The Perils of Point-of-View in Writing Biographies

On this blog, I’ve dedicated a lot of energy to dissecting bits of what I consider to be solid writing, in posts where I’ve highlighted the literary techniques contained within a passage or a poem and argued that they are what make the piece a success. But there’s an important caveat to that sort of discussion that I don’t think I’ve addressed before: there are no intrinsically good techniques, only techniques that are good in some context. If this blog is to be at all useful in exploring writing, I believe it needs to acknowledge that, sometimes, writing can be sterling in the abstract but flawed in a given situation.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, a book which in general is written in a perfectly fine if utilitarian manner, but at one dramatic moment adopts a far more lyrical prose style. The moment in question comes after Eleanor confronts her husband Franklin about his affair with her former secretary, Lucy Mercer, and offers him a divorce. It’s one the emotional low points in Eleanor’s life, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Cook would choose this part of her subject’s narrative to indulge in some rhetorical flair:

He made promises, provided explanations. This “golden boy,” this vibrant “apollo” who charmed everyone he met, now directed all his influence and charm toward his wife. He would never see Lucy Mercer again. Did he apologize? Did he explain? Had he been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion—against being a mama’s boy who always did the right and proper thing; who condemned all departures from the proprieties of his class and culture; who had mocked his half-brother’s son’s love for a socially unacceptable woman and blamed Taddie for his father’s death; who at the young age of twenty-three had taken on the responsibilities of a wife and home? Well, he had erred. Washington was so full of temptations; he had been trying out his new power, his new independence, for the first time in his life. It was a flamboyant, fatuous time. And it was over. He cared about his wife; he loved her. He was sorry he had hurt her. There was so much at stake—so much to do, and to do together. (p. 231)

If you put this passage in a bottle, if you consider it in isolation, it’s rather impressive. In fact, you could probably give this paragraph to an AP Language and Composition class and have the students tear it apart as an exercise. The aim of the passage is to place the reader in FDR’s mind as realizes that his affair has been exposed, and every device that Cook uses serves that goal. There’s the mixture of short paratactic questions (“Did he apologize? Did he explain?”) with looping hypotactic ones (“Had he been engaged…”), both of which highlight Franklin’s excited mental state. The use of anaphora (“who had always…who condemned…who had mocked…who…had taken…”) calls to mind the great persuasive speeches of history, only here it’s directed inward, as though FDR wishes to convince himself of his good nature. Even the insertion of a discourse marker (“Well, he had erred”) is indicative of a mind at work. These devices are not especially advanced or obscure, but there are undeniably effective at achieving Cook’s end here.

But that only raises the question: is that an end worth achieving?

Let’s talk about point-of-view for a bit. We’re perhaps more accustomed to thinking about point-of-view in fiction. Fiction writers, after all, have a great deal of freedom in choosing a POV for their stories. They can use an omniscient narrator, moving from one character’s perspective to another’s, or even describing events outside of anyone’s perspective. They can adopt a quasi-objective, reportorial stance, as in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Or they can restrict themselves to a single character’s POV, whether in first person or a limited third person. As long as the writer is consistent with regards to POV, they have almost limitless options.

The reason that fiction writers have such freedom is that fictional worlds are entirely of their own creation. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, the narrator can spend one chapter in Dorothea’s mind, then one in Lydgate’s, then one in Mr. Casaubon’s, and so on, without fear of being inaccurate to the facts of the narrative, because there are no narrative facts as such. The whole story exists as it does solely because George Eliot wrote it that way. But imagine if Middlemarch were literally, as the subtitle has it, a study of provincial life? Suddenly the narrator’s movement from one person’s mind to the next would seem a bit more suspect. The reader would be compelled to ask, “How does she know any of this?”

In Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin notes that improper shifts in point-of-view are the problem that she encounters most often in unpublished (and even published) writing. That fact on its own did not surprise me when I first read Steering the Craft a few years ago, as it lined up with my own experience in writing workshops. What did surprise me was that Le Guin had found that the problem extended beyond novels and short stories:

It’s a problem even in nonfiction, when the author starts telling the reader what Aunt Jane was thinking and why Uncle Fred swallowed the grommet. A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this without clearly indicating that Aunt Jane’s thoughts and Uncle Fred’s motives aren’t known facts but the author’s guesswork, opinion, or interpretation. Memoirists can’t be omniscient, even for a moment. (p. 70)

Le Guin frames this defective handling of POV in essentially moral terms: “A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this.” If a fiction writer mishandles POV, the result is simply a weaker, more confusing story. If a nonfiction writer mishandles POV, the result may be straight-up dishonesty. “To use limited third person in factual narrative,” Le Guin goes on to say, “is to trespass, pretending you know what a real person thought and felt” (p. 71).

Cook isn’t writing a memoir, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that she has the same responsibilities that Le Guin assigns to memoirists. In fact, in her case those responsibilities may be even more pressing. When we read a memoir, we know that we’re getting a personal, edited account of real-life events, that we’re getting only one perspective on the complications of life. But when we read a biography, we expect the author to maintain objectivity, to follow where the facts lead and not to step beyond them.

Reread that passage from the Eleanor Roosevelt biography in this light, and you’ll start to see places where Cook strains against the limits of what can be known about FDR’s mental state after Eleanor’s offer of divorce. The rhetorical questions, which before sounded like an attempt to imagine FDR’s thought process, now sound like a way of sneaking in unfounded speculations without fully committing to them. They suggest that FDR may “have been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion” without providing concrete evidence to support that claim; indeed, Cook follows it up with just further suppositions. In this brief digression into FDR’s mind, Cook has breached the biographer’s contract with the reader.

Yet, in all honesty, I can’t condemn Cook wholeheartedly for this trespass. See, FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer is a momentous event in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, as any discovery of infidelity would be, but it’s an event lacking much in the way of documentation. Cook says that Eleanor “wrote of that time only obliquely, and in code” (p. 232). References to the affair in her correspondence are scant to say the least, and her memoir devotes just a passing thought to the moment of discovery described above. (Even memoirs with consistent POVs, it is worth remembering, are not 100% factual accounts, either.)

