Review: How to Think Like Shakespeare

How to Think Like Shakespeare, Scott Newstok. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Summary: A concise and engaging guide to the habits and practices of mind that enable clarity of thought, expression, and learning.

“I have not read very much Shakespeare in my adult life. Will this book make much sense to me?” In an email exchange with the author who asked me to consider reviewing this book, I asked this, seeing the title of the book. The author assured me that wouldn’t be a problem.

Here’s why. What this book is really about is education’s purpose. He writes:

“My conviction is that education must be about thinking—not training a set of specific skills.

Education isn’t merely accumulating data: machines can memorize far more, and far less fallibly, than humans. (Albert Einstein: The value of an education…is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.)

Scott Newstok, p. .ix

So where does Shakespeare come in? Newstok, an English professor and founder of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment at Rhodes College draws on Shakespeare to identify the formative habits and practices that are evident in Shakespeare’s work and helped shape his particular genius. And then he draws on others from antiquity to the present day to make the case for thirteen aspects of learning to think well.

Newstok begins two introductory chapters on the hard work of thinking and the ends of study. He proposes that the formative practices of Shakespeare were very different than the current practices of our schools. He had classes in Latin, had to submit to a variety of writing exercises, copied out quotations, imitated other writers until he found his voice, and so forth. In the chapter on ends, he proposes that modern education focuses far too much on means and not on the ends of forming people who speak and do well, who are useful citizens who can think well about every aspect of life

The next twelve chapters focus on a particular aspect or habit of thought and expression:

  • Craft: The ability and power to work with raw materials to create a work. Shakespeare was a playwright; the etymology suggest dramas wrought with words.
  • Fit: Whether the glove on the hand, two pieces of wood joined, or the apt word or phrase.
  • Place: Learning and careful thought arises in thinking spaces, whether Shakespeare’s school or a classroom.
  • Attention: Often in his plays, Shakespeare’s characters are distracted. Newstok focuses on how learning, thought, prayer, and our best selves emerge from attention.
  • Technology: Writing in the sand, or with any other technology. Do we get distracted by the sand or attend to the writing, the message of which abides when the marks in the sand disappear?
  • Imitation: Art begins with imitation. Shakespeare borrowed all over the place until he came to sound like himself.
  • Exercises: One cannot write well unless one writes…and writes…and writes. Exercises, from imagining oneself in a different gender or station in life, or finding the myriad ways to express a thought all hone the gifts of expressing our thoughts.
  • Conversation: Newstok shares the fascinating image of Kenneth Burke of joining a conversation in process, learning the topic, and issues at hand, putting in our own thoughts, learning to question and explore the ideas of others, and then leaving the conversation to others as an image of the intellectual conversation that has run through history.
  • Stock: The wide reading that offers a store of ideas from which we assemble thought in creative new ways.
  • Constraint: Thought and expression works within the constraints of words, sentences, grammar and forms, such as the sonnet, and liberty is found within the bounds of our art.
  • Making: We not only make things with machines but also with words, and often in these words, we make ourselves.
  • Freedom: Not just freedom from but freedom to. At the heart of the “liberal arts” is to practice the craft of freedom.

Newstok concludes with a reading list, “Kinsmen of the Shelf” for going further in the practices of good thought, connected to each chapter of the book. I was reminded of some old friends and learned of some intriguing new ones.

This sounds like a serious book but Newstok treats serious matters with an artisan’s lightness of touch. The chapters are short, filled with quotes that will offer additions to your own commonplace book, and introduced by fitting artwork. It is a work worthy of attention by educators, whether in the liberal arts or not. Our present time underscores the vital need for education to be far more than the inculcation of information. Otherwise, in the words of Stephen Muller, former president of Johns Hopkins University, we are just turning out “highly skilled barbarians.” It is also a book that may be read reflectively and repeatedly for any of us who care deeply about the work of thinking and writing. We all have a long way to go in our craft.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Charitable Writing

Charitable Writing, Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III, Foreword by Anne Ruggles Gere, Afterword by Alan Jacobs. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: Two writing professors explore how Christian faith ought shape both how one writes and how one teaches students to write, shaped by the virtues of humility, love, and hope.

