The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century Steven Pinker (2014, Viking)
Steven Pinker is admirably qualified to write a style guide for the twenty-first century. He’s a leading thinker about linguistics and cognitive science; he chairs the Usage Panel for the American Heritage Dictionary; and he’s a wonderful writer. In The Sense of Style, he brings his expertise to bear on reading, writing, and the history of style guides. In particular, Pinker jousts with The Elements of Style, which dominated the field in the twentieth century. “Writers can profit by reading more than one style guide, and much of Strunk and White (as it is commonly called) is as timeless as it is charming. But much of it is not.”
English changes all the time, of course; rules go out of date because the common usage changes. There are quite a few, as well, that never should have been rules in the first place, like the prohibition on split infinitives. “The very terms ‘split infinitive’ and ‘split verb’ are based on a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split a verb because it consists of a single word, such as amare, ‘to love.’” Pinker doesn’t replace the prohibition with a new rule, but with a set of observations that enable the writer to choose for herself. Perhaps the modifier is the main thing she wants to say, in which case she’ll consider moving it to the end of the sentence, doing justice to its importance. Maybe it sounds just fine coming earlier in the sentence, so she can painlessly avoid a run-in with the Gotcha! Gang; and sometimes, especially with negation, it fits most comfortably right up against the verb.
The chapter on rules, worthy and unworthy, is great fun, but what stands out about this book is Pinker’s psychological acuity. He’s always paying attention to how writing works for the reader. In the chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” he explores the difficulty of remembering that the reader can’t see what you see and doesn’t know what you know. Specialized vocabularies in every scientific and academic field help experts communicate among themselves, at the cost of leaving the rest of the world out of their discussions. “The curse of knowledge is insidious, because it conceals not only the contents of our thoughts from us but their very form. When we know something well, we don’t realize how abstractly we think about it.”
Pinker also brings his expertise in Linguistics to bear. The study of grammar has come a long way since the days of “A Noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.” The modern theory separates grammatical categories (like ‘noun’), from grammatical functions (like ‘subject’), and both from syntactic categories (like ‘physical object’). With just a little of this background in mind, we can follow Pinker as he diagrams sentences to show us how the parts fit together. While we will not often actually draw such diagrams in real life, we can develop a mental picture of the tree that will be a great help in combing out our snarled sentences.
Pinker’s own writing is both sturdy and beautiful, and frequently witty as well. He’s a professional descriptivist, an astute observer of how people actually talk and write, who is has written a distinctly prescriptivist guide. Of course, you are free to disagree with some of his opinions about usage – that’s part of the fun – but he explains his reasons, which helps you think more clearly about your own. His attitude is fundamentally courteous: “We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Atul Gawande (2014, Metropolitan Books)
Atul Gawande is a surgeon, a writer, and, lucky for us, a perpetual student. What he knows about death and dying, he did not learn in medical school. In fact, the attitudes and practices of medicine often make aging and dying harder these days; since three out of three people die, Gawande is hoping we can learn to do it better.
Geriatric care is one area with vast room for improvement. The care of the elderly is not a glamorous or highly paid field, and there are far too few doctors (or nurses or social workers) taking it up. This is partly because of the perverse incentives of our insurance system, which would rather pay for x-rays and blood tests than for conversations about nutrition and exercise. Gawande thinks it’s also because people go into medicine to solve problems, and geriatric patients often have problems that can’t be solved. “What geriatricians do–bolster our resilience in old age, our capacity to weather what comes–is both difficult and unappealingly limited.” The results of such care can be dramatic, with far fewer negative side effects than drugs and operations, but it takes time, slow time, that doctors generally cannot spare.
Nursing home care is another case of the medical model failing to give satisfaction. Gawande delves into history: for most of the human era, the few people who lived to old age were cared for by family or in community almshouses. Since the middle of the last century, people leaving hospitals when the hospitals couldn’t cure them have mostly been moved to nursing homes, where they’re treated as helpless patients. It’s no wonder people find them lonely and depressing.
