Quote of The Week

“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is..”

Mark Hanna (former US Senator)


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The Best Editor You Never Had

“Blot out, correct, insert, refine,
Enlarge, diminish, interline;
Be mindful, when invention fails,
To scratch your head, and bite your nails.”

Jonathan Swift, on editing.

We all know the first principle of editing: “If you can cut, then cut,” as George Orwell put it, in his blunt way. Every writer understands this rule, but nobody likes it, and nobody thinks that it applies to him or her personally.

It certainly doesn’t apply to me. Every word I put on paper is carefully chosen, perfectly integrated, and indispensable.

This self-delusion has ruined a lot of my writing over the years. My fatal weakness is that I never use one word where I can use six. Writing is so easy, and editing is so hard. This stubborn fact explains why so many talented writers fail to make it into print.

Rebels against the “Less is More” rule will point to examples like Henry James and Marcel Proust, internationally admired authors who never used one word when they could use fifty. True enough, but I say unto you: just try to get that kind of writing (however brilliant) published nowadays. Even your local church newsletter won’t touch it, although the Bible itself is very verbose in parts.

Thirty years of editing my own stuff to precise length for newspapers and radio have taught me a few things. I almost hesitate to write them down because they are so obvious. It’s like explaining to an alcoholic how and why he has to give up drinking. The explanations and suggestions are simple and straightforward. But very few people have the willpower to carry them out.

This is not a claim to superior self-control. It’s just that the nature of my work has forced me to edit ruthlessly. If, for example, a radio piece has to fit into a time slot of three minutes and forty-five seconds I have no choice except to cut it to that length. Three minutes and fifty seconds just won’t do.

These are some simple editing rules I’ve learned:

• Write long and cut hard. If I’m aiming for a thousand words I will typically splurge out three thousand on the first draft. It doesn’t matter. Approach your project as a sculptor might approach a shapeless hunk of stone or wood. Somewhere in there is the work you want to create, and you must chip away at the shapeless hunk until your work of art emerges. All good writing is based on good cutting, but it takes time. As Blaise Pascal wrote to a friend: “I’m sorry this letter is longer than usual, but I lacked the time to make it short.”

• Throw nothing away. It’s much easier to slice away at your own golden words if you preserve them in another file for future use. Your heap of discarded words and phrases may even come in useful one day, like a sort of literary compost. But the main advantage is that “cut and paste” is psychologically much easier than “delete.”

• Openings and endings are the best places to start editing. Most of us have the habit of winding into a piece with a paragraph or so of extraneous verbiage. It’s a kind of warm-up exercise. So the first paragraph can almost always be cut. The same applies to the end of your piece, whether it’s an essay, an article, a chapter or a story. Look for the unnecessary wind down at the end, and get rid of it.

• Keep it moving. Every sentence and every paragraph should keep your idea or story moving forward. Stops, hesitations and diversions should be mercilessly cut out. It’s often necessary to rearrange a whole piece to achieve that forward movement because ideas don’t always occur in the right order in the first draft.

• Read Orwell and avoid all the things he tell you to avoid in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”: verbosity, repetition, long words, foreign words, clichés, and all those things that get in the way of your what you are trying to say. Remember what your English teacher told you (I hope): short sentences, active voice, plain language. Get rid of as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.

• Read your work out loud. This will show up all kinds of horrendous faults you may never spot on the page. If possible read to a critical friend, or use a tape recorder and listen to yourself.

That’s it! If you do all these things your writing will improve one hundred percent.

It certainly helps to have your work critiqued by a professional editor, if are willing to pay a fairly high price. But an intelligent, literate, truthful friend is almost as good. He or she will ruthlessly pounce on your weaknesses. It may be better not to choose your lover or spouse for this task, unless you are actively seeking separation.

I’m less sure about group criticism. Not everybody in a writing group or workshop will have good critical skills, and some may be plain dumb. Different comments from half a dozen people are confusing and discouraging. If you’re not sure what you are trying to write then it’s best to stop and think some more, then follow your own vision.

Too much reviewing and revising is as bad as too little. J. Robert Lennon, writing in the Spring 2004 issue of Granta, tells the (probably apocryphal) story of an author who writes a huge, sprawling, thousand-page saga about her hometown. Everyone tells her that it must be cut, so she begins to cut. After multiple rejections and cuts her saga is reduced to a short story, then a vignette, and finally a haiku.