When many of us think of writing in our present time, we think of contentious writing, angry writing, divisive writing. Whether in academic discourse of a scroll through your social media feed, one doesn’t have to go far to find examples of a “scorched earth” approach to writing. Charitable writing? Not so much.

Actually, the authors of this work only have this indirectly in mind. As writing professors at a Christian college, they realized that their approach to writing wasn’t any different than when they had taught in secular settings. If as Christians your aspiration is “whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17), then what might this look like in both the practice of writing, and the teaching of students to write? It is a question about which I think. This is the question out of which this book arose.

The authors propose that virtuous actions manifesting charity ought to shape our writing. They organize the book around three threshold virtues or concepts: humble listening, loving argument and hopeful time keeping. They devote several chapters to each of these ideas. One of the striking features of this book is that they explore these ideas through visual art as well as their own writing.

Humility begins in humbling oneself before God in prayer as one enters one’s study or workspace to write. Humility is the openness to God and denial of self of Mary at the annunciation. Other images point toward humility as an abiding virtue of writing. The authors go on to discuss humility in writing communities, including writing classes, and in discourse communities, where humility means careful listening to the community and attentive use of that community’s language as one communicates.

They turn to loving argument, beginning with a painting of Augustine symbolizing the triangle of head, heart, and tradition or logos, pathos, and ethos in writing. They explore our metaphors for argument, mostly warlike, explaining both our aversion to argument and why they often end badly. They propose different metaphors. One metaphor is the table, a place of hospitality, a feast together. We can share the meal with generous care for each other or we can feast in a “beastly” fashion, where we seek to get ours at the expense of others. Do we make space for the writing of others at our table?

Finally Gibson and Beitler talk about keeping time hopefully. One aspect of this is writing slowly. As others have observed, there is no good writing, only good re-writing. They walk us through pre-writing, drafting, and revising. Writing is an exercise in hope as one engages the slow, patient work involved. Slow writing allows others to join in, helping with revisions and edits, making our ideas better. But writing in hope also incorporates “liturgies” that invite God in, to inform our writing and to point it toward his telos for life.

As they draw to conclusion, we are reminded that these virtues are social virtues. Writing is social and not solitary. Charitable writing reaches out, it converses and disputes, it holds, embraces and releases. Writing in this way reminds us of our call as disciples to love God and each other, even when we argue. As bonuses this book offers an afterword by Alan Jacobs, a guide to discussion with writing prompts, an essay on teaching charitable writing, and one on the spiritual discipline of writing.

I deeply appreciated this book. For someone who never thought of himself as a writer, I’ve done quite a bit of it in the past decade. It can be hard and humbling and drive you to prayer as you look for the words to get past a block. To send one’s ideas out to others invites both community and criticism. Most of the time I’ve written with great love, and sometimes unlovingly. One writes with hope that your words will connect with others, that long deliberated ideas will give encouragement and light to others. If nothing else, writing changes us, and hopefully for the better. Gibson and Beitler show us how that may be so, to the end of loving God and others.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Writing as Naming

fashion woman notebook pen

Photo by Negative Space on

I came across a statement this morning that captured why I write. It is from one of my favorite writers, Tish Harrison Warren, in a new book co-edited by Tim Keller and John Inazu, Uncommon GroundShe writes:

When we write, we participate in Adam and Eve’s vocation in the garden: the vocation of naming. We give words to reality, and through our words, we help shape reality” (p. 73).

Both my outer and inner worlds often feel inchoate. Whether it is making sense of what I am thinking and feeling, describing the gist of a discussion among colleagues, or trying to discern some thread of meaning in the chaos of modern existence, I find myself turning to writing.