This leaves Cook in a quandary regarding the Lucy Mercer affair. She can either stick to what the documentary record and interviews with Eleanor’s surviving acquaintances reveal, and say less than what the affair would appear to deserve; or she can speculate beyond what those limited sources have to say, sacrificing strict accuracy in the hopes of obtaining a perhaps unobtainable truth. This is not a choice that I find enviable, but is the choice that a writer in Cook’s position must make. I think either decision could be justified, but one must accept the consequences in either case.


But what do you think? Are there any cases you can think of where a biography has benefited from the sort of POV shift we talked about here? Is it ethical for a biographer to make such a shift in the first place? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re in the mood for something more thought on biography, here’s a piece I wrote last month about Frank Brady’s biography of Bobby Fischer, which looks into the duties we owe to abjectly awful people. Or, if you’re looking for more on point-of-view, here’s a post on Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple,” a story that can teach us how to write from the POV of inanimate objects.

And, as always, thanks for reading!

Searching for Bobby Fischer’s Soul: A Reflection

EndgameThere’s a moment near the end of Frank Brady’s 2011 biography Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness which both caught me off guard and,did not surprise me in the slightest. In late 2007, as Fischer was slowly dying in an Icelandic hospital, Dr. Magnus Skulasson, a psychiatrist (though not Fischer’s psychiatrist), frequently came to visit him, just to give Fischer some friendly company in his last weeks.

I’ll let Brady pick up the moment from there:

Bobby asked him to bring foods and juices to the hospital, which he did, and often Skulasson just sat at the bedside, both men not speaking. When Bobby was experiencing severe pain in his legs, Skulasson began to massage them, using the back of his hand. Bobby looked at him and said, “Nothing soothes as much as the human touch.” Once Bobby woke and said: “Why are you so kind to me?” Of course, Skulasson had no answer. (p. 318)

Just in terms of the prose, it’s clear that Brady finds this moment arresting, too. There’s that colon right before Bobby’s question, which signals that whatever follows is going to be significant. And that tossed-off “Of course” right before the last clause just underscores how difficult answering that question is. Why should Skulasson be kind to Bobby Fischer? Or rather, why should anyone be kind to him?

And if we’re going to hope to answer that question, then we’re going to need some context.

Bobby Fischer, at the very least in the United States, is history’s most famous chess player. His 1956 “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne is one of the most celebrated games ever played; his triumph over Boris Spassky in the World Chess Championship 1972 represents the height of chess’s cultural and political relevance. Every rising American player from Joshua Waitzkin to Fabiano Caruana is heralded as “the next Bobby Fischer.” His name may as well be synonymous with chess.

Fischer was also a wretched human being. Even in our current political moment, when antisemitism and violent rhetoric are once again on the rise, his comments on Jewish people and September 11th are still shocking in their virulence. I had long known Fischer was “politically incorrect,” to dress things up politely, but reading excerpts from his press conferences and radio interviews made my eyes bulge. And that’s to say nothing of his day-to-day interactions with people. Fischer was consistently petulant, dismissive, ungrateful, and paranoid. The fact that anyone could stand to be in his presence for more than three minutes is itself a revelation.

Reading Endgame, I kept waiting for the moment when people would finally give up on Bobby Fischer. But no matter how many paranoid and hateful rants he’d subject his friends and colleagues to, no matter how often he’d respond to generosity with bile, people kept reaching out to him, kept giving him second chances. Chess masters would give him companionship and a place to stay while he was a fugitive. Admirers would write him letters and plead for his picture. A whole consortium of Icelandic public figures spent godless amounts of time and effort to extract him from his imprisonment in Japan. All that attention and affection, given to someone manifestly unworthy of it. Why?

Part of the answer, undoubtedly, lies in Fischer’s celebrity status. Fame invariably will grant one the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the public. After all, one might argue, Fischer’s accomplishments in chess are undeniable: aesthetically, theoretically, technologically and economically, he did so much for the game. His victory in the World Chess Championship 1972 more or less put the city of Reykjavík on the map. It’s disappointing that so many people were willing to overlook or excuse his behavior, but I can’t say it’s too shocking, either. It’s not like the world is free of Cosby and Polanski apologists.

Second, especially in his earlier years, it’s not as though Fischer the person was wholly undeserving of sympathy. His childhood was far from idyllic: his family struggled financially for many years, and his mother was under government surveillance due to her left-wing political activities. And he seems to have been searching for purpose in his life for decades. Before he really embraced antisemitism as a guiding ethos—the same way, I suppose, one might try embracing a cactus for comfort—Fischer was an unofficial member of the Worldwide Church of God, an apocalyptic Christian denomination to which he tithed a good chunk of his world championship winnings. However, there’s only so much that a difficult life can account for, and calling for the mass murder of Jews is way, way beyond that.

That’s why, to bring this back to the beginning, Magnus cannot possibly have an answer to the question, “Why are you so kind to me?” It’s a level of kindness that defies reason, perhaps even rejects it. We can say, as Brady does off-handedly a few paragraphs earlier, that Magnus “had a great reverence for the accomplishments of Bobby Fischer and an affection for him as a man” (p. 318). But that’s not really an explanation; at most, it just pushes the question back down a level: “Why do you have affection for me as a man?” I mean, I still get chills watching Fischer’s mating combination in the Game of the Century, and I wouldn’t want to be in the same country as him.

Still, whereas every other time someone helped Fischer out filled me with frustration, Magnus’s leg-stroking inspired some more ambiguous feeling in me. The end of Fischer’s life is the rare spot in Endgame where he seems truly helpless. Yes, he’d been facing the threat of extradition to the United States for 15 years, but he also had the resources and stature to evade that threat for just as long. Yes, he’d gotten roughed up while in custody at Narita International Airport for traveling with an invalid passport, but that felt like perverted justice rather than injustice per se. But Fischer lying prone, vulnerable, in a hospital bed? That was something almost pitiable.