“Tiny upstate town
Undergoes many changes
Nonetheless endures”

Nobody would publish the haiku, either.

Which brings us back to the best editor you never had – yourself. No matter how many people you consult or how many books you read, really good editing always comes from the writer him or herself, thinking hard, and exercising a painful degree of self-discipline. That’s the bad news. The good news is: when your editing really works it’s like magic, almost as if another and better writer had taken over. You’ll be proud of yourself.

Losing the Language

The English language is always in decline. People have been complaining about it for five hundred years, ever since the translators of the King James Bible finished their masterpiece, and Shakespeare put down his quill and went into retirement. But the decline has speeded up. We seem to be losing our ancient language in several different ways.

Perhaps the least important danger is the collapse of grammar. There have been too many pedantic, scolding books about grammar and punctuation in the last few years. Frankly, most of these rules are trivial. If I hesitate over “I” and “me” or “him” and “he” I can check the grammar book which says: “Any pronouns that appear in an appositive are assumed to have the same function as the word the appositive refers to.” Fine, I can live with that, whatever it means. But who really cares about fine distinctions between “less” and “fewer,” “that” and “which,” “may” and “might”? Who can figure out “who” and “whom” in the proper case? Who can get excited about the floating apostrophe? Not I (or me).

My education was grammar-free. We had a splendid English teacher, Mr. Thomas. He taught us to appreciate fine literature, which was no easy task in a school for uncultured and unruly boys. But he didn’t teach grammar at all. He believed that grammar was learned by reading good writers and imitating them, not by following a set of rules. We never parsed a sentence, or discussed the difference between adverbs and adjectives, and we never even suspected the existence of the subjunctive tense, even though it may have been the case that we used it all the time. As a consequence, I am not qualified or willing to correct the English grammar of anyone else, as long as I can clearly understand what they are trying to say.

There’s the rub as Shakespeare himself might have pointed out. It’s not grammar but meaning that worries me. Whatever the secret of good writing or speaking, it is certainly not grammatical pedantry. It is all about words. The best writers use simple, direct language, the exact opposite of the foggy, euphemistic stuff designed to avoid hard truths and painful feelings. But plain old words are losing their meanings faster than we can reinvent them. Many of our best insults and negative expressions like “old” or “crazy” have vanished into the fog of political correctness and flabby sentimentality, and words referring to things that make us uncomfortable, like “posterity” and “modesty” have simply faded away. It’s a process of simplification and impoverishment, the Twitification of the language.

Alongside this blurring of exact meanings comes the plague of wild adjectival inflation which aims to substitute emotion for content. The advertising industry has debased just about every superlative in the language. What words are left once every tacky mass-produced product is described as magnificent, perfect, great, wonderful, a masterpiece, exceptionally unique, or even incredible, for things that are sadly all too credible? Advertising and politics are the enemies of language, because nothing in them can be expressed plainly, least of all the plain truth. George Orwell had a lot to say on this subject and I can’t compete with a writer who was so incredibly unique.

There’s nothing to be done about this. We can’t get back to the language of Shakespeare, or even the stately and supple prose of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it is worth remembering and regretting the awesome language we once had before we, like, totally lost it.

The Chronicles of Wasted Time

Recently I wrote three memoirs. I never intended to write even one, but here they are and each one is completely different. I reckon that, without stretching the truth, I could write at least two more, just as different as the first two. That’s the elasticity of time and the ambiguity of life.

Time is not our friend. It creeps past us on silent feet, one second after another. We never see it go, and it never comes back. Nobody ever stops to tell us: “Hey, pay attention, this is the best bit.” The best bit of your life just slides past like all the rest, into oblivion. Shakespeare’s chronicles of wasted time are the poems that record love and beauty in the past – celebrated now but wasted then.

Everything glowed with a gleam/And Yet we were looking away.
Thomas Hardy, “The Self Unseeing.”

If time is not our friend, memory is positively treacherous. Some people remember every detail of their past lives, every meal they have ever eaten and with whom, and even more intimate details. It must be hard to live inside their busy heads. With every moment of their past engraved there, diamond-bright, there’s no way to escape into fantasy or selective editing. I both envy and fear the absolute recall and steady hand of a Proust or a Nabokov. The complete, unvarnished truth is not something that most of us want to live with, which is why Sigmund Freud invented The Unconscious – that convenient basement of the mind into which all the unwanted rubbish can be dumped.