Gawande looks at several groups of people trying to work out a third way, that would relieve the burden on wives and daughters, yet feel more home-like, and give people an opportunity for a more meaningful life. The original model of assisted living has been diluted, in many places, but the impulse is sound, to balance safety and autonomy. We don’t want people to fall and break their hips; but keeping them in wheelchairs, as though they already have broken hips, is a lousy solution.
Gawande comes to a conclusion that challenges medicine at its foundation: “...as people’s capacities wane, whether through age or ill health, making their lives better often requires curbing our purely medical imperatives–resisting the urge to fiddle and fix and control.” Patients, families, and doctors frequently wind up on a treadmill of treatments, side effects, and complications that no one knows how to stop, leading to a death without comfort or consolation.
Hospice care tends to be seen as a last resort, implying that doctors have given up on a patient, but Gawande uncovers a more nuanced reality. Again, it is a matter of altered perspective, giving greater weight to what the patient actually finds meaningful, whether that’s visiting grandchildren, watching baseball games, or drinking beer.
Most of us are not doctors, but we will surely not get through life without facing the question of how much treatment is too much. “The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life–to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be. Sickness and old age make the struggle hard enough. The professionals and institutions we turn to should not make it worse.”
I hope this book starts a lot of conversations, both systemic and personal.
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking Jordan Ellenberg (2014, The Penguin Press)
Jordan Ellenberg wants to teach us to love math because it’s a super-power. “Math is like an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” He’s not just talking about algebra, or Euclidian proofs, though he’d cheerfully confess to the beauty and utility of those things. In How Not to Be Wrong, he’s talking about how we look at the world, and how we understand what we see.
The world, as it turns out, is full of bad math, because people employ the tools and gadgets of math without the common sense. Ellenberg deconstructs a study that extrapolates from four decades of increasing obesity to conclude that all Americans will be obese by 2048, if current trends continue. “But current trends will not continue. They can’t! If they did, by 2060, a whopping 109% of Americans would be overweight.” As it turns out, when looked at from the appropriate distance, many straight lines are actually curves.
Probability is another area where mathematics helps make sense of our intuition. The probability that a large number of coin flips will come up heads half the time is too taxing to grasp, though we have to guard against believing that the coin remembers its previous results. But, says Ellenberg, what about expressing tomorrow’s chance of rain in percentage terms? “Tomorrow only happens once; it’s not an experiment we can repeat like a coin flip again and again.”
Still, we use the tools we have, and Ellenberg wants us to use them wisely, or at least sensibly. The modern practice of statistics relies on the null hypothesis significance test, familiar from discussions of drug trials, economic theory, and psychological experiments. If you set up a null hypothesis, that such and such a thing has no effect, running tests, and finding the null hypothesis comes up less than five per cent of the time, you can say that the thing has a statistically significant chance of being true. Ellenberg points out, in the first place, that “the significance test that scientists use doesn’t measure importance,” though it sounds like it would.
“If you make the test more sensitive–by increasing the size of the studied population, for example–you enable yourselves to see ever-smaller effects.” Just because something that almost never happens is three times likelier to happen doesn’t make it significant in the ordinary English sense, over-heated headlines notwithstanding. The significance test is a cousin to the reduction ad absurdum, in which mathematicians set up an assumption to disprove. But, Ellenberg warns, “impossible and improbable are not the same–not even close. Impossible things never happen. But improbable things happen a lot.”
How Not to Be Wrong is a delightfully approachable book, though there’s plenty of real math in it. The reader comes away knowing more about probability theory, encryption algorithms, alternative geometries, and why elections with more than two candidates are an unsolvable problem.
