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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog


Why does rhetoric in a presidential debate, a courtroom, or a classroom tend to be so boring? Because it is based on an artificial formula: take a position and construct a systematic defense of that position, writes essayist Paul Graham at his personal Web site. "Defending a position may be a necessary evil in a legal dispute, but it's not the best way to get at the truth," Graham says. "It's not just that you miss the subtleties this way. The real problem is that you can't change the question." But the template of the high school essay—topic sentence, then defense, then conclusion—is hammered into students' heads until writing becomes a tedious chore, nothing but "concluding remarks to the jury," Graham says.

This is not what the modern essay was invented to be in Michel de Montaigne's book of "essais." The word is French for "attempts," as in attempts to find something out (rather than begin with a given truth and then support it). This model supports the quote—which Google suggests is from Orwell—"I write to find out what I think." Writing is indeed a way to explore one's own thoughts and make discoveries about them, Graham says. "Expressing ideas helps to form them."

But the function of writing as an internal inventory has its limits. Thought craves discipline. Writing craves structure. That may be what English teachers are trying to pound into our heads with their insistence on topic sentences and such. Graham's own essay illustrates this craving; it wanders and rambles and expels some authoritative statements without any appeal to an authority or audience. Graham says writing is about digging for answers, but he doesn't dig very deep, or unearth much of value. Other recent articles on writing and inquiry do

  • To live means to learn "the acknowledgement of sin and the profession of faith," and to experience "tragedy, comedy, and everything in between." To read means the same thing, says Theresa Morin in a cover story of the Lexington (Mass.) Christian Academy Bulletin entitled "A Way of Seeing: The Role of Literature in Cultivating Inquiry." "What I appreciate about literature is that it says what I can't say or haven't thought to say, and thus opens up aspects of experience, of life," an LCA English teacher tells Morin. Says B&C editor John Wilson, quoting C.S. Lewis: "When we read, we encounter an 'extension of being.' We see with someone else's eyes and heart. We connect with the inner life of other people. We'd never have those experiences and in some cases wouldn't want to. We implicitly compare their lives to our own experience and understanding." What the article doesn't address is whether classic and/or Christian literature can do this better than contemporary fiction. With its emphasis on how literature transcends time, the article suggests it is the classics that can most transform us. Excerpt/Article
  • What good is reading if it doesn't change you? So asks literary critic Mark Edmundson in Poets&Writers magazine (in an excerpt of his book Why Read?), after getting student evaluations that called his course "enjoyable." "Why is the great confrontation—the rugged battle of fate where strength is born, to recall Emerson—so conspicuously missing?" asks Edmundson. "Why hadn't anyone been changed by my course?" He reflexively concludes that this is an extension of our entertainment culture, in which books and ideas are passively consumed rather than wrestled with. But why not conclude the opposite—that after watching all that TV, his students were fulfilled by delving into deep thoughts and nourishing their minds for a change? Essay
  • Students aren't the only ones with a shallow approach to books, writes Lindsay Waters, an editor at Harvard University Press, in the Village Voice. So are publishers of books about the humanities. Publishers are so captive to profit that they risk "the abandonment of critical inquiry," Waters writes. But after promising to look at what human beings have "most valued about the book, so we can try to preserve it," and quoting John Milton, who called books "the precious lifeblood of a master spirit," Waters proceeds to limit most of her essay to a condemnation of the profit motive of publishers, with sky-is-falling undertones that always seem suspect. One clue Waters does give is that "Humanists study books and artifacts in order to find traces of our common humanity." You won't hear it from a humanist, but perhaps readers of faith do the same thing, in a different way—we look for traces of what it means to be human, as a way of looking for traces of the one whose image we bear. Essay
  • Never buy a book with a picture of the author on the cover. That's a rule of thumb for serious readers besieged by self-promoting authors at chain bookstores. But in a column at Touchstone, Leon Podles reminds us of the value of an author infusing herself into her work. The paragon of autobiography was Augustine, a would-be historical footnote whose self-revelation to God (or in God, as he framed it) made him a pillar of Christian thought. G.K. Chesterton is a different kind of example. "Anything Chesterton wrote on is interesting because he wrote on it," Podles says. "He was not writing about himself, but whether he wanted to or not, Chesterton always comes through in his essays." Podles concludes, "The reader is not wrong in wanting to know what the author is like." Just look at the Bible—the ultimate act of revelation through the word, or the Word. Essay
The state of reading (parts 1 and 2)
Why writing is like praying


From the New York Times :

CAIRO* — Given the cacophony that afflicts any Cairo street—the braying donkeys, the caterwauling vegetable vendors, the constant honking of car horns—it might seem a particularly daunting task to single out just one noise to prosecute as the most offensive. But the minister of religious endowments recently did that, more or less, making a somewhat unlikely decision in these times when many Muslim faithful believe that their religion is under assault. The call to prayer, the minister declared, is out of control: too loud, too grating, utterly lacking in beauty or uniform timing, and hence in dire need of reform. … The minister, Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, announced that one official call to prayer would be broadcast live from one central Cairo mosque five times a day, and that it would be carried simultaneously by the 4,000-plus mosques and prayer halls across the capital. From the ensuing national brouhaha—the outraged headlines, the scathing editorials, the heated debates among worshipers—one might gain the impression that Mr. Zaqzouq was leading an assault against Islam itself.

From the Washington Post:

PHILADELPHIA — It was just an old, dust-covered painting of a long-forgotten school principal, or so the maintenance man thought. It had been sitting next to the boiler in the storeroom for a long time—too dank to hang, but a bit too pretty to throw out. Fortunately, no one ever did ditch the portrait, for it was done by renowned painter Thomas Eakins in 1902 of John Seely Hart, a former principal of Central High School in Philadelphia, for the dedication of a new school building that year. Eakins, who had grown up and attended schools in Philadelphia, was commissioned to do the portrait by a school alumnus, and it hung in the school for a time before being relegated to storage. Now that portrait is among a treasure trove of art discovered in Philadelphia schools—as much as $30 million worth. The school district had commissioned a survey of school buildings over the past year to see what art existed. It expected to find a few interesting pieces in odd places, but nothing like this. "There may be as many as 100 museum-quality pieces in the Philadelphia schools' collection, and that is pretty amazing," said [one consultant].

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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture. He writes the weekly "On Language" column for the Chicago Tribune.

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