May 13, 2015

"The first lesson he taught was what to leave out... He was a demon about clutter."

He = William Zinsser, author of "On Writing Well," who has died at the age of 92 dead at 92
William Knowlton Zinsser was born in Manhattan on Oct. 7, 1922. He escaped the urgings of his father to join the family’s shellac business but could not escape his mother’s counsel that being cheerful was a Christian obligation.
ADDED: One of my favorite writers is Bill Bryson. I was thinking about him earlier this morning  because one of his books is on that "Books That Literally All White Men Own: The Definitive List" that I mentioned but didn't want to link to in my post titled "Books That Literally All White Women Own: The Definitive List." Zinsser's book could be but isn't on the "White Men" list. The letter Z isn't even on the list, I know, because I searched the page and landed in the comments and saw people bitching about the absence of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." The Bill Bryson book on the "White Men" list was "A Walk in the Woods," but the the Zinsser obituary made me think about "At Home: A Short History of Private Life." In the logic of blogging, Bryson's name coming up twice in one morning means I must I look up this passage:
Shellac is a hard resinous secretion from the Indian lac beetle. Lac beetles emerge in swarms in parts of India at certain times of the year, and their secretions make varnish that is odorless, nontoxic, brilliantly shiny, and highly resistant to scratches and fading. It doesn’t attract dust while wet, and it dries in minutes. Even now, in an age of chemistry, shellac has scores of applications against which synthetic products cannot compete. When you go bowling, it is shellac that gives the alleys their peerless sheen, for instance.
And that makes this the second post this morning with an "insects" tag. In blog logic, that means it's a great day. Let's go bowling!

30 comments:

Bob Ellison said...

Seems kinda wordy about words.

Aussie Pundit said...

He escaped the urgings of his father to join the family’s shellac business but could not escape his mother’s counsel that being cheerful was a Christian obligation.

I'm not quite sure what this sentence means.
He learned cheerfulness from his mother? Or did he learn that her cheerfulness was based in her religious beliefs? Or that he should be cheerful if he wanted to go to heaven?
What has all that got to do with his father's job?

William said...

I like Antiques Roadshow. It's very relaxing to watch. It takes you out of the passions of the moment. Bill Bryson is the Antiques Roadshow of writers.

Sebastian said...

"Write clearly" isn't clear advice. Joseph Williams is more useful, though he lacked the grace he advocated.

"“Pop Goes America” (1966), analyzed what was meant by the word “pop” (an enjoyment of the superficial, he explained)."

Motto for the cultural musings on this blog?

PuertoRicoSpaceport.com said...

Amen about wordiness. I find it the hardest habit to overcome as a writer. I'll have to write a 500 word article and by the time I am finished with my first draft I am usually closer to 1000 than 500.

I think it was Elmore Leonard who said something like get rid of every word that does not move the story along. His rules for writers are online and well worth reading for any writer.

OTOH, some writers, GV Higgins for example, tend to be very wordy and get away with it.

John Henry

mccullough said...

Don't clut your writing

Ann Althouse said...

@Aussie

I avoided clutter by not including the next sentence: "“It is because of her that I am cursed with optimism,” he said in his autobiography."

But your questions are good and work as criticism of the obituary writer, who must have been trying like hell to write well on this occasion. I think "could not escape his mother’s counsel" should only mean that he couldn't avoid hearing her give this advice, which would only mean that he was aware of her theory that there's a religious obligation to be cheerful.

The next sentence does nail down a meaning: that he was forced to follow her counsel. Whether he used the word "counsel" or not, I don't know. We do know that he used the word "curse." I don't even know if he used "cheerful." He might have only said "optimism."

Curse is jocose, but the difference between cheerful and optimism is significant.

tim in vermont said...

Zen absolutely should be on that list, even if the book is based on the ridiculous premise that sophistry is more powerful than empiricism.

Ann Althouse said...

"I like Antiques Roadshow. It's very relaxing to watch. It takes you out of the passions of the moment. Bill Bryson is the Antiques Roadshow of writers."

Bill Bryson is my #1 choice in audiobooks to listen to while falling asleep. I've listened to his books thousands of times!

Something about the rambling quality. "A Walk in the Woods" is most literally a ramble, but all of the books are a ramble. He can write about anything, like all the various things that happened in the summer of 1927 or whatever the rooms in his house remind him of. It's great. I marvel at the endless encounters with interesting things stumbled into while rambling. As a blogger, I relate to this very naturally. As a sleeper, I thank the great Bill Bryson for displacing 100,000 hours of insomnia.

EDH said...

Here's NPR using lots of words to say "we haven't a clue".

How 'Shellacking' Came To Mean 'Defeat'

NOVEMBER 04, 2010 3:00 PM ET

NPR's Robert Siegel and Michele Norris contemplate the word "shellacking" as used by President Obama on Wednesday, in talking about the election successes by Republicans in the midterm contests. How did the name of a substance used to provide the final coat on paint or other surfaces come to be used to express a drubbing?

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Yesterday, in an unvarnished comment at his post-election news conference, President Obama said this.

President BARACK OBAMA: I'm not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A shellacking - that is, a decisive defeat, according to Merriam-Webster's. The term has an old-timey feel to it, like something used by a stern father decades ago.

NORRIS: Maybe that's because it has an older meaning: a finish for furniture made with lac - L-A-C - as in lacquer.

