.  If you get the chance, read his piece in the NY Times.  Because, rather if it is a manual typewriter or a fountain pen, taking the time to put something down on a piece of paper and throwing it in the post is worth your time -- and often well received. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Antique Surprise



Photo courtesy of author
I've recently relocated to Rhode Island.  A few weeks ago I wandered into an antique store in the quaint historic downtown of Newport.  Most of the items in the store were expensive.  Interesting stuff, no doubt, but when I spied a beautiful marble bust for three thousand dollars, I knew most of the items (or as you’ll soon see, almost all of them) were out of my price range.  After a few minutes, however, I discovered a side room and in it a very small stack of books.  In between two large, non-descript books, I found a slim book, about the size of a piece of paper.  It looked to be in good condition.  There was nothing written on the spine, so this of course made me curious.  

I pulled out the thin book and read the title: Washington, The Nation’s Capital by William Howard Taft and James Bryce.

I was excited to learn that William Howard Taft -- our 27th President and later Chief Justice -- wrote a book about Washington D.C.  And I later learned that the coauthor, James Bryce, was the British Ambassador to the US.  

The owner was asking five dollars for the book.  A pittance for some beautiful images and illustrations that made up this slim work.  After further inspection, I realized the binding was beginning to come off the spine.  That would explain the price.  Oh well.  One man’s trash is another’s treasure...so they say.  

I plucked down my cash and walked out with my find.  
William Howard Taft(c) and James Bryce(r) via Wikipedia

Later, when I got home and gently turned the pages, I smiled when I came across a picture in the book (circa 1917) which showed a few sheep grazing in a green pasture.  The caption read, “In the Suburbs of Washington.”  My guess is where there was grass, there is now a mall -- or a highway.  

Oh, how times change.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hidden Treasures


When I travel across the country -- or whenever I stop in any city for a few days -- I try to find a used bookstore.  I enjoy Barnes and Noble, but why pay full price for a book you can find for half the price at a good used book store?  

If you love books and become fond of a particular author, genre, or illustrator, eventually you'll start looking for first editions.  It is the first symptom of becoming a "bookman.”  And there is no better place to start looking than a good used bookstore.  Sometimes you'll find a store stocked with mass market paperbacks;  chock full of Stephen King, Daniel Steele, Louis L'Amor, James Patterson, and so on.  You'll probably not find a first edition of your favorite author in such a store.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is the antiquarian bookstore, technically "used" books, because they had probably been read by someone at sometime, but due to their age, subject matter, and scarcity they are considered antiquarian -- or rare and expensive.  Somewhere in between these two types of bookstores there is the used bookstore that stocks a bit of everything -- mass market, first  editions, rare, and of course, expensive.  

Recently I ventured into a used bookstore in the Houston area.  It was of the latter type -- full of books of all types, all prices.  In it I found what I like to think of as my first hidden treasure.  And what an exciting find it was.  In the shelves of the mass market fiction, I found a first edition, British Printing of the great comic writer P.G. Wodhouse’s The Golf Omnibus.  It was marked on the outside of the book for $3.95.  I pulled it off the shelf, surprised.  Surely there must be something wrong with it?  A prior library book maybe?  Nope.  Clean and with no markings, it was in near fine condition.  In fact, when I opened the book and looked in the first few pages, there was still a pencil marking with the price from another used book store...$50.00.  Wow!  Now you can find a copy ranging anywhere (depending on condition) from $15.00 to $130.00 from a major online book retailer.  Apparently, after short examination, the bookseller simply looked at the book flap price, which in 1973 was $7.95, and simply did what most used booksellers do when selling something they believe is not valuable (or when their stock is so large they are simply trying to get stuff on the shelves), they sell it for half the cover price.  So...it was marked on a sticker on the outside of the book at $3.95.

Now it isn’t like I found a Shakespeare first folio or a page of the Gutenburg bible.  No, no.  The joy however, is discovering something you know is worth more than what the seller is asking for.  And to boot, you enjoy the author or book in question.  So win-win.  I am looking forward to reading Wodehouse’s little gem.  

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Long Hiatus

My apologies...moving across the country has taken me away from the computer.   I haven't forgotten the 10 or so readers that actually check up on my ramblings.   So here you go. Back to reading and blogging. I've recently stumbled across this website post on how to skim a book. Useful -- yes. But I wouldn't do this with every book.    From the productivity blog Asian Efficiency:

''The main objective of the skimming process is to familiarize yourself with the concepts of the book and to begin getting a conceptual overview of the material before you even start reading it. If you have access to a summary of the book (or if the book includes one), you can and should read that. If not, you can just skim through the concepts and form a first impression that way.

