Wasup Craigslist

One aspect of Mark Twain’s genius was the keen ear by which he was able to duplicate the sounds and rhythms of a variety of dialects. Certainly this too was one of the remarkable charms of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

Since I might be interested in purchasing a good quality bike rack for our car, I receive notifications from Craigslist when one is listed. That led to the following. I’m not really sure what to make of it. It’s real (I couldn’t make this up). It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s worth trying to read out loud. And if this is fiction, there is another master out there waiting for his break.

Wasup craigslist i got a clean 93 honda civic eg hatch this car is like a 9/10 has a super fresh jdm b20 with a bout 85k on it has a b16 tranny new axels new distributer fresh oilchange motor is mint its so fresh yu can eat of it! Has a chipped computer with 2step luanch control on a basemap has a check engine shift light. Paint is in good condition but not perfect suspesion i have ground control coilovers with tockicko blue struts its on red gt3 with new tires has front lip hids city lights amber corners i have foglights not installed will come with buyer also has yakima bike rack has rpm tach short shifter headers no oil leaks or kicks or ticks on the motor the ca is super clean and talks for it self im giving it cheap bcuzbi need the money i am asking 4300 or better offer willing to work aomething out the less yu offer the more i take off also chas a system has no ps or ac also has a momo champion stering wheel with nrg quick release also has front and rear red towhooks intirior is in very good condition also car is worth more then wat i am asking hmu txt me or call me

If any would like to submit a translation, post it in the comments. I think it’s English, however….

1776. 4th Down. 3 Seconds on the Clock. Washington Drops Back to Pass…

On Saturday morning I had no schedule. The family was away and I was alone. I sat on the couch intending to drink a cup of coffee and read for a bit. I drank a whole pot and read a lot. I read to the end, in fact, of David McCullough’s 1776. If I may indulge a sports analogy, I read like I was experiencing an 80 yard touchdown drive during the final 38 seconds of a football game. Though I knew how the game, I mean book, would end, I read away with tension thick.

This is the fourth of McCullough’s books I’ve read. That it is not his best is irrelevant, and only speaks to the quality of his other work.

McCullough’s intention is to take the reader through the first full year of the American Revolution from the military point of view. Congress in this book plays a minimal role as the focus falls upon George Washington’s desperate attempt to hold together an army of untrained and undisciplined men come together with disparate motivates and conflicting regional loyalties. That the army survived to see 1777 is nothing short of miraculous.

Washington’s failures and blind spots and weaknesses are on display. But also one sees his patience, his political wisdom, and his intuitive leadership skill. Much the same is seen in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s equally good Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Both Washington and Lincoln lead men of varying abilities and loyalties through a time of crisis. There are lessons to be learned here.

Leadership is not the only skill to be learned from these pages, however. I am captivated by the story-telling skill of McCullough, Goodwin, and others I’ve read recently, such as Walter Isaacson and Laura Hillenbrand. It would be worthwhile to return to each book and assess how they accomplish what they do.

Sure, I’d like to lead like Washington or Lincoln; but even more, I’d love to write like McCullough, Goodwin, Isaacson, or Hillenbrand.

Bonhoeffer vs. Metaxas

Eric Metaxas’ massive 2010 biography of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy) was received so favorably that Christianity Today could report that six months after its release it had sold 160,000 hardcover copies, even though published by the American evangelical publisher Thomas Nelson. (It is still selling at a volume that keeps it in the top 1000 of all books sold on Amazon.com.)

Evangelical reviewers were effusive in their praise. A reviewer in Books and Culture introduces it as a “riveting biography” which holds “…the reader’s attention from the first page to the last….” A Kings College lecturer praises Metaxas in the pages of the Wall Street Journal for his “…passion and theological sophistication….”

But it was the recommendation of friends with comments like this contained in an email: “if you haven’t picked up Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer book yet, its stinkin awesome”  that  had the greatest impact on my choice to read the book.

My only agreement with the reviewers, however, is that the book is indeed massive (550 pages). Beyond that, our opinions diverge.

Bonhoeffer indeed was a fascinating person, as the subtitle suggests. He was a man of deep and firm conviction whose devotion to his God led him to take action that both troubles and inspires us. He was a German Christian pastor and theologian who early on saw the evil in Hitler’s rise to power. He struggled deeply with how a Christian and the church should respond to the evils which we in retrospect can see so clearly. He chose a path of opposition and defiance. For his association with a plot which led to an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler, he was executed at age 39 just two weeks before the war was over.