SIEGEL: You mean lac, a resinous secretion of an insect deposited on trees and used in making shellac, a varnish.

NORRIS: Thanks, Random House.

SIEGEL: So how did shellac make the linguistic leap to defeat? Jesse Sheidlower, of the Oxford English Dictionary, was half-expecting our call about this today. But he didn't find a definitive answer. He ruled out origins in sports. And he said shellac smelled of alcohol and became slang for drunk. He says it was prison slang.

NORRIS: From crime to politics, meaning washed up or trounced - which is, in case you missed it, exactly what happened to the Democratic Party in Tuesday's elections.

Ann Althouse said...

" As a sleeper, I thank the great Bill Bryson for displacing 100,000 hours of insomnia."

More like 50,000 hours of sleep, only maybe a third of which might have been insomnia. I should have said 10,000 hours of insomnia.

I've been using the audiobook method of sleeping for 20 years or so.

Coupe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
robother said...

A father's "urging" vs. a mother's "counsel." Jesus.

And note that the object of the father's urging is the rational economic choice of a career, while that of the mother's counsel is the emotional state appropriate to a religious belief system.

Of course, the trope of "escape" from either urging or counsel is impossibly muddled.

m stone said...

Depending on how she "counseled," a word which Zinsser might not have used, the curse may have been real.

The curse's lesser relative is "judgment" and if his mother were to make a judgment of her son, he may have been inclined enough to become the cheerful man he was. But concise?

Not a bad judgment, but we should avoid them all IMHO.

Zinsser was not as concise as E. B. White.

tim maguire said...

EDH, did they consider that shellacking is the last step in furniture building? As in, after the shellacking, you're finished.

Tank said...

On Writing Well and The Elements of Style were the two "textbooks" assigned when I took English in college (where I learned how to write).

College is not really when you should be learning that, is it?

The Elements of Style is what I give high school grads so that they too might just learn how to write. Mostly it's appreciated.

Chris N said...

Meh

Laslo Spatula said...

I used to write. Now I just transcribe.

I am Laslo.

Cornroaster said...

Noted author Dan Simmons, who was a college classmate of mine, has a section of his blog titled "Writing Well" and also has a discussion area of his website for those interested in the subject. Dan was a high school English teacher before transitioning to full- time writing. http://www.dansimmons.com/writing_welll/writing.htm

buwaya puti said...

Eh, that mens book list may work for certain sorts of man, but jeez, that's a tiny subset of men, even educated ones. Trendoids, flibbertigibbets, and lightweights.
I've either got or have read half that list and can't be bothered with the other half.
A proper American man needs a few more. The Iliad for instance, Prescotts "Conquest of Mexico", Parkmans "Conspiracy of Pontiac", Morison's " Admiral of the Ocean Sea", or a chunk of his "United States Naval Operations in WWII", Atkins "An Army at Dawn", Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, etc.
For that matter, Marks Mechanical Engineers Handbook. That's a solid book that bears looking into for all sorts of things. Gene Wolfe said that plus Chesterton were his main influence.
Then there's Twain, Kipling, Dickens, Dante (Dorothy Sayers trans.), etc. and etc.

MadisonMan said...

I greatly appreciated that edit. Dead at 92.

JSD said...

Pretty good list. Save it for summer reading. Although the Cormac McCarthy book of choice would be “All the Pretty Horses”.

The comments section suggests adding Hermann Hess. The favorite picture of my dad is him sleeping with a copy of Siddhartha on his chest. It was a reading assignment to get his associate’s degree. Under a newly passed Massachusetts law, police would get a pay raise. Asking my dad to read Hess was ridiculous, so the associate’s degree became a comical family effort. I read the books and wrote the papers. My brother in law took finite math to “assist” in exams. He was embarrassed as hell, because there were a dozen other cops telling him “move your arm, I can’t see”. Most instructors were terrified of cops, but others saw opportunity in making new friends. Back in the day, a friendly cop could always do you a “solid” when you needed it.

tim in vermont said...

How could the list be missing Dune and The Hobbit?

tim in vermont said...

A good rule is that if you see a really bad science fiction movie that you can't understand why they bothered to make it, it is probably based on a great book, viz Dune.

Bill said...

"The essence of writing is rewriting."

- William Zinsser

tim in vermont said...

38, not terrible, but John Stewart's book, really?

If you haven't read Steinbeck's King Arthur and the Acts of his Noble Knights. You should, you will wish you had read it as a boy. He never finished it and I was sad when it ended. My daughter was supposed to read it for her English class in high school, but she read the Spark Notes, so I picked it up as it lay around.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

I've listened to maybe three or four Bill Bryson audiobooks and for the last three or four minutes I've been sitting here, at my desk, using my thumb and forefinger to pluck the facial hair from my philtrum that my electric razor didn't get.

William Chadwick said...

"I think it was Elmore Leonard who said something like get rid of every word that does not move the story along. His rules for writers are online and well worth reading for any writer."

I read the book version of Mr. Leonard's advice for writers, and while he made some good points, the book should have been more honestly titled, "How to Write Exactly Like Me."

mccullough said...

Sounds like I shouldn't listen to a Bryson audio book while driving

furious_a said...

SIEGEL: So how did shellac make the linguistic leap to defeat?

Harold Godwinson arrayed his Anglo-Saxon army on a hill known as Senlac.