Favorite Lines: Troy Jollimore

In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve asked some of the poets who have published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets to highlight and discuss a single line in their poetry that has special significance. Today Troy Jollimore, author of Syllabus of Errors, talks about inspiration while writing “My Book” (Syllabus of Errors, 29). 

Jollimore“I bought a copy, but it wasn’t mine.” This is the opening line of “My Book,” a poem in my third book, Syllabus of Errors. The line introduces what I take to be the main theme of that poem, the question that animates it, which is: what does it mean to say that something—in particular, a work of art—is “mine”? That is, what is the nature of property, especially when it comes to art? Our society is largely built on notions of property; indeed, property is crucial to the way people in the modern Western world think about rights and other ethical matters. And yet property is a complex and elusive concept, much more so, I think, than we commonly pretend.

“My Book” plays on ambiguities between the everyday meaning of my (in which to own a book is simply to possess a copy of a book, a physical object that one might treat and dispose of as one pleases) and the special meaning of my that attaches not to material ownership but to authorship (which is itself, it seems to me, a kind of ownership, but one that attaches to something other than a particular material object). But just what is this special sense? Authors are often imagined as bearing an especially intimate relationship to their works and, perhaps as a result of this, a special responsibility for their works. They are, to some degree, identified with their works. One feels, in reading the writers one loves, as if one comes to know them. Their thoughts, their minds, the very essence of their lives is there on the page, for all to see. The cliché “my life is an open book” alludes, in part, to this.

My own relationships with “my” books, though—and with my own individual poems as well—has not been so straightforward. I seem to find them as mysterious as do other people, and often wonder just what they are trying to get at. I don’t really know where they have come from; I don’t really understand the process by which they were written; and I am not confident in my ability to repeat that process in the future. The poems seem to have an existence that is largely and indeed fundamentally independent of me, and the prospect of being identified with them, or even being held responsible for them, feels troubling.

For the most part, when I hold one of “my” books in my hand, what I feel is not intimacy but strangeness. The person who has written the poems seems foreign and mostly unknown; as foreign and unknown, perhaps, as any former version of oneself. What do these poems say about me? What do they say to me? What if I decide I am unsatisfied with them, or no longer believe (if I ever did) the ideas they express—do I have, in that case, the right to revise them? Or would this amount to a kind of vandalism, a violation of the rights of their actual author, who is no longer around to assert those rights or complain about their being disrespected? What kind of special authority may I presume, when I am asked, as I was for this blog post, to write about one of “my” works, as if to explain it to the world? If I read Derrida again, or Barthes, would that help me answer these questions?

Perhaps one day I will write a book that really feels like it is mine, and I will be able to hold a copy of that book in my hands without being troubled by these questions. Maybe I’ll call it My Book, and I’ll make “My Book” the first poem in it. For the time being I feel happy with that poem; I like what it seems to say and enjoy how it says it. The thoughts it expresses are thoughts I myself seem to have had. It’s almost as if I wrote it.

My Book

JollimoreTroy Jollimore is the author of two previous collections of poetry, At Lake Scugog (Princeton) and Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker,McSweeney’s, the Believer, and other publications. He is a professor of philosophy at California State University, Chico.

Favorite Lines: Eléna Rivera

In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve asked some of the poets who have published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets to highlight and discuss a single line in their poetry that has special significance. Today Eléna Rivera, author of Scaffolding, talks about inspiration while writing “Sept. 1” (Scaffolding, 24). Check this space each week for more favorite lines.

RiveraA line comes into one’s thoughts as a kind of inspiration, or it finds its way by sheer persistence (“no that word won’t do,” “this doesn’t work” and “that one doesn’t have the right amount of syllables,” “what about…. ” ). The 11-syllable line forced many lines into shape in Scaffolding. The “meaning” came with the form, counting syllables; in trying to get that right something was revealed in the line that was often unexpected and surprising—“Oh really, is that what this is about?” That kind of discovery is what makes writing interesting, engaging, a necessity. The line can be scary, disturbing, or just pleasing; there’s so much to let go of in the process (i.e., the sense of having control over a work). As if there were a voice beyond the learned language of childhood, beyond dailyness, beyond fear, awkwardness, the “should’s,” beyond the doubts of ever being able to say anything. Persistence, working through a poem, waiting for the words to fall into place, or not, facing that what one originally loved may be destroyed with nothing to take its place; it’s all about words, sound, rhythm, image, and “intellection” (as Louis Zukofsky called it). The line comes as a surprise because it is bold, unexpected, and points toward where the poem lies. In the poem “Sept. 1” the line: “‘I write to keep alive” Who said that? I did” shows the back and forth between different selves in the poem itself, the questioning and the constant back and forth that happens in language.

