How can it be otherwise?

If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise, in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour?

–Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography


Like Mark isn’t cooler than all of the Apollo astronauts put together.

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

Astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead on the surface of Mars as the rest of his crew escapes a deadly dust storm. But he’s not dead, and now he has to figure out how to let NASA back on earth know he’s still alive and how to get home. I’m pretty sure I have a permanent heart murmur now (thanks a lot, Weir) as about every tenth page of this book something awful happens to Mark that first he has to survive and then somehow fix. Explosive decompression event? Oh hell, that’s nothing, Mark’s the first guy to wreck a car on Mars.

I had to keep putting the book down because as long as I didn’t finish it Mark was still alive. I was irresistibly (and continually) reminded of that Star Trek episode, “City of the Edge of Forever,” where Spock tells Edith Keeler, “I am endeavoring, ma’am, to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins.” Spock–for that matter, not even McGyver himself–had nothing on Mark.

And he is such a great guy, you’re just rooting for him every minute of every sol (Martian for day). I think my second favorite passage in the book is on p. 268, when Mark says

I need to ask myself, “What would an Apollo astronaut do?”

He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.”

Like Mark isn’t cooler than all of the Apollo astronauts put together.

But my favorite line is on the last page, when Mark says

Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do.

As everyone back on earth and his crewmates on Hermes care. And so will you.

Okay, sucking the tears back into my eyeballs, here’s what I think:

I think this book should be read by

1. Every writer who thinks they know how to write a thriller. They don’t.

2. Every school kid ten and older. Every kid who reads this book is going to want to learn how Mark did all that. She’ll want to study mechanical engineering, navigation, botany, chemistry, astronomy. You want to raise a kid interested in STEM? Here you go.

3. Everyone else.

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And opening this Friday…

I do not see why I should e’er turn back.

Into My Own

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarecely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that sme day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew–
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

–Robert Frost

Life is for living.

“It looks as if he was one of those men who torment themselves trying to discover the meaning of existence.”

“You find that reprehensible?”

“I find it futile. Metaphysical speculation is about as pointless as a discussion of the meaning of one’s lungs. They’re for breathing.”

“And life is for living. You find that an adequate personal credo?”

“To maximize one’s pleasures and minimize one’s pain, yes, sir, I do. And, I suppose, to bear with stoicism those miseries I can’t avoid. To be human is to ensure enough of those without inventing them. Anyway, I don’t believe you can hope to understand what you can’t see or touch or measure.”

–P.D. James, Death of an Expert Witness


Omit needless words!

Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of StyleStylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style by Mark Garvey

Garvey calls this book “slightly obsessive” and no question he is the nerdiest of Strunk and White nerds. Lots of lovely little tidbits here, including the fact that White earned a D in English in his second semester at Cornell (I imagine in the same way Einstein failed high school math, they were both probably bored to tears). Cornell is of course where White met Professor Strunk and

first encountered The Elements of Style. Strunk had published the forty-three-page booklet himself in 1918, and it was available for purchase in the Cornell bookstore, at twenty-five cents a copy. Strunk had at least two goals in mind with the publication of The Elements of Style: to offer students a clear, concise blueprint revealing the main supports of what he called “plain” English style (“a few essentials,” in his words) and to save himself, and other instructors, time in grading papers.

Enshrined therein is

…Strunk’s Sermon on the Mount, the nugget that cradles the book’s DNA and that might be sufficient to reconstitute The Elements of Style in its entirety should the rest of it, like heaven and earth pass away: Omit needless words.

This bears repeating, and Garvey does so a little later

…continues to ring like a Lao Tzu aphorism at the book’s center, the Strunkian equivalent of the Golden Rule: “Omit needless words.”

In 1957 White wrote a reminiscence of Strunk that appeared in the New Yorker magazine. That same week editor Jack Case of Macmillan contacted White and said if White would edit it they wanted to republish the little book. It was published in 1959 and as of 2009 there were over 10 million copies in print, at which time a 50th anniversary edition was published in hardcover (I have one). In 2005 an edition was published with illustrations by Maira Kalman (and I have one of those, too).

My favorite chapter is “The Fewest Obstacles,” when Garvey traces White to Walden and Thoreau (and Aristotle, for that matter).

The quest for simplicity in writing is a reflection of the longing for it in one’s life as well…Among E.B. White’s confirming contributions in 1959 was the idea that plainness itself could constitute one of the most important “secrets of style.” As he put it in Chapter V, “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”…The effort to see clearly, think logically, and express oneself with precision leads the careful artist toward concision and simplicity, and necessarily, to a great concentration of force.

The correspondence between Case and White during the editorial process is delightful, as are the many letters White writes in response to readers. Exercising heroic self-restraint, I will quote only one

Dear Mr. White,
I’m omitting needless words!
Sincerely yours,
[a reader]

Dear Ms. ——
Thanks. So am I.
E.B. White

but they are sprinkled throughout and every time I came upon one I felt like a gold nugget had dropped out of the sluice box right into my hand.

Less successful are the suspiciously padded contributions from authors like Frank McCourt and Dave Barry and Ian Frazier and Adam Gopnik, who are allowed to go on and on (and on) about the art and craft of writing in a way White would have ruthlessly edited. Omit needless words!

Note: I also heartily recommend Letters of E.B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth. My mother gave it to me on my birthday in 1977, and every now and then I’ll pick it up and let it fall open to whatever page it wants. I am never dissatisfied.

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