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.

A Letter From Your Publicist


Happy pub date to you, happy pub date….

Congratulations on your new book! Whether you’ve just put the finishing touches on your first book or have been down this road before, you’re probably eager to see what you can do to help to give your baby a proper send-off into the wild world of book critics and Amazon reviewers alike. Though I may not be your publicist, here’s hoping this guide can address the publicity questions you have, but were hesitant to ask.

Will you send my book out for review?

Absolutely! We are as invested in seeing your book land in the right hands as you are. Many months ago you should have filled out an Author Promotion Form (APF). Every press calls these forms something different, but this is an opportunity for you to share any suggestions for publications or special contacts that should receive a copy of your book. Didn’t fill it out? Don’t fear. You can contact your publicist at any time with leads for reviewers. Your publicist has also been familiarizing herself with your book and compiling a list of contacts that are just right for the target audience. Your book will be sent to a well-curated list. We also send out press releases and targeted email pitches.

My book is out and I haven’t seen any reviews in journals. What’s going on?

Don’t despair. Reviews in scholarly journals can happen at a glacial pace. Often they appear many months (or even a year) after publication date. This is also the case for major publications like the New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement.

What can I do to help?

writingA lot. One of the best things you can do after writing a book is… write some more! If your book’s research can be leveraged to comment on current events and you’re able to write a short (750 words) piece with a definite argument, you can pen an op ed positioning yourself as an expert, mentioning your book in the byline. Your publicist can help you  to get this into the hands of the right people. Never written an op ed before? Start by reading them.

Notice they are free of jargon, written for a general audience, and feature a strong point of view. Here’s a good place to read about the dos and don’ts of op ed writing.

Take advantage of other writing opportunities too. Guest blog if you are asked. Respond quickly to reporters who solicit your expertise. Reach out to personal contacts and colleagues who may have an affinity with your work and be interested in covering it.

Should I promote my book on Facebook/Twitter? Something else?

If you’re already active on social media, get more active now. The three months following the publication of your book is no time for modesty. You can follow people working on or writing about similar topics, retweet your book’s reviews or your own opinion pieces, use twitter to engage with others on your topic, or simply tweet ‘thanks!’ at someone for sharing your piece. If you know of an organization or individual that might be interested in your book, you can tag them in tweets to let them know about it.  But whatever you do, make sure to use your twitter feed to do more than self promote. Pay attention to what others are writing and be generous. If you share someone else’s work, there’s a good chance they’ll pay attention to the next thing you write as well. Finally, don’t worry about jumping onto every social platform there is. Use whatever is most comfortable for you, and where you have a natural following.

Should my book have its own hash tag?

Probably not.  Instead, use a popular tag on a topic you cover (like #edchat or  #behavioraleconomics).

I’ve never used social media and feel silly tweeting. Do I have to?

dislike buttonThere is no pressure at all to engage in these activities. If you’re on the fence about social media, now might be a time to give it a whirl. But if social media use is painful for you, forcing yourself into that territory it isn’t likely to benefit you or your book. No need to worry. Your publicist and press’s social media manager will be pushing out posts on your book themselves. Just sit back and enjoy the show.

Can my university help?

Definitely leverage the power of your university. Be in touch with your communications office to see what resources or plans they may have to promote your book. Some will share special features on social media, put out a press release on your book, post interviews with you their own website, or even be willing to produce a video interview or book trailer. Make sure to keep your book publicist in the loop about any plans to avoid duplication of effort, and offer both your university and your publisher opportunities to cross post.

I was interviewed, but the reporter used my quote without mentioning my book. How can I make sure my book is mentioned next time?

Just ask. Most reporters are amenable to referring to you as ‘author of…’ when using your quote. Don’t be shy about making the request.

Help! My book got a bad review! Should I respond?

angry manSome reviewers may draw conclusions about your research that you think are off base; in rare cases, they may even write caustic takedowns. There is no absolute rule covering how or whether to respond, though in many cases, the best response is no response at all. At times, we may counsel authors to reply, especially in the New York Review of Books, which has a long tradition of spirited exchanges between reviewer and author in their “Letters” section. Above all, if you do respond, you should keep it respectful and stick, as much as possible, to correcting errors of fact. Avoid the polemics the reviewer may have engaged in. You’ll come off better if you take the high ground. Kill’em with kindness.

I still feel frustrated.

troll signCompletely understandable. Post the offending review to your personal Facebook wall if you’re inclined, where no doubt your friends and colleagues will rally to your cause. But don’t feel the need to reply to everything, rectify every misunderstanding, or haunt the comments section under your own op eds. Remember the old chestnut that even bad publicity is good publicity? It’s true. The interest of readers and other reviewers is likely to be piqued by the very controversy that has you steaming, and that can only be a good thing.