Scaffolding

 

RiveraEléna Rivera is a poet and translator. She is the author of The Perforated Map and Unknowne Land, and her poems have appeared in the Nation, Denver Quarterly, the New York Times, and many other publications. Her translation of Bernard Noël’s The Rest of the Voyage won the Robert Fagles Translation Prize. She was born in Mexico City, spent her childhood in Paris, and now lives in New York City.

Favorite Lines: Fiona Sze-Lorrain

In honor of National Poetry Month, we’ve asked some of the poets who have published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets to highlight and discuss a single line in their poetry that has special significance. Today Fiona Sze-Lorrain, author of The Ruined Elegance, talks about inspiration while writing “Midnight Almanac” (The Ruined Elegance, 34-35). Check this space weekly for more favorite lines throughout the month of April.

“All the parallel windows, different emptiness.”

—from “Midnight Almanac” in The Ruined Elegance (2016)

a

Lorrain

The image does not serve as an illustration.

b

This isn’t a favorite line of mine—it seems difficult for me to believe in the longevity of a favorite line—but one that has stopped me on a few occasions to think further about our current society. More precisely, the way we humans have chosen to live or exist, how we use the virtual space, for instance, to make ourselves “visible” or “audible” without necessarily engaging, face to face, with one another . . . and in what direction our civilization may be heading: if “we” —or should I say, the collective mass, their governments and institutions—continue to prioritize the economy and the industry, conform to social labels and homogeneity, or hide behind—as well as within—pigeonholed identities and comfort zones.

Human existence might become just that: a commodity.

Each to his/her own box or screen—

Perhaps this is why romanticizing solitude is a consolation prize for alienation, both physical and emotional.

c

Are our eyes still the windows to our souls?

d

When I came up with this verse, I had no specific address in mind.

I was, in fact, critiquing the possibilities of mediocrity. Being mediocre is safe. Banality works as a survival instinct.

I am also criticizing the hypocrisy of I agree, but . . .

Even windows now must look standardized.
jdjhbdjbagbdfbdfjvbdfhjbdgbrrOtherwise, we can’t (won’t) recognize them as windows.

LorrainFiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. The author of two previous books of poetry in English, My Funeral Gondola and Water the Moon, she also writes and translates in French and Chinese. She lives in Paris. She is the author of The Ruined Elegance: Poems.

An author’s guide to social media

CC image courtesy of Leigh Prather on Shutterstock

Book promotion has changed a great deal over the past few years with the disappearance of book review sections and the explosion of new media. The rapidly expanding world of social media offers a creative, personal opportunity to promote your book and your personal brand directly to a targeted community of followers. Of course, not every author heads into her pub date with active social media accounts and a substantial online following. Not to worry. Though anyone can use it, social media isn’t for everyone, and you shouldn’t feel under any obligation to participate. But if your forthcoming book has you feeling a bit more like sharing than usual, there are some basic ground rules for cultivating communities, as well as some ways you can collaborate with your publisher.

At Princeton University Press, we use a variety of social media platforms to promote your book, but primarily the PUP blog, Twitter, Facebook, (and soon, Instagram). Here is a general overview of what we can do for your book on each of these, and some tips about what you can do on your own time.

Blog

CC image courtesy of Mathias Rosenthal on ShutterstockThe PUP blog has grown in recent years from a place to share Press news and updates to a sophisticated online publication that runs daily features: regular author interviews, essays from staff, exclusive slide shows, and opinion pieces by our authors. Many of our authors are leaders in their fields, and PUP blog pieces have been widely cross posted or linked by outlets like the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, The Atlantic, Newsweek, History News Network, Marginal Revolution, The Daily Nous, The Leiter Reports, Bloomberg View, and more. In addition, we have recently launched a partnership with the widely read Arts and Ideas magazine, Aeon, which gives authors the opportunity to write short opinion pieces that will appear simultaneously on the Aeon PUP partnership page and the PUP blog. Read more about the Aeon/PUP blog partnership here.

You and the PUP blog: Better together!

