Why Writing Matters is full of Delbanco's personal experiences with writing, with his mentors, and with his students. (I know I mentioned this book when I read it, but this is a more detailed review.)
Delbanco begins with one of the most important reasons for writing: "before the invention of writing, spoken discourse could not last." Oral transmission, while wonderful for making use of memory, is "subject to forgetfulness or change." The oral tradition was marvelous, but writing has more permanence.
Writing, words on a page or clay tablet, allows cultures to be shared and provides a way to imagine the future and to keep evidence of the past. Writing enables us to communicate with those who are not physically present--and recorded history and literature allow us to communicate with those from the past.
One important note that Delbanco makes early, and returns to later: Read it again! Our first impressions of a written work can change. The beloved books of our youth can take on new meaning or become obvious in their lack of genuine content or style. When an adolescent Delbanco was spouting the marvels of The Scarlet Pimpernel, one of his teachers advised him to read it again. At fourteen, he did and discovered that while the book had been fun and exciting, it was not the great literature he had imagined. Delbanco's reminiscences of his teachers, mentors, and colleagues reveal how writers learn their trade and inspire each other.
( Delbanco was a privileged and intelligent kid with the added advantage of some marvelous teachers at his prep school. Fieldston is part of the Ivy Preparatory School League and is an elite school with impressive graduates and teachers.)
He was educated at Harvard University, B.A. 1963; Columbia University, M.A. 1966. He taught at Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont, 1966–84, and at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1984–85. He was a visiting Professor at such institutions also as Trinity College, Williams College, Columbia University and the University of Iowa. He was director of the MFA Program, and the Hopwood Awards Program at the University of Michigan, until his retirement in 2015. (Wikipedia)
The section on imitation is interesting, and Delbanco emphasizes that for many trades apprenticeship has been the preferred way to learn. He adds, "But to imitate is not to be derivative; it's simply to admit that we derive from what was accomplished by others." And "No one seeks to be original when learning scales, or how to use a grindstone, or where the comma belongs in a dependent clause. " We emulate in order to learn skills.
Delbanco also discusses imitation, forgery, plagiarism, and authenticity in an intriguing way with famous examples.
The exploitation and corruption of language is another way of examining both spoken and written words. Think politicians--saying one thing, then saying they didn't say it or that they didn't mean it. Instead of cogent and meaningful discourse, the choosing of hyperbole and boastfulness, repetition "as if asseveration might make a falsehood true" has become more and more common. Do people mean what they say or what they write? I find it difficult to believe political rhetoric, mostly because it lacks sincerity at best and is predominantly ad hominem attack without content or truth at worst. An intentional misuse of language, Delbanco believes is an assault on democracy. I'm not sure anyone would disagree these days.
This wasn't intended to such a long review, but as I skim over all the highlighted passages I marked as I read, there is no way to cover everything. There are sections I would omit. Sometimes a few examples are better than too many and Delbanco, who takes obvious joy in writing, can overdo a good thing at times. :)
The book was a pleasure to read, and I loved the references to writers I've read and to some I've only read about. I enjoyed the plays on words (though maybe some should be cut) and Debanco's pleasure in language is evident throughout, and I loved learning a couple of new-to-me interpretations of quotes from Hamlet.
I want to read the final edited version and have pre-ordered the book. Read in January; blog review scheduled for March 3.
Nonfiction. March 17, 2020. Print length: 296 pages (ARC)