FORMS OF ATTENTION

BOTTICELLI AND HAMLET

How the canon of literature (or art) is established, how it continues, and what critics do with it: a trio of remarkably cogent and stylish essays (originally the Wellek Library Lectures at the U. of California, Irvine). Kermode begins with a look at the 19th century's rediscovery of Botticelli, "in which, roughly speaking, one sees learning come belatedly to the maintenance of values established by ignorance." "Learning" refers to the work of two very different scholars, Herbert Home and Aby Warburg. "Ignorance" was the amateurish enthusiasm of people like Swinburne, Burne-Jones, and most notably Pater, who rhapsodized over Botticelli for silly reasons (The Birth of Venus reminded Pater of Ingres) or confused him with other painters. Thus not scholarship but chance or unenlightened opinion brought Botticelli into the canon. In his second piece, Kermode does a virtuoso survey of doubling in Hamlet through character (Hamlet-Laertes, Rosencrantz-Guildenstern, Cornelius-Voltemand), action (plays within the play), and diction (constant use of puns, echoes, hendiadys, etc.). The point of this catalogue is that it never occurred to and would probably have seemed trivial to earlier commentators, which only shows how canonical works live by giving rise to an endless and constantly changing "conversation." In the final essay, Kermode concludes that Dr. Johnson's ideal of forming a canon by distinguishing between what "is established because it is right" from what "is right only because it is established" is a forlorn hope, that we can never transcend our own historical standpoint (as Home and Warburg thought they could). Interpretation, as Paul de Man said, is only the possibility of error, and all interpretations are useful if they foster "certain necessary forms of attention." Effortlessly learned, brilliantly allusive, a model of critical self-reflection.

Pub Date: May 1, 1985

ISBN: 0226431754

Page Count: 110

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: May 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1985

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Analyzing his craft, a careful craftsman urges with Thoreauvian conviction that writers should simplify, simplify, simplify.

SEVERAL SHORT SENTENCES ABOUT WRITING

New York Times columnist and editorial board member delivers a slim book for aspiring writers, offering saws and sense, wisdom and waggery, biases and biting sarcasm.

Klinkenborg (Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, 2006), who’s taught for decades, endeavors to keep things simple in his prose, and he urges other writers to do the same. (Note: He despises abuses of the word as, as he continually reminds readers.) In the early sections, the author ignores traditional paragraphing so that the text resembles a long free-verse poem. He urges readers to use short, clear sentences and to make sure each one is healthy before moving on; notes that it’s acceptable to start sentences with and and but; sees benefits in diagramming sentences; stresses that all writing is revision; periodically blasts the formulaic writing that many (most?) students learn in school; argues that knowing where you’re headed before you begin might be good for a vacation, but not for a piece of writing; and believes that writers must trust readers more, and trust themselves. Most of Klinkenborg’s advice is neither radical nor especially profound (“Turn to the poets. / Learn from them”), and the text suffers from a corrosive fallacy: that if his strategies work for him they will work for all. The final fifth of the text includes some passages from writers he admires (McPhee, Oates, Cheever) and some of his students’ awkward sentences, which he treats analytically but sometimes with a surprising sarcasm that veers near meanness. He includes examples of students’ dangling modifiers, malapropisms, errors of pronoun agreement, wordiness and other mistakes.

Analyzing his craft, a careful craftsman urges with Thoreauvian conviction that writers should simplify, simplify, simplify.

Pub Date: Aug. 7, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-26634-7

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

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Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis...

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.

Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").

Pub Date: May 15, 1972

ISBN: 0205632645

Page Count: 105

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1972

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