Your book is finished, but if you still have more to say, you’re in luck. At PUP, the Social Media Manager works with the editors and publicists to identify potential PUP blog contributions and schedule them to coincide with news hooks, anniversaries, pub dates, and special series. If you are interested in contributing, contact PUP’s Social Media Manager, Debra Liese, for guidelines and assistance with developing your piece. Your piece should allow you to showcase your area of expertise, and if it’s an ‘opinion’ piece, should feature a strong argument. Publishing through the PUP blog is a great way to test out your blogging voice, and the pieces you write can  be cross-posted to your own blog, posted by your university’s communications department, or even picked up by other venues. We generally allow cross posts of the pieces we publish with proper attribution and a link back to the original at the top of the post. (For more information on our reuse policy, which will be officially posted shortly, contact the Social Media Manager).

How do we promote your post? We receive an average of 25k unique visitors to our PUP blog a month, and that number is quickly growing. In addition, your posts to the blog will be pushed out over PUP Facebook and Twitter, and to targeted groups.

Facebook
CC image courtesy of rvisoft on Shutterstock

What does PUP do? We use Facebook to promote PUP books, push out our authors’ posts on the PUP blog, promote links to their op eds, interviews, and special events. We announce major awards and promote special giveaways.

What can you do on your own? First, we suggest you set up an author page rather than a book page. A Facebook author page is a wonderful way to promote your professional work overall. By comparison, a ‘book page’ appears too much like static advertising, and gets little engagement or organic reach on Facebook. People are more likely to follow a person than a product, and an author page has the added benefit of letting you build your following with each subsequent book you publish, rather than starting from scratch with each book.

Getting started

* Whether you create a professional presence that is distinct from your personal profile is up to you, but many authors like to have a combined page. Worried about mixing public with personal? You’re not alone. Facebook allows users to select who can view each post, meaning you can tailor personal posts for close friends, and put up promotional information globally. Facebook has a Follow feature, allowing people to subscribe to your public updates without “friending” you.

* When you set up your author page, use a professional profile photo and your book jacket at the banner. You should include professional details on your profile including professional affiliation and book title. Think of this as cultivating your personal brand.

* Like all social media, Facebook works best when approached interactively. Your Facebook followers are a community you can personally nurture through regular posts and engagement. You may wish to share coverage your book has received, post announcements to your wall, and engage with comments. You can even use polls, write about current events hooks, and advertise your own special appearances.

* Limit yourself to no more than 5 posts in a week. Always best to leave them wanting more.

* Avoid seeming too self promotional by balancing posts about your book with posts relevant to your field — you can share links to news stories that tie to your research, and stimulate discussion around them. Make sure to like comments, and interact with some of the professional posts of others in your community. Engagement is important on Facebook, and people don’t like to feel that they are following an ad. Show your human side.

* A strong opinion is ok, but offensive language is not. And give credit where credit is due — proper attribution is key on the internet.

Twitter

CC image courtesy of igor kisselev on Shutterstock

What does PUP do? We use our Twitter presence to connect with book lovers, academics, students, authors, booksellers and readers all over the world. We share articles by our authors in high-profile publications, promotional videos and podcasts, author events, special contests, and all original content from the PUP blog.

In addition to our central @PrincetonUPress Twitter feed, we have a feed dedicated to our Natural history community, @PrincetonNature

What can you do on your own?  Twitter can be an effective vehicle for authors. You can quickly share links, support others’ work, or tweet news about an upcoming event. Starting an account is a very straightforward process.

Getting started

* Choose an appropriate username and handle. Use your real name, and avoid obscure handles like @starsearcherphysicist, since that will make it harder for users to search for you.

* Follow people you know who support your work, or locate followers using the ‘find people’ search function. You can search for specific keywords to find people in your discipline.

* Limit yourself to 4 or 5 tweets a day. Over-tweeting can turn off even the most dedicated followers.

* Don’t forget to retweet others whose work you find interesting, and engage with your followers. Twitter is most successful when you take time to cultivate a community and have conversations. If you’re lucky, others will reciprocate.

* When they do, tweeting ‘thanks’ is gracious, but don’t overdo it. If an article is getting a lot of traction, there is no need to retweet every mention and clutter everyone’s feed. Choose select tweets to share, and if you want to acknowledge the others, that’s what ‘favoriting’ is for.

* Adding hashtags (#) to your posts will make them searchable by popular categories, though it’s best to use tags related to your topic rather than creating a hashtag specific to your book. A general, subject-specific hashtag will help your tweets to come up more in searches. You can also tag other accounts (include someone’s username in a tweet if you would like them to see it).

