Time warp: G.K. Chesterton on Dan Brown

Seeing as the former died almost 30 years before the latter was even born, the author of Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man couldn’t possibly have anything to say about his literary antithesis, the author of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. Or could he?

Actually, he certainly does. In this time warp of an interview, Carl E. Olson of Ignatius Insight poses direct questions to Chesterton about Brown. Though dead in the flesh, Chesterton is ever-alive in his writing, through which he responds so realistically that–if it weren’t for the note at the top of the page–many a reader would be fooled into thinking Brown was his contemporary. Below, I post some responses I found especially interesting. Enjoy!

Ignatius Insight: I was somewhat surprised to learn that you haven’t been entirely negative about Dan Brown’s novels, including The Da Vinci Code.
Chesterton: My taste is for the sensational novel, the detective story, the story about death, robbery and secret societies; a taste which I share in common with the bulk at least of the male population of this world…[1]

Ignatius Insight: Are you saying, then, that you believe something good can be found in Brown’s novels?
Chesterton: Every now and then, after wading through a hubbub of hundreds of words, we find a word that seems to have gone right by accident. We must not complain; nothing in this mortal life is perfect; not even bad poetry. [2] In one sense, at any rate, it is more valuable to read bad literature than good literature. Good literature may tell us the mind of one man; but bad literature may tell us the mind of many men. A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. [3]

Ignatius Insight: Does it surprise you that Brown, despite denying the divinity of Jesus, insists that he is a Christian?
Chesterton: Of course it is possible to play an endless game with the word “Christian” and perpetually extend its epoch by perpetually diminishing its meaning. By the time that everybody has agreed that being a Christian only means thinking that Christ was a good man, it will indeed be true that few persons outside lunatic asylums can be denied the name of Christian. [9]

[1] “Fiction As Food”, The Spice of Life and Other Essays.
[2] “On Bad Poetry”, All I Survey.
[3] “On Smart Novelists and the Smart Set”, Heretics.
[9] “The Erastian on the Establishment”, The Common Man.

 

What is the plural of ‘syllabus’?

If you’re like me, at the start of every semester you always wonder why the plural of syllabus is syllabi.

Or why the plural of auditorium is auditoria.
Or why the plural of analysis is analyses.
Or (if you’re a math major) why the plural of formula is formulae.

Or (if you’re a statistics major) why the word “data” is actually plural, and its singular use is “datum”, which nobody uses anyway.

OK, so maybe you’re not as nerdy as I am. Or, equally likely, I myself became much more of a nerd after taking Latin 101 last year. Because when I did, everything clicked! It turns out that all these words are Latin in origin and, as such, so are their plurals.

Check out the table above. When a singular noun (i.e. nominative) ends in -us, like syllabus, it’s masculine and its plural ends in -i. When it ends in -a, like formula, it’s feminine and its plural ends in -ae. And when it ends in -um, like auditorium, it’s neuter and its plural ends in -a. Another possibility not shown above is the third declension, when a word ends in -is (like analysis) in which case it’s plural is formed by changing this to -es (i.e. analyses).

The reason I bring this up is in part due to our recent discussions about academia (itself a Latin word!) and the writing expectations that go along with it. While most academics likely won’t get bent out of shape over saying “formulas” instead of “formulae”, knowledge of these plurals can still be very useful, even in informal writing. However, this knowledge can also be dangerous–it means having to stifle a cringe whenever someone messes up…and, of course, being labeled a nerd when you point this out. I have my Latin 101 prof to thank for that!

Quiz:

1) What is the plural of census?

2) What is the plural of stadium?

3) What is the singular of parentheses?

Re-Purposing Re-Writing

To give you an idea how much difficulty I’m having revising this assignment, the Word document I currently have open is titled “Re-purposing Essay4.” For someone who tends to edit rough drafts only minimally once written, these multiple, substantial re-writes are unheard of for me. And, to make matters worse, I’m not even sure that quality is increasing with numeric distinguisher!