Tony Hoagland has a poem called “Lucky,” whose opening stanza has stuck with me ever since I first read it back in 2013:

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no. (lines 1-4)

I’ve never been certain what Hoagland means here. Is this a wish that we treat our enemy with pity, that we find a way to be a better person? Or is helping someone when they are “weakened past the point of saying no” a sort of cruelty, an act of revenge we’d be dying to enact?

And, however you answer that question, is that the sort of thing that you would want to do to someone like Bobby Fischer?

 

What Can We Learn from Erasmus’s and Chaucer’s Friars?

I can’t say I was enthralled with Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly (also called In Praise of Folly), a 1509 satirical essay in which the figure of Folly expounds on her role in early modern European society. Maybe it was the translation I was reading from: John Wilson’s 17th-century English syntax, I feel, tends to muffle whatever humor Erasmus wants to find in people’s foibles.

That’s a shame, because Erasmus’s satire is the sort that ought to have a longer-than-normal shelf-life. This isn’t something like John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a poem satirizing Restoration-era politics, which lost a good chunk of its relevance and bite the moment Charles II died. No, the sort of superstition, short-sightedness and self-interest that Erasmus writes about has, alas, never left us.

And there was one section of The Praise of Folly in particular that I felt spoke to universal concerns very well, and it was about an absolutely timeless feature of Western society: begging, itinerant friars. Hear me out.

For some quick context: “friar” is the broad term for certain orders of Christian clerics. In contrast to monks, who live their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in cloistered settings, friars take those orders on the road, serving the faithful and spreading the gospel out in the world. They travel from town to town, subsisting on whatever donations they can muster from the common folk. It’s that last bit, the need for friars to beg, which tends to draw people’s ire, and which tends to inspire criticism of mendicant orders. (Then as now, no one enjoys being asked for money.)

Thus, in Erasmus’s telling, friars need to get creative if they want to secure funding. And what tools does a friar have aside from his preaching? The use of language comes up time and again in this section of The Praise of Folly, and it’s fascinating to see how many ways friars employ language to achieve their ends. My personal favorite tactic is their tendency to support the precepts of Christianity by citing literally everything but Christian doctrine:

How they shift their voice, sing out their words, skip up and down, and are ever and anon making such new faces, that they confound all things with noise! and yet this Knack of theirs is no less than a Mystery that runs in succession from one brother to another; which though it be not lawful for me to know, however I’ll venture at it by conjectures. First they invoke what ever they have scrapt from the Poets; and in the next place, if they are to discourse of Charity, they take their rise from the river Nilus; or to set out the Mystery of the Cross, from Bell and the Dragon; or to dispute of Fasting, from the twelve signs of the Zodiack; or, being to preach of Faith, ground their matter on the square of a Circle. (pp. 204-205)

All these rhetorical maneuvers, all these allusions to astrology and mathematics and such, are flashy and sound impressive to the audience—the speaker must be quite learned in the ways of the divine to understand all of this, no? Except, of course, that none of the above has anything to do with the divine, let alone justifies why the listeners should scrape the bottoms of their money pouches.

More than anything, Erasmus’s depiction of friars reminds me of Geoffrey Chaucer, who like Erasmus spends a lot of The Canterbury Tales poking fun at various clerical figures, particularly with regards to how they use language. The Pardoner, for instance, famously brags about all his scams—his fraudulent relics, his insincere sermons—and then delivers a persuasive fable against greed. The Monk, on the other hand, attempts to win the story-telling contest through sheer quantity, recounting tragic fall after tragic fall until the Knight  finally begs him to stop.

And then, of course, there’s the Friar. Chaucer devotes most of the Friar’s description in the General Prologue to his quest for money (e.g., spurning the poor and sick for the wealthy and well), but towards the end he inserts some quick details on the Friar’s rhetorical skills. For one thing, he’s able to move his audience to action through his preaching: “[T]hogh a widwe hadde noght a sho,” Chaucer tells us, “So plesaunt was his ‘In principio,’ [‘In the beginning’]/ Yet wolde he have a ferthing, er he wente” (Fragment I, lines 255-257). For another, he’s aware of the power of delivery: “Somwhat he lipsed, for his wantownesse, / To make his English swete upon his tonge” (I.267-268). If he were in modern day America, he’d be putting on a posh English accent.

But the most biting depiction of friars comes not from Chaucer the narrator, but rather from the Summoner (another of the countless churchmen in The Canterbury Tales). The Summoner, who has just been the target of “The Friar’s Tale,” makes friars the butt end of his little joke. Literally: long story short, the friar in the tale gets farted on. (This is Chaucer, after all.) It’s some foul comeuppance, sure, but the way that the Summoner’s friar describes his approach to preaching is just as memorable:

“I have to day been at your chirche at messe,
And seyd a sermon after my symple wit—
Nat al after the text of hooly writ,
For it is hard to yow, as I suppose,
And therefore I wol teche yow al the glosse.
Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn,
For lettre sleeth, so as we clerkes seyn” (III.1788-1794)

When “hooly writ” does not suit this friar’s conclusion (normally, “Give me money”), he will gladly preach from “the glosse,” that is, an interpretation of the text. “Glosynge is a glorious thyng” because it allows one to support any position, no matter what “hooly writ” actually demands. At least the Pardoner is up front with his dissembling; the Summoner’s friar is both dishonest and sneaky. One indeed might as well cite the zodiac if the plain truth is so inconvenient. Really, why not fart on this guy?

Okay, talking about early modern clerical satire is all fine and dandy, but why should anyone care? Do these slick-tongued mendicants have any relevance to contemporary life?

