Political Quote for the Day: Dick Morris on Obama & the Republicans


“A Democratic president cannot sustain popular support for a war by relying on Republicans.”Dick Morris

Who can disagree? In his March 23 blog, Morris notes that the President’s action in Libya enjoys support from only 51% of Democrats. He then outlines what he believes is a good explanation for Obama’s decision-making and strategy. Morris believes that Hillary Clinton played an important role. You can read his blog for details. (Morris knows both Clintons from his advisory role during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign and subsequent presidency. His book Rewriting History is an alleged exposé of assorted factual claims made in Hillary Clinton’s memoir Living History, and a discourse on Hillary’s political aspirations and temperament.)

Morris goes on to describe a scenario under which Obama is faced with a primary challenge from Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. The theory is that Kucinich can cut deeply into Obama’s left-wing base and seriously injure his chances of being re-elected in 2012. The Kucinich play will be to stress that President Obama made a grave mistake in going to war in Libya.

Dennis Kucinich has been rattling his saber during the past few days, and he’s campaigned for the presidency before. Morris is pretty good at reading the political tea leaves and he may be right. In a separate blog from today, he ticks off a list of difficulties facing the President and judges that Obama is now “the hostage of events.” He concludes, “Not a good place for a president facing re-election to be.”

Agreed. But what about the rest of us? With all that’s at stake, we have to hope that our President will not be making politically motivated decisions.

Eternally Vexing Words


The Apathy of a Cow

I have several dictionaries, some at home and some at my office. The one I consult with the greatest satisfaction is The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary of 1989. I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (available at a stunning discount at Amazon just now).

I also like the Merriam-Webster website. And one thing I like best is their “Top 10 Lists” feature. Today they presented the “Top 10 Words for Valentine’s Day”—not synonyms for “Valentine’s Day,” but words with special significance on this day of love, romance, and infatuation (three of the words on their list).

These “Top 10 Lists” follow a pattern. The word entry includes by a definition or two. Then there’s an example of the word in use, or a little background about the word—sometimes both. Each word entry is accompanied by a graphic, usually a photograph. This is an interesting element. I often wonder how the picture came to be associated with the particular word they are defining.

What do you suppose are the words most searched for on merriam-webster.com? Well, they have a “Top 10 Most Frequently Searched Words on M-W.com”—of course.

Here’s the list of “eternally vexing words”:

#1: Pretentious

#2: Ubiquitous

#3: Love

#4: Cynical

#5: Apathetic

#6: Conundrum

#7: Albeit

#8: Ambiguous

#9: Integrity

#10: Affect/Effect

Obviously, these words vex for different reasons. Item #10 is a pair of words that are easily confused with each other. Hence the need to consult a dictionary. The meanings for two of the words, “love” and “integrity,” seem clear enough. But maybe they’re looked up because they are words for abstract concepts of traits that matter deeply to us. The rest may simply be words whose meaning is easily forgotten, or words used with remarkable frequency given the comparative minority of English-speakers who actually know what they mean.

I’m intrigued by the choice of graphic for the word “cynical” on this list. The pic choice for “apathetic” is fun-clever. And why they have a photo of three YAs looking at a laptop screen for the word “conundrum” is a conundrum for me.

When learning a list of new words, it can be good practice to use them all together in a few sentences that form a short and coherent paragraph.

For example:

Pretentious people love to sprinkle their conversation with large words—or I should say, with unfamiliar, albeit short, words. The cynical person may note that ambiguous words are ubiquitous among the most pretentious pontificators, who affect apathy about the effect of their speech and, so doing, compromise their integrity. It’s a conundrum.

* * *

For the word enthusiast: If you’ve checked the link for the word “cynical” here, what do you think explains the choice of image to go with that word?

The Serious Business of Lying and the Enterprise of Fiction


Battle of Borodino

Image via Wikipedia

Ursula Le Guin objects to the idea that science fiction is predictive. In 1976, she wrote:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

— Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness

Lying, you might say, is serious business. Even when it comes to fiction, when we like to be lied to. But why do we like to be lied to, those of us who read fiction and pay good money to see movies?