Thanks for the tips, but I wish I could talk to another author. Someone who’s traveled this road before.

Jane Austen, Game Theorist cover artYou’re in luck! For another perspective and more ideas on how you can get creative with book publicity, check out this post by Michael Chwe, whose exuberant, hands-on efforts helped his book, Jane Austen: Game Theorist, to garner widespread attention. This is a man who said he’d stop at nothing—not even Jane Austen kitten memes—to get his scholarly book out there.

If you’re not as proactively disposed as Chwe, don’t worry. Successful publicity campaigns come in many forms. Remember, too, that your book is supported by the collaborative efforts of multiple people and departments. Although every new author’s journey comes with a bit of anxiety, take a deep breath, set up a Google alert for your name, and raise a glass to yourself. Whatever you do, try to enjoy the ride.

Your Publicist




#WinnerWednesdays: Congratulations to our authors!

In the past couple of weeks, our authors have received an impressive number of honors:

Winner of the 2015 Legacy Award, Presidents and Executive Politics Section of the American Political Science Association

  • William G. Howell – Power without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action

“The Legacy Award will be given to a living author for a book, essay, or article, published at least 10 years prior to the award year that has made a continuing contribution to the intellectual development of the fields of presidency and executive politics.”

Check the website for additional information about the award.

Winner of the 2015 Otto Gründler Book Prize, The Medieval Institute of Western Michigan University

  • Robert Bartlett – Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation

The 2015 Otto Gründler Book Prize was awarded this month at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It consists of an award of $1,000.00 to the author of a book or monograph in any area of medieval studies that is judged by the selection committee to be an outstanding contribution to its field.

According to James M. Murray, Director of the Medieval Institute, Bartlett’s book was “an easy choice from the more than 25 candidates.”

For information about the award, click here.

2015 Silver Medal Winner in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, World History category

  • Adrienne Mayor – The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World

2015 Bronze Medal Winner in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, World History category

  • Chris Walsh – Cowardice: A Brief History

The Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY Awards) are sponsored by Jenkins Group Inc. &

“The ‘IPPY’ Awards were conceived as a broad-based, unaffiliated awards program open to all members of the independent publishing industry, and are open to authors and publishers worldwide who produce books written in English and intended for the North American market.”

The 2015 IPPY Awards announcement is here  (see category 57)

The awards ceremony to honor the medalists took place on May 27th in New York City.

Colm Tóibín, author of On Elizabeth Bishop, is one of seven writers who will be inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame in 2015.

“The NYS Writers Hall of Fame was established in conjunction with the Empire State Center for the Book to highlight the rich literary heritage of New York State and to recognize the legacy of individual New York State writers.” The first Gala and Induction Ceremony into the NYS Writers Hall of Fame was held in 2010.

The seven New York State writers to be inducted at the Princeton Club in New York City on June 2nd are:  Isaac Asimov, Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Jack Keats, Dawn Powell, Francine Prose, David Remnick, and Colm Tóibín. Click here or here for more information.

Which of these 15 myths of digital-age English do you believe?

One Day in the Life of the English Language by Frank Cioffi, a new style guide that eschews memorization in favor of internalizing how sentences actually work, handily refutes these 15 myths of digital-age English. Think brevity is best? Swear by your default settings? Feel sure the internet is a “total latrine”? Try out this “True or False” test and see whether you’re the digital-age wordsmith you thought you were:

Myth 1 image1.  In the age of the tweet, short and concise is always the best.
True, true, short messages are often the best. But not always. Sometimes one needs to go on at some length. Sometimes it is necessary to provide a context, especially if one is trying to communicate more than just minimal information. And sometimes the very brevity or terseness of a tweet makes it impossible to understand.

2.  My word processing program doesn’t let me change margins, spacing, or other aspects of format.
Most word processing programs can be set up to accommodate any standard style; however, you need to use the program’s capabilities and not always accept default settings. In Microsoft Word, for example, many writers allow the program its silly default—to put an extra line space between paragraphs of the same format. This should be unselected as a default off the “paragraph” menu.

Myth 3 image3.  My word processing program will highlight and automatically fix any errors I make.
These automatic correction programs are notoriously unreliable, as they often “fix” writing that is in fact correct. For example, at first I thought one of my students had subject-verb agreement problems; then I noted that the program tried to get me to introduce such errors into my own work. You, not the program, are the mind behind the words. Don’t rely on your program to fix everything. Let it check—but you check too.

4.  “Logical punctuation” is the best option in most situations.
This idea usually refers to putting punctuation either inside or outside of quotation marks. The logicality of doing so or not doing so has been questioned by many. It’s probably best to follow conventions of a given style, unless you are not working within any particular field. In that case, you can invent new rules; just don’t expect others to understand or follow them.