There’s a recent piece by Nathan J. Robinson on the Current Affairs website called “You Can Make an Argument for Anything.” I think this paragraph gets right to the heart of it:

When I say there are justifications for everything, I truly mean everythingYou can make an argument against democracy or against empathy. (“People don’t know what’s in their best interests,” and “Excess compassion impedes rational decision-making,” respectively.) If I want to seize the land of native peoples, destroy their property and force them into exile, I might say: “Land should be put to its most efficient and productive use, and while we respect the ancestral rights of all people to their homes, all benefit alike from the development of resources toward their optimal functions.” In fact, even today there are those who defend colonialism, saying something like “colonialism improved living standards in the aggregate and was therefore more beneficial than detrimental.” Even slaveowners had arguments: In addition to their crackpot racial theories, they said that dominance of man over man was the natural way of things, and that slaveowners treated their slaves better than industrialists treated factory workers. (If your defense of your actions is “I’m not as bad as the capitalists,” your actions are probably indefensible.) [Emphasis in original]

In these contexts, it’s wholly irrelevant whether the argument is sound, or whether it’s even based on true premises. The speaker only needs the trappings of reason to make a persuasive case for horrific causes. And as Robinson would probably remind us, the stakes involved here are much greater than, “Should I give this friar another hand-out?”

Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn…

Exceeding Weary: A Look at “2 Henry IV,” Act II, Scene 2

When I was a sophomore in undergrad, I took a course on William Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, in which we read most of the Henriad, the series of plays that follow Prince Hal (the future Henry V) through his wayward youth, maturation, and eventual triumph in battle. The plays of the Henriad feature some of my favorite bits of Shakespeare: the poetry of Richard II is a delight from start to finish, the character dynamics in 1 Henry IV are sharp and nuanced, and even my least favorite of the bunch, Henry V, includes some inspired comic relief.

However, the class skipped over actually reading 2 Henry IV. Instead, the professor condensed the major plot points down to single PowerPoint slide: Prince Hal takes the crown upon his father’s death and coldly turns asides his tavern buddy, Sir John Falstaff. Notably, all these events happen in the play’s final two acts, which only made me wonder: “What exactly happens in Acts I–III?”

This past week, I finally read 2 Henry IV, and to respond to my past self’s question, the answer is, “Not very much.” The play must arrive at the ending described above so as to set up the events of Henry V, but that ending is so short on paper that the play must bide its time before getting there. Throughout the first three acts, the characters are generally stuck for things to do: Henry IV is ill and still worried about Prince Hal’s imminent succession; the rebellion against the king has stalled out from indecision; and even joyous Falstaff, grown older and full of gout, can’t muster the same energy for his crimes and antics. All at once, so much fails to happen.

This meandering, holding-pattern quality of the first three acts makes it difficult to talk about them as a whole, so instead, I’ll look at once sequence in particular: Act II, Scene 2, lines 1–65, in which Prince Hal, the central figure of the whole tetralogy, finally appears on stage.

Prince Hal and Poins
Source: Wikimedia Commons. [Note: this image actually depicts a scene from 1 Henry IV, but the characters are the same.]
The scene, set in the prince’s quarters in London, is primarily a dialogue between the prince and Poins, one of the commoners the prince has spent years running wild with. Just from that set up, we see the prince stuck between two phases of his life: hanging out with his Eastcheap drinking buddy, but in the halls of royal power. On top of all that, his father is ill and he’s coming off an exhausting victory at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Little wonder, then, that he enters the scene by saying,  “Before God, I am exceeding weary” (II.2.1) Poins, for his part, has a hard time believing that “weariness … attached one of so high blood,” but while the prince indeed says that “it discolors the complexion of my greatness to acknowledge it,” he cannot help but desire the base salve of “small beer” (2–6).

Up to this point, the conversation between the prince and Poins is fairly genial, but it takes a sharp turn when the prince moves the discussion from his thirst to his companion:

 

What a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name! Or to know thy face tomorrow! Or to take note of how many pair of silk stockings thou hast, viz. these, and those that were thy peach colored ones! Or to bear the inventory of thy shirts, as, one for superfluity, and another for use! But that the tennis-court keeper knows better than I; for it is a low ebb of linen with thee when thou keepest not racket there, as thou hast not done a great while, because the rest of the low countries have made a shift to eat up thy holland. (12–22)

On a superficial level, this little speech recalls Prince Hal’s banter with Falstaff from 1 Henry IV, but there’s a noticeable lack of verve to it. The barbs are longer, and thus limper; more generic, and thus less biting. There’s nothing so driving as Falstaff’s litany of “you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stockfish” (1 Henry IV, II.iv.235–236). And while the “tennis-court keeper” bit sets up a half-clever play on “holland” (Netherlands / nether regions), more than anything it makes me long for the tennis ball monologue from Henry V.

Prince Hal, it would seem, is not really in the mood for jesting. No, it’s easier to read this halfhearted series of insults as a genuine display of frustration. The tavern scene no longer enlivens him like it used to; people like Poins and Falstaff and so forth are more tiring than they may be worth. In theory, this isn’t exactly bad news for the prince. It may be the perfect time to cast aside the Eastcheap crowd and start his premeditated reformation. The goal, after all, is to make his countrymen admire him for his conversion; as he says in 1 Henry IV,  “My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off” (I.2.206–208). So what’s the hold up? Why is the prince so “exceeding weary” that even shedding what wearies him proves difficult?

For one thing, the scheme he mentions in the previous play conveniently elides the emotional reality of succession: his father must die for Prince Hal to become king. It’s a fact that the prince seems reluctant to admit, saying “it is not meet that I should be sad, now my father is sick” (37–38). It takes a good deal of throat-clearing for him to say even that much; he prefaces that statement three different times (“Shall I tell thee one thing, Poins?” [31]; “It shall serve among wits of no higher breeding than thine” [33-34]; “Marry, I tell thee” [37]). There are many reasons why Prince Hal might find his own sadness unbecoming: he’s a man, a royal, and someone about to receive a great fortune. Hence why Poins judges it “[v]ery hardly” to weep in such circumstances (41).