One important thing to keep in mind is that lots of books are written with extraneous details – essentially filler and fluff designed to make books longer than they need to be.

Towards the end of the skimming process, if you start to form a good high-level understanding of the concepts, you may want to start a mind map. Simply open a new map, put the title in the middle and then list the concepts as your first-tier nodes.''


Read the entire post HERE.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Writer's Method

Gay Talese
I've mentioned in previous posts that I enjoy reading about writer's methods -- their writing space, note taking, how they organize their research, etc.  So I was happy that I stumbled upon this 3 minute video interview of literary journalist Gay Talese.  The video shows Talese at his New York home, and his writing space, directly below his apartment, which he refers to as his "bunker."  Gay Talese is most famously known for his articles on Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio -- which I believe he wrote back in the 1960s -- but he is still cranking out articles for the New Yorker and his stuff is fantastic reading.

I'm truly impressed with how well he has organized years and years of research.  If you watch the video you'll see what I'm talking about.  Finally, as you can see in the picture on the left, he is a sharp dresser.   Which is even more impressive, is that he dresses in suit and tie only to walk a few steps from his apartment to his workspace below.   Fantastic.  It reminds me of a similar habit by fellow New Yorker alum and short story writer, John Cheever.  Cheever would do something very similiar: he'd put on a suit that morning and just go a few floors down to the basement of his house to write during the day, and then when the day was over, he'd come back upstairs and take his suit off.

Well, if you have a few minutes to spare, and if you are interested in seeing how a great writer -- well, at least this great writer -- organizes his writing space, check it out HERE.  Enjoy.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Book for Father's Day



This was my first Father's Day.  Before my son was born I sat down and researched books about fatherhood and how to be a good father.  I discovered that books about fatherhood and how to be a dad are divided into two categories.  First, there's the "What to Expect When Your Expecting" category.  These are books that go into detail about the logistics of having a child.  E.g, what sort of diapers to buy, sleep cycles, why their poo changes color, etc, etc.  I've found that these books are not necessarily a narrative, but a car owners guide really (what to do IF?), with a helpful index and sometimes even tabbed sections.  So, like a dictionary, they are helpful, but aren't (at least for me) a fun read.  

The next category is the narrative memoir.  Now these are fun to read.  And while I hate to say it, I often read them and laugh at other father's misfortunes (e.g., holding your son and he suffers a "blow out").  But now I try and stuff my laugh back in my belly, because god knows whatever just happened to that unlucky father in the book is bound to happen to me, if it hasn't already.  So now I just sort of smile when I read a passage in a "father memoir" that I find hilarious, as to not upset the karma "blow out" gods.

So for this first father's day I want to recommend a book: Michael Lewis's Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood.  I’ve read it, and really enjoyed it.  Mr. Lewis is the author of Moneyball (yes, the Brad Pitt movie about baseball) and a few  other books about Wall Street, oh, and he also wrote a little book called The Blind Side (yes, the football movie with Sandra Bullock).  And a short anecdote, Admiral Stavridis was asked a few months ago what book his staff was talking about and reading, and the Admiral rattled off Mr. Lewis' book, The Big Short, which is about the financial meltdown that occurred due to the sub-prime mortgage lending which destroyed the housing market.  The man can write, and the stories he writes are very interesting.  I’m not going to talk about Home Game in detail, but let me say this: I was laughing by page 2.  The  opening of the book is him poolside with his family. And from a distance he watches as his daughter fends of some rowdy boys by telling them she just peed in the pool. Which of course, causes the young misfits to scramble, and Mr. Lewis to feel -- deservedly -- a fair amount of pride for a daughter that can hold her own.  Hilarious.   Check it out.  And for all you fathers out there: Happy Father’s Day.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Link of the Week

If you enjoy long form journalism, then look no further.  Longform is a great website that collects some of the best longform journalism from all over the web.  You'll find everything from profiles of military leaders to authors, and much more.  The quality of the stories is high; the pieces collected here are all well written and well researched.  

Take a look.  Remember, if you want to become a better writter, then you have to (1), practice writing and (2), you have to read a lot. This is another great website to add to your favorites for the non-fiction reader in you.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Intelligence Work

I am reading Dick Wolf's new book The Intercept. It is about New York Police Detective Jeremy Fisk -- a detective in the department's Intelligence Division, a "well-funded anti-terror unit modeled upon the CIA," and his race to find and disrupt a terrorist attack before it occurs. 