* Be mindful not to use offensive language and always cite your sources—you can use the ‘H/T’(hat tip) or tag your source.

* Expect to be unfollowed by many regardless of how tastefully you use Twitter. And don’t expect everyone you follow to follow you back. They simply won’t.

* Follow PUP. We maintain a list of our authors on Twitter so that we can take note of what you’re tweeting and support your efforts when appropriate. If you’d like to make sure we see a certain tweet, make sure to tag us. You might want to support fellow authors as a way to build your own community.

Instagram

Is your work visual in nature? Our robust art, architecture, urbanism, and natural history lists in particular lend themselves to Instagram, and the Press is in the process of launching a presence here. Instagram is the fastest growing social media platform, so consider opening an account if your work can be expressed visually via photos or short videos. You can use the search function to find and follow other relevant accounts, and add popular hashtags to land your photos in one of the popular “hubs”. You might use a Hub Directory to peruse some of the possibilities. If you want to get the attention of a specific account, tag them in the comments section of your post.

If you’d like additional guidance on social media, don’t hesitate to reach out to PUP’s social media manager for tips on using the platforms or getting involved with the PUP blog. If you decide to try social media, take it one step at a time, and have fun. While there are general guidelines to keep in mind, social media is a place where you can bring your own unique personality and expertise to bear. Cultivating a supportive professional community takes time, but the benefits will be yours for years to come.

 

Announcing a new partnership with Aeon Magazine

Aeon Magazine logo

Princeton University Press is excited to announce a new partnership with Aeon Magazine. Since September 2012, Aeon has “been publishing some of the most profound and provocative thinking on the web. It asks the biggest questions and finds the freshest, most original answers, provided by world-leading authorities on science, philosophy and society.” Aeon’s publishing platform is an excellent place for showcasing our authors’ thought leadership. When one of their articles takes off, it does so in style: Robert Epstein’s recent essay about why the brain is not a computer received over 375,000 views in just 4 days. In addition Aeon viewing statistics are counted by Altmetric, so they contribute to any measurement of academic impact.

Starting this June, Princeton University Press authors, past and present, will be contributing regular essays to Aeon’s Ideas section, and participating in various discussions that will be featured on a new, dedicated partnership page that features PUP authors and their work. We will be simultaneously featuring these essays on the PUP blog – a growing outlet for intellectual discourse. Check out the inaugural essays in this partnership by philosopher Jason Stanley and political scientist Justin Smith here. We hope you’ll follow us on Aeon.

–Debra Liese, PUP Social Media Manager & blog editor

Justin E. H. Smith: How philosophy came to disdain the wisdom of oral cultures

Aeon Magazine logo

This piece appears simultaneously at Aeon Magazine. Check out our partnership page with Aeon here.

Smith jacketA poet, somewhere in Siberia, or the Balkans, or West Africa, some time in the past 60,000 years, recites thousands of memorised lines in the course of an evening. The lines are packed with fixed epithets and clichés. The bard is not concerned with originality, but with intonation and delivery: he or she is perfectly attuned to the circumstances of the day, and to the mood and expectations of his or her listeners.

If this were happening 6,000-plus years ago, the poet’s words would in no way have been anchored in visible signs, in text. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have been on Earth, words have had no worldly reality other than the sound made when they are spoken.

As the theorist Walter J Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke.

As a consequence of the development of writing, first in the ancient Near East and soon after in Greece, old habits of thought began to die out, and certain other, previously latent, mental faculties began to express themselves. Words were now anchored and, though spellings could change from one generation to another, or one region to another, there were now physical traces that endured, which could be transmitted, consulted and pointed to in settling questions about the use or authority of spoken language.

Writing rapidly turned customs into laws, agreements into contracts, genealogical lore into history. In each case, what had once been fundamentally temporal and singular was transformed into something eternal (as in, ‘outside of time’) and general. Even the simple act of making everyday lists of common objects – an act impossible in a primary oral culture – was already a triumph of abstraction and systematisation. From here it was just one small step to what we now call ‘philosophy’.

Homer’s epic poetry, which originates in the same oral epic traditions as those of the Balkans or of West Africa, was written down, frozen, fixed, and from this it became ‘literature’. There are no arguments in the Iliad: much of what is said arises from metrical exigencies, the need to fill in a line with the right number of syllables, or from epithets whose function is largely mnemonic (and thus unnecessary when transferred into writing). Yet Homer would become an authority for early philosophers nonetheless: revealing truths about humanity not by argument or debate, but by declamation, now frozen into text.