I think my problem is that I’m trying to do too much. In an 800-word Michigan Daily editorial I’m attempting to:

  • Hook even casual readers not inherently interested in my topic
  • Connect personally with my identified audience, namely lapsed Catholics who do not attend Mass
  • State the extent of this attendance crisis
  • Explain what the Catholic Church believes the Mass is
  • Describe the old Latin Mass and how it manifests this belief
  • Describe the new English Mass and how it doesn’t manifest this belief as clearly
  • Don’t blame the reader for not attending, but rather this liturgical crisis
  • Encourage the reader to return to attending Mass, whether English or Latin

Maybe if I were a professional writer I could do this but defintely not at this stage of my writing career and with so few words. Even just writing out the list made me laugh at how impossibly long it is. For my re-mediation project, I think I will have to pick just one or two specific bullet points to focus on.

As for now, I’ll see what I can salvage for the re-purposing essay. Hopefully the final version I submit tonight won’t be titled “Re-purposing Essay964″…

Blogging’s three adjectives

What differentiates blogging from all other types of writing? From my admittedly non-rhetorical re-reading (actually more like re-skimming) of Andrew Sullivan’s “Why I Blog” I have concluded that the definition is actually threefold:

1) Blogging is instant.

2) Blogging is personal.

3) Blogging is communal.

Blogging is instant in that its goal is to convey some happening or idea as close as possible to its occurrence in time or conception in the mind. Blogging is personal in that it relates those events and ideas to a specific person, namely the blogger himself. And blogging is communal in that it is intended for others to read and invites their perspective as feedback.

This is probably the same definition I would have come up at the beginning of the class when reading Sullivan’s piece for the first time. However, what has changed between now and then is my application of this definition to other social media. For example, isn’t Facebook also instant, personal, and communal? What about twitter? A mass email to some friends? Even an announcement posted on that old-fashioned medium called paper?

Through my experience blogging for this class, I have begun to expand my perception of the term “bloggging” beyond merely a URL followed by .blogspot or .wordpress. Just as Sullivan differentiates between traditional and new media, can’t the term “blogging” be similarly divided between the traditional blog and its newer social media relatives that also meet the threefold instant, personal, and communal definition?

More questions than answers

“How do you want to present yourself as a writer?”

“Who is your ideal audience?”

“How interactive do you want your portfolio to be, and to what end?”

As things currently stand, my answers to these three questions (and, for that matter, virtually all the other e-portfolio prompts) can best be summed up as follows: I have no clue. I have no clue. I have no clue.

It could be because we’re so early in the process that I lack a specific vision for my final product. But I suspect it’s something else. I suspect it’s because this whole concept of the e-portfolio, of a virtual autobiography of my “life” as a writer, is actually quite exciting…so exciting that it can actually be overwhelming. The more I think about it, the more possibilities there are. In effect, there are as many options running through my head as there are prompt questions to which, as yet, I have no idea how to respond.

The one thing I do know about my e-portfolio is that I want it to be aesthetically inspiring. In other words, I want whatever visuals I decide to incorporate–such as in the header, background, pages, and blog posts–to set the tone for the writing that is to follow. In one sense, I wonder if this isn’t almost cheating. I certainly didn’t illuminate the manuscripts of the Middle Ages, nor paint the Mona Lisa of Renaissance, nor sculpt the Ecstasy of St. Teresa of the Baroque Period. And yet just seeing any one of these can evoke an awe and inspiration that my writing alone would not. An extremely talented writer, on the other hand, would probably opt for a more bland portfolio design, confident that this effect could be provoked by his writing itself.

Regardless, I think there’s a lot to the saying that “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” And just because I appreciate a visually-appealing design does not mean that I know how to create one. Overcoming my “technological disabilities” to do so will probably be one of the most challenging parts of this whole e-portfolio process.

“Rhetorical Reading” Reading: Tedious but True

I’m not going to lie, I found “Rhetorical Reading Strategies and the Construction of Meaning” by Haas and Flower quite difficult to grasp. Contrary to Shelley’s experience, the graphs were just about the only thing I initially understood! The in-class précis exercise, however, was very helpful for me. Between being forced to articulate in writing my summary of the authors’ arguments and consulting with the rest of the group, I was able not only to come to a much greater understanding of the reading but also to see how its premises apply to myself as a writer.