I write to know what I think. Sometimes I write to figure out what I think. When I review, I write to crystallize in a few words the thousands of words I’ve read in a book. Sometimes writing is the way I sort out my own sense of how I should live in pandemic times. I give words to reality, and at least shape how I will engage that reality, if not the reality itself.

Writing as naming is communal as well. It certainly is in a medium like that which on which you read my words, or in magazine articles, newspapers, and books. Our writing gives shape to reality not only for ourselves but for others. One of the tests of good writing for me is whether others recognize the reality I’ve tried to name as their own. I love it when someone writes back and says, “you found words to describe what is was like for me.”

More than that, writing as naming, when done well clarifies how we will work together. Lawyer friends of mine tell me that this is at the heart of a good contract. I’ve learned a great deal about getting the words right from my attorney friends. It is equally important on a work team as we discern and decide what we will work on together, and what we each agree to contribute to that work.

I’ve never been a writer of fiction, but I suspect this is part of what drives these writers. They are not just telling a story. They are creating a world. I think of J.R.R. Tolkien, who created Middle-earth, fashioned languages, and a whole mythology of origins and cosmology. That is some serious naming!

For babies to receive a name, a mother must give birth. Many writers describe the labor of giving birth to words that name as akin to the birthing experience. Finding the right words and phrases, the right composition of paragraphs is hard. There is such a difference between “almost right” and “just right.” I think any of us who write feel we rarely totally achieve that end. Sometimes, it feels that the beautiful or pithy thing we want to say is out there, just beyond our grasp. One thing for sure: for writers, words matter.

Why then do we do it? I think it comes back to what it means to be human. We are naming creatures, gifted with amazing language powers far exceeding any other creature. While not all of us are drawn to writing, all of us use words to describe our world. Writing simply allows us to deliberate our words (hopefully) and to extend them in space and time, extending them beyond the circle who can hear our voice, and the ephemeral moment of our utterances.

This helps me understand a bit more why I write.

Review: Upstream


UpstreamMary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016.

Summary: A collection of essays on nature and literary figures and how we might both lose and understand ourselves as we interact with them.

One of my reading goals of 2020 is to read some of the work of Mary Oliver, who I only learned of upon her death in 2019. One of the facts that made her even more interesting to me was that she was born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a small suburb on the southeast side of Cleveland. The fact that she was an Ohio-born author makes her of interest to me. The fact that I lived for nine years in Maple Heights makes her doubly interesting.

What I discovered in these essays was a writer not unlike Annie Dillard in her reflections on nature, but one who could do just as much in far fewer words. Perhaps that is the discipline of being a poet. Every word matters. She writes of trees, and wild flowers, connects them to her writing life, and to life itself. The first, and title essay ends with this striking aphorism that I will probably chew on the rest of 2020: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She writes as well about literary figures, particularly in moving terms about Walt Whitman who was a model to her as she began writing poetry. The others are Emerson, Poe, and Wordsworth–romantics and transcendentalists–those who (Emerson and Wordsworth at least) connected goodness in nature and humanity, and access to the ultimate through our intuitions of the world. For Poe, it is the wild argument of everyone of us against the universe.

In “Staying Alive” we learn about her perspective that moved from nature and walks with a succession of dogs in the course of life to her interior world (and back again):

I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly. I read by day and into the night. I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes. I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

“Power and Time” explores the creative and intellectual work of a writer, and the loyalty to the work required of the writer. At other times, she arrests our attention with the things she has seen in her meanderings–the beauty of a bluefish, the wonders of a pond, or a ponderous turtle, from which she takes some but not all eggs, enough for a meal. One essay, “Swoon,” describes the life of a household spider, laying eggs, feeding on a trapped cricket, and the “billowing forth” of tiny spiders.

“Building the House” seems a metaphor for the passages of one’s life. Oliver describes building a small house by herself out of salvaged materials, writing a few poems there, and then being done with it. She remarks on her transition from the “busyness of the body” to “the tricks of the mind” perhaps tracing the journey we all take from the vitality of youth to the ponderings of later years that might be mistaken for wisdom.