This leads to the second problem Prince Hal faces: he’s perhaps played the part of ne’er-do-well too convincingly. “By this hand,” he tells Poins, “thou thinkest me as far in the devil’s book as thou and Falstaff for obduracy and persistency” (42–44). But given how thoroughly Hal sunk himself into the tavern crowd in the previous play, why wouldn’t Poins or his father or anyone else in England think his behavior to be genuine, and genuinely revolting? He knows that Poins would believe him to be “a most princely hypocrite” if he were to weep for his father’s illness out in the open, for outwardly he has cared little for his father up to this point (51). Instead, as Poins says, Prince Hal has “been so lewd and so much engraffed to Falstaff” (58–59). The prince therefore has reason to doubt his prodigal son routine will even work, now that he has the chance to finally enact it.

Like just about everyone else in the play, then, the prince appears to just be going through the motions, continuing in his bar-crawling ways without much purpose. That, at least, is how I make sense of the way Act II, Scene 2 ends, with Prince Hal and Poins plotting to spy on Falstaff in disguise. Their little prank reads like a lesser version of the robbery ruse in 1 Henry IV, in the same way that Prince Hal’s insult speech here is a wearier rehash of the earlier play’s banter. The prince ends the scene by claiming that “in everything the purpose must weigh with the folly” (166–167). That claim, I think, holds true. In this scene, and in this play, there’s often very little of either.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! If you’re in the mood for more literary analyses, perhaps you would be interested in my discussion of how section breaks are used in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

On Buying New Editions of Classic Books

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you will have noticed that I have a taste for the canon. I’ve recently written about Albert Camus’s essay “The Minotaur,” for example, and I have an ongoing series of blog posts offering close readings of old poems. Something you notice when you read classics is that there are a ton of different editions for each title. Every publisher has its own version of Great Expectations or Jane Eyre, and each edition comes with its own set of bells and whistles. You’ll even find people who collect different versions of the same book.

I find all this fascinating, because classics are the genre of literature which is probably easiest to find at a low cost, and a lot of these new printings of classics will run you more than a negligible sum. I’ve started wondering what these more expensive versions offer the reader beyond the text itself, and whether that’s worth the higher cost.

Just so we’re working with a concrete example, let’s consider a book that I’m currently reading: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. Specifically, we’re going to look at the 2009 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, published in 2009 and translated by Tim Parks.

The PrinceGoing in, I know that The Prince is an important work in the history of political writing, and that it was rather infamous in its day regarding its arguably amoral advice for rulers. I’ve even had to write a few essays for classes using scanned excerpts of the text, so I’m somewhat familiar with its prescriptions. But I’ve never read the work in its entirety, and given the state of the world, I figure it’s high time I read it. Now, supposing that I didn’t already possess this particular edition of the book, how might I go about finding a copy of it for a decent value?

The Prince dates back to the early 16th-century, so the original Italian text is unquestionably in the public domain. I don’t speak Italian, however, let alone the Italian of Machiavelli’s day, so I’m going to need an English translation. Even though translations are derivative works, they may still be protected by copyright. As such, it can sometimes be difficult to find translations of works in other language freely and legally available on the Internet.

Lucky for me, The Prince has been around so long that there are multiple English translations which have also entered the public domain. I can simply search through Project Gutenberg, for instance, and find the full text of W. K. Marriott’s 1908 translation. It’s fairly bare-bones as a book, but if all I want is the text, then it suits me fine. Indeed, I’ve lately been reading some translations of Plato via Project Gutenberg, and I haven’t had any complaints so far.

But maybe e-books aren’t for me, for whatever reason (e.g., difficulty reading off a screen for extended periods of time). Maybe I’d feel better holding a copy of The Prince in my hands. Assuming the local library doesn’t have a copy available—and if, like me, you live out in the country, that’s a distinct possibility—there are still ways to get the book for cheap. If you went to an American high school, you might be familiar with Dover Thrift Editions, which are no-frills editions of classic, public domain works. (One of these days, I’ll write an appreciation post about them.) Per their website, a copy of N. H. Thompson’s 1910 translation of The Prince retails for $3.00. That doesn’t include shipping, obviously, but that’s still a pretty low price point.

So: if the options I’ve just listed, and others that I haven’t, let me get a copy of The Prince at little to no cost, why on earth should anyone spend $16.00 for Penguin’s version? If I want the text, I have Project Gutenberg; if I want the text printed and bound, I have Dover. What, if anything, does the aptly-named Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition offer that the more affordable channels don’t?

Well, a few things, actually, but whether they’re worth the additional cost is entirely up to the reader.

In addition to the text of The Prince, the Penguin edition comes with four additional features: an introduction, a translator’s note, a map of Italy c. 1500, and a glossary of proper names mentioned in the text. The latter two, for my money, are the least inspiring aspects here. The map gives some sense of the political geography of 16th-century Italy, but since many of Machiavelli’s examples are historical it’s also of limited utility. And while the glossary of proper names is perhaps a more convenient reference when reading the book than a search engine might be, and only includes those facts the translator believes are important, it’s still a repackaging of easily available information. I’m not sure I’d pay a premium for that kind of editorial work.

The translator’s note is more compelling. For starters, it gets at why, even if one wouldn’t pay extra for a new edition of, say, a Jane Austen novel, one might do so for a new edition of a work in translation. Unlike original works, Parks argues, translations “have a way of gathering dust”:

If we read [Alexander] Pope’s translation of Homer today, we read it because we want to read Pope, not Homer. Linguistically, the translation draws our attention more to the language and poetry of our eighteenth century than to Homer or ancient Greece. (p. xxxi)

In Parks’s estimation, original texts maintain their freshness, as though they have a sustaining aura to them. Works in translations, however, need to be updated or they’ll turn stale. Maybe a new English translation of The Prince won’t evoke Renaissance Italy so much as the era in which the translation was written, but at least it won’t end up evoking Edwardian England instead.