Forgetting allows us to live our lives forwards, without nostalgia or regret. Most of us, I believe, are blessed with a kind of built-in self-editor that tidies up and improves the past as we go along. Nietzsche, going to extremes as always, once said: “No man with a good memory can ever be creative.” The quote may not be exact, but it’s an interesting thought. If you have a bad memory, everything is always new, including the leftovers you put in the refrigerator yesterday and rediscover with pleasure today.

So why a memoir, let alone three? And why now?

Age must be part of the answer. The desire to write a memoir typically arrives at about the same stage of life as arthritis. There is an irrational fear of forgetting everything, which makes little sense because, when we do lose it all, we won’t know that we’ve lost it. This may be why some people suffering from dementia exhibit an eerie, tranquil happiness. Their personal slate has been wiped clean.

A slightly more rational reason is to leave a record of one’s life, a justification, what used to be called an apologia, and I must plead guilty to that. There were some personal things that I wanted to say, and I’m glad I went ahead and did it even if nobody ever reads the books. We want the past to make sense, if only to ourselves, and the only way to do that is by careful and selective remembering and forgetting. Otherwise, our stories are indeed the chronicles of wasted time, a chaos of tiny events that added up to nothing, and meant nothing. As Donald Trump used to say, when confronted by some unpleasant truth: “Sad.”

Plagiarism

A college education these days, especially when it includes remote learning, contains many traps and challenges, not the least of which is to avoid (or effectively conceal) plagiarism, a campus crime almost as heinous as sexual harassment or a taste for 1940s Big Band music. Some students are required to sign long, impressive documents, written by lawyers who stole the wording from other lawyers, certifying that they understand the penalties for plagiarism. They may have no idea what it is, but they will sign anyway. Others will be severely lectured on the subject their professors. I know, because I’ve received and delivered a few such lectures myself.

Plagiarism is the theft of intellectual property, or more plainly to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Intellectual property is just stuff that people have made up or created. This essay is intellectual property, and could conceivably be plagiarized by some abysmally stupid student somewhere, who would get a well-deserved F.
It is dangerously easy to commit this particular sin, by borrowing a half-remembered idea or turn of phrase. We’ve all done it without knowing. All our culture is one big exercise in plagiarism. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all been thought and said before and will be again.

Plagiarism is a very ancient art. Shakespeare stole most of his historical plots directly from the unreliable histories of Holinshed. Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were both accused of plagiarism.

In modern times, plagiarism is not limited to lazy and dishonest students. Lazy and dishonest adults are equally guilty.. Almost every week we read another high-profile case from the world of academia or publishing. The distinguished historian Stephen E. Ambrose, and another historian Professor Doris Kearns have both been in the news recently, accused of lifting chunks of their works from previously published authors. Lord Archer, the disgraced British novelist and politician, is another distinguished example. Politicians borrow chunks of speeches from more intelligent men, artists copy photographers and each other, and musicians notoriously “borrow” certain melodic ideas when inspiration runs out. These rip-offs are routinely passed off as “tributes.” Movies are so obsessively self-referential that you get the feeling that nothing completely new has been attempted since “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. Real creativity is very rare.

In one sense, then, all culture is plagiarism. We can’t reinvent the world every day, but we can and do copy the good stuff from the past, and perhaps transform it in the process. So I don’t feel strongly about intellectual property as such. When great genius or large amounts of money are involved, I suppose it becomes important. But most creative work isn’t in that league and, on the whole, we should be mildly flattered when someone finds our work worth stealing. After all, the plagiarist gains nothing, and the act itself is rather pathetic, an admission of an empty mind. I can forgive a modest amount of plagiarism, especially if it’s well done. In the academic world, the whole thing is a bit of a game, hence the old saying that stealing from one source is plagiarism, and stealing from many is research

But I do have strong feelings about cheating partly because I never could get away with it when I was a student. The world wide web has made plagiarism infinitely easier, and less detectable, and cheating by students has become an epidemic. If you look up plagiarism on the web you will find hundreds of articles and books condemning it and even anti-plagiarism software. The cheaters cheat themselves out of an education, they cheat the honest students, and they make fools out of their teachers. I don’t like any of that.