There’s a clue in the title of John Dufresne’s guide to writing fiction: The Lie That Tells a Truth. Fiction and film, at their best, package important truths in a tissue of lies. Some of these truths we already know before our fictive experience of them. Others we learn, if we trust the lies, when fiction happens to us. And often it is our capacity to trust the lie that makes us vulnerable to truths.

Some will protest that the novelist and the screenwriter do not lie. After all, we know “it’s only a story.” But since when has this stopped us from believing what we know isn’t so? Isn’t Le Guin onto something when she says,

In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napolean. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

And in the thick of our believing, we don’t want to be reminded that “it’s only a story.” We’re like the lad whose grandfather reads to him in the movie The Princess Bride. He’s not as ambivalent as he pretends. And neither are we. If it’s a really good story.

Mysterious Opening Lines: Le Carré, Ludlum, and Others


GIGA Quotes, an online source for quotations, has listed 43 pages of first lines from books, beginning with Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This amounts to more than 2300 first-line excerpts from “classical, notable and bestselling books” (here).

First lines interest me. They interest me as an author, and as a reader. Read more of this post

Thought for the Day—January 3, 2010


“After 20 years, I’m still getting paid to learn how to read, write, teach, and do philosophy.”

—RDG

Thought for the Day—December 17, 2009


If you yank the heart out of truth, you have nothing left but a bloodless form of belief. —RDG

Thought for the Day—December 13, 2009


I don’t know when. I don’t know how. But I do know why. —RDG

Thought for the Day—December 7, 2009


It already looks like we’ll be commiserating about the good ole’ days in the future. —RDG

First Lines: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy


9780141439778Laurence Sterne’s ironical work of fiction, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was first published in 1759. It baffled and intrigued Sterne’s contemporaries. You may feel the same way after reading the opening sentence:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

Come again? Read more of this post

Bearing Books from New England


A week ago I returned from a New England holiday with my family. We journeyed to Maine and New Hampshire in quest of respite from the cacophony of California. We found it. Harbor views, the Maine woods, marine vessels, lobsters, crisp air, and fall leaves.

And I found bookshops—with mountains of second-hand books—ranging from the maximally disheveled to the customary semi-organized to the immaculate (for example, The Old Professor’s Bookshop in Camden, ME). Read more of this post

TR on Reading Fiction for Personal Improvement


Book Cover.TR's Letters to His SonsThe American President that most fascinates and inspires me is Theodore Roosevelt. I’ve read several biographies, the best of which is by Texas A & M historian H. W. Brands. I also enjoy collections of TR’s essays and letters.

In a letter to his son Kermit, written from the White House February 3, 1906, the President reveals something of the way he viewed fiction:

Dear Kermit:

I agree pretty well with your views of David Copperfield. Dora was very cunning and attractive, but I am not sure that the husband would retain enough respect for her to make life quite what it ought to be with her. This is a harsh criticism and I have known plenty of women of the Dora type whom I have felt were a good deal better than the men they married, and I have seen them sometimes make very happy homes. I also feel as you do that if a man had to struggle on and make his way it would be a great deal better to have someone like Sophie. Do you recollect the dinner at which David Copperfield and Traddles were, where they are described as seated at the dinner, one “in the glare of the red velvet lady’ and the other “gloom of Hamlet’s aunt”? I am so glad you like Thackeray. “Pendennis” and “The Newcomes” and “Vanity Fair” I can read over and over again.

If TR felt he could read such titles by Thackery over and over again, it is because he did. Thackery is mentioned in many of his letters. Here the father takes pleasure in a shared enthusiasm with his son. And why is he so pleased with the boy’s reading predilections? Apparently because of the power fiction has to form character, to provoke thought about values and truth, and to encourage wise decisions in life.

Evidence for this dominates the quotation. Notice that TR is, in effect, counseling his son about choices in marriage. He is very subtle in this.

It’s pleasing to see that this accomplished public figure had such a relationship with his children that he would write about such things in his letters from the White House.