5. People don’t really read anymore; they merely “scan a page for information.”
Gary Shteyngart brings up this idea in his 2011 novel Super Sad True Love Story. It’s interesting and has some truth to it: I agree that many people don’t read with a lot of care or seek to understand and internalize the written ideas they encounter. But some do. Think of that “some” as your audience. At the same time, consider the needs of an audience that just “scans the page.” Ask yourself, “Does this page I’ve just written include information worth scanning?”

Cioffi jacket6.  Anyone can publish written material nowadays, so what’s the value of Standard Written English?
With the Internet, it’s true that anyone can publish now. And many self-publishing options are open to any writer seeking to get work in print. Simply publishing something is now less a guarantee of its excellence or importance than it once was, but if you strive to have your work read—by more than family and friends—it will have to respect some standard forms and conventions. Or to put it another way, no matter what your publishing goals, if you want people to read your work, you will have to write with a high level of competence and lucidity.

7.  People are much less precise and exact than they used to be, now that they have computers to rely on.
This is clearly not the case in all situations. In fact, people must be much more careful now with details such as spelling, especially when entering passwords or usernames. In many digital contexts, attentiveness to language accuracy is obligatory. If you are inattentive, you often can’t even use the computer or the program. If you don’t respect the syntax of a program, it just won’t run.

8.  “Talking street” is what most people want to do anyway.
I think that most people have to use multiple forms of English. They might speak one way to their family, one way to their friends, one way on their jobs, and another way, perhaps, when they need to write a paper for a college course they are taking. People can and should become multilingual.

9.  Most grammatical stuff is of minor importance—kind of too boring and persnickety to bother with.
I agree that there are more important things in the world, but I have been making the argument throughout this book that in fact these “minor” matters do seem to make a difference to some people—and a major difference to a small minority. And writ large, they make a big difference in our society. Admittedly, there is a persnickety quality to some of the material, but isn’t specialization all about being persnickety?

10.  Someone else can “wordsmith” my ideas; I just generate them.
The line between the idea and the expression of it is very fine; that is, how you say something is often inextricable from what you say. You need to take charge of not just coming up with a basic idea or notion but also of how that idea gets expressed. If you have a stake in how an idea exists in its final form, you should take great care with its exact verbal formulation.

11.  Since so many “styles” (MLA, APA, Chicago . . .) are available and used by various specialties, it’s pointless to worry about this kind of superficial overlay.
There are a lot of forms and styles, to be sure. But you need to find the form that’s conventional in your professional field and use that. If you don’t, you almost automatically label yourself an “outsider” to that field, or perhaps even an interloper. And sometimes, just abiding by the conventions of a style gains you credibility in and of itself, allows entrée into a field.

12.  There’s no possibility of an original idea anymore: it’s all been said.
One certainly feels as though this might be possible, considering the ever-expanding scope of the Internet and the existence of over seven billion human minds on the planet. However, each of us has his or her own individual experience—which is unique. And out of that, I feel, originality can emerge. You must really want that originality to emerge, though, and resist succumbing to the pressure of the multitude to simply conform to what’s standard, acceptable, predictable, dull.

13.  If something is published on the Internet, it’s true.
I know that no one really believes this. But I want to emphasize that a great deal of material on the Internet is simply false—posted by people who are not reliable, well-informed, or even honest. Much Internet material that claims to be true is in fact only a form of advertising. And finally, do keep in mind that almost anyone can create websites and post content, whether they are sane or insane, children or adults, good or evil, informed or misinformed.

myth 4 image14.  The Internet is a total latrine.
A few years ago, I heard a well-known public intellectual give a talk for which this was the thesis. And there are certainly many things on the Internet and about the Internet that bear out such a judgment. However, there are also some amazing things, which prompt me to say that the Internet is the greatest accumulation of information and knowledge in the history of humankind. But you need to learn how to use it efficiently and effectively, and sort the good from the bad.

Myth 15 image

15.  I can cut and paste my way through any college paper assignment.
There are many opportunities to create what looks like your own work—cutting and pasting here, auto- summarizing there, adding a few transitional sentences, and mashing it all together. I don’t recommend this kind of work; it doesn’t really benefit you to create it. You want to write papers of your own, ones that express your own ideas and that use your own language. The cut-and-pasters are ultimately sacrificing their humanity, as they become people of the machine. And when they’re caught, the penalties can be severe.

How did you do?

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.