Nature, the life of writing poetry and communing with the works of others, the physical business of living, all reflect Oliver’s own quest for the transcendent. In “Winter Hours” she concludes:

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

The arc of Mary Oliver’s life, which began in Maple Heights, Ohio, was mostly lived out with her partner of over 40 years, M (Molly Malone Cook) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, until her final years in Florida. The collection concludes with a description of the glory and decline of this fishing town into a tourist attraction and her gratitude for life in this place:

I don’t know if I am heading toward heaven or that other, dark place, but I know I have already lived in heaven for fifty years. Thank you, Provincetown.

One Writer’s Journey (So Far)


Photo by Free-Photos via Pixabay

I discovered that the post that will go up on Bob on Books on Saturday will be number 2000 on the blog. In the interest of truth, a handful of these have been contributed by a guest reviewer, for which I’m thankful. This is in a bit over six years. The biggest surprise in this has been to discover I am a writer, that this is at least a piece of my calling. Six years ago I would not have described myself this way, which has been one of the biggest surprises of this journey. I will leave judgments on the quality of my writing to others.

What I’ve noticed about myself over the years is that at times I’ve had the knack of distilling the sense of what people are trying to say into something with a bit greater clarity. Some of that I’ve done at work in emails and memos, letters and documents, or in research papers in grad school or talks given in collegiate ministry. It is often the case that in the writing, I figure out what I want to say. Myers-Briggs people will chalk it up to my INFJ type. Usually it has just been work that needed done. I never thought of myself as a writer.

The blog grew out of posting reviews on Goodreads. I started that mostly as an exercise in remembering what I’ve read and what I thought of it. The exercise of reducing hundreds of pages to 500 to 800 words (usually) was a good way for me to see if I had grasped the essence of the book. Eventually I added summaries where I reduced it to a sentence. That is hard. Enough others found it helpful that I was encouraged to attempt the blog to make the reviews available to those not on Goodreads.

I can’t review a book every day. So I wrote posts on reading and on life. Some of the latter provoked a good deal of comment as I wrote on things I care about such as the captivity of the evangelical church to politics, the environment, immigration, and on different issues in higher education. Here again, I had the strange experience of hearing from people that I had given words to the things they thought and felt. I had a younger friend recently thank me for being an older (!) voice affirming things she held deeply.  Of course there were those who took issue with me. Most of the time, I was just working out my own ideas on the things about which I was writing.

Then I started writing about my home town of Youngstown. I initially thought it would be a post or two, until I made the mistake of writing about food! Youngstowners love food (don’t we all?). That work has been a combination of putting into words what a good place this was to grow up in during the years I lived there, and exploring the people and events, and forces, natural and human, that shaped this place. I’ve had the privilege of interacting with hundreds if not thousands of Youngstowners who have added so much to my understanding of the place where we grew up, while discovering that so many of my memories resonate with theirs. Now I’m working to put some of this into book form under a contract with a publisher.

This “side hustle,” as it were, led to another interesting turn in the road as I took on a new assignment with the collegiate ministry for which I work. In July, I started directing a “digital first” effort to develop resources and network aspiring scholars who want to connect their faith and academic lives, living out their God-given callings. That means both more writing and work with others writers, as well as other kinds of collaborations.

I admit that I muse on what this all means and I have even less clue today than six years ago where this will go. What I have concluded is that I am a writer, if by that you mean a person who writes. I want to get better at this work and put time into it nearly every day. I love finding words for ideas.