For something specific to this edition of The Prince, I like how Parks uses the translator’s note as an opportunity to discuss his process. He mentions the difficulty in translating certain critical words from Machiavelli’s original text, such as “principe” and “virtù.” He also explains how his version differs from previous translations, and provides side-by-side comparisons of selected passages to illustrate the difference. Whether or not one prefers Parks’s translation to the others is a matter of taste, sure, but I like seeing a writer justify their choices regardless.

Finally, there is the introduction, which I’d wager is the most common feature in new editions of classics. Introductions are a chance to place the original work in context: to explain the historical and social forces which may have influenced the author, synthesize how critics have approached the work through the years, and draw attention to details the editor believes are important but worries the new reader might miss. The premium price for a new edition includes some insurance that one won’t blindly stumble through a difficult work.

This is especially important for a book like The Prince, whose reputation precedes it. If you’ve never read The Prince, you might imagine that it’s a handbook for being an absolutely ruthless tyrant, when the reality is a bit more nuanced and complicated. That’s why, after a sizable biography of Machiavelli, Parks goes into a brief history of the book’s reception through the centuries, as well as its noticeable influence on early modern English drama. (It’s certainly a more detailed history than one finds in Marriott’s introduction, for instance.)

And unlike with the glossary of proper names, where the bare facts take precedence over style, both the introduction and the translator’s note are enjoyable pieces of writing in their own right. Parks has a knack for wry appraisals, whether he’s noting “a certain Victorian bashfulness in previous translations” (p. xliii), or wondering how Machiavelli thought writing this book would bring him back to the center of Florentine politics:

[T]here is something ingenuous and almost endearing in the clever diplomat’s miscalculation here. The brilliant reasoning required to convince yourself that you had got a grip on politics and history, the profound analysis that would demonstrate to your fellow intellectuals that you were as clear-headed as Livy, Tacitus and Thucydides put together, were not the qualities that a young and hardly well-read Medici prince was likely to comprehend, never mind enjoy. (p. xxi)

In effect, if one buys this new edition of The Prince, one gets two good essays about the book in addition to the original work. And that’s not an insubstantial amount of writing. All told, the supplemental material is about sixty pages long, whereas The Prince itself takes up about a hundred. If you apportion price to page count, all this new material would run you $6.00 out of $16.00. Is that worth it? That’s up to you.

We could mention other elements of new editions of classic books: design elements like the cover and typeface, or the primary source documents found in more scholarly publications. But I think here’s a good place to stop for now. (I would like to actually finish reading The Prince, after all.)

So, to open up the discussion: Do you buy new editions of classic books, and if so, what aspects of those new editions convince you to do so? Let me know in the comments!

A Ramble on Used Book Sale Clutter

Used book sales, at least in my estimation, are bit like prospecting: you have to pan through an ungodly amount of silt before you find the faintest flakes of gold. I’ve uncovered some gems in my searches, sure: my first collection of E. E. Cummings’s poetry, a copy of David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, etc. And there must be something especially satisfying about finding such a book amidst all the otherwise uninteresting selections.

For the most part, though, browsing through the bins is mostly an exercise in idle curiosity. I start wondering, for example, how long the library has held onto this how-to guide for using the Internet from 1997, and how many times they’ve considered just recycling it already. I start wondering where exactly all these John Grisham and Jodi Picoult novels are manufactured and distributed, because there’s a ton of unsold inventory to contend with. (And don’t even get me started on all the Bibleman VHS tapes just lying on the floor.) I’m sure someone buys these books every once in a while, if only to qualify for a bulk purchase discount, but not enough that these books finally to disappear.

Margaret Kingsbury, a writer for Book Riot who works at a used bookstore, recently published a list of books that tend to flood her shelves. Some of these items are hardly surprising: old airport fiction, political tell-alls, Chicken Soup for the Soul. People tend to approach these books less as artworks than as content: something to be consumed quickly, and then disposed of. These titles may certainly be successes from the point of view of their publishers, as they sold quite a few copies when they first came out, but no one is surprised by their brief periods of relevance.

One might call this category of books “anti-classics,” not in the sense that they’re necessarily bad, but in the the sense that they follow the reverse trajectory in popularity we often imagine for classics. Whereas a book like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie struggled to sell even 500 copies on initial release but is today regarded as a seminal work of American realism, the books mentioned above reach far more readers in the months immediately after publication but fade out in the long run. (We’ll ignore the fact that cases like Sister Carrie are the exception rather than rule; most classics were at least moderately successful from the start, albeit rarely hugely so.)

More interesting, I find, are the books that Kingsbury names which are/were genuine cultural phenomena: young adult series like Twilight and The Hunger Games, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, even (to Kingsbury’s own surprise) George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. These are books that people care about specifically (as opposed to  “the newest James Patterson novel”), so perhaps they’re more likely to see a resurgence in popularity at some point in the future. But just as likely, they’ll end up as pieces of historical trivia, as semi-obscure markers of their respective eras.

I can easily envision, for instance, The Hunger Games getting a mention in a future U.S. history textbook as a way of demonstrating the political distress of the early 21st century, in the same way that textbooks currently use Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward as an example of late-19th-century utopianism or Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Gates Ajar for post-Civil War spirituality. (And let’s not forget Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which must be the Ulysses of this peculiar category.) Surely a passing reference on page 837 is not exactly Suzanne Collins’s ideal in terms posterity, but I can think of worse legacies for books.

I think what used book sales and textbooks and Kingsbury’s lists remind us is that “popularity” is a rather nebulous concept. To quote a Lincoln Michel piece from Electric Literature, “[I]s popularity only measured in the short-term? Is a book that sells 100,000 copies in a year, but is quickly forgotten, more ‘popular’ than a book that sells 10,000 copies a year for 50 years?” And at any rate, are those questions relevant to anyone who doesn’t obsessively check BookScan figures?

What are your thoughts on, well, any of this? What books do you keep coming across in the used sections? Are there any works that you think will wind up as textbook fodder? Let me know in the comments!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got more Mary Higgins Clark novels to unceremoniously sift through. There’s got to be a decent poetry collection in here somewhere.

