Saturday, October 12, 2013


About 30 years ago, I happened to be reading two books at the same time, one The History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison by Henry Adams, one a memoir by a writer then well thought of. Eventually I put the second book aside and gave it away. It was moderately interesting, but badly written. The contrast with Adams's prose emphasized the faults of the memoirist's. Reading Adams was like watching an excellent carpenter drive nails; reading the memoirist was like watching a duffer, myself perhaps, bend them.

During the past few weeks, I have been reading a book on the teaching of English as a second language, grateful for some of the advice, but struggling with the prose. There are sentences such as
In weighing in on the benefits and drawbacks to using assigned textbooks, the most promising practice is to select a text that corresponds as closely as possible to the needs of your learners, the program, and the teacher, and supplement it with activities from teacher resource books, authentic materials, or learner-generated texts as needed.
(I should remark that "authentic texts" are any not written for use in teaching English; a driver's manual is an authentic text and so is A Million Little Pieces.)

Last night I opened a book just given to me by friends, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan. A few pages in I was distracted by the feeling that something unusual was happening. After another page or two, I knew what it was: I was reading lucid prose. Any paragraph I have seen so far can serve as an example. A sentence most of the way down page 11 runs
The student of social behavior--that is, the historian--has a dual responsibility: first to seek out with diligence and accuracy the truth of what has taken place, and then to interpret the events with wisdom and understanding, in this way making a permanent contribution.
Since I am reading the book on ESL for instruction rather than amusement, I will finish it. But I had much rather read Kagan.

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