Some things I’ve been learning along the way:

  1. The only way to improve at writing is to write…and write…and re-write!
  2. Reading and writing are inextricably linked in my life, not only because I review, but books are part of the community that feeds my own imagination. When I find writers I like, it is fascinating to figure out what in their writing I like.
  3. Speaking of community, I draw so much from both local and online communities. While actual writing at times requires solitude, it is impossible (at least for me) without others.
  4. Facility in writing comes with practice–writing begets writing.
  5. Story-telling is vital even in non-fiction. The only difference is making sure that the story you tell is true. Even ideas have a story, a history.
  6. It’s amazing where curiosity will take one. I’ve probably found this most in writing about Youngstown. How did a place get its name? Who is the person it was named after and what did they do? Recently I wrote a post about a place I passed many times but never knew what happened inside (nothing nefarious!). Finding the answer to that, and the history behind it was sheer delight.

Finally, I would say I’ve written about what I like and am interested in. Why would you do otherwise? I guess I believe that if you work hard to convey your interest in something, you don’t need to worry about whether others are “interested.” I would also say, don’t wonder about whether you are a writer. I think one discovers that in the writing. At least I have.



Review: Write Better

Write Better

Write BetterAndrew T. LePeau. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: An experienced writer and editor describes the craft, art, and spirituality of writing well, or at least better.

“Writing is hard work. Writing well is even harder. But there are ways not only to make it easier but better. Having spent my whole career as a writer and editor, I offer a book on craft and character for nonfiction writer” (p. 231).

Andrew T. LePeau uses these words as a model of distilling to an “elevator pitch” what his book is about. This summary characterizes what one will find throughout this work, a skilled writer and editor who shows rather than just tells us how to write better. As a blogger who is also in the midst of a book project, this book was both humbling and a goldmine.

The goldmine is the wealth of practical advice on writing well. LePeau focuses on three aspects: craft, art, and spirituality. Craft focuses on titles, openings, closings, and everything that comes in between. He proposes when we open that we start writing, and then go back and throw out the first three paragraphs, by which time we’ve figured out what to say! He talks about structure while proposing that we scrap outlines because we often don’t know what we want to say until we start saying it. He discusses persuasion, and how to do this with integrity. He emphasizes the importance of story in writing dramatic non-fiction. He offers advice for overcoming writers block. He would affirm that “[t]here’s no such thing as good writing. “There’s only good rewriting.” Then he shows us how to do it.

LePeau begins his discussion of the art of writing with a chapter on creativity that offers the hope that all of us can grow in our creativity. Other chapters argue that all the rules of good writing are made to be broken–especially when breaking them results in clearer and more gripping writing, that tone, the key to powerful prose, is the writer’s attitude toward what they are writing–what the writer thinks and feels, and that we are wired for metaphor. Most of all, he contends that less is more. This last offers the 700 words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, perhaps among the greatest, as an example of this principle.

The final part of the book treats something you might not expect in a book on writing well. LePeau talks about the spirituality of writing, beginning with one’s sense of calling. He recounts his answer to his daughter’s question, “Dad, what’s your calling?” He responded, “I think it is to glorify God with words, whether written or spoken.” He offers five rubrics for discerning calling, illustrating from his own life how these worked out. The quest for “voice” is de-mystified. All writing is biography in the sense that it expresses what we’ve learned, and experienced and we do well to be self-aware, if not self-conscious about that. He writes about our struggle to let our work go into the world, and how we deal with the responses of others to that work.

The book concludes with practical appendices on platforms, editors and agents, co-authoring, self-publishing, and copyright, including how ownership and proceeds of our work is to be handled should we die (it might be time to get that will revised!).

I mentioned that the book is humbling. I found myself holding my own writing up to LePeau’s descriptions and realized how much work I have to do to “write better.” That didn’t discourage me. He offers alternatives and options I (and probably many other writers) haven’t thought of. He showed me how much better rewriting can be and the benefits of editors, agents, and external readers who help us see the flaws we are blind to in our own writing. He suggests both that it is not crazy to sense one is called to write, and yet not to take oneself too seriously. He gives this down to earth advice:

“Second, some people ask themselves, ‘Am I a writer?’ I don’t think this is a very helpful question because it implies we must have some degree of innate talent to earn the title–and if we don’t have that inborn ability, we should just do something else. My feeling is that if you write, you’re a writer. If you work hard to improve your craft and to communicate clearly to others, you’re a writer. And if others read what you write, let them decide what they think about it and you” (pp. 177-178).