We respond to such a life. He was a faithful Christian, a devoted son, a passionate author, a humble servant of those in need. At his death he was engaged to be married to a young woman whom he had hardly had the chance to embrace, so thoroughly had the war separated them. To read of such a life is to reflect on our own and the choices we think we would have made, and the ones we do in our own point in history. Bonhoeffer challenges us all.

It is not just his life that matters here. It is the theology that motivated that life. Metaxas has stirred up a hornets’ nest of controversy regarding Bonhoeffer’s theology. “Eric Metaxas gives us a Bonhoeffer who looks a lot like an American evangelical…,” says one reviewer. Non-evangelicals tend to think that Metaxas is hijacking Bonhoeffer’s legacy and wresting him from the theologically liberal camp where they think he belongs. And so the battle rages.

Though Metaxas makes a good case I will let the theological battles be fought elsewhere. Whether he was or was not ‘evangelical’ is of little consequence to me. What matters to me is that in the reviewers’ zeal to address Bonhoeffer’s courage or to praise the book for its claiming him for ‘our side’, they overlook the fact that the book could have been so much better. As it is, the writing detracts terribly from the content. It seems to me that the book has received attention because of the interest of its subject and despite its stylistic and presentation flaws.

Metaxas’ slavish devotion to a chronological telling of Bonhoeffer’s life strips the vigor from the story. He strings together paragraph after paragraph, each of which is tied to the prior by chronological markers. Random references to places he stopped on his travels and gifts he bought for Christmas may be true enough in the chronology of his life, but such detail adds nothing to the story.

Further this bondage to chronology can kill the narrative drama. The last years of Bonhoeffer’s life were marked with plots and espionage and secrecy and threat, the stuff of novels. When the final attempt on Hitler’s life fails, Bonhoeffer is imprisoned and eventually killed. It could have been a grippingly told tale. However, because Bonhoeffer writes some things while in prison which are key in the theological controversies, Metaxas interrupts the narrative to engage the debate concerning these theological matters. Far better to tell the story of a man’s life through a series of overlapping thematic panels of content. A chapter on the theological controversies could tell one story while traversing a wide chronology, and then the story of the political intrigue could be told without interruption. I think only someone  working on a doctorate in theology would feel that the book holds “the reader’s attention from the first page to the last…” It doesn’t.

Secondly, this tends in the distinct direction of hagiography (well critiqued here). Whenever we tell the story of someone we hold in high regard and with deep affection, it is hard to be objective about the subject matter. But we must be objective, and we must report the faults in a subject as well as his virtues. Did Bonhoeffer have faults at all? All men do, but his certainly are obscured if not completely omitted in this book.

Thirdly, I expect a biographer to tell the story of his subject by distilling the events and works of his life into a coherent narrative. Though Metaxas really aims at this, his effort is stymied by his over-dependence upon quoted material. Page after page is filled with quotes from letters and sermons and articles. One longish chapter has, by my estimate, 1260 total lines of text of which 590 (nearly half) are quotes. In fact, the biography ends with the entire manuscript of the sermon preached at his memorial service. Much of this is no doubt material worth preserving. But preserve it in an appendix. As it is, it bogs down the story by requiring the reader to do the distilling that is the biographer’s job.

Finally, Metaxas needs to ‘kill his darlings‘. Metaxas is so fond of clever turns of phrase that one loses sight of the seriousness of the story in the triteness of his language. Well turned phrases can enhance a story, but poorly chosen clevernesses detract. And they detract in abundance here.

At one point he says that Hitler “…would now with a flourish produce from his hindquarters a withered olive branch and wave it before a goggling world.” (356) From his hindquarters?

In speaking of the hopes attached to a plan to explode a bomb in a plane in which Hitler was flying, he walks through the events which “…would explode the bomb and then: curtains.” (427)

He tells of a church publication that had “…gone over to the dark side…” (325) Of the deal that Neville Chamberlain made with Hitler, “…it was ‘peace’ on the house, with a side order of Czechoslovakia.” (314)

Writing is hard. And harder still is it to write and then receive the insight of others as to how to improve one’s writing. And still harder is to be forced into making changes based upon the insight of another when that other is a clearheaded editor. I don’t blame Metaxas for the faults listed above. I blame his editor. A good editor would have forced him to address the stylistic weaknesses and would have reduced this from massive to manageable. A good editor, that is, could have made this into a book that was indeed “stinkin’ awesome”.