To start, I can clearly see in my own reading and writing the connection the authors identify between the two. Reading done for the sole purpose of getting information, they argue, is likely to foster writing that only serves to tell, devoid of all critical analysis. For me, this is very interesting because I can certainly see in some of my past writing this tendency to just state facts without turning them into arguments. Even argumentative essays–by their very nature “rhetorical”–can suffer from this defect if information is merely stated and not analyzed. I recall one essay I wrote a while back about job outsourcing which consisted of little more than simply quoting sources that happened to agree with me. Had they read this essay, I’m think Haas and Flower would have surely lumped me in with the “non-rhetorical” beginners–a place where, admittedly, I probably still belong.

One of the questions this piece does not directly address is the strength of this link between one’s reading techniques and his writing abilities. For example, if it’s possible to improve my argumentative writing skills by reading rhetorically, is it similarly possible to improve my rhetorical reading skills by writing argumentatively? If so, then this writing class will undoubtedly prove highly beneficial in a college setting where tedious academic reading (skimming, in my case!) is too often done solely for the “information-getting” part.

Typical day, not-so-typical paper

First of all, apologies to my group members for not getting this up sooner. Yesterday and today have been very crazy days. Yesterday I spent much of the day doing some statistical computer programming at the electronics lab where I work. In the evening, I attended a Traditional Latin Mass for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Today, I spent the morning helping conduct a Latin Mass altar server training session for some young men at my church. Of course, afterwards was the Michigan vs. Massachusetts home football game, and I certainly couldn’t miss out on that–nor, for that matter, on the Notre Dame vs. MSU and Stanford vs. USC games immediately following.

Why do I mention all this? Well, certainly not to bore you to death with all the details of my weekend, nor to make excuses for a late blog post. Rather, it’s because this weekend’s activities happen to reflect some important aspects of my life, aspects which also profoundly guide why I write. Through the “Why I Write” essay, then, I hope to similarly–and hopefully creatively–manifest how my passion for the Catholic faith, statistics, and sports, in that order, inspires and influences my writing.

So far, that creative part is what’s been the hardest. Much of my writing for previous classes has been very formal and essay-like. That’s my writing comfort zone, and to break out of it for this essay will be as challenging as it is necessary.

Why they write, and why he blogs

CTools is down, and with it access to the articles. CTools was up, about two hours ago, during which I had the retrospectively-fortunate opportunity to read “Why I Write,” “Why I Write,” and “Why I Blog,” by George Orwell, Joan Didion, and Andrew Sullivan, respectively.

I suppose in some respects this is a good thing, as I can now focus on my overall impressions of the writings, rather than feeling obliged to go back to each and pick out a quote from there to fill up space here.

In my view, Sullivan’s piece stood above the others in quality as much as it did in length. I appreciated his introduction–complete with personal anecdotes–in which he provided a history of blogging as well as its revolutionary impact on the world of writing. Also interesting were his observations on the differences between the blog writer and the traditional media writer: how the former is less insulated from his readers, and therefore more accountable, than the latter; how ability for instant publication brings out the personality of the former while the lack thereof can stifle that of the latter; how the inevitable spirit of competition among those of the latter corresponds, remarkably, to an equally-necessary spirit of community among those of the former; and how, precisely because of these differences, the former can never replace the latter, and vice versa. Perhaps initially counter-intuitive, Sullivan’s explications of these surprising statements eventually make their veracity obvious, and with it, the answer to the question in his title.

In contrast, neither “Why I Write” essays approached this fundamental question with the same directness as did Sullivan’s “Why I Blog.” Joan Didion’s ending, admittedly, was very clever and the personal background in George Orwell’s introduction very eye-opening. Nevertheless, I think my relative dislike for these pieces when compared to Sullivan’s piece stems from my personal bias as a writer away from wandering personal narratives in freestyle form and toward direct arguments in parallel sentence structure.

We’ll see if that changes as the semester progresses…