Writing for others not only is hard but uncovers all the insecurities within us. LePeau’s advice here, and throughout the book, is characterized by the unpretentious common sense that calms fears, and offers the coaching that helps the writer lean into the hard work that turns ideas into books. Now, to get back to that book project….


Disclosure of Material Connection: Thanks, InterVarsity Press, for the chance to read a galley copy of this forthcoming book. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Stones and Stories

stones and stories

Stones and StoriesJudith E. Anderson. Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2019.

Summary: A guide for understanding and writing with clarity, whether about literature or in any of four forms of discourse.

Do you remember those high school literature and composition classes? I vaguely remember learning clues about understanding the metaphors, symbols, and themes one might find in a work of fiction, and learning to pay attention to plot, characters, and recurring motifs that helped one recognize what this was “all about.” I also remember writing papers, having to analyze a piece of literature (Silas Marner and The Scarlet Letter come to mind). I discovered how hard it can be to write, and how putting ideas to paper (no computers then) brought and forced a degree of clarity to my thought.

I can’t recall that we had a book to instruct us in how to do all this. I remember reading books and having to write about them, trying to emulate and apply the things our teachers taught and modeled. Reading this work, I think having something like this would have helped. Judith E. Anderson, a retired high school teacher has written a primer that teaches how to analyze a piece of literature, how to understand various figures of speech, how to pay attention to context in interpreting literature, and then how to apply all this in written compositions.

She employs two helpful devices that run through this work. The first is the use of stones and what they mean. She carries the metaphor of stones through the work, including proposing a myriad of composition prompts around stones, and proposing an exercise in biblical interpretation using seven biblical passages on stones that seem to contradict.

The second device is that various exercises or written responses are included throughout. The book uses different approaches from simple questions and responses, to drawing visual images that symbolize certain concepts, to writing compositions, learning how to use, quote, and cite material. She explains plagiarism and how one can mis-cite material.

One of the most helpful parts of the book for me was her distinction of four forms of discourse: the descriptive, the expository, the persuasive, and the narrative. She offers and example of each, inspired by a picture of a partially crumbling stone wall, and explains the significance of each word or phrase.

This book is intended as a primer for high school students. While the author proposes its usefulness in public, private, and home school contexts, my hunch is that it might be used most in the latter two of these contexts, and because of the biblical content, more likely in Christian contexts, despite the centrality of the Bible in English literature. The book does not proselytize, except for learning how to read and understand literature, and how to write with clarity and proper citations. It could be used by teachers, or by tutors and parents working with students struggling to learn literary analysis and composition.

I found the book personally helpful. Many of us were not paying attention in high school or college, or just enough to pass the class. This is a great refresher for the adult who wants to read well. It also is an excellent refresher in the fundamentals of good writing, useful for those who blog, who have to write reports for their work, who want to tell a story, or to make a persuasive case in a letter to the editor. It is brief, practical and clear. Using the exercises and prompts will make you a better reader and writer. It just may be that you are finally in a place where you know why that matters.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

An Evening with Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson speaking at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College."Marilynne Robinson" by Christian Scott Heinen Bell - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Marilynne Robinson speaking at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.”Marilynne Robinson” by Christian Scott Heinen BellOwn work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I read Gilead and Home several years ago and have Lila on my “want to read” list. So when I heard that Marilynne Robinson was speaking at Northwestern University while I was at a work conference near O’Hare Airport, I jumped on the opportunity to go hear her. She was speaking on “Our Elegant Universe: Is Beauty an Accident?” as part of a program called The Veritas ForumShe gave a prepared talk on the theme and then participated in a question and answer period with an audience of at least 500. I scribbled some notes from the talk and Q and A time. This is not a verbatim rendering, but rather a summary that I hope is faithful to her words and thought. I thought others who love Robinson’s work might enjoy this, and those who have not discovered it might try one of her novels.