The moral question is: should we discourage all cheating, or is it a useful skill? News media are always full of stories about cheating on an epic scale, mostly by politicians and businessmen. The notable fact about the guilty parties is that they are all very, very rich. My mother used to tell me that cheats never prosper: but they do. Cheating may be as essential to success in the modern world as computer literacy. By discouraging plagiarism and similar tricks, we may be condemning our students to a life of poverty and hard work.

If anyone has the answer to this educational conundrum, please let me know. But don’t send me any of those anti-plagiarism articles off the web, I’ve read them already. Where do you think this essay came from?

Intermediate Technology

For writers of a certain age, the most nostalgic sound in the world is the irregular clatter of an old manual typewriter, being used by somebody who can’t type. I have a bunch of typewriters, fully-functioning antiques that provide a reassuring link to the past. My favorite machine is a Royal, manufactured about 1949. I got it in a garage sale ten years ago, and have used it almost every day since.

The reign of the manual typewriter was quite short. The first crude machines appeared in offices in the 1870s, and the first electric typewriters in 1935. By the 1980s, typewriters were history. For my generation, though, the clack of a typewriter was and is the very sound of romance. In movies or radio dramas, the appearance of a brilliant writer or a heroic journalist was always signaled by this very sound.

It was important that these characters couldn’t type. They were hacking out the words painfully, letter by letter, so that you could hear great writing being committed. There’s nothing romantic about high-speed typing. Earlier generations of writers composed in near-silence. Most of the great literature of the world emerged from under a scratching pen. When the typewriter appeared, many writers condemned it as a barbaric device that would probably usher in the end of civilization, and certainly the end of literature. But those of us who grew up with typewriters never missed the romance of the fountain pen. The clumsy machine was like a superior alter ego, turning our awkward phrases and spidery calligraphy into real writing.

My first typewriter came into my life quite unexpectedly when I was fourteen. It was donated by my mother’s employer, the benevolent proprietor of a chain of London pubs, who had heard that I wanted to be a writer and made this gift, presumably out of sympathy. It was an Underwood, manufactured sometime in the late 1920s, and retired after a long, hard life in the office, but built like a tank.

For years I wrote everything on it and its more streamlined successors: reports, letters, stories, books, theses. My first wife god bless her was a great believer in hard work. In the evenings, she liked to hear the sound of typing from my room. But sometimes I preferred to relax, read, or take a nap. So, I recorded a cassette tape of an energetic typing session, which ran for an hour and a half, and I played that every evening until she caught me. That trick would never work with a computer.

I never learned to type properly. As a very young journalist, I found that good typing was not admired. It was not, as we would now say, cool. Journalists were not supposed to be stenographers, we just got it down with two flying index fingers helped by the occasional thumb on the space bar and adventurous stabs with the other digits. On a good day, before the pubs opened, I could manage sixty words a minute. Not all those words were in the Oxford English Dictionary, of course.

Considered simply as a writing machine, the manual typewriter has many advantages over the computer. It allows us to pause and think, for hours if necessary, in absolute silence, without humming at us or suddenly flashing up a screen saver as a guilty reminder of idleness. A manual typewriter, like a good friend, knows the value of quietness. It slows us down and, in those long pauses, grammar and spelling, structure and style can be considered. They must be considered because it’s so tedious to fix mistakes. When we are ready to start work again there’s a palpable sense of drama and action. The burst of noise says: something’s happening.

A manual typewriter is more or less cat-proof. I’ve had alarming things happen to my computer because of cats walking over the keyboard or playing with the mouse. And. although I can’t prove this, I swear that nobody could write such nonsense on a manual typewriter as is routinely churned out on word processors.

Somewhere along the way, I lost the original Underwood, but I found its twin in another garage sale. Five other manual typewriters are lurking in the basement. I was more than ready for the Year 2000 computer crash, but it never happened. I’ve not given up hope. When Armageddon finally comes, I’m sure that the old Underwood will survive. I like to think that it will be the only machine on the planet in a condition to take down my comments on the interesting period immediately afterward.

The Chronicles of Wasted Time

Recently I wrote two memoirs. I never intended to write even one, but here they are and each one is completely different. I reckon that, without stretching the truth, I could write at least two more, just as different as the first two. That’s the elasticity of time, and the ambiguity of life.