“Brave New World,” “Hiroshima,” and the Art of the Section Break

In his reference book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, Noah Lukeman calls the section break “the most subjective of punctuation marks,” noting that “there is not even a consensus on how to indicate it” (p. 160). Some books use a blank space between paragraphs to mark a section break, while others use a dingbat for the same purpose. The section break is such a nebulous punctuation mark, in fact, that I hadn’t even considered it as such until reading Lukeman’s book.

Now, even if you would rather think of section breaks as structural devices rather than punctuation, I think you can agree that their usage is somewhat interesting.

As with any break in the text of a book (paragraph, chapter, etc.), the section break is primarily used to indicate a transition, whether it’s in terms of location, time, or point of view. It’s a way of bridging the gap between two passages which are conceptually close (they are, after all, in the same chapter), but are disconnected enough that moving directly from one to the other would seem jarring. It can also be used to give the reader an extended moment to pause, to reflect on what they’ve just read.

In his discussion of the section break, Lukeman advises writers to practice moderation in using it. He gives two main reasons for this. First, he says that the section break’s brief pause can literally take the reader out of the book:

When considering whether to use a section break, the first thing you must realize is that every time you use one, you give the reader a chance to put your book down. The section break carries nearly the power of a chapter break and also has nearly the visual appeal of one: it creates a nice, too-convenient place for a reader to rest. So first ask yourself if you truly need it. Can the chapter live without it? (p. 167)

Second, he argues that using too many section breaks in a chapter can hamper the reader’s ability to parse the text:

Sometimes one encounters a work where there are four, five, or more section breaks per chapter, and the effect is immediate. It lends the chapter a choppy feel, as if it’s been carved into small parts. As a rule of thumb, there should rarely be more than one or two section breaks per chapter. There is a certain satisfaction for the reader in absorbing himself in fifteen or twenty pages at once; multiple section breaks detract from that…It also makes them work harder, as they’ll have to exert the mental energy of going through multiple beginnings and endings, going through major transitions (whether of time, setting, or viewpoint) several times in a single chapter. (p. 174)

I think it’s fair to say that Lukeman’s advice holds true in most contexts. Most pieces of writing don’t require more than handful of section breaks, and as Brandon Taylor recently observed, writers often use section breaks to “conclude” passages they haven’t fully thought through yet. (Case in point: my “X Fragments on Y” posts, with the Roman numerals in place of dingbats.)

Yet wherever there’s sound advice, there’s also room to ignore it with abandon, and such experiments often have artistically interesting results.

*          *          *

The first place I remember seeing section breaks used imaginatively was in Chapter 3 of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). If Lukeman would find four section breaks in a chapter suspicious, then he would have Huxley arrested on the spot for what he does there. In my edition of the book, Chapter 3 is 27 pages long, and by my count contains 119 section breaks; that’s an average of more than four such breaks per page. What’s more, the sections are of widely variable length. While the first fragment of text goes on for about four pages, the sections grow progressively shorter, even as short as one line. The result is the print equivalent of a fast-cutting, action movie montage.

At least, it is on a formal level. The content is not nearly so exciting. The bulk of the chapter consists of three conversations that Huxley “intercuts” for his montage: Mustapha Mond’s history lecture, which he delivers to a group of confused students; Lenina’s dressing room chat with her friend Fanny, which centers on their sex lives; and a conversation about Lenina which Bernard Marx, our alleged protagonist, overhears and internally condemns. At no point do these threads actually intersect in the chapter; they merely occur simultaneously and in very rough proximity.

If you’ve ever listened to a radio frequency while at the edge of two station’s ranges, you’ll recognize the feeling of reading this chapter: picking up pieces of different discussions, but in such a way that it’s difficult to piece together a coherent through-line for them. At a certain point, you lose track of which words are coming from which station, and all that noise becomes one song. Such is the case for Chapter 3. If you pay attention to context clues, it’s possible to assign every section to its proper scene, but it’s easier—tempting, even—to just indulge in the implied poetry of all that rapid cutting.

But that very temptation, to just bathe in the pleasures of the rhythm without regard to meaning—that seems to be on Huxley’s mind here.

The previous chapter of Brave New World, Chapter 2, introduces a concept called “hypnopædia,” that is, sleep-teaching. While they are sleeping, children in the conditioning centres “listen” to recordings of lectures and pithy sayings that espouse the values of this society. The constant repetition, heard subconsciously, fundamentally shapes the mind of every person to guarantee their contentment with the status quo. As the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning tells his students, hypnopædia continues until

“…at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions…Suggestions of the State.” (pp. 28-29, emphasis original)

Chapter 3, however, is where the reader first sees the effects of hypnopædia outside the context of the conditioning process, with two characters who flout the norms of society. The first is Lenina, who, contrary to societal expectations of promiscuity, has been exclusively going out with the same coworker for the past four months. Fanny cajoles her into seeing someone else, but Lenina seems passively stubborn until Fanny whips out a hypnopædic proverb: “After all, every one belongs to every one else” (p. 43). Confronted with the inculcated wisdom, Lenina finally relents.

The second is Bernard, the one eternally glum man in London and the target of much ridicule and rumor. His coworkers mock him with exhortations to simply drug his way to happiness, knowing he’ll scoff at their suggestions. “One cubic centimetre is worth ten gloomy sentiments,” one person tells him. “And do remember that a gramme is better than a damn.” (pp. 54-55). Bernard predictably gets riled up, and they leave with a good laugh.

As it happens, Bernard specializes in hypnopædia, and so one might assume that he resists obeying conditioning because he knows how it works. (“Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth. Idiots!” [p. 47]) But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Bernard doesn’t actually reject the values of his world; he’s simply unhappy because he doesn’t feel like he’s benefiting from them. Once he’s accepted into the higher echelons of society, his rebellious attitude evaporates. Hypnopædia, as it turns out, is hard to escape—which is why, when the verbal montage really kicks into gear, Huxley starts interpolating some of the hypnopædia recordings into the mix.