In her presentation, she argued that the beauty of the world, the elegance of the universe (of which she sees us a part) is no accident. She thinks that science and theology ought not be at war over these things when in fact both perceive the grandeur of the creation. She contended for a “divine freedom that precedes reality” and that materialist explanations don’t allow for that which is beyond our own experience. She sees in the sheer variety of beauty,rather than being one thing, the grace of God.

Here are some of the questions she discussed following her presentation:

What is a day like in the life of Marilynne Robinson? Has that changed since Gilead?

Not really. I am a solitary creature surrounded by many, many books. My sister visits me a couple hours a week to connect me to the outer world. Otherwise I stay in my house except for walks which I’m told are good for my circulation. Otherwise, I stay in my house. I like my life but many would not find it enviable. I’m a monk, basically.

Was there a “conversion moment” in your life.

I can’t remember any “dawning”. I never thought of myself as other than Christian. I almost went to divinity school except that there weren’t many opportunities for women. I went to graduate school instead. I was always good at writing. My brother encouraged me and Housekeeping was kind of a family artifact. But as for my Christian experience, I would describe it as uniformity with enriching.

Have you ever thought that the Christian subject matter of your novels would limit your audience?

I never considered it. I was never a careerist. I wrote about what interested me. I was surprised by the reception of Gilead. I don’t think about my readership. I’m just glad they are there. Writers should trust their own insights and trust the interests of the public.

When you look at the world, do you ever think evil overcomes beauty? Does this argue against God?

Most people throughout history have lived with great afflictions and yet many have produced works of incredible beauty in the belief that there is something beyond evil and suffering.

Is God beauty?

Beauty is a signature of the divine. But nothing is identical with God — that would be blasphemy.

What challenge would you leave with students?

Two things:

1. Remember who you are, the flower of the universe. You can do all kinds of things and you won’t know until you try!

2. Read the primary sources!

This is a much-edited version of 90 minutes of presentation and dialogue. Besides the fact that she lives surrounded by many books (!), it was a delight to spend an evening considering the beautiful aspect of our pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Others may see beauty in a world without God but what struck me was the seamless arc between her perception of the beauty that finds its source in God and the beauty manifest in her writing. I for one am glad she simply writes what interests her. I’m thankful that she has given expression to this and trusted to the interests of her audience for in so doing she has given us great works of beauty.

Finding the Right Word

Every one of us who tries their hand at writing grapples with this. It is the struggle to express with the right word or set of words those thoughts rattling around in your head. Often, it is the frustrating difference between the “right” word and the “almost right” word.

Why does this matter? That was a question that came up in a discussion this morning of a thirty-year old book that included an extended discourse on the use of two different English words to translate a Greek term. In particular, a number of us who have been around a while remembered when this discussion was vigorously contested but now rarely comes up. Is it just because the topic is passe’? Or is it because we are less interested in discussions that involve careful distinctions around the meaning of words? Have we become more inclined to take a “whatever” approach to distinctions in words and ideas where people might differ?

Word Cloud of this Post

Word Cloud of this Post

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to this. I read examples of both lucid writing and poorly constructed sentences and statements every day. Is there more of this than in the past? When one reads journals and letters from the past, I’m not sure. There were plenty of misspellings and grammatical errors and imprecisions of thought in the past.

What I do know is that clarity of expression matters. Have you ever been in a meeting where participants are going around and around about a course of action, and suddenly someone who has been listening carefully speaks up and says, “is this what we are saying should be done?” and proceeds to crystallize the ideas floating around the room or conference call? I’ve often found this makes all the difference between muddle and meaning in a group.