Graphics by Chris Ferrante

An interview with Frank Cioffi, author of One Day in the Life of the English Language

This week we had the opportunity to ask Frank Cioffi questions about his new book, One Day in the Life of the English Language, which was recently featured in Inside Higher Ed. Cioffi offers insights on the “ethics” of usage, why grammar is “not just a set of rules”, and why students often readily grasp proper usage in exercises, but struggle with their own prose.

What was the inspiration for this book?Cioffi jacket

FC: Here is what I wrote in my five-year diary on 12/28/08: “millions of sentences are uttered and written. . . Most float off into a void, never to be heard of or recalled again. Most are ‘ungrammatical,’ no doubt unable to pass the scrutiny of a gimlet-eyed grammarian. But these sentences, and those of the previous days, and those of the next ones, make up our lives. They help to form the dense linguistic net of which we are all a part. And this book seeks to both represent that net and to show how you as a writer might well make a small, a human scale, a molecule-level, improvement of it.”

In what way or ways does your handbook differentiate itself from the thousand or so English handbooks already out on the market?

FC: I guess I am trying to persuade readers that Standard Written English (SWE) matters; it’s not just something to be memorized, like how to factor polynomials or the quadratic equation, but has a real impact on how we live and function as human beings. For example, using SWE usually improves one’s capacity for communicating to a wide and varied audience. More people will understand you if you use SWE than if you use, say, a dialect or an argot.

In addition, when you don’t use SWE you run the risk of stigmatizing yourself, of giving your audience the excuse to ignore what you say (“He can’t be saying anything of any importance—he’s clearly uneducated and dumb”). Now that’s not the right response, I know, and I emphasize in my book that we should not stigmatize people because their English is unpolished or somewhat far from the “standard,” but it still happens, so people need to learn SWE in order not to be stigmatized.

For many decades now I’ve been teaching English at the college level, and I have seen a lot of handbooks. None of them, I felt, had a sufficiently human voice. Most books say, “Here it is: learn it.” I say, “Here it is, and here is why it’s important to learn it.” Fred Crews’s Random House Handbook was something of an exception, but it’s now out of print. It is also not a compact book, which mine attempts to be.

Tell us a bit more about the “voice” of a handbook.

FC: Grammar books have multiple voices: the author who is lecturing, the author who is commenting on samples of English, and the sample sentences, often also by the author. I thought there was something wrong with all of these as they exist in current texts. In particular, I wanted the sentences to come from a real world, not the one of “Dick and Jane” books.

Here is the paradox I saw: students could do worksheets or exercises very readily, but their own prose didn’t reflect the lessons of those exercises. For example, my students did a worksheet on comma splices, but comma splices still marred their writing. We did a worksheet on apostrophes, but apostrophes were still a major problem in the formal papers. Why is that?

It seemed to me that maybe in our handbooks, workbooks, and even lectures, we tended to simplify example sentences too much. We tended to make them spare and simple so as to illustrate a grammatical point. But that point is easy to understand with simple sentences. As complexity grows, the capacity for error enlarges.

At the same time, students might think, “Only a total dummy would make a mistake like this sample sentence!” or maybe “That’s not me!”Or they might think, “This book is totally condescending.”

So I wanted sample sentences that were complex.

But the problem here was that making up sentences in the sample sentence genre suddenly grew difficult, since their lack of content becomes much more apparent as they grow in elaborateness. This made me wonder about the “world” depicted in the example sentences. It’s a made-up world. a world of nonevents, a world where nothing scary or awful or threatening or sexy happens. It’s the same world that the Educational Testing Service depicts in the “fairness guidelines” that they give to test preparers, which in some ways makes sense. We don’t want to distract students from the grammatical issue at hand.

Yet the world of these sample sentences has the interesting effect of making grammar somehow disembodied, disconnected from a real world. Its sentences emerge from a world where nothing is really happening, and where nothing really matters. What message does that send to our students or to our readers?

That’s when I decided to go for real-world sentences.

These come from the “one day,” then, of your title?

FC: Yes. I didn’t want to make these the culled variety we see in Strunk and White, or Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s book The Reader over Your Shoulder. No. I just wanted them to be from a single day, since that would show how we all make mistakes, how language is really tricky even for professionals to get just right.

So I combed magazines and newspapers published on December 29, 2008, and I tried to find examples of good sentences, elegant sentences, let’s say, as well as of sentences whose grammar struck me as “dubious,” as one of my colleagues likes to say. I came up with almost 300 of these sentences, so the book is at once a grammar handbook and a curious snapshot of history, on a day that is not particularly historical. And oddly enough, even though it’s more than six years later now, a lot of the sentences still resonate with current events.

What about the “rules” of Standard Written English: don’t you feel these need to be hammered home?