Plato would express extreme concern about the role, if any, that poets should play in society. But he was not talking about poets as we think of them: he had in mind reciters, bards who incite emotions with living performances, invocations and channellings of absent persons and beings.

It is not orality that philosophy rejects, necessarily: Socrates himself rejected writing, identifying instead with a form of oral culture. Plato would also ensure the philosophical canonisation of his own mentor by writing down (how faithfully, we don’t know) what Socrates would have preferred to merely say, and so would have preferred to have lost to the wind. Arguably, it is in virtue of Plato’s recording that we might say, today, that Socrates was a philosopher.

Plato and Aristotle, both, were willing to learn from Homer, once he had been written down. And Socrates, though Plato still felt he had to write him down, was already engaged in a sort of activity very different from poetic recitation. This was dialectic: the structured, working-through of a question towards an end that has not been predetermined – even if this practice emerged indirectly from forms of reasoning only actualised with the advent of writing.

The freezing in text of dialectical reasoning, with a heavy admixture (however impure or problematic) of poetry, aphorism and myth, became the model for what, in the European tradition, was thought of as ‘philosophy’ for the next few millennia.

Why are these historical reflections important today? Because what is at stake is nothing less than our understanding of the scope and nature of philosophical enquiry.

The Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico wrote in his Scienza Nuova (1725): ‘the order of ideas must follow the order of institutions’. This order was, namely: ‘First the woods, then cultivated fields and huts, next little houses and villages, thence cities, finally academies and philosophers.’ It is implicit for Vico that the philosophers in these academies are not illiterate. The order of ideas is the order of the emergence of the technology of writing.

Within academic philosophy today, there is significant concern arising from how to make philosophy more ‘inclusive’, but no interest at all in questioning Vico’s order, in going back and recuperating what forms of thought might have been left behind in the woods and fields.

The groups ordinarily targeted by philosophy’s ‘inclusivity drive’ already dwell in the cities and share in literacy, even if discriminatory measures often block their full cultivation of it. No arguments are being made for the inclusion of people belonging to cultures that value other forms of knowledge: there are no efforts to recruit philosophers from among Inuit hunters or Hmong peasants.

The practical obstacles to such recruitment from a true cross-section of humanity are obvious. Were it to happen, however, the simple process of moving from traditional ways of life into academic institutions would at the same time dilute and transform the perspectives that are deserving of more attention. Irrespective of such unhappy outcomes, there is already substantial scholarship on these forms of thought accumulated in philosophy’s neighbouring disciplines – notably history, anthropology, and world literatures – to which philosophers already have access. It’s a literature that could serve as a corrective to the foundational bias, present since the emergence of philosophy as a distinct activity.

As it happens, there are few members of primary oral cultures left in the world. And yet from a historical perspective the great bulk of human experience resides with them. There are, moreover, members of literate cultures, and subcultures, whose primary experience of language is oral, based in storytelling, not argumentation, and that is living and charged, not fixed and frozen. Plato saw these people as representing a lower, and more dangerous, use of language than the one worthy of philosophers.

Philosophers still tend to disdain, or at least to conceive as categorically different from their own speciality, the use of language deployed by bards and poets, whether from Siberia or the South Bronx. Again, this disdain leaves out the bulk of human experience. Until it is eradicated, the present talk of the ideal of inclusion will remain mere lip-service.

Justin E. H. Smith is a professor of history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Diderot – Paris 7. He writes frequently for The New York Times and Harper’s Magazine. His latest book is The Philosopher: A History in Six Types (2016).

Stephen Heard: Write like a scientist

the scientist's guide to writing heardScientific writing should be as clear and impactful as other styles, but the process of producing such writing has its own unique challenges. Stephen Heard, scientist, graduate advisor, and editor speaks from personal experience in his book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career. Heard’s focus on the writing process emphasizes the pursuit of clarity, and his tips on submissions, coauthorship, citations, and peer reviews are crucial for those starting to seek publication. Recently, Heard agreed to answer a few questions about his book.

What made you decide to write a book about scientific writing?

