Titles for Your Library

For this final post of 2021, I thought it might be a good idea to recommend some works on the study of language and literature that have proved helpful to students and teachers alike. Of the making of books, of course, there is no end, so this is but a handful of titles which have come into my orbit. The field is vast, time short, and discernment a must.

The point of grammar is literature, and I can justifiably make such a grand and general statement if I lean on the first definition of literature: writings in prose or verse. What we usually mean by literature is language that has been composed in some way, the writer hoping thereby to affect both the mind and heart of the reader. We write so that someone else may see and think what we have seen and thought, whether that might be what actually happened, or what we have powerfully imagined. What we call literature has form; it has been designed to effect a result, and the higher the literature, the more common and pertinently human are the ideas it embodies. Hence, the humanities.

A very helpful first work on intelligent reading and writing is Janet E. Gardner’s Writing about Literature (Bedford/St. Martin, 2009). This is a valuable text especially for high school and college students. Gardner discusses reading and rereading, explains how to develop an argument in analyzing stories, poems, and plays, and concludes with a bird’s-eye view of literary theory, a notoriously vexing subject that is nonetheless important to understand, at least in outline. The truth, of course, is that any student of any age should never get too far from the beginning of things; reviewing the basics over and over from a number of different angles keeps our measurements in line as we proceed in a study, and so Gardner’s work is excellent for all of us schooled adults as well.

Along these same more technical lines are Lucile Vaughan Payne’s The Lively Art of Writing: Developing Structure (Follett, 1982), and Donald Hall’s Writing Well (Little, Brown, 1973). There is also John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (Vintage, 1983), whose second chapter has some excellent advice on the importance of grammatical rudiments (“Often one glance at the writer’s work tells the teacher that what this student writer needs first, before stirring an inch in the direction of fiction, is a review of fundamentals.”); Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction (Random House, 2013); and Laura Deutsch’s Writing from the Senses (Shambhala, 2014), an instruction of exercises to help mitigate the unrelieving self-consciousness that can threaten us all.

Two texts on composition proper are Richard Lanham’s very practical Revising Prose (Longman, 2000), and Joseph M. Williams’ more detailed Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (University of Chicago Press, 1990). Three advanced and thoughtful studies on the subject of style are Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (Princeton, 1994); J. Middleton Murry’s The Problem of Style (Oxford, 1965); and F. L Lucas’ Style (Cassell, 1956). Lucas was a major English literary critic, and wrote a number of important works, including Literature and Psychology (Cassell, 1951).

The only English grammar book one would ever need (though it is not for the faint of heart) is George O. Curme’s English Grammar (Barnes and Noble, 1947), described by the publisher as a guidebook, but at times nearing the character of a monograph. Thorough, excellent, but not beach reading. Philip Gucker’s Essential English Grammar (Dover, 1966) is also not for the sun and sand, but it is the best briefest introduction to English Grammar I am aware of, with exercises and answers to boot. A wonderful introduction to reasoning and critical thinking is D. Q. McInerny’s Being Logical (Random House, 2005), as is Edward P. J. Corbett’s The Elements of Reasoning (Longman, 1994). Corbett has also written a comprehensive college textbook entitled Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (Oxford, 1998), worth every page and penny.

I’ll conclude with an unusual title of much importance for our present moment, I think. Bloomsbury publishers has produced a collection of essays entitled Trivium: The Classical Liberal Arts of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric (Wooden Books, 2016). The word trivium derives from the Latin meaning three ways or roads, and it refers to the first three and fundamental arts, or skills, of grammar and logic and rhetoric, which together formed the foundation of the traditional seven liberal arts. The belief was, and remains, that no one has the luxury to neglect these studies, because they teach us how to use language, the instrument of our waking mind. It was a defining assumption of classical culture that language and thought are inseparably related, and so to understand the arts of language is to begin to understand the art of living, which, with any luck, opens onto insight and self-knowledge. Classical culture was unabashed in asserting such high ideals for learning, and this important book adeptly introduces us to the ways and means of such a philosophy.

Happy reading and Happy New Year.


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