FC: As far as “learning grammar” goes, I didn’t want to provide just a set of rules, though of course I do emphasize what’s SWE and what is not. I instead argue that students and readers need to internalize the pattern and form of English sentences, really need to get inside them in a profound way, need to become, in a way, linguists themselves, in order to express themselves more fully.

In addition, I wanted to be honest. The rules of English are not apodictic: they are constantly being debated by professors; they are under constant pressure. Think of the problems with pronoun reference. Think of the “acceptable” comma splice. There are borderlands of acceptability in English that are becoming increasingly large.

And too we need to recognize that not all English needs to be SWE. We need to allow our students their own language in many situations, just as editors allowed that in the papers and magazines I looked at. One of the things we want to keep in mind is that so much of the success of one’s English has to do with accurately gauging what’s appropriate to a given situation, with assessing the audience for one’s words.

Your book also emphasizes the “ethics” of usage. Can you elaborate on this?

FC: I also suggest that grammaticality or accuracy is something that has an ethical component, since lives, careers, futures—our future—can hinge on the accuracy of English. At the same time, SWE often allows people to better express their ideas to a wider audience—people can get heard “when it matters,” if they properly gauge their audience and if they are able to be agile enough with their language to move from one register to the next, and to assume SWE when it’s needed and abandon it when it might be counterproductive, when it might sound stilted or stuffy or supercilious to use it.

What surprised you about writing and publishing this book?

FC: I was surprised by how hard it was to get published. It came close to being accepted by a couple of textbook houses, but it didn’t make the grade. One time, after three very positive outside reviews, I thought the book was as good as accepted. I was to meet with the editor soon and we were to work out the details. But then at the last minute the editor canceled our meeting and said the book could not be published by her press.

“Why not?” I wondered. Then it occurred to me that if I am writing a book that challenges the value of standard handbooks, then a publisher that has 100 such handbooks on its list isn’t likely to publish mine! This also clued me in to why it is that all the handbooks out there are so similar.

It’s as if there is a weird monopoly of ideas—we can’t rock the boat too much with new ideas or approaches, since we’re making a ton of money off of the old ones!

When I was teaching in Poland a few years ago, it was communist days, and I was complaining about censorship. One of my colleagues, though, challenged me on this: “You have censorship in America, too, you know, and it’s as repressive of new ideas as ours is, maybe more: books that aren’t deemed salesworthy are simply not published. That silences all sorts of voices.” So a book might be itself salesworthy, but might drag down the sales of the other books published by a press, so that book won’t see print, at least not by them.

So do you think your book might change the way that college writing is taught?

FC: My book attempts to get writing instructors to grapple on an ongoing basis with the complexities of English usage and grammar, and to work with students as they try to plumb these issues together. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a course of instruction in what, for many students, is a new language altogether. If we really want to change the quality of the work our students produce, we need to reimagine how the college composition course is structured, staffed, and funded.

How did you come up with the title of the book, which is a play on Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

FC: I was going to call it “One Day’s Sentences in America,” but I wasn’t all that happy with that title. One day, though, my wife, Kathleen Cioffi, said, “Hey, why not call the book ‘One Day in the Life of the English Language’?” Bingo.

What are you reading right now?

FC: Right now I am reading a collection of short stories by Alberto Moravia. He is a marvelous and, I think, neglected Italian writer. His stories examine the minutiae of daily life; they explore the psychological menace and poignancy of the ordinary. In some ways they are stories about a lack of communication between people and the effects of that.

What are your next writing projects?

FC: I have several going on right now. Probably I have too many. I have three completed book manuscripts: one is about teaching entitled Beyond Zombie Pedagogy. I’ve also written a biography of my late uncle, the philosopher Frank Cioffi. And I kept a detailed diary of my life in communist Poland. The diary is maybe 700,000 words, though—I kept it for three years—so I need to cut it down and turn it into a narrative/analysis of life in Poland in the waning days of communism. Still waiting for publishers and contracts for these three books—!

I also have a volume of poetry that I’ve culled from the hundreds of poems I’ve written over the last three decades.

Really? Poetry? Perhaps you could give us a short poem?


Ok, here is a villanelle, “Noisome T. Rex”:


Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

Smooth feelings blunt as a plastic doll’s sex,

scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.


Moving ‘midst throngs swarm-clogging the pavement,

lumb’ring dumb-monstrous as noisome T. Rex,

fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.


Pointless to think of her lips or prevent

recall of their blood-damp cling pre/post-X.

Scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.


Don’t look directly—no, keep that gaze bent,

as eyes switchblade your so vulner’ble neck .

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.


Its fluid-flow blocked, mind needing a stent

or swift amputation—painless, unvex’d—

scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.


Violate space through some vocal event.

Stall devolution, and fight your thrawn hex.

Scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.


Be sure to read the introduction here.