Dear Diary…

I mused a few weeks ago about the lost art of the diary.

Apparently, according to the New York Times, I’m not the only one musing along those lines. The Morgan Library and Museum in New York has apparently brought together an exhibit focusing on the art of keeping a diary. Oh, to be able to visit. If the previous post sparked any interest at all, this article will be worth the read.

As I did, the author here sees the relationship between the diary and things such as Facebook and Twitter.

Our own era, of course, has turned spontaneous journalizing into something of a fetish, as 140-character tweets supposedly spring spontaneously from the thumbs of celebrities; scores of electronic walls sprout on which “friends” post tirelessly about their socially networked activities; and blogs are tossed into the electronic ether like rolled-up notes floating in virtual bottles. And though far less distinguished, the contemporary mix of self-invention, self-promotion and self-revelation is probably not that different from what is on display here.

But the most interesting observation she makes is on whether written self-reflection is true. Some diarists clearly wrote for history, and tidied up their lives to make themselves look good. Others wrote for themselves, and might have been excessively hard on themselves. For honesty, she commends the author of the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” John Newton:

An enormous volume by the British slaveholder John Newton recounts his spiritual conversion (which led to the composition of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and to his later opposition to slavery), but also his “repeated backslidings”: “I have been reading what I have recorded of my experience in the last year — a strange vanity. I find myself condemned in every page.”

My own journal keeping occurs early, early in the morning, when sometimes my soul is as dark as the sky is outside. It’s not necessarily an accurate description of my whole view of life!

Anyway, fascinating reading.

The Diary

Interesting men and women of the past kept diaries. They would record, often daily, without the aid of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates (or Thomas Edison for that matter) thoughts, observations, joys, sorrows, all threaded through a running narrative of their daily lives.

Do they still? I really don’t know. I don’t.

In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the stories of four men who rose to prominence in the 19th century: Lincoln, and three rivals who eventually served with him on his cabinet. She records the diary keeping habits of one of these men, Edward Bates of St. Louis.

Beyond commentary on his family and his city, Bates filled the pages of his diary with observations of the changing seasons, the progress of his flowers, and the phases of the moon. He celebrated the first crocus each year, his elm trees shedding seed, oaks in full tassel, tulips in their prime. (page 67)

Goodwin goes on to note that Bates was a “contented man”. That in and of itself is a rare thing.

Taking time to regularly take note of one’s place in life and to reflect on the rhythms around us by recording our narratives would be beneficial, especially for those who process life by writing, and could perhaps serve to feed contentment.

Why did such men and women keep diaries? Were they kept by only certain social strata? Did they keep them with the expectation that they would be read? If they lived now, would they trade the diary for Facebook, Twitter, or a blog? Did anyone ever begrudge them the time spent in their diary keeping? Where did they find the time, discipline, and motive to keep a diary?

Those questions could make an interesting study, which I’m sure has been done. But my real interest is whether anyone, perhaps among my readers, yet keeps a diary. If you do, please share some of your thoughts with the rest of us.

Andre’s Ghost

One of the comments attached to my post on Andre Agassi’s book Open noted that the book must have been ghost written. I assume that with nearly all memoirs, that is a given. In this case, Agassi makes every effort to communicate his great respect for and dependence upon the man who formed his story into captivatingly readable prose.

On the publisher’s web page there is, nestled among accolades from sources such as the New York Times and Time Magazine this snippet from Entertainment Weekly:

“Not only has Agassi bared his soul like few professional athletes ever have, he’s done it with a flair and force that most professional writers can’t even pull off.”

I get the impression that this reviewer somehow really believed that Agassi wrote this. But he is right: most professional writers can’t pull it off, and so Agassi turned to a Pulitzer Prize-winning professional writer. It is only fitting that the story of one of the best in one field should be written by one of the best in another.

There is a context in which ghostwriting can be a dishonest act (and it’s prevalence in Christian publishing is a dirty little secret). But this is not one of those cases. The ghost is not invisible. In his acknowledgements, after four paragraphs describing the extent of their collaboration, Agassi says this:

I asked J.R. many times to put his name on this book. He felt, however, that only one name belonged on the cover. Though proud of the work we did together, he said he couldn’t see signing his name to another man’s life. These are your stories, he said, your people, your battles. It was the kind of generosity I first saw on display in his memoir. I knew not to argue. Stubbornness is another quality we share. But I insisted on using this space to describe the extent of J.R.’s role and to publicly thank him.