Time is not our friend. It creeps past us on silent feet, one second after another. We never see it go, and it never comes back. Nobody ever stops to tell us: “Hey, pay attention, this is the best bit.” The best bit of your life just slides past like all the rest, into oblivion. Shakespeare’s chronicles of wasted time are the poems that record love and beauty in the past – celebrated now but wasted then.

Everything glowed with a gleam/And Yet we were looking away.

Thomas Hardy, “The Self Unseeing.”

If time is not our friend, memory is positively treacherous. Some people remember every detail of their past lives, every meal they have ever eaten and with whom, and even more intimate details. It must be hard to live inside their busy heads. With every moment of their past engraved there, diamond-bright, there’s no way to escape into fantasy or selective editing. I both envy and fear the absolute recall and steady hand of a Proust or a Nabokov. The complete, unvarnished truth is not something that most of us want to live with, which is why Sigmund Freud invented The Unconscious – that convenient basement of the mind into which all the unwanted rubbish can be dumped.

Forgetting allows us to live our lives forwards, without nostalgia or regret. Most of us, I believe, are blessed with a kind of built-in self-editor that tidies up and improves the past as we go along. Nietzsche, going to extremes as always, once said: “No man with a good memory can ever be creative.” The quote may not be exact, but it’s an interesting thought. If you have a bad memory, everything is always new, including the leftovers you put in the refrigerator yesterday and rediscover with pleasure today.

So why a memoir, let alone two? And why now?

Age must be part of the answer. The desire to write a memoir typically arrives at about the same stage of life as arthritis. There is an irrational fear of forgetting everything, which makes little sense because, when we do lose it all, we won’t know that we’ve lost it. This may be why some people suffering from dementia exhibit an eerie, tranquil happiness. Their personal slate has been wiped clean.

A slightly more rational reason is to leave a record of one’s life, a justification, what used to be called an apologia, and I must plead guilty to that. There were some personal things that I wanted to say, and I’m glad I went ahead and did it even if nobody ever reads the books. We want the past to make sense, if only to ourselves, and the only way to do that is by careful and selective remembering and forgetting. Otherwise, our stories are indeed the chronicles of wasted time, a chaos of tiny events that added up to nothing and meant nothing. As Donald Trump used to say when confronted by some unpleasant truth: “Sad.”

Losing the Language

The English language is always in decline. People have been complaining about it for five hundred years, ever since the translators of the King James Bible finished their masterpiece, and Shakespeare put down his quill and went into retirement. But the decline has speeded up. We seem to be losing our ancient language in several different ways.

Perhaps the least important danger is the collapse of grammar. There have been too many pedantic, scolding books about grammar and punctuation in the last few years. Frankly, most of these rules are trivial. If I hesitate over “I” and “me” or “him” and “he” I can check the grammar book which says: “Any pronouns that appear in an appositive are assumed to have the same function as the word the appositive refers to.” Fine, I can live with that, whatever it means. But who really cares about fine distinctions between “less” and “fewer,” “that” and “which,” “may” and “might”? Who can figure out “who” and “whom” in the proper case? Who can get excited about the floating apostrophe? Not I (or me).

My education was grammar-free. We had a splendid English teacher, Mr. Thomas. He taught us to appreciate fine literature, which was no easy task in a school for uncultured and unruly boys. But he didn’t teach grammar at all. He believed that grammar was learned by reading good writers and imitating them, not by following a set of rules. We never parsed a sentence or discussed the difference between adverbs and adjectives, and we never even suspected the existence of the subjunctive tense, even though it may have been the case that we used it all the time. As a consequence, I am not qualified or willing to correct the English grammar of anyone else, as long as I can clearly understand what they are trying to say.

There’s the rub as Shakespeare himself might have pointed out. It’s not grammar but meaning that worries me. Whatever the secret of good writing or speaking, it is certainly not grammatical pedantry. It is all about words. The best writers use simple, direct language, the exact opposite of the foggy, euphemistic stuff designed to avoid hard truths and painful feelings. But plain old words are losing their meanings faster than we can reinvent them. Many of our best insults and negative expressions like “old” or “crazy” have vanished into the fog of political correctness and flabby sentimentality, and words referring to things that make us uncomfortable, like “posterity” and “modesty” have simply faded away. It’s a process of simplification and impoverishment, the Twitification of the language.