Perhaps this matters now more than ever with our capacity to easily disseminate various forms of verbiage both within our organizations but also around the world (this blog being one example of this!). I wonder whether the ease and rapidity with which we can communicate via tweets, texts, emails or even blogs can erode the clarity of thought and expression that came when you drafted a letter, revised and proofed it, and then typed and sent it out via the postal service.

What is more troubling to me is to witness the deterioration of the public use of words where diatribes and ad hominem attacks substitute for a reasoned argument that marshals evidence to persuade a listener. I am also troubled when I read writing that is jargon-laden, where it appears that the effort is to conceal meaning from those who don’t have the code to the jargon. I find this equally among theologians and academics in other fields of higher education. Often, these scholars are writing about matters that are not merely of scholarly concern. They concern what we will believe, how we will educate our children, how we will pursue medical care, and what public policies our civic and political leaders should pursue.

Perhaps why this matters most to me is that I believe reality is “word-shaped”. My worldview is one that believes that the material universe was spoken into existence, whatever other material causes and effects that set in motion. Our use of language mirrors that of the Maker–our words also have the power to bring things into existence, for good or ill. Similarly, I believe the moral framework of life isn’t something we simply socially constructed but was similarly articulated in formulations like the Ten Commandments. It is not coincidental, I think, that one of the names given “God in human flesh” was logos or Word. It seems that God did not want to leave us to muddle about in our search for meaning.

You might not agree with me in these matters. Many don’t! But I hope we might agree on the power of words. Words can hide the truth. Words can hurt. Words can muddle. Words can inflame. And words can be a vehicle for the thoughtful pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Ethics for Reviewers?

Apparently there are some people making a cottage industry of reviewing famous authors on Amazon and giving them one star, terrible reviews. A New Statesman article chronicles how Anne Rice and others are petitioning Amazon to ban anonymous reviews and requiring verifiable identities. Frankly, it seems this may just give these reviewers more attention. But it raises the question of reviewer ethics.  Here is my proposed code of ethics:

1. If you can’t put your name to a review, don’t write it–or at least don’t publish it.

2. Don’t use mean reviews as a way to attract lots of views or followers. It seems to me this is a poor substitute for good writing. It also suggests you are a very poor chooser of books to read and review. Do you really want to spend your life reading and slamming bad books?

3. Read the books you review. If I can’t finish a book I won’t review it.

4. If you have a problem with a book, be specific. Cite the instances where the writing is poor, facts are in error, or the specifics of why you take issue with a writer’s argument.

5. Don’t engage in ad hominem attacks. Your assessment that a book is bad or a plot is faulty or an argument has problems doesn’t mean the writer is a bad person. Separate the book from the person.

6. Disclose any facts that might bias a review, even if they don’t, such as receiving a free review copy of a book or a personal relationship with an author.

7. Practice the golden rule. Treat writers as you would like to be treated. That doesn’t mean using kid gloves but it does mean being as fair and even-handed as you can be in reviewing a book. Remember that someone can review your stuff as well!

8. I’ve decided in providing links to a book to link to the publisher’s website rather than a certain online vendor if at all possible. This allows people to purchase from the vendor of their choice–perhaps that local bookshop down the road–rather than providing expedited access to that certain online vendor. I post reviews on that vendor’s site only if asked by the author or by a publisher providing a review copy of the book.

Reviews serve a valuable function in helping people know whether or not they should buy a particular book. That carries with it a certain responsibility, not only to book buyers but authors and publishers as well. It doesn’t mean serving as a publicist for a book. It means commending good works that might not otherwise come to a person’s attention. It means helping someone understand whether a book will serve their interest in buying it. It can give useful critiques to writers and publishers. All of these are real people who have an economic interest in what we write–whether it is the few dollars they spend to buy the book or a livelihood for writers and employees in publishing houses.

For me, this comes down to wanting to sleep at night–to believe I’ve acted with integrity. And it seems to be one more way of promoting civility in a society that too often seems to prefer the cheap shot.