Such humility and honesty I find refreshing. These qualities do not live in the acknowledgements alone, and this is what gives the book value and makes it a worthy and enjoyable read.

Even if there are no hills in Bradenton.

Scrivener 2.0 and Scrivener for Windows

I am, as I’ve said before, a HUGE fan of Scrivener and cannot imagine writing any sermon or any other research based or long document without it. Scrivener is hard to describe and has to be tried to really discover its usefulness.

Just today, an advance copy of Scrivener 2.0 for Mac has been made available, and a beta version of Scrivener for Windows. Both are available here.

To get a good intro to what Scrivener can do, check out the introductory videos as well.

A Qualified Arbiter?

I want to know WHY I find the essays of one such as Stephen Jay Gould to be more accessible, and therefore of greater power, than that of the essay A Perfect Game by David B. Hart. I know I prefer the one. The question is “Why?”

The literary world will grimace when I invite Stephen King to serve as an arbiter.

Another favorite essayist of mine, whose pen has now grown silent, is Cullen Murphy who wrote for the Atlantic Monthly (and produced, for a time, the epic Sunday comic staple “Prince Valiant“). In a humorous but perceptive essay, Murphy came to King’s defense, I think, when King was taken to task by Harold Bloom for making no contribution to humanity other than “keeping the publishing world afloat”.

King’s book On Writing is more a memoir than a handbook on style (and is therefore a book that many can read and enjoy), but he did make some comments about style that have stuck with me. In short, he, like many stylists, praised the active voice and eschewed unnecessarily complex sentences and tendentious uses of modifiers. (“The adverb is not your friend,” he says.)

I’d like to go through the essays by Hart and Gould, mark the use of adjectives and adverbs, the complex sentences, and the use of the passive voice. My guess is that Gould would have far fewer of each. This would be fun, but I despair having the time to do it.

I’m just a lowly pastor and consumer of the written word. And I may be an arrogant one at that, setting myself in judgment over one who not only thinks, he writes, and not only writes, but writes with sufficient merit to be published. But when good ideas, ideas I want to embrace, are wrapped in obscurity, that makes me sad. I’d like to see them set free.

Judging the Wrapper

I argue that David Hart, in his essay “A Perfect Game”, made a beautiful swing for the fences, but managed only to pop out to first. Others of you no doubt disagree.

Is there a way to judge between the two opinions?

To judge a steak, I compare it to a really good steak, one which I have eaten before, one on another plate before me, or an ideal I have imagined. Though my judgment is ultimately one of taste, I’m certain that a really fine food critic would make his judgment based upon factors of which I would be unaware. The critic’s judgment would either explain why I preferred the one to the other, or I, in deference to the background and expertise of the critic, would be forced to train my taste to recognize the superior quality of the one I did not choose.

Writing is not all that different. If I set Hart’s piece next to other baseball writing, how does it hold up? If I find it in comparison far less tasty than some of the best out there, the objective criteria of my literary elders would either explain why I find it superior or would force me to reassess my judgment.

This question made me think of a man whom I consider to be one of the best essayists in recent generations: Stephen Jay Gould, of both Harvard University and the American Museum of Natural History. These credentials alone suggest that he, too, like David Hart, is a fairly sharp guy.

I was first introduced to Gould through the pages of Natural History magazine in which he would write a monthly essay when I was subscriber 30 years ago. As a paleontologist Gould would often aim his sharp and piercing verbal arrows at the Biblical account of creation. His essays were challenging, sometimes disturbing, and always accessible.

Though I often disagreed with his conclusions, Gould, like a good essayist, did not (to make a paleontological allusion) bury his bones under impenetrable sediment of verbiage, but exposed them in such a way that forced me to deal with them.

Gould was as well a lover of baseball (and of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, for which I pity him). I was reminded of this recently when reading the introduction to the book Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series which Gould wrote.

To sample writing in which Gould weaves his love for baseball and his contemplations about origins, perhaps this essay, The Creation Myths of Cooperstown, will serve as a ‘second steak’ to set alongside Hart’s The Perfect Game.

I’m not on a crusade do denigrate David Hart. But I am asking if there is such a thing as ‘good’ writing and ‘poor’ writing and how to judge the difference.