Alongside this blurring of exact meanings comes the plague of wild adjectival inflation which aims to substitute emotion for content. The advertising industry has debased just about every superlative in the language. What words are left once every tacky mass-produced product is described as magnificent, perfect, great, wonderful, a masterpiece, exceptionally unique, or even incredible, for things that are sadly all too credible? Advertising and politics are the enemies of language because nothing in them can be expressed plainly, least of all the plain truth. George Orwell had a lot to say on this subject and I can’t compete with a writer who was so incredibly unique.

There’s nothing to be done about this. We can’t get back to the language of Shakespeare, or even the stately and supple prose of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it is worth remembering and regretting the awesome language we once had before we, like, totally lost it.

Writers in Love

“Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence”
H.L.Mencken

Writing and love don’t mix. Romantic love* gives its victims blanket permission to be silly, and this silliness too often takes literary form. In the worst-case scenario, lovers may write poetry. This should be actively discouraged. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a particularly egregious case or, in music, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique – but everyone will have their own favorite examples of creative work done under the influence of emotional intoxication.

Nobody can write sensibly while in love. If the love is truly passionate and mutual, the sexual demands alone should leave a person incapable of raising his/her hands to the keyboard, let alone having an original thought. The critical faculties are necessarily suspended, not just in relation to the loved one, but in relation to everything. People in love can’t drive, type, or even prepare a meal with proper concentration. They are, as the ancient Greeks knew, temporarily insane.

Scott Fitzgerald said: “It’s easy to be loved, but hard to love.” This is true. It’s fine to write while being loved. Being loved is a confidence booster. Loving is an energy drain.

Writing about love is easier, but not much. The language of literary romance is very restrictive, rather like a computer code. Bosoms heave, hearts pound and flutter, breath is short, eyes cloud over, and the victim suffers from weakness, faintness, and a sense of fatality. These are very much like the symptoms of a real heart attack. The trouble is, you don’t get rushed into intensive care to fix the problem.

That’s why lots of writers prefer to write about sex, and let love take care of itself. But sex raises a different problem. The language is richer but the content is more limited. It’s like writing about car mechanics. As the guy in your local repair shop will tell you there are lots of different models of cars, some more desirable than others. But they are all based on the same mechanical principles and they all work the same way. This doesn’t make for great literature.

I have a theory that the best writing about relationships happens just after those affairs end when the mind snaps back into focus. Some authors manage to stay angry for a lifetime on the basis of a single failed love affair. This can be very productive – for example the comical revenge novels of Fay Weldon. On the other hand, love that sticks around and matures can produce some very fine writing, such as the biography of Iris Murdoch, Elegy for Iris, by her husband John Bayley.

The question of a writer’s muse is bound to come up here because the Muse is imagined to be both an object of love and a source of creativity. Muses are female by definition. The original nine Muses were daughters of Zeus, a good pedigree, and their job was to be patron goddesses of the arts. The Greek Muses were not love objects, they were organizers, like chairs of academic departments: Erato controlled love poetry, Terpsichore was in charge of dance, and so on. No fewer than four of the original Muses were concerned with poetry. Comedy and tragedy each had its own Muse, but nobody was assigned to essays or general non-fiction.

The contemporary Muse is very different. She is a living, loving inspiration. She must still be female because men don’t have the special skills needed for this job. But this kind of Muse is also dying out. Women are too busy following their own dreams – and the Muse’s task is both exhausting and, perhaps, demeaning. The best kind of Muse may be an ex-lover living several thousand miles away, who can safely be idealized. But the most useful kind would be a woman like Vladimir Nabokov’s wife Vera, who so fiercely protected his writing time and his privacy that she made his astonishing output possible.

The decline of the traditional Muse is undeniably a good thing. Lacking this source of inspiration, men are less likely to launch into romantic writing. Men, of course, are the true romantics in this world, because they can’t help themselves. If you don’t believe me, check the romantic literature. Women are the voice of reason, the organizers of male emotions. For a really rational fix on love, you have to go to female authors, like Jane Austen, who had absolutely no illusions as to what the Great Game was about.

These reflections lead to four clear conclusions:

1. Never write while actively in love, and especially not during the early high-fever stages of the malady.

2. Write about love only in case of urgent financial need, and with tongue firmly in cheek.

3. Only men should write about love. Women should write about its consequences.

4. When it comes to love, there are no clear conclusions.

Bookstore Memories

Back in the long-forgotten pre-Amazon era, I spent some happy years working in a big university bookstore near Trinity College in Cambridge – the old Cambridge, not the new construction by the Charles River. The bookstore was a veritable warren of wisdom, with sections for Greek and Latin books, mathematics, art, literature, the sciences, philosophy, and an enormous history department. It was a happy hunting ground for professors, and for the more dedicated students, and we liked to think that it was in some sense the intellectual heart of the university.