Poetry by Heart

For the final entry in this year’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) series, we have a special piece by Catherine Robson, author of Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, on what changed her mind about the merits of poetry recitation.

Poetry By Heart
by Catherine Robson

Small-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-LogoLast month, the third annual final “Poetry By Heart”, a national recitation competition for British 14-18 year olds, was staged in Homerton College, Cambridge. Sitting there as one of the judges in the packed auditorium, I witnessed a series of magical transformations. Time and again, slightly awkward or diffident young people walked onto the stage, paused, and then became entirely different individuals altogether. When they started to speak the words they had committed to heart, they took possession not just of themselves and their poems, but of every other person in the room. I found it an exceptionally moving experience.Heart Beats

If you had told me ten years ago that I would volunteer to work on such a competition, I would have been very surprised. Back then, when I first began work on a book about the strange phenomenon of the memorized poem, I held few positive feelings about recitation. I knew that reciting poetry used to hold a privileged place in the elementary curricular programs of the past, but I didn’t know why or when the practice became mainstream, nor why and when we all stopped doing it. But I was sure that I was not a fan. Enforcing poetry on (or into) the unwilling brains and bodies of the young seemed to me a questionable activity at best. What happened, then, to change my mind?

For one thing, I discovered in the course of my researches that my negative opinion was entirely typical for one of my age and nationality. Born in Britain in 1962, I attended state primary and secondary schools that had no time for what was then regarded as an outmoded pedagogical endeavor, an endeavor likely to turn individuals against poetry for life. Today this is not the prevailing attitude in all quarters – for one thing, the British government, in addition to funding “Poetry By Heart,” now makes “reciting” a specified activity for the youngest children in state education – but the concept of compulsory mass recitation continues to make many of my countrymen uncomfortable. The idea of the memorized poem in Britain summons up thoughts of both a discredited instructional practice and a discredited educational formation – which is to say, learning by rote, and the Victorian elementary school, the institution which supposedly backed up that rote-learning with liberal applications of the rod.

Because I have now lived in the United States for over a quarter of a century, I know that Americans, by and large, are much more positive about poetry recitation. If the topic comes up in casual conversation or the media, it tends to generates not just polite interest, but passionate engagement. I’ve lost count of the number of times an octogenarian has launched into a performance of “Thanatopsis” or a bit of Longfellow for me, and I’ve heard individuals of a range of ages and from both sides of the political spectrum turn wistful, lamenting the passing of a time when all were seemingly united by a joint stock of poetic knowledge.

Digging into the rich and at times complicated story of the memorized poem’s progress in two sharply distinct public education systems has helped me to understand why it is that Britons and Americans today feel so differently about this pedagogical practice: the book I’ve written devotes its first half to this history, and its second to the recitational fortunes of three short poems that were once school classics on two sides of the Atlantic. Coming to terms with my own dismissive attitude towards the repetition of poetry has been another kind of project altogether.

It took me some time, but today I can draw a line between bad recitation and good.  I still think it’s important to notice that dismal experiences with poetry afflicted the lives of many children in less-than-ideal pedagogical environments in the past, but I no longer believe that this fact negates the value of the practice.  I now feel that in the right circumstances, and for certain kinds of people, the memorized poem carries an enormous potential charge.  Last month in Cambridge, its power took hold of us all.

Jeff Nunokawa on the day after taxes

Comprised of 250 handpicked meditations from a Facebook page that has garnered past attention from The New Yorker, Note Book  by Jeff Nunokawa is a new kind of literary work for the age of social media. The New Yorker called the notes “evidence of Nunokawa’s dawning sense of the importance of being earnest,” while Jeff himself says he wants his meditations to “note truth, but encourage”.  On a day that might call for both, Jeff turns his attention on Facebook to the aftermath of tax day:

4484. Day After Taxes

Unbalanced in the painful sum of things (Merrill, “For Proust”)

You wake up feeling that you still owe something, but you’re not really sure what, or to whom. And you’re worried that you don’t have what it takes to pay off your debt all at once. Maybe you can pay it in monthly installments, but how can you even do that if you don’t know what you owe or to whom?  Is it the Internal Revenue Service that’s still after you, or the Eternal One? (Maybe they’ve finally merged.)

I hope my father did my taxes, a young friend said the other night. I used to hope that, too.

Someone should look for an agent. Maybe that agent is you.


Note: Your suit is granted (Herbert, “Redemption”)

Check our website for more about Note Book, including a sample chapter.


