Quintilianus, Writing and Reading Well, Wodehouse, and a few TricolonsLeave a comment
November 13, 2014 by libroshombre
Novelist Stephen King says this to those wanting to be writers: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time, or tools, to write. Simple as that.” Reading widely and well is required: reading great books deeply and with focus, not just cereal boxes. And reading screens doesn’t count. “The Case for Preserving the Pleasure of Deep Reading,” an online article, notes that “deep reading of books and the information-driven reading we do on the web are very different, both in the experience they produce and the capacities they develop. A growing body of evidence suggests that online reading may be less engaging and satisfying, even for ‘digital natives.’”
Furthermore, a British National Literacy Trust study of students eight to sixteen found that those “who read only onscreen were three times less likely to say they enjoy reading very much, and a third less likely to have a favorite book … young people who read daily only onscreen were nearly two times less likely to be above-average readers than those who read daily in print or both in print and onscreen.”
There’s some dreadful books in our future unless new writers acquire decent literary mentors. One of the greatest was the Roman Marcus Fabius Quintilianus. The Spanish-born Quintilianus’ dad sent him to Rome around 50 C.E. to study rhetoric, defined by Webster’s as “the art of speaking or writing effectively.” Quintilianus learned well, survived numerous political upheavals, and opened his own school of rhetoric, teaching eventual luminaries like Pliny the Younger and Tacitus. Along the way he wrote “Institutio Oratoria,” which Wikipedia says “deals not only with the theory and practice of rhetoric, but also with the foundational education and development of the orator himself, providing advice that ran from the cradle to the grave.” This book profoundly affected writers and teachers in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and, consequently, us.
It molded great thinkers as varied as Petrarch, Bach, Martin Luther, and Henry Peacham, who wrote “The Garden of Eloquence” in 1577, in which he defined 180 figures of speech in English instead of Latin, which was controversial then. Oxford Dictionaries describes “part of speech” as “a category to which a word is assigned in accordance with its syntactic functions.” The main parts of speech include the usual suspects: nouns, pronouns, adjectives, etc. Peacham’s book covered many more, and the more arcane were skillfully mined by P.G. Wodehouse.
Wodehouse was an exemplar of writing proficiency. As About.com Grammar writer and English Professor Emeritus Richard Nordquist says, “If you’d like to improve your command of written English – word choice, syntax, figures of speech – you could do far worse than spend a few weeks reading the comic fiction of P.G. Wodehouse.” When asked if he hoped to someday write a serious book, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” author Douglas Adams stated, “I aspire to write like P.G. Wodehouse … What Wodehouse writes is pure word music … He is the greatest musician of the English language.”
For example, Wodehouse liked “tricolons, “a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses, as in “Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka bottle empty.” My favorites are his “back-formations,” or “forming a new word by extracting actual or supposed affixes from another word; shortened words made from longer words.” “Back-formation” was coined by James Murray, famed editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and here’s how Wodehouse wielded it: “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from gruntled.”
Wodehouse wrote 120 books in the 20th century, but war, depression, and death never enter them. Sixty-six are at our public library, waiting to amuse your spirit while honing your writing. As English novelist Susan Hill said, Wodehouse was “Not only the funniest writer who ever wrote, but one of our finest stylists. His world is perfect, his stories are perfect, his writing is perfect. What more is there to be said?”