SH: I think the first spark was when I realized I give the same writing advice to all my students, over and over, and caught myself thinking it would be easier to just write it all down once. That was foolish, of course: writing the book wasn’t easy at all! But before long, my rationale shifted. The book became less about stuff I wanted to tell everyone else, and more about stuff I wished somebody had told me. A lot of us get into science without much writing experience, and without thinking much about how important a role scientific writing plays – and when we start doing it, we discover that doing it well isn’t easy. It took me many years to become a reasonably competent scientific writer, and the book includes a lot of the things I discovered along the way. I was surprised to discover that writing the book made me a better writer. I think reading it can help too.

Surely there a bunch of other scientific-writing books out there? What do you do differently?

SH: Yes – and some of them are quite good! But I wanted to write something different. I’m not sure my book says anything that no one else knows about outlining or paragraph structure or citation formatting (for example). But I thought there was a lot of value in a book that pays attention to the writer as much as the writing: to the way writers behave as they write, and to ways in which some deliberate and scientific attention to our behavior might help us write faster and better. I’ve also discovered that knowing a bit about the history and culture of scientific writing can help us understand the way we write (and why). Just as one example: knowing something about the history of the Methods section, and how it’s changed over the last 350 years as scientists have struggled with the question of how scientific studies gain authority, can help us decide how to write our own Methods sections. I also tackle the question of whether there’s a place in scientific writing for beauty or for humor – something that gets discussed so rarely that it seems almost like a taboo.

Finally, I wanted to write a book that was really engaging: to show that thinking about writing (as we all need to) needn’t be dry and pedantic. So readers might be surprised, in a book about scientific writing, to find mentions of Voltaire’s lover, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the etymology of the word fart. But I hope they’ll also find that there are lessons in all those things – and more – for scientists who want to write better and more quickly.

You also go into a lot of depth about the review and publication process. Why are these things important to cover alongside the writing process?

SH: Well, maybe that isn’t “writing”, strictly speaking – but it’s an essential part of getting one’s scientific writing in the hands of readers. All of us want our scientific writing to be read, and to be cited, and to help move our fields forward. So it’s not enough to write a good manuscript; we have to be able to shepherd it through the process of submission, review, revision, and eventual acceptance. Early in my own career I found this process especially mysterious. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about it – by publishing quite a few papers myself, but also by reviewing hundreds of manuscripts and acting as an Associate Editor for hundreds more. So I have a pretty good overview of the publishing process, from both the writer’s and the journal’s perspective. There’s no particular reason that process has to be mysterious, and I thought it would be helpful to draw back the curtain.

Is scientific writing really that different from other kinds of writing?

SH: Both yes and no! Of course, there are technical issues that matter in scientific writing, like ways of handling text dense with numbers, or ways we handle citations. There are also more cultural ways in which scientific writing is its own thing. One of them is that we’ve developed a writing form that efficiently conveys material to other people who are familiar with that form. Our conventional division of papers into Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion is a piece of that. Our writing (and our publication process) have evolved in many other ways that aren’t quite the same as you’d find in the humanities, or in writing about science for the public. That’s why there are books about scientific writing, not just about writing. But on another level, good scientific writing is like most other good writing: clear, concise, engaging whenever possible, and did I mention clear? Nothing is more important than clarity! As a result of this similarity, people who learn good scientific writing are well positioned for any career that involves writing – which is to say, pretty much any career.

Do you think of yourself as a good writer?

SH: No! And to loop back to the first question, that’s a big part of why I wrote the book. There are a very few natural writers out there – geniuses – for whom good writing just seems to come naturally. But these are rare. I’m like nearly everyone else: writing is hard work for me. It’s a craft I’ve learned over the years by practicing, by thinking deliberately about how I do it, and by reading advice from books that have gone before mine. It’s still hard work, but that’s OK: I’m willing to put in the effort for my writing product to seem pretty good, even if my writing process is laborious. If I’d understood earlier in my career that most writers are just like me, I would have been less crushed by the discovery that my papers didn’t just write themselves! Every scientific writer can do what I’ve done: practice the craft and improve at it. I hope my book can help.

Stephen B. Heard is professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada and associate editor of the journal American Naturalist. His most recent book is The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career.

One Day in the Life of the English Language

In an age of text messages, tweets, and all manner of shorthand, do correct grammar and usage matter anymore? According to Frank L. Cioffi, author of One Day in the Life of the English Language, they do indeed matter, but what today’s writing students need is an “anti-handbook”. In just such a book, Cioffi examines everything from the most serious newspaper articles to celebrity gossip magazines. Drawing his examples over the course of a single day, he illustrates the importance of applying grammatical principles to “real world” writing.