An interview with Jeff Nunokawa, author of “Note Book”

Note BookEach morning since 2007, Jeff Nunokawa, English professor at Princeton University, logs onto Facebook and writes something. But unlike most of us who take part in this simple exercise in connection, Nunokawa is both effortlessly lyrical and impressively well-read, drawing in references from Henry James to Joni Mitchell.  Note Book, which compiles the 250 most striking of the brief, daily essays Nunokawa has shared on his “notes” page, resembles an extensive multimedia project, but retains a remarkable sense of intimacy.  Laura Kipnis compares his posts to “witty billets-doux from an astonishingly literate secret admirer”, and if you take a look at the way he writes, you’ll see why. Recently, Jeff was kind enough to indulge us with some personal insights into his writing process, motivations, and obsession with revision on the social media platform. It’s fascinating stuff:

What are you doing when you write these essays for Facebook, and why are you doing it?

JN: Well, I write these brief essays every morning, or sometimes in the middle of the night because I’m alone a lot and lonely and very talkative but being alone, there’s no one to talk to. But actually, I’m not really alone, even when I’m by myself. I’ve read a lot of books and they’re all around me. Mostly literature although other things as well: a fair amount of philosophy, for example, and every Eleanor Roosevelt biography and memoir I can get my hands on. Also, a picture of my mother’s dog and various soccer players and my feeling of the presence of all kinds of spirits. And when I’m quiet enough for a while, these things all speak to me, if I let them. And after that, if they let me, I write a little essay which conveys as best it can the courage and clarity and good humor of the above spirits—some of the above spirits can be incredibly witty! (you should hear what Eleanor Roosevelt has to say about JFK!)—to others who might be able to use it.

I guess what I’m trying to do is to put to use what I’ve learned over the course of a long, strange life reading and teaching and telling stories. I’m trying to make it useful to other people.


JN: Well, I think most people are like me, in at least one respect. I think everyone feels deeply in the dark, sometimes—sometimes, just lying in bed, wondering how they’re going to make it through the day. Sometimes it takes the best voices you’ve ever heard in your life just to get from horizontal to vertical. That’s where a lot of what I write tries to come in and give people a lift.

How has your writing changed over the course of the time you have been engaged in this project?

JN: Well, I think I used to be much more concerned with showing off when I started—showing off what I knew and how “knowing” I was. I think I’m less concerned now with showing off than I am with *showing*. I’ll put it this way: when I started out, my model was Walter Benjamin—a crazy beautiful German Philosopher-Mystic, who wrote these astonishing often very mysterious, fragmentary aphorisms. Now, I think, I’m a little more taken with example of the Reverend Paul Osumi.


JN: The Reverend Paul Osumi had a daily column in the Honolulu Advertiser when I was a kid. Actually, it wasn’t so much a column—it was one those “thought for the day” kind of deals: just these little daily inspirations to get through the day with as much light in your soul and your step as you could. I don’t remember a single thing he said, but I remember how important that column was for half of Honolulu. When I was a kid (like till about last year), I used to think he was some kind of shallow smiley-faced fool. Now he’s pretty much my role model.

Well aside from the Reverend Paul Osumi, do you have other role models that influence your writing?

JN: Sure: let’s see: lots of the big essayists of the 18th and 19th centuries—Hume, Johnson and Lamb and Pater, writers like that who were so concerned with using what they knew to try to help live better.

What about prose models—stylists whom you model yourself on? As you must know, your writing can be a little “quirky” as your editor calls it.

JN: Yeah, I know. Well, I’m really trying to be a little more mainstream and accessible—less Gerard Manley Hopkins and more E.B. White—but I’m always going to hear the call of “Pied Beauty” and all that gorgeous jazz that makes you cry and see the world more clearly through all the tears, all the Tears of this Beautiful Broken World. I don’t mean to sound all precious. Heck, I hear E. B. White wept whenever he read out loud and the passage in Charlotte’s Web where the spider dies.

The writing that you do on Facebook, you revise compulsively.  It’s ironic that the writing you do on Facebook, on a virtual platform of ephemerality, should be the site where you are most concerned with revising, so that you might produce something polished for the ages. What’s that about, I wonder?

JN: Good question. It may be that the answer would only be interesting to my therapist. Oh wait. I forgot. I don’t have a therapist. The writing itself is my only therapy, now. It used to be that I needed Therapy to write. Now writing is therapy. Funny how life turns out.

Anyway, to return to the question. I don’t know, except that the irony you’re touching on here informs the spirit and style of some of the greatest essayists and I’m happy to follow their lead: the impulse to put the realms of conversation—and what is the internet, if not a place where the live sense of ephemeral conversation crackles like an electric wire into contact with the realms of solid learning (“for the ages”). Hume says, on his essay on essay writing,

I cannot but consider myself as a Kind of Resident or Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation

and by gum, what’s good enough for Hume is good enough for me.