From the quoted portion of Roosevelt’s letter to Kermit, there is much of positive value to glean:

  • He takes time for his children in the midst of major official responsibilities.
  • He writes in a slow, reflective pace.
  • He guides by example.
  • He engages his son in discussion of ideas and values on the basis of a shared interest.
  • He shows genuine enthusiasm for great literature outside his range of responsibilities.
  • He exemplifies a manner of reading fiction that is directed by the desire to grow in wisdom.
  • He advises the young without preaching at them in any condescending fashion.
  • He regards his son as a peer in the realm of ideas.
  • He looks for points of contact between the fictional characters he meets with in reading and living individuals he knows personally.

It’s enough to make you want to go back and read David Copperfield, and check out the works he cites by William Thackeray.

William Makepeace Thackery, Painted by Sir John Gilbert

William Makepeace Thackery, Painted by Sir John Gilbert

Works mentioned in this post:

Kindle users should know that there is a Kindle collection of over 100 of Thackery’s publications (including the three mentioned in this post) that you can get with a single purchase (cost: $4.79 at the time of this post). Click here. I like the Kindle!

Book Cover.TR's Letters to His Sons.2The quotation is from page 80 in The Letters and Lessons of Theodore Roosevelt for His Sons, edited and compiled by Doug Phillips.

Reading Owen Wister


wisterowen1Owen Wister, The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) — I started reading this novel January 8, 2009. I was hooked by the first paragraph. I suppose some ‘hawsses’ really are giddy pranksters. Wister’s book is a classic, the first in the western genre, and unexcelled. Humor I can appreciate appears on every page. Bits are stories in their own right, and fun to read aloud. You can hear how the Virginian sounds from the way the author crafts his dialogue. Wister and Theodore Roosevelt were close friends. The complete text of the novel is available online at Project Gutenberg. You could have a look there, then decide whether to get a hard copy. It can be ordered at Amazon here.

Excerpt from Chapter 5—”Enter the Woman”

“We are taking steps,” said Mr. Taylor. “Bear Creek isn’t going to be hasty about a schoolmarm.”

“Sure,” assented the Virginian. “The children wouldn’t want yu’ to hurry.”

But Mr. Taylor was, as I’ve indicated, a serious family man. The problem of educating his children could appear to him in no light except a sober one.

“Bear Creek,” he said, “don’t want the experience they had over at Calef. We must not hire an ignoramus.”

“Sure!” assented the Virginian again.

“Nor we don’t want no gad-a-way flirt,” said Mr. Taylor.

“She must keep her eyes on the blackboa’d,” said the Virginian, gently.

“Well, we can wait till we get a guaranteed article,” said Mr. Taylor.

. . . . The Virginian was now looking over the letter musingly, and with awakened attention.

“‘Your very sincere spinster,'” he read aloud and slowly.

“I guess that means she’s forty,” said Mr. Taylor.

“I reckon she is about twenty,” said the Virginian. And again he fell to musing over the paper that he held.

“Her handwriting ain’t like any I’ve saw,” pursued Mr. Taylor. “But Bear Creek would not object to that, provided she knows ‘rithmetic and George Washington, and them kind of things.”

“I expect she is not an awful sincere spinster,” surmised the Virginian, still looking at the letter, still holding it as if it were some token.”

Quotations: God and Evil


“It is our habit to dismiss the Old Testament altogether because Jehovah, or Jahve, does not think or behave like a social worker.”

—Doris Lessing, Shikasta

If You Don’t Feel Like Writing, You Can Always Read About It


You want to write but you can get going? Do the next best thing—read about writing. But make sure what you’re reading is written well. This is my list of recommendations for reading that leads to improved writing. This is kind of an annotated bibliography. I include a favorite quote from each item. Read more of this post

Quotations: On Poetry


Emily Dickinson Script

Emily Dickinson Script

“. . . you can’t force a poem.” —Elizabeth Jennings, quoted in The Poetry of Piety, edited by Ben Witherington III and Christopher Mead Armitage

“It takes a grateful audience to keep a poem alive.” —Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

“Another note to tack up over your desk: Too much cleverness in poetry can be a real killer.” —Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

“Poetry, even the poetry of humor and delight, is an agent of the imagination pressing back, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, against the pressure of reality.” —David Lehman, Forward to The Best American Poetry 2006, edited by Billy Collins

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