In this newly released video, learn more about Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language, including his stance on the changes in language owed to technology.

One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook by Frank L. Cioffi from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

One Day in the Life jacketFrank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is also the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

National Poetry Month: Featured reading from Jessica Greenbaum

the two yvonnes greenbaum jacketTo celebrate National Poetry Month, Princeton University Press will be featuring weekly audio readings from some of our most popular poets. Today Jessica Greenbaum, author of The Two Yvonnes, reads from her collection. Moving from 1960s Long Island, to 1980s Houston, to today’s Brooklyn, the poems range in subject from the pages of the Talmud, to a sick daughter, to a squirrel trapped in a kitchen. As always, Greenbaum’s poetry displays a keen discussion of human vulnerability.

Greenbaum is essential reading, particularly throughout a month dedicated to the wider appreciation of poetry, because of her accessibility. Written in “plain American that cats and dogs can read,” as Marianne Moore once put it, the book asks: how does life present itself to us, and how do we create value from our delights and losses? Listen to Greenbaum’s passionate reading of The Two Yvonnes.

 

jessica greenbaumJessica Greenbaum is the author of The Two Yvonnes, one of Library Journal’s Best Books in Poetry for 2012.

 

George Marsden on “Mere Christianity” and the conversion of C.S. Lewis

marsden jacketMere Christianity, C. S. Lewis’s eloquent and winsome defense of the Christian faith, has a rather dramatic origin story. Recently George Marsden took some time to talk about C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, his investigation of the story of the extraordinary life and afterlife of this influential book.

Do we need another book on C. S. Lewis?

GM: That’s a great question. There are lots of insightful books about Lewis, but this one is not about simply about Lewis but is a “biography” of his most influential non-fiction book. So it comes at Lewis from a fresh angle and amplifies dimensions of something that a lot of people have appreciated, but may have not thought through exactly why. It’s like the difference between a book about Beethoven and a book about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It takes something that is familiar and accessible and tries to bring to life the story behind its appeal. In this case Mere Christianity is not just popular, it has also been extraordinarily important to many people. You might be surprised at how many will say that reading it was even life changing. And many others will say it was one of the truly illuminating books that they have read. A couple of years ago during “March Madness,” the Emerging Scholars Network associated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship held playoff rounds of voting for sixty-four nominees for “the best Christian book of all time.” Mere Christianity finished second, only behind Augustine’s Confessions. So lots of such people should be interested in the story behind Lewis’s book.

What are the highlights of that story?

GM: That’s one of the great things about writing about Mere Christianity. The story of its origins is pretty dramatic. It’s not like most books where the beginning of the story is that the author decided to write on such and such a subject and two years later he had a book manuscript. Mere Christianity originated in the midst of one of the most stressful times in British history—during the bleak early years of World War Two. When the project was begun it was at a time when there were still fears of a Nazi invasion and the Blitz bombing was taking devastating tolls every night. And one of the things that is remarkable is when he began Lewis did not think he was writing a book. Rather he agreed to present a very brief series of radio broadcasts on the BBC. Eventually it became four series of broadcasts. As he went along he had these published in separate little booklets, but he had not planned them as a single book. It was only a decade later, in 1952, that he gathered these together into one book and called them Mere Christianity.

So how did a book that was not even planned to be a book become so influential?

GM: That’s one of the most fascinating parts of the story. Lewis’s works were already quite popular in 1952. He was best known as the author of The Screwtape Letters, and was a very well known Christian author during a time of religious revival in both Great Britain and the United States. So even though Mere Christianity as a single volume came on the scene with no fanfare or reviews, it always sold reasonably well during Lewis’s lifetime, though not as well as Screwtape or the Narnia tales. But here’s what’s really remarkable about the life of this book. In the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century it has sold more than it did in its first fifteen years. Not long before Lewis died in 1963 he expressed the opinion that his books would soon be forgotten. By 1967 other commentators were saying much the same thing. But it turns out that since 2001, Mere Christianity has sold more than three and a half million copies just in English alone. Almost any other book you might think of has a very different trajectory. It makes an initial splash but then its ripples fade, even if for some classics the ripples may extend indefinitely. This book is, by contrast, is selling more than when it was originally published.

So what happened between 1967 and 2001 to make it so popular?