And, Ellenberg hopes, we will find a taste for using reason in a structured way: “I find it’s a good habit to put pressure on all your beliefs, social, political, scientific, and philosophical. Believe what you believe by day; but at night, argue against the propositions you hold most dear. Don’t cheat! To the greatest extent possible you have to think as though you believe what you don’t believe. And if you can’t talk yourself out of your existing beliefs, you’ll know a lot more about why you believe what you believe. You’ll have come a little closer to a proof.”
Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World Michael Lewis (2011, W. W. Norton & Co.)
Thanks to books like Michael Lewis’s The Big Short (2011), I was more or less acquainted with the financial crisis of the past ten years. In that book, Lewis followed the trail of collateralized debt obligations and sub-prime mortgage debt that led, in 2008, to the spectacular smash-up of a few Wall Street fortunes and many more American dreams. But I had not paid much attention to the global side of the story, the impact the credit crisis had on banks and governments overseas.
Happily, Michael Lewis was on the job. When international credit seized up, Iceland, Greece, and Ireland all came to the brink of collapse; German banks found that they were holding billions in toxic assets. In Boomerang, Lewis explores the old-fashioned idea of national temperament, in search of the reason for the different way the crisis affected different places. Icelandic fishermen, for instance, have bravado to spare, so when many of them turned to bond trading, they ran outsized risks. It worked, for a while, but primarily as a nation-sized Ponzi scheme: in one case, “Virtually the entire bank’s stated profits were caused by its marking up assets it had bought at inflated prices.” It looked so good while it lasted that German banks put in $21 billion, which has turned out to be a costly mistake.
The problem in Greece was an unholy combination of several forms of corruption. For one thing, the tax collection system was completely broken; the under-the-table economy dwarfs the official one. For another, the public sector was awash in bribery, over and above its generous wages and pension. On top of that, the books are a shambles. The reported 2009 budget deficit was first estimated at 3.7 percent, but the incoming minister of finance searched out better numbers that added up to nearly 14 percent. And, because of the election in 2009, the tax collectors had been called off. Between government borrowing and pension obligations, Greece’s debt amounted to more than a quarter million dollars per working citizen; since they’re members of the European Monetary Union, the problem is more complicated. But, says Lewis, “...this question of whether Greece will repay its debts is really a question of whether Greece will change its culture, and that will happen only if Greeks want to change.”
Ireland used the easy global credit of the early 2000’s to perpetrate a truly spectacular housing bubble. “The Irish construction industry had swollen to become nearly a quarter of Irish GDP–compared to less than 10 percent or so in a normal economy–and Ireland was building half as many new houses a year as the United Kingdom, which had fifteen times as many people to house.” The credit was driving the supply, and the demand wandered along behind. “Their real estate boom had the flavor of a family lie: it was sustainable so long as it went unquestioned and it went unquestioned so long as it appeared sustainable.” But of course, the day that the bubble was questioned in the markets was the day it became unsustainable; real estate lost half its value almost overnight, and the government stepped up to guarantee the debts of the six largest Irish banks. “In retrospect, now that the Irish bank losses are known to be world historically huge, the decision to cover them appears not merely odd but suicidal.” Instead of letting bondholders take losses for stupid loans, the Irish government repaid them with money borrowed from the European Central Bank. Irish homeowners with overpriced mortgages will be repaying both their own and the government’s debts for a very long time.
On Lewis’s visit to Germany he met some of the bankers who bought so many of the bad bonds Wall Street had been churning out. The German bank IKB borrowed money to buy CDOs, and wound up losing some $15 billion. Lewis says, “Perhaps because they were so enamored of the official rules of finance, the Germans proved especially vulnerable to a false idea the rules encouraged: that there is such a thing as a riskless asset.”
This book has a stinger in its tail. As we’ve seen, it’s logical, in the moment, for governments to borrow for necessities, and hope to be out of office when the bills come due. Lewis’s last chapter applies this lens to the state of California, and its municipalities. By the end of the Schwarzenegger administration, the state had unfunded liabilities for salaries and pensions of at least $100 billion; cities like San Jose spend three quarters of their budgets on fire fighters and policemen, and it’s nearly impossible to raise taxes to keep other services running. There and everywhere, this is unsustainable, but a little too painful to face in the present. And things could always work out–after all, tomorrow is another day.
Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son
Buzz Bissinger (2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
In the typical father-of-a-disabled-kid memoir, you can expect at least a hint of heroism on the part of the father. The sheer difficulty of having a child marked by his differences seems to evoke an extra measure of patience. On the other hand, there’s Buzz Bissinger, whose book is so unsparing of his own misunderstanding, disappointment, and shame that you can hardly believe he let it out the door.
Bissinger knows about being unsparing: his 1990 tour de force Friday Night Lights exposed the high school football culture of Odessa, Texas, so unflatteringly that he still has enemies there. Selling a movie and a television series on top of two million copies of a book is no small accomplishment, but Bissinger runs his life on an engine of discontent. Realizing that he peaked at thirty-five gives all that success a whiff of failure. “I knew when it was published I would never top it no matter how hard I tried, and after almost twenty years, I still have not topped it.”
The twin sons born to Bissinger’s first wife in 1983 emerged thirteen weeks early, and weighed less than two pounds each. Gerry, the older by three minutes, was a success story of neonatal intensive care. Zachary, however, deprived of oxygen by those three minutes, suffered significant damage to the executive functions of his brain. As a young man, he is verbal and gregarious, but he doesn’t think abstractly, or have any sense of literature, history, or current events. His best-case employment prospect is bagging groceries.
The deficits of that brain damage come with some paradoxical assets: Zach is a savant, as it turns out, with a taste for maps and dates, and a perfect memory for some kinds of information. He can’t add one hundred and one hundred, but he can tell you what day of the week your thirtieth birthday was. He’ll never drive a car, but he can find your house on a map. He cannot tell a lie, because it doesn’t occur to him to hide what he wants.
Father’s Day is the story of a trip Buzz and Zach took across the United States, revisiting places they had lived together, seeing old friends. They go back to Milwaukee, so Zach can see his old school. From there, it’s a thousand miles south to Odessa, where they spent the year Zach and Gerry were five. It’s a place Buzz is still uncomfortable, because of his vexed relationship with some of the football players he wrote about. Boobie Miles, in particular, suffered a knee injury in his senior season that permanently derailed his life; his loss was Bissinger’s narrative gain, leaving Buzz with a haze of guilt.
One of Bissinger’s aims for this journey is to spend time trying to get inside Zach’s head, to try and understand what he understands about himself. He’s worried, naturally enough, about what will happen to Zach in the future, when the time comes that he can’t live with one of his parents. Gerry has overcome his precarious infancy, and bulled his way through school and college, with plans to become a school principal; would caring for his brother be a burden he should accept?
Two weeks on the road also give Bissinger plenty of time to come to terms with his own discomfort with the way Zach is. Twenty-five years in, he grieves the imaginary son who would have driven a car, worn Brooks Brothers jackets, and gone to college. Gerry’s success is no relief: “My pride in Gerry tamps down because of the guilt I feel for Zach. The goddamn guilt. The scrap-metal weight shackled to my ankle. It is always there.
But he also gets a chance to see that Zach gets along pretty well, after his own odd fashion. He has friends: in Odessa, of all places, “every single person we encounter treats Zach the way he should always be treated, which is just like everyone else.”Zach shows tremendous patience with his father, going genially along on this road trip, while taking steps to get his own rewards out of it; and if he’d rather lounge by the hotel pool charging soft drinks to the room than go out to dinner and a Vegas show, maybe he has the right idea. He’ll always be different, but he’ll be all right.
I started reviewing books more than ten years ago for Voices, the newsletter of Emmanuel Church, Boston. To keep my hand in, I try to write something every month whether Voices is published or not. I've shared these with friends by email, and it seems good to post them here as an archive, to see what connections may emerge. Welcome, and happy reading!