I don't read mass market paperbacks with a pencil in hand, however, if I had one when I hit page 15 I would have circled and underlined this paragraph:

"Covert intervention was equal parts art and science. The adrenaline flowed differently when you were investigating crimes before they happened, rather than reacting to immediate and developing crises. The Tantric anticlimax of serving search and arrest warrant -- of taking the puzzle apart before it was quite put together -- was the only drawback to Intel. Success meant that nothing happened. No bomb detonated, no bridge collapsed, nobody screamed in the night. It meant that the city kept moving. Keeping men and women going to work, children playing in parks, elderly people complaining about the weather: this was his job." (Italics Mine).
So true. It is the core contradiction in Intel work.  To do well, to succeed, means that the public can not praise your work. It means your family will not realize if one day of work was any different than the next.   But it is the quiet professional that can do it;  it is the quiet professional that can ensure society... life... continues unimpeded, defeating those who wish do us harm.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A Wife's Words

Winston and Clementine in 1908 (source: Wikipedia)
Interesting. During WWII Churchill had some rather bad days, and understandably, his temper flared and his patience waned. Eventually news of his temper and ill treatment of subordinates reached his wife, Clementine. She decided to pen a short note to Churchill, reminding him that with great power comes a good dose of humility and "Olympic calm."  From Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills, Clementine's letter reads:



10 Downing Street,
Whitehall

June 27, 1940

My Darling,

I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know.

One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner — It seems your Private Secretaries have agreed to behave like school boys & 'take what's coming to them' & then escape out of your presence shrugging their shoulders — Higher up, if an idea is suggested (say at a conference) you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas, good or bad, will be forthcoming. I was astonished & upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with & under you, loving you — I said this & I was told 'No doubt it's the strain' —

My Darling Winston — I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be.

It is for you to give the Orders & if they are bungled — except for the King, the Archbishop of Canterbury & the Speaker, you can sack anyone & everyone — Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness and if possible Olympic calm. You used to quote:— 'On ne règne sur les âmes que par le calme' — I cannot bear that those who serve the Country and yourself should not love as well as admire and respect you —

Besides you won't get the best results by irascibility & rudeness. They willbreed either dislike or a slave mentality — (Rebellion in War time being out of the question!)

Please forgive your loving devoted & watchful
Clemie

Today, sentiments such as this are more likely to be shared over e-mail vs. letter -- but shared none the less.  I do wonder:  how many spouses offer little hints and reminders to their husbands and wives, rather they are leaders in business or government?  Sometimes it is the spouse and only the spouse that can provide a gentle but appropriate -- and sometimes firm -- criticism that can affect a leaders outlook and behavior.  And sometimes they are the only appropriate person, or maybe most effective person to do so...

A short aside.  I once was working in an embassy, and an Admiral was coming by for a visit.  He was bringing his wife.  My boss called me into the office and held up two pieces of paper, one yellow the other red, and with a smile he said, "this itinerary (yellow) is the Admiral's, this itinerary (red) is his wife's, which one is more important?" I guessed, but guessed correctly.  "The wife's" I said.  "Absolutely...absolutely" he said.  

The spouse has more pull and influence then we give credit for.  So if you are sitting there on top of the world, leading form the front, in charge of hundreds of thousands of dollars, or hundreds of men and women, remember this:  When your husband or wife tells you that you need to show some "Olympic patience," it may be time to heed that advice.




Monday, June 3, 2013

Vintage Typewriters Are Still Cool


The "Faulkner Portable" via Wikipedia
A while back I blogged about writing instruments.  I offered some suggestions on a nice -- yet inexpensive -- fountain pen or two.  But recently, after a little late night surfing, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that manual typewriters are still used to write, and in some cases collected. The actor Tom Hanks apparently has over 200 manual typewriters in his collection, and this gentlemen, Ermanno Marzorati, a typewriter repairman in Beverly Hills, California, has something like 60 of Mr. Hank's beauties on his shelves waiting to be repaired.  


Saturday, June 1, 2013

Jefferson's Treasures

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale
Another great anecdote from The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, this time on Thomas Jefferson and his love of books:

"While Jefferson and his mother were away from home, the house caught fire and was destroyed with all its contents. One of their slaves came to report the bad news. "Not one of my books saved?" cried Jefferson in distress.  The slave shook his head: "No, master -- but we saved the fiddle."