PUP celebrates National Poetry Month

Princeton University Press will be kicking off National Poetry Month by featuring a new poetry-related title each week on the blog, starting with Colm Tóibín’s deeply personal introduction to the life and work of Elizabeth Bishop. The first National Poetry Month was held in 1996, inspired in part by the success of Black History Month. Organized by the Academy of American Poets, this month-long April holiday has become a widespread way to bolster the appreciation of poetry. offers a wealth of free educational resources and information on local poetry events, from PoemCity in Montpelier, VT, to Poetry & the Creative Mind in New York City.

In addition to retrospectives like Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop from our Writers on Writers series, and cultural histories like Catherine Robson’s on poetry recitation, Princeton University Press has long published the best of emerging and established poets in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, currently under the editorship of Princeton professor and former MacArthur Fellow Susan Stewart. Here are some poetry-related choices to enjoy this April:


On Elizabeth Bishop What W.H. Auden Can Do For You
The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume V The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Volume VI
Heart Beats The Eternal City: Poems

Celebrate National Grammar Day with Frank Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language

Grammar: It’s the difference between knowing your stuff and knowing you’re stuff. Some even say it saves lives (see below). If you haven’t noticed, today is National Grammar Day (March 4), so here at Princeton University Press we are celebrating good grammar, proper punctuation, and clear communication with Frank L. Cioffi’s anti-textbook handbook, One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook.

Cioffi’s chatty and charming reference doesn’t just lay out the “rules,” but also makes a convincing case for why good grammar and usage matter. Cioffi argues that Standard Written English (also known as “formal English”) is vital for success in professions where exactness and clarity carry great importance, and he also proposes that correct English can foster a more honest, ethical, and functional culture of communication.

The book draws on some three hundred real-world sentences printed in eleven newspapers and six weekly magazines and published on a single, typical day (December 29, 2008). Cioffi emphasizes that English usage is continually evolving and he debunks some of the most popular grammar “rules.” Is it acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition? It is. Can you start a sentence with a conjunction? You can. Is it “correct” to use split infinitives. Sure.

What do you think? Does “formal” English still matter in the post-Twitter world?


Check out the introduction and let us know.

We’ve also been tweeting out #NationalGrammarDay #protips from the book today.

Happy National Grammar Day!

Photo via Brett Jordan / Flickr

Clear and Simple as the Truth has author Steven Pinker’s seal of approval

simple truthSteven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, was recently featured in The New York Times Sunday Book Review to, well, review books (among other things). Pinker covers everything from the current books sitting beside his bed on his nightstand to his dream literary dinner party, but one question and answer caught the Press’s attention in particular.

When asked if there were “any unexpected gems you came across” while researching his latest book “The Sense of Style,” Pinker names Mark Turner and Francis Noël Thomas’s Clear and Simple as the Truth. “Their model of ‘classic prose’ — the writer directs the reader’s gaze to something in the world — elegantly captures the differences between vigorous and turgid writing,” explains Pinker in the interview.

Not long after the Times interview (literally one day later) Pinker was published in The Chronicle Review of Higher Education for his explanation of why academics stink at writing. Here, Pinker turns to Turner and Thomas for help framing his argument. “In a brilliant little book called Clear and Simple as the Truth, the literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner argue that every style of writing can be understood as a model of the communication scenario that an author simulates in lieu of the real-time give-and-take of a conversation.”

“They distinguish, in particular, romantic, oracular, prophetic, practical, and plain styles, each defined by how the writer imagines himself to be related to the reader, and what the writer is trying to accomplish…Among those styles is one they single out as an aspiration for writers of expository prose. They call it classic style, and they credit its invention to 17th-century French essayists such as Descartes and La Rochefoucauld.”

For the New York Times Sunday Book Review, click here, and to read the rest of Pinker’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, click here.



Untranslatable Tuesdays – Media


To mark the publication of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, we are delighted to share a series of playful graphics by our design team which illustrate some of the most interesting terms from the Dictionary. For week six in the “Untranslatable Tuesdays” series we present Media/Medium (of communication):

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the recognition of a family resemblance between the various “implements of intercommunication” meant that they could be compared and contrasted in profitable new ways. . . . The term “mass media” found its niche in scholarly articles by such influential American midcentury thinkers as Hadley Cantril, Harold Lasswell, and Paul Lazarsfeld. But European philosophers resisted this tendency. . . . For Sartre, Adorno, and their contemporaries, “mass media” was less an untranslatable than an untouchable sullied by intellectual and institutional associations with American cultural imperialism. . . . This resistance was soon exhausted. . . . Cognates like “multimedia,” “remediation,” and “mediality” proliferate globally. This reflects less the dominance of English than the collective urgency of an intellectual project. (Ben Kafka)