A Better Pick-Up Line

      Just in time for all those New Year’s book store sales (our local book store has one), my brother has sent the perfect ice-breaker:

Buy you a book? 150125_10152426115028862_8301236306719344618_n

The gender, of course, should be irrelevant, and there really ought to be a period after “favor.” Also, I do rather wish there were a comma after “for me” and agreement in number between “some person” and “their.” But the idea is brilliant; let us hope the above heralds a new age of more literary one-night stands.

Let Us Appreciate the Comma

Another Reminder About the Importance of Commas —


— and about the necessity of having a good editor.  A decent editor could have saved Ms. Ray’s family and pet from ending up as items on a menu. After The Twilight Zone’s famous episode, “To Serve Man,” one would think such errors would be scrupulously avoided.

Flavia de Luce and the Chemistry of Writing

        I was reading the latest Flavia de Luce mystery (if you have yet to make the acquaintance of the eleven-year-old Miss De Luce, go to the bookstore, find the mystery section, and ask author Alan Bradley to introduce you) and there came that inevitable moment when the chemically-gifted, pre-pubescent detective needs to gather her thoughts. Flavia accomplishes this task in the traditional fashion used by all good detectives — she resorts to making notes:

Back home at Buckshaw, I hunched over my notebook in the laboratory. I had found by experience that putting things down on paper helped to clear the mind in precisely the same way, as Mrs. Mullet had taught me, that an eggshell clarifies the consommé or the coffee, which, of course, is a simple matter of chemistry. The albumin contained in the eggshell has the property of collecting and binding the rubbish that floats in the dark liquid, which can then be removed and discarded in a single reeking clot: a perfect description of the writing process.[1]

In these three sentences, Flavia compresses cooking, chemistry, clots, and clearing the mind. Despite her youth, Miss de Luce is a perspicacious observer; writing can certainly catalyze one’s mental chemistry and turn the thoughts we need to discard into a precipitate we can discern and remove. Writing may seem like an end, and eventually so it is, but before that it is a process, one that can be savoured like a good cup of coffee or an exceptionally clear consommé.

            The youngest Miss de Luce is an intoxicating amalgam of Sherlock Holmes and Wednesday Addams. She has Mr. Holmes’ keen eye, Miss Addams macabre sensibility, and their mutual love of chemistry. The age of Mr. Bradley’s protagonist should not deter adults; these are not children’s books, but full-blooded tales in which Flavia finds herself drawn into not only the mysteries of murder but the menaces of impending maturity as well.

Speaking from Among the Bones

[1] Alan Bradley. Speaking from Among the Bones. New York: Delacorte Press, 2013, p. 216. I love the idea of writing clots. It makes me think of verbal scabs that offer some protection from the outer world, but as every eleven-year-old knows, must be pulled off to reveal the raw flesh and fresh blood below.

A Word Dropped Careless: Emily Dickinson and Internal Editing

I was reading through some of Emily Dickinson’s poetry the other day and rediscovered her brief treatise on the necessity of editing:

A Word Dropped careless on a Page
May stimulate an eye
When folded in perpetual seam
The Wrinkled Maker lie

Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria —

(Poem 1261, c. 1873, pub. 1947)[i]

Emily Dickinson had a complex relationship — much of it posthumous — with her editors. Let us acknowledge so much and move on.

But let us also acknowledge that Dickinson understood the importance of editing (several of her poems exist in more than one version: see “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers”), of carrying within our selves an editor whose work begins even before the ink hits the page. Dickinson reminds us of the power of language — and of the dangers of a word dropped careless on a page. The overall message of the poem above is clear:[ii] we must write with care and intent, always aware that what we commit to the page may outlast us and affect — or infect — those who read our words long after (as John Donne would have it) our scattered leaves are bound-up in “that library where every book shall lie open to one another” (Meditation XVII). Dickinson’s poem is more about self-editing than it is about hiring a proofreader, but since most of us read in our own words what we mean to convey, it often takes an unfamiliar reader to notice the nuances and connotations, the physic and the affliction in our writing.

[i] Amazon.com Review of The Complete Poems of Emily DickinsonEmily Dickinson (Author), Thomas H. Johnson (Editor). Back Bay Books (January 30, 1976)

“Emily Dickinson proved that brevity can be beautiful. Only now is her complete oeuvre–all 1,775 poems–available in its original form, uncorrupted by editorial revision, in one volume.”


[ii] Truth to say, though, the bit of the poem that I find the most interesting comprises the relatively obscure contortions of lines three and four. The picture of the dropped word lying on a page in a bound book or fascicle comes through well enough, but why is the word in the seam? Books are usually fashioned to avoid just that. But “seam” also means an indentation or scar and so refers back to the sense of careless marring we get in the opening line while looking forward to the “Wrinkled” in line four. The word may lie not in the seam of the volume, but in the folding mentioned three words earlier  — another possible carelessness, like dog-earing a page. And who is “The Wrinkled Maker”? The author of the poem? The printer/publisher? If we remember the New Testament verse that asserts that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God, how much more does that increase our responsibility to avoid careless words? Or is God the careless Wrinkled Maker who dropped the word into perpetuity? Why is the seam perpetual? Does it run on forever or will it always exist? And “lie” isn’t a word we should treat like a sleeping dog. What or who is lying? The word lies passively on the page, but particularly because we know the speaker is concerned for the deleterious effects this word might have, the word may be untrue, false, misleading. The Wrinkled Maker may be a liar, or “Wrinkled Maker” may modify “lie,” in which case the lines hint at the uncertain nature of the Maker.