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Build A Bookshelf

I'm going to have to get rid of our Ikea bookshelves soon.  They are simply not practical for a family that has to move every 2-3 years.  So then, the question is this: where do you find bookshelves that are 1., portable, and that 2., can hold a LOT of books -- I'm talking hundreds of books.  So after a short search online, I've found some plans for a bookshelf from a website called "instructables." The site has a great post which lists the cost and necessary supplies in order to make some sturdy, portable bookshelves.  And bonus: the design can be modified so you can make them smaller or larger...design to fit.  Finally, they are inexpensive.  The authors total cost looks like this:

Lumber $39.62
Hardware $18.24
Total: $57.86

Not bad.  Check it out HERE.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Writer's Desk

I'm fascinated with writer's desks, their writing instruments, and the space that writers inhabit. While the space, or the type of pen, or the desk doesn't create the work, these things help the writer channel their creative self. About a writer's space, Stephen King said it well, "Wherever you write is supposed to be a little bit of a refuge, a place where you can get away from the world. The more closed in you are, the more you're forced back on your own imagination."  I believe that.  And looking at these pictures and others like them are exciting, if only to imagine these great writers sitting there, quietly composing works that will be read, enjoyed, and loved by thousands of people throughout the world.

Here are a few pictures of famous writer's desks I've discovered recently at the interesting blog "The Writing Nut."

Leo Tolstoy's Desk via The Writing Nut

Charles Dickens' Desk via The Writing Nut

Mark Twain's Desk via The Writing Nut

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Interesting Anecdotes

Admiral Horatio Nelson
Recently I was browsing the aisles at my favorite used bookstore; I had a few books in hand and was ready to purchase my finds -- which I now can't recall what they were this specific day -- when I looked over the counter at a large stack of reference books.  Dictionaries, thesauruses, books of quotes, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.  And somewhere in that stack I spied The Little, Brown Book Of Anecdotes.  I grabbed it and added it to the pile.  I'm glad I did.  The book is anything but "little" -- it is chock full of great anecdotes -- paragraphs upon paragraphs of anecdotes.  My recent favorite is this one, about Admiral Nelson:


"When he tried to obtain compensation for his lost eye, Nelson was told that no money could be paid without a surgeon's certificate.  Annoyed by this petty bureaucracy, since his wounds were well known, Nelson nevertheless obtained the necessary documentation.  As a precaution, he asked the surgeon to make out second certificate attesting to the obvious loss of his arm.  He presented the eye certificate to the clerk, who paid out the appropriate sum, commenting on the smallness of the amount. "Oh, this is only for an eye," said Nelson. "In a few days I'll come back for an arm, and probably, in a little longer, for a leg."  Later that week he returned to the office and solemnly handed over the second certificate."

It's a great book.  You can find a copy HERE. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Some Things Never Change

I recently read the following in General Eisenhower's memoirs, at ease: Stories I tell to friends...

"The War Department moves in mysterious ways its blunders to perform  -- this sentiment expresses my mood in the fall of 1924.  Why, three months ahead of schedule , I was moved thousands of miles from Panama to the Chesapeake Bay to join three other officers in a football coaching assignment is still a cosmic top-secret to me. Then or now, one guess would be as good as another.

The whole thing may have started in a heavy think session of staff officers asa an attempt to (what is now called) "improve the image" of the Army.  On the other hand, it may have come about because some bright young junior officer , relaxing with his seniors after a golf game, remarked for lack of anything more constructive to say, "Wouldn't it be dandy to get an Army team together that they could play an undefeated, untied season and smear the Marines?"

"Such a casual question, if dimly comprehended by a senior officer who nods his head in silent acquiescence as the easiest way of being good company, can result in an amazing amount of activity."

How true this is...still.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Link of the Week

British Ministry of Defense reading list...certainly worth a look.  You'll find it HERE.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Rules to Live and Work By

Former SECDEF, Donald Rumsfeld, has recently released his new book, Rumsfeld's Rules.  I bought a copy and am half-way through reading it.  Unfortunately, many people will dismiss him out of hand immediately because of his political affiliation or his handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars from 2001-2006.  He is a polarizing figure.  But from what I've read so far, his list of "rules" is bounded in common sense; and while nothing new (Peter Drucker, Dale Carnegie et others have said similar things) the anecdotes he attaches to his rules and his plain spoken language is refreshing.  

I thought it was interesting that he used a stand-up desk, though.  It seems like it is a more productive method, and probably healthier way of getting a lot of paperwork done throughout out the day.  

There's a lot of good stuff in there.  More to follow in an upcoming post.  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Written Word

Source: Via FuckYeah! Manuscripts
I recently found this fantastic site, interestingly (?) titled, "Fuck Yeah Manuscripts!", that hosts a great/eclectic collection of written manuscripts. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to the right...more great manuscripts HERE.