To give you a taste of what this montage feels like, have a look at page 49:

BNW p49

The rhythm of the short sections becomes so incessant that it takes on the air of a chant, of an indoctrination. It’s an effect I’m not sure could be achieved without heavy use of the section break.

However, Chapter 3 is an outlier in the novel. Nowhere else does Huxley deploy the section break with anywhere near this frequency, and as such the whole chapter can feel like an experiment, even a gimmick. (Huxley’s not even consistent with how he breaks sections in the novel: most chapters just use line-spacing, but Chapters 4-6 split chapters into explicitly labelled parts.) For a more consistent demonstration of the power of section breaks, we’ll need to look elsewhere.

*          *          *

I recently finished John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), a journalistic account how six people lived through the atomic bombing of the Japanese city on August 6, 1945, and its immediate aftermath, with an extended epilogue added to the 1985 re-printing that catches up on the subjects’ post-bombing lives. As a work of journalism, the fact that Hiroshima would feature more section breaks than is standard is not all that surprising; articles tend to include them at much briefer intervals than novels do. Indeed, Hiroshima was originally supposed to be printed as a series of four articles in The New Yorker before the editors decided to dedicate an entire issue to the work and printed it all at once. To a certain extent, it simply bears the marks of its medium.

However, I would still say Hersey uses the section break more often that Lukeman would ever deem strictly necessary. For example, the third chapter, “Details Are Being Investigated,” has 27 section breaks over the span of 24 pages. That’s not quite a Chapter 3 of Brave New World clip, but it still averages out to more than one per page. And unlike Huxley, Hersey keeps up with this rough pace for the entire length of the book. Why does he do that?

Part of the reason is practical. As in the third chapter of Brave New WorldHiroshima follows multiple groups of people through events that are happening simultaneously. The section breaks quickly tell the reader that the narrative is moving from one part of the city to another, shifting perspectives among its central figures. That extra space between paragraphs gives the reader’s mind a chance to recalibrate, to file one person’s experiences away for the time being and give their full attention the next part of the story.

The first chapter, “A Noiseless Flash,” is methodical in how it uses its section breaks. The first section lists off what each of the survivors the book follows was doing at the moment before the A-bomb exploded, functioning as a dramatis personae. After the first section break, Hersey gives a more detailed account of one of those person’s actions, the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto’s. After another section break, Hersey briefly turns back the clock and does the same for the second survivor, Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, and so on for each figure. Everyone’s lives, in Hersey’s telling, are allowed to play out in parallel.

At least, they are at first, and this is where Hersey’s book demonstrates the real versatility of the section break. As the book progresses, and the various survivors start to cross paths and interact with each other, the strictly-divided sections give way to something more patchwork, more like verbal montage. Granted, the sections are not nearly as short as in Huxley’s case, but the narrative of the bombing’s aftermath does move quickly from setpiece to setpiece.

The subtle change in how the section break is applied underscores the dramatic change in how the central characters experience the world. Before the atomic bomb drops, there is something resembling order in Hiroshima. Yes, the city is struggling through the waning days of the war, with air raid sirens constantly warning of impending destruction. But in a way, everyone involved has adjusted to that status quo; their daily rhythms are unorthodox, but they’re still present. The atomic bomb, however, obliterates them. Confusion reigns over the city, so much so that one could conceivably turn Hersey’s journalism into a mystery story: What on earth just happened?

Hersey’s section breaks resemble montage in another sense: the juxtaposition of one section with another allows for commentary. We see this in Huxley, of course, what with those hypnopædic proverbs, but Hersey’s usage, though less frequent, is even more blunt. In “The Aftermath,” the epilogue written forty years later, Hersey writes about Rev. Tanimoto’s efforts as a peace activist, and inserts into that narrative brief snippets of world affairs, none of which are promising. Consider the following sequence from page 139, after President Harry Truman refuses to acknowledge a petition from the peace-oriented United World Federalists:

Hiroshima p139

Hersey does this repeatedly in the home stretch: Rev. Tanimoto’s peace advocacy, confronted with incessant nuclear proliferation. Blunt? Yes. But a perfect example of how a section break is not just functional, but meaningful.

Finally, Hersey’s use of section breaks actually makes me question one of the premises of Lukeman’s discussion: that something has gone wrong if the reader feels like putting the book down mid-chapter. Perhaps an author might think that there are situations where doing so is perfectly fine.

The subject matter of Hiroshima is, to put it mildly, heavy.  It’s the sort of book that inspires one to spend some time staring blankly at a wall, reflecting on the fallen state of humanity. One moment in particular got to me: a short section, which I shall quote in full, in which Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest, attempts to comfort a girl rescued from a river following the bombing.

The night was hot, and it seemed even hotter because of the fires against the sky, but the younger of the two girls Mr. Tanimoto and the priests had rescued complained to Father Kleinsorge that she was cold. He covered her with his jacket. She and her older sister had been in the salt water of the river for a couple of hours before being rescued. The younger one had huge, raw flash burns on her body; the salt water must have been excruciatingly painful to her. She began to shiver heavily, and again said it was cold. Father Kleinsorge borrowed a blanket from someone nearby and wrapped her up, but she shook more and more, and said again, “I am so cold,” and then she suddenly stopped shivering and was dead. (p. 45)

Readers may well find themselves overwhelmed with anger or despair or some other powerful emotion here. The section break serves as a humane exit point. “Do you need some time to process what you just read?” this use of the section break asks. “Well, here’s a fine spot to leave off. Come back when you’re ready.”

*          *          *

What do you think? Are there other books that you think use section breaks in creative or unique ways? Are there other punctuation marks or literary techniques that you think deserve more scrutiny? Share your thoughts down in the comment section.

If you want more examples of how to break the rules of writing productively, check out this older piece of mine: “‘The Sin of the Apple’: Writing from the POV of an Object”

And, as always, thank you for reading!