Textbooks and Evelyn Waugh – My Favorite Things

I was asked to pick a sample of writing that I found well-written and intellectually engaging, and a sample of writing that I’m envious of.  The truth is, I’m envious of the style that both these authors have.  But first up, the intellectually engaging passage:

This book is concerned with the nature of British political institutions and the way in which they operate.  Both the institutions and their mode of operation have been shaped to a large extent by the nature of the society in which they have developed, and they reflect and embody the habits and assumptions of the people who operate them.  This is a general truth about political systems which applies not only to the government of Britain but also to the government of other nations; and not only to the government of nations but also to the government of small societies within nations.

The British System of Government pg 3

To tell you the truth, any excerpt from a textbook would do.  I have a (not-so) secret love of them.  Preferably, old stodgy History ones.  “I swear, you’re the only one I know who laughs at textbook humor,” my friend said to me just the other day, looking over her own reading to stare at me sprawled on the couch giggling madly.  I do admit – I laugh way more easily than I should.  But the point is, I am jealous of textbook writers.  Not because of their need to expose their (decidedly weak) senses of humor about their chosen field, but because they are so efficient.  They make writing look easy – I don’t know how they do it.  I like to imagine them, wrapped up in their thick cardigans (professional writers, to my mind, always wear chunky, ‘80’s-style knit-wear) cheerfully banging away at the computer as a steady and comfortable stream of economically boring words pours out of them.

But I digress.  Obviously I chose the above passage for a reason other than it is from a textbook, and besides I haven’t told you why I think it is engaging (after all, it’s from a textbook).  Like any reputable textbook opening, it simply throws information at you.  But it is calm – reserved.  The author intends the reader to understand what he is saying, and so the reader does.  This may seem self-evident, but it’s really not.  In three sentences, the reader must grasp what it is this book will be about – the roadmap of the author’s argument. The first sentence tells the reader what the book will cover – “the nature of British political institutions and the way in which they operate”.  That’s simple enough.  The second sentence reveals the methodology through which the author will examine his subject, which is through mainly a sociological-political view: “the institutions … have been shaped … by the nature of the society in which they have developed” (ital. mine).

The third sentence offers both a means of establishing credibility with the author in a couple ways.  The first is by allowing for the fact that political systems (or really any systems) do not operate in a vacuum and so credibly expanding the scope of the book.  Having said this, the author may reasonably bring in examples not strictly pertaining to British government or history.  The second is by embedding the author’s coming argument in a framework of familiar and commonsensical terms: the author reminds the reader that what he has said so far “is a general truth about political systems”.  By mentioning this, the author is providing a starting ground of shared knowledge, no matter how little the reader knows about British government.  And this is only in three sentences!

Now for an example of what I wish (and hope and dream!) I could write like:

My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time.

These memories, which are my life – for we possess nothing certainly except the past – were always with me.  Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl.  Thus it was that morning.

Brideshead Revisited page 225

OK, what’s not to love about this one?  Even those who don’t have a romantic bone in their body and hate Evelyn Waugh (I can’t imagine going through life in this way – hating Evelyn Waugh, I mean) have to like this one.  What’s not to like about that mental image of a “honey-voiced congregation” of pigeon-memories flocking around you, there one moment and gone the next?  I love this passage especially because of the specificity of that image – the reader is diverted, for the better part of that passage, into paying attention exclusively to the figurative pigeons and remembering, with a jolt, that Waugh (or rather Charles Ryder) is talking about memories after all.  It’s sublime.

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