Sunday, May 12, 2013

If You Don't Have Time

“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

-- Stephen King

Friday, May 10, 2013

Darwin's Daily Writing Ritual


A great excerpt about Charles Darwin's daily writing ritual from the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey:

"The first, and best, of his work periods began at 8:00 a.m., after Darwin had taken a short walk and had a solitary breakfast. Following ninety minutes of focused work in his study—disrupted only by occasional trips to the snuff jar that he kept on a table in the hallway—Darwin met his wife, Emma, in the drawing room to receive the day’s post. He read his letters, then lay on the sofa to hear Emma read the family letters aloud. When the letters were done, Emma would continue reading aloud, switching to whatever novel she and her husband were currently working their way through.

At 10:30 Darwin returned to his study and did more work until noon or a quarter after. He considered this the end of his workday, and would often remark in a satisfied voice, “I’ve done a good day’s work.”


Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even Cthose from obvious fools or cranks. If he failed to reply to a single letter, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night. The letter writing took him until about 3:00 in the afternoon, after which he went upstairs to his bedroom to rest, lying on the sofa with a cigarette while Emma continued to read from the novel-in-progress.....At 5:30, a half-hour of idleness in the drawing room preceded another period of rest and novel reading, and another cigarette, upstairs. Then he joined the family for dinner, although he did not join them in eating the meal; instead, he would have tea with an egg or a small piece of meat....

After two games of backgammon, he would read a scientific book and, just before bed, lie on the sofa and listen to Emma play the piano. He left the drawing room at about 10:00 and was in bed within a half-hour, although he generally had trouble getting to sleep and would often lie awake for hours, his mind working at some problem that he had failed to solve during the day."

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Reading Leads To...

A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.

- Henry David Thoureau

Monday, May 6, 2013

Rules To Remember

I pulled Colin Powell's autobiography, My American Journey, off the shelf the other day.  It has been a few years since I've read it.  I didn't reread it this time, but something had reminded me of one of my favorites parts of his book, namely, his 13 rules of leadership. I decided to find them and reread them.  The ones I have been reminded of at work these past few years are #3 and #8.  I laughed thinking about how old the book is now.  It isn't ancient, no, not by any means.  But now that I think about it, some of the junior officers in the military were 6 or 7 years old when General Powell was still in uniform.  I first read his book in my early twenties; my parents had a copy sitting on the shelf that stayed put for many, many years.  I devoured the book.  And I would say hands down that General Powell's biography is the best military biography in the past 20 years.  For the uninitiated, below are his 13 rules of leadership to live by:

Rule 1: It Ain’t as Bad as You Think! It Will Look Better in the Morning

Rule 2: Get Mad Then Get Over It.

Rule 3: Avoid Having Your Ego so Close to your Position that When Your Position Falls, Your Ego Goes With It.

Rule 4: It Can be Done.

Rule 5: Be Careful Whom You Choose.

Rule 6: Don’t Let Adverse Facts Stand in the Way of a Good Decision.

Rule 7: You Can’t Make Someone Else’s Decisions. You Shouldn’t Let Someone Else Make Yours

Rule 8: Check Small Things.

Rule 9: Share Credit.

Rule 10: Remain calm. Be kind.

Rule 11: Have a Vision. Be Demanding.

Rule 12: Don’t take counsel of your fears or naysayers.

Rule 13: Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Link of the Week

Brain Pickings is a great blog. Run by Maria Popova, who writes for the Wired UK and The Atlantic, it is an eclectic mix of stories and links about creativity, writing, and well, just a lot of great stuff. Here is an excerpt from the "about" page: 

'' Brain Pickings — which remains ad-free and supported by readers — is your cross-disciplinary LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces spanning art, design, science, technology, philosophy, history, politics, psychology, sociology, ecology, anthropology, and more; pieces that enrich your mental pool of resources and empower combinatorial ideas that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful.''

Start with this great post, titled, "Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers."  You'll find it HERE.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Why Do You Write?

Being a father is hard work. And it means less reading. At my current rate of reading, with interruptions, I won't finish a book for a few months. So what do I do? I still read, but I'm picking up and flipping through essays, short stories, speeches, and letters. I also recently bought a book on anecdotes. If I can finish it within thirty-minutes then strap me in, hand it over, I'll read it. If not... I'll have to pass and put it on the "to read" list. So in that vein, I've recently pulled some books of essays off my shelf that I read years ago, but due to my current reading time restrictions, decided they deserved another go. One of these was the excellent Turkish writer and Noble Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, and his book of essays, Other Colours

The last essay in the book, titled, "My Father's Suitcase," is actually his Nobel acceptance speech that he gave back in 2006. There is a beautiful paragraph in the speech -- although the entire thing is excellent -- that is worth repeating over and over again:


"Let me change the mood with a few sweet words that will, I hope, serve as well as that music. As you know, the question we writers are asked most often, the favourite question, is; why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can't do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life's beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can't quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.''