GM: It is hard to track the story exactly, but by the 1970s it was becoming the book to give to someone who was inquiring about Christian faith. Celebrity conversions helped. One turning point was Chuck Colson’s Born Again which came out the same week in 1976 that Jimmy Carter was explaining to reporters that he was born again. Colson presents Mere Christianity as central to his conversion. A more recent case is the noted scientist Francis Collins, highlights Mere Christianity in his The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Most fans of Mere Christianity are, broadly speaking, evangelicals. But there many Catholic fans as well, and Eastern Orthodox, and even some Mormons. It is most popular in the United States but also is a standard work throughout the English-speaking world. It ha been translated into many languages. Interestingly one place where it has become most influential is among intellectual Chinese Christian.

How do you account for what you described as bucking the using trends in the lives of books in actually growing rather than gradually fading in popularity?

GM: That is another good question and in fact that is one of the central questions that the book tries to answer. What is the genius of Mere Christianity? What accounts for its “life” in the sense of its ongoing “vitality.”? How is it that Lewis could seemingly toss off these occasional broadcasts in a wartime setting and come up with a seemingly unified masterpiece that has such lasting appeals?

So how do you answer that question?

GM: Well there are quite a few reasons. I’ll just give you a sample. One reason why the book lasts is that Lewis very consciously looked for perennial truths about human experience and the human condition. So he warned people of the danger of being taken in by the “latest” thought of their own time. As a student of literature and history he realized that every era has its own peculiar ideas and that most of these soon pass and look very quaint a generation or two later. So in part because he is looking for ideas that last, many of his ideas have lasted.

The most obvious example is the idea of “Mere Christianity” itself. Lewis was trying to present the beliefs that have been “common to nearly all Christians at all times.” By carefully trying to stick to those common beliefs, he produced a work that has a wide appeal to all sorts of Christians. As I said, that’s just a sample of how to answer that question. There are still quite a few other dimensions to the genius of the book that have contributed to its lasting vitality. But perhaps I can leave them for those who want to delve into the book itself.

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. His books include Fundamentalism and American Culture, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, and The Soul of the American University. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 

University Press Week Blog Tour Day 5: Author Conversations

thanks to authorsThe final day of the University Press Week blog tour focuses on presses in conversation with their authors. Here at Princeton we would like to take a moment to thank all of our wonderful authors across many disciplines, without whom our esteemed publishing program could not exist. In the past year, PUP has been fortunate enough to publish multiple Nobel Prize winners, up-and-coming stars, renowned scholars and cultural critics. Our authors range from game theorists to astrophysicists, from art historians to professional ornithologists.

Each week on the PUP blog, we feature conversations with our authors about our books. These conversations, such as this one with n+1 co-founder Mark Greif, this one with classics professor Josiah Ober, or this one with biologists and bee experts Olivia Messinger Carril and Joseph Wilson, always provide wonderful behind-the-scenes glimpses of the writing process the origins of our authors’ research.

Today, these university presses share conversations with their own authors:

Temple University Press
Columbia University Press
University of Virginia Press
Beacon Press
University of Illinois Press
Southern Illinois University Press
University Press of Kansas
Oregon State University Press
Liverpool University Press
University of Toronto Press

The New Yorker’s Fall Reading List; Cioffi’s “One Day in the Life of the English Language”

Unsure of what to add to your Fall Reading List? Refer to New Yorker‘s Mary Norris.

One Day in the Life jacketMary “comma queen” Norris, contributor and proofreader for the New Yorker,  likes to keep up-to-date on the latest and greatest books about English grammar, language and writing. In a recent New Yorker piece, “What We’re Reading this Fall”, Norris writes, “People might expect that, as a copy editor, I’d be absorbed in the new usage manual by Frank L. Cioffi, ‘One Day in the Life of the English Language,’… They wouldn’t be that far off.”

While she continues to admit her current absorption in a fiction work about a proofreader, One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook, by Frank L. Cioffi, is certainly on her mind and surely listed on her Fall Reading List.

Using real-life examples to debunk myths of digital-age English and emphasize the inevitable evolution of the English language, this one-of-a-kind anti-handbook handbook convinces and motivates readers to use correct and effective grammar in their day-to-day lives.

Join Norris by adding One Day in the Life of the English Language to your own Fall Reading List and discover the significance of grammar in today’s world and why the ways of words matter.

Frank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana Universities and at Bard and Scripps Colleges. He is the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.