It must be admitted that our stock, though huge, was limited. We didn’t sell T-shirts, gifts, greeting cards, CDs, magazines, mugs, or stuffed toys, but only books. Although the store was in a prime retail location it never occurred to the owners to sell anything else. It certainly never occurred to them to sell absolutely everything else, and to get rid of the books. But the wheel of history has taken another turn, and the bookstore at our nearby university here in New York has taken exactly that step. The books are gone. They will now be ordered from and delivered by Amazon. So, the store is no longer a bookstore but a delivery channel for those dreadful things called textbooks – educational fast food, and just as unhealthy.

Textbooks aside, you would think a university with a faculty of over a thousand would feel the need to have a flourishing general bookstore on campus or nearby. But the only independent bookstore close to the university shut down years ago. What happened to intellectual curiosity? Have even professors given up reading? Amazon is a convenient resource, I use it myself in the absence of a local bookstore. But it only works if you know exactly what you want. It is not a place where you can browse, read, and make discoveries, and the reviews are worse than useless.

I could scarcely believe in the idea of a university bookstore with no books, and paid a visit just to convince myself that it was true. There were piles of T-shirts, baseball hats, backpacks, earbuds and all kinds of college branded merchandise, but indeed no books apart from half a dozen shelves of bestsellers and cut-price remainders at the back of the store. How many T-shirts can anyone use in a four-year college career? Many of mine are more than twenty years old, and they still work well.

This trend from learning to leisurewear has spread way beyond New York. I walked into a bookstore at the University of Iowa when I was teaching summer school there, and walked straight out because I thought it was a clothing store. The books, apparently, were hidden away where they couldn’t upset anybody.

A well-stocked bookshop, like a fine library, is slightly intimidating. It reminds us of all the things we don’t know. Knowledge on the Internet is fragmented and invisible. If we don’t search for it, it doesn’t exist. The Internet never confronts us with our own ignorance, which is why it is so popular and so politically dangerous. Real books are solid, visible, and hard to ignore. Yet now even some university libraries are beginning to get rid of their books and replace them with screens for students to goggle or Google at. This may the penultimate step towards the end of the five-hundred-year history of the printed book. It’s too bad. But you can always read your T-shirt.

The Curse of the Autodidact

Writers need to know things, and the best writers know a lot. Historical novels obviously depend on massive research, but any novel, short story or essay is much richer if it is well-seasoned with facts and ideas.

This was a barrier I ran into when I first started writing. Having skipped the college degree and jumped straight into Journalism at the age of sixteen I very quickly reached my level of incompetence. It was clear to me that the writers I admired were much better educated than I was, and that I could never aspire to do what they did without pounding a great many more facts into my head.

So I became that most annoying of creatures, an autodidact. On weekends I scoured the public libraries and the secondhand bookstores in Charing Cross Road in London. Two tedious years in the army provided me with a lot more reading time and, by my early twenties, I was quite certain that I knew everything worth knowing.

This illusion was briskly shattered by the clever boys and girls of the London literary scene. I had acquired some knowledge, but it was just a grab bag of disconnected facts and ideas. Nothing coherent came out of it.

It is no shame to surrender against overwhelming odds, so that’s what I did. After a belated immersion in the world of university and graduate school, I emerged somewhat chastened but also at least half-educated. This has been enormously useful, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

The trouble is that it is hard to stop. Those old autodidact habits haven’t gone away. I find myself going to lectures and to seminars at the One Day University, my study is cluttered with serious books and college courses on tape, and I haunt the local library like an inquisitive ghost. It’s a kind of neurosis. Most of this stuff I don’t need to know (this week the subject is Nietzsche) and none of it is remotely useful. I’ve never taken a course in carpentry, or electrical repair, or plumbing, although all these would be skills I could use.

There are a lot of others like me. I keep on meeting them in seminars and lecture rooms. We are decades past the stage of being educated, and probably past the stage of remembering anything we imagine we learn. But that is the curse of the autodidact.