So...why do you write?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hemingway's Best Guide on Writing


I was reading Paul Johnson's Intellectuals this evening -- a NY Times Bestseller from 1988, described as "A fascinating portrait about the minds that have shaped the modern world.... intriguing series of case studies [on], Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Brecht, Sartre, Edmund Wilson..." -- and I came across this interesting bit of information. "....Hemingway had had the advantage of an excellent training on the Kansas City Star. Its successive editors had compiled a house-style book of 110 rules designed to force reporters to use plain, simple, direct and cliche-free English, and these rules were strictly enforced. Hemingway later called them 'the best rules I ever learned in the business of writing.'"  I found the rules after a short search...here's an excerpt:


  • Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.
  • Never use old slang. Slang to be enjoyable must be fresh.
  • Eliminate every superfluous word as "Funeral services will be at 2 o'clock Tuesday," not "Thefuneral services will be held at the hour of 2 o'clock on Tuesday." He said is better than he said in the course of conversation.
  • Be careful of the word also. It usually modifies the word it follows closest. "He, also, went" means "He, too, went." "He went also" means he went in addition to taking some other action.
  • Be careful of the word "only". "He only had $10," means he alone was the possessor of such wealth; "He had only $10," means the ten was all the cash he possessed.
  • Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous, grand, magnificent, etc.
  • Say "She was born in Ireland and came to Jackson County in 1874," not "but came to Jackson County." She didn't come here to make amends for being born in Ireland. This is common abuse of the conjunction.
  • Don't say "He had his leg cut off in an accident." He wouldn't have had it done for anything.
  • "He suffered a broken leg in a fall," not "he broke his leg in a fall." He didn't break the leg, the fall did. Say a leg, not his leg, because presumably the man has two legs.
  • In writing of animals, use the neuter gender except when you are writing of a pet that has a name.
  • A long quotation without introducing the speaker makes a poor lead especially and is bad at any time. Break into the quotation as soon as you can, thus: "I should prefer," the speaker said, "to let the reader know who I am as soon as possible."
  • Try to preserve the atmosphere of the speech in your quotation. For instance, in quoting a child, do not let him say "Inadvertently, I picked up the stone and threw it."
  • Such words as "tots," 'urchins," "mites of humanity" are not to be used in writing of children. In such cases, where "kid" conveys the proper shading and fits the story, it is permissible.
  • He died of heart disease, not heart failure--everybody dies of "heart failure."
  • Resolutions are adopted, not passed. Bills are passed and laws are enacted. The house or senate passed a bill; congress or the legislature enacted a law.
  • Both simplicity and good taste suggest house rather than residence, and lives rather thanresides.
  • A Woman of the Name of Mary Jones--Disrespect is attached to the individual in such cases. Avoid it. Never use it even in referring to street walkers.


Here's the original style sheet, although hard to read, from the KC Star.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Writing with WIne

An interesting fact about ink that I just read over at NPR's website:
                
Glass of Red Wine, courtesy of Wikipedia
"For centuries, writers relied on alcohol to keep the words flowing in a far less boozy form than the Burroughs and Hemingways of literary history: the wine ink pen.

Wine, it turns out, was a key ingredient in many recipes for iron gall ink — for all you non-ink nerds, that was the writing ink used by most of the Western world from the Middle Ages all the way up to the 19th century....The chemistry involved can get pretty wonky, but basically, the wine was believed to make the coloring agents in ink more stable. Wine was also considered a purer solvent than water. And iron gall inks were prized because they were so indelible."

Link of the Week

"The Bookworm" by Carl Spitzweg
Wow.  Driving home the other day I was listening to the radio and stumbled upon "Bookworm," a radio show which hosts established and upcoming authors of fiction and poetry (scrolling through the large cache of interviews I found a few non-fiction writers as well).   All of the interviews are available for free on the web.  The inventory of interviews is huge -- going back all the way to 1990s.  For us book lovers, finding another place were books are discussed is like finding another trunk of treasure.  Truly.  So this was a pleasant discovery while flipping through the AM channels.   

Here's the description from the website:

A must for the serious reader, Bookworm showcases writers of fiction and poetry - the established, new or emerging - all interviewed with insight and precision by the show's host and guiding spirit, Michael Silverblatt.

