I read at least one book about writing every month. Because nobody sends me these for free, this means I buy at least one book about writing each month. I know you are imagining my bookshelves, but rest easy, most of these are now ebooks. Slightly cheaper and much easier to transport.
The books are not always great reads and there are some I wouldn’t recommend for that reason. Others I don’t recommend simply because they are a little more niche than I imagine most people who read this blog would want. In other words, they are not advice. They are either based in formal research or the result of professional experience. So yes I buy books by language scholars, which I’m not, and by writers, which I might be sometimes – in between teaching and researching and administrative duties.
Last month I particularly enjoyed reading Amitava Kumar’s (2020) Every Day I Write the Book. Notes on Style. I was pleased to find Kumar again, as one of his early books Passport Photos (2000) (a mix of images, poetry, criticism, cultural analysis and personal account) really helped me to understand that academic texts didn’t have to follow a conventional format. The current book om style has even more of the kind of episodic montage that I am particularly drawn to, and which I occasionally get to play with myself.
Kumar is Professor of English Literature at Vassar. There are a number of English Lit people who write about academic writing – and even more people who have English Lit tucked away in their undergraduate pasts (like me). Kumar also teaches writing so he works with ‘exemplary texts’ from fiction and from a range of academic disciplines. He also researches writing, using this reading to help him think critically about his own writing process. As you’d expect, his writing has clarity and elegance as well as substance.
Notes on style is divided into nine parts, eight of which consist of nine pieces. Or chunks. Or in some cases, fragments, as the pieces range from about half a page to several. There are occasional images of media clippings and handwritten notes. So the book looks a bit like an anthology of Post-Its and extended Post-Its. It’s not really so surprising then that well into the book I found … In my composition classes, I pass around a stack of Post-It notes and ask students to first write just enough to fill the small yellow square of paper in front of them. The Post-It note, like the small-size notebook I always carry in my pocket, gives comfort when I recall the Latin dictum, Nulla dies sine linea ( No day without a line.)
Yes, Kumar promotes a regular writing practice, to the point of performing writing even when you aren’t doing it. I recommend that if you aren’t writing, you should nevertheless perform the ritual of sitting down to write about what you are not writing. (You can write other things down. Write down what you see outside your window, or what you remember of your dreams. Or what your plans are for the day of the week.)
Occasional practical writing advice like this is scattered through the book. But the book is mostly, as Kumar says in his introduction, about the thinking about writing. Kumar wants to build bridges, bringing criticism together with creative writing, and academic writing together with non-academic writing. Refusal to present this quest as a seamless tightly edited argument shows, through its choppy form, that there is not really any fully-formed way to achieve these reconciliations and that the author is still thinking about various dimensions and permutations of the task. Puma still has doubts and concerns as well as insights.
Kumar talked to a number of writers and writing researchers while writing this book. It’s not clear to me how many. I don’t remember finding a list of people per se, although various names are presented throughout the book. I noticed the omission of a list of – interviewees, correspondents, participants – whatever they might be called. Their status is not clear either. But this omission is part of Kumar’s point, I am assuming.
Blurring the boundaries between fiction, non-fiction and academic writing might mean giving up some deeply embedded conventions. Asking does the point being made really suffer from the lack of n=? If the goal of the book is to stimulate my thinking, then omitting some of my disciplinary mannerisms might be good for me.
Kumar is equally and more explicitly critical of the ways in which much academic writing lays out what it will do at the outset, even down to the use of the ubiquitous topic sentence. Academic writing suffers from a lack of surprises, he suggests. Kumar is an advocate of preserving strangeness and what is whimsical in academic writing. It starts, he says, with an understanding that language is your closest ally and that if you align it with your desire for freedom, you will be able to live forever. I am still not at all sure what he means by this, although I am very drawn to the notion of whimsy in academic writing.
I have really enjoyed reading this book. While its apparently bitty nature might suggest that it is something that can be dipped in and out of, over time, I took a contrary view and read it all in three sittings. The book then became much more like sitting in a train watching frames of the world go past, more like a filmic montage. I simply ate up the different snippets, variously and together erudite, amusing, bookish, personal, challenging, memory-invoking, thought provoking. The sum total more than the parts, although the parts are also generally interesting.
The book won’t be everyone’s idea of a good read about writing. But it was mine. Reading it has encouraged me to think again about style and form. Not simply as something I might teach or know about, but as something I might experiment more with myself. Having just about finished a monograph written as classic argument, that is a very appealing idea.
If you are English LItt-ish, and invested and interested in questions of writing, you might also enjoy this lecture by Kumar on voice.