You'll find the website with the podcasts here.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Quote of the Week

The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.  -- Descartes

Monday, April 22, 2013

Best Military Reading List, Ever


I was surfing around this evening for new and inspiring reading lists on military history/biography books, and after a few queries I ended right back up at one of my favorite military blogs. Author and journalist Tom Ricks has a reading list he posted back in 2012 which he calls his "Best Military Reading List Ever: The ones he came back to read second time."  I didn't remember seeing his list, so I eagerly scrolled through the post.


Oscar Wilde once said that “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” A little strict, I believe. But Wilde hits on a significant point: the best books are the books we do want to read over and over again.  Ricks has a lot of Vietnam on there, a subject that certainly interests him. Colin Powell's memoir is on there (which I've read twice; excellent book), Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command (another excellent book), and a few others. It is not heavy in military classics -- Clausewitz is on there, but nothing else that would probably be considered a "military classic," no Sun Tzu, no Mahan, no Thucydides.  I'm not criticizing  the lack of classics, it's simply an observation.  Overall, it looks like a good list.  I haven't read many of the books that cover the Vietnam war  -- so I can't speak to those -- but some of the others are certainly worth your time. 

His entire list is here.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

How Do You Organize A Home Library?

I've recently finished Jacques Bonnet's small but excellent book, Phantoms On The Bookshelves.  Absolutely no question, Bonnet is a bibliophile.  He owns a library of some 40,000 titles.  That is a lot of books.  Phantoms On The Bookshelves is a short book, coming in at just over 100 pages.  It's full of anecdotes, aphorisms, and is really a long love letter to all book lovers.  He also has managed to drop fantastic quotes among his stories and reflections; every few pages you read such greats as:

"With few books, but learned/I live in conversation with the dead/ And I listen to the deceased with my eyes" - Francisco de Quevedo.

"[Writing is] great, very great, in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances  of time and space." - Abraham Lincoln

"Some people are fond of horses, others of wild animals; in my case, I have been possessed since childhood by a prodigious desire to buy and own books." - Julian The Apostate

"Libraries, like museums, are a refuge from old age, sickness and death." - Jean Grenier....and many more.

One of my favorite parts of this slim volume, are the pages detailing the challenge of organizing 40,000 volumes.  He starts by describing Georges Perec's attempt at categorizing books, which Perec said could be done by:

alphabetically
by continent or country
by colour
by date of acquisition
by date of publication
by size
by genre
by literary period
by language
by frequency of consultation
by binding
by series

Bonnet categorizes his massive library by literature, non-fiction, and then the arts.  And within each genre he has it broken down into sub-genres (e.g., literature is then subdivided by language; art is divided into music, cinema, photography, etc).  But he spends many pages ruminating over the challenges categorizing so many books and the myriad of ways one may go about doing so.  Each to their own is his essential message, but best of luck if you have thousands of volumes to get in order.

Phantoms On The Bookshelves is a great read.  If you own lots of books, or someday wish to build your own impressive library, Bonnet will certainly leave your mouth watering.  Bonnet is a Frenchman, and many of the works he mentions are foreign works, most of which I've never heard of.  Not that they may not be excellent reads, but I suggest you bring a pencil and paper to write down the many titles he names and look them up later and see if any interest you.


A portion of my library on the living room floor in 2008
My library is still somewhere around 800 titles -- maybe more, maybe less.  But I'd say that's a good guess.  In 2008 I tried to organize my books but space has always been limited.  My wife's books always make their way among my books and I still spend too much time trying to find a particular title.  I envy Bonnet, who says that even among 40,000 titles he still knows where to find a particular book.  Someday I'll have a house large enough to hold my library of 800?  2,000?  10,000? titles.  



Thursday, April 18, 2013


Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.

- Gene Fowler

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Learning from Others


April's edition of The Harvard Business Review has a great article about how best to learn from others. The title of the article is "Make Yourself an Expert: How to pull knowledge from the smartest people around you." In it, the authors, Dorothy Leonard, Gavin Barton, and Michelle Barton, describe the process which you can learn from others.  Roughly, it goes something like this:

1. Observation
2. Practice
3. Partners and Problem Solve

4. Take Responsibility

And during the entire process "codify the new knowledge in notes." 

Every organization has at least a few people which are the "go to" people, the best at what they do.  The authors stress it is these people that are the best mentors and teachers, and we have to help ourselves if we want to become better.  And they go on to say, "You can't count on companies or mentors to equip you with the skills and experience you need. You must learn how to "pull" deep smarts from others."

Finally, these questions will probably start you off in the right direction:

"After observing your expert, ask, what did he do and why?  What did I do?  What worked?  What didn't?"

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Quote of the Week

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

-- Francis Bacon

Thursday, April 11, 2013

He Wrote Poetry?

I'm embarrassed to say that I was not aware Mark Twain wrote poetry (and apparently Twain said he detested poetry).  I've read much of his "sketches," essays, A Tramp Abroad, Roughing It, and of course, I think we all had to read about Huck's adventures during high school.  So I was pleasantly surprised to catch some of his verse in "Brain Pickings," another great site for all things bookish/reading.  This one -- a short poem about the death of his dog, titled "My Dog Burns" -- is moving.
A young Mark Twain

MY DOG BURNS

No more shall bear beauteous form
Be seen in the raging storm.
No more shall her wondrous tail
Dodge the quickly dropping hail.

She lived a quiet harmless life
In Hartford far from madding strife;
Nor waged no War on peaceful rat
Nor battled with wild fierce tomcat.

No, No, my beloved, dear ’cause dead
What tough thy coat was a brick dust red?
Like a good author, thou was a trusty friend
And thy tail, like his, red to the very end.

You can read more here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Do You Want To Read More?

Occasionally I'm asked how I'm able to read so much.  Speed-reading -- no.   Skimming -- sometimes.  Like many things, we accomplish what we make a priority.  Reading just happens to be one of my priorities. A few things, however, will probably help you make more time for reading.

1.  The internet can be a time suck.  Seriously.  Ask yourself how often you've got online, only to click on a link, then click on another, then suddenly you are following crumbs down a hallway, link to link and now you've been "surfing" for an hour, maybe more.  Try -- yes it is hard -- to focus your online reading (e.g., click only through your favorites or your news feed) so you can leave time for a good ol' book.

2.  Always have a book handy.  How many times have you been in a line or sitting in a traffic jam -- absolutely still -- but you didn't have anything to do?  I've read a book in the DMV line (California has LONG lines), in a 20min traffic jam, and more.  Just have a book handy.

3. The bathroom.  Duh.

4. For my military peers:  I don't think it is unreasonable to carve out some time to read during the workday.  Something on naval history?  Military biography?  Absolutely.   

5. Finally, books on CD.  If your commute is a beast -- like it is for many folks in major cities, then books on CD are fantastic.  Give it a try.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Live First, Then Write...Not the Other Way Around

Today I read a nice, short article on the Atlantic by Jon Reiner titled, "Live First, Write Later: The Case for Less Creative-Writing Schooling."  In it he discusses his initial shock, then envy, and finally, understanding of how a young writer whose work he edited, while still rough was selected for publication for The New Yorker online.  Reiner realizes how much experience matters:

''After I was talked down from the ledge by a patient friend, however, I realized that the student's scenario represented something I believe about the essence of good writing: experience matters. And, unintentionally, his success illuminated how the process of teaching writing to aspirants is often misguided or flat-out wrong.''

It was another reminder, for me at least, that you have to get your writing out there -- let others decide if they like it or not.   Listen to feedback, edit and rewrite -- and then rewrite some more.  

You'll be able to read it in 5-8 minutes; it is short and worth your time, particularly if you've ever thought about taking a writing course.  You'll find it here.

Monday, April 8, 2013

An Early Christmas


A few weeks ago I sent a "return care package" to my favorite author, Mr. Michael Dirda.  In a past blog post I described how I shipped some of my favorite copies of his works to him for inscription.  And I closed the post saying I would tell you how it all turned out.  Well, Mr. Dirda, a busy but generous man indeed, inscribed my copies and returned them using my self-addressed envelopes.  I do say it felt like Christmas morning when I saw the package on the front porch this afternoon.  In the picture above, in my copy of On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, you might be able just to make out his inscription: "To Christopher, The Game is Always Afoot."  For the none Sherlockian fan, it is a quote from Sherlock Holmes, first seen in "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange," when Holmes tells Watson, "Come. Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!"  Leading us into another fantastic story.  

I know I'll enjoy and treasure these inscribed editions for many, many years.  Although, I guess it bears repeating: write an author whose work you respect, admire, or simply enjoy.  You really never know how your favorite author may respond.  


Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Robot Reading List

The FBI has a reading list for all things robots and unmanned vehicles.  PW Singer's book Wired for War, which I purchased a few weeks ago, is on the list.  It is sitting on the shelf waiting to be read.  I think we are at the cusp of what we'll look back and call a robotic revolution.   But whatever you want to call it, I believe we'll see amazing advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics in the next 5-10 years.  Should be interesting.  And definitely, if anything, a great place to start working in and learning more about.

Here's the list.