I reviewed only one book last time. To make up for it, I’m reviewing three books of timeless wisdom, one of which is 700+ pages (no, it’s not the Dictionary).
I’ll review them in size-order, from smallest to largest. To even things out a bit, the smallest one will have a ridiculously long quote, while the largest one will feature a ridiculously puny quote.
1. F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing by Ernest Heming-F. Scott Fitzgerald, of course
“The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.
When I lived in St. Paul and was about twelve I wrote all through every class in school in the back of my geography book and first year Latin and on the margins of themes and declensions and mathematics problems. Two years later a family congress decided that the only way to force me to study was to send me to boarding school. This was a mistake. It took my mind off my writing [….]
But in school I went off on a new tack. I saw a musical comedy called The Quaker Girl, and from that day forth my desk bulged with Gilbert & Sullivan librettos and dozens of notebooks containing the germs of dozens of musical comedies.
Near the end of my last year at school I came across a new musical-comedy score lying on top of the piano [….] and the title furnished the information that it had been presented by the Triangle Club of Princeton University.
That was enough for me. From then on the university question was settled. I was bound for Princeton.
I spent my entire Freshman year writing an operetta for the Triangle Club. To do this I failed in algebra, trigonometry, coordinate geometry and hygiene. But the Triangle Club accepted my show, and by tutoring all through a stuffy August I managed to come back a Sophomore and act in it as a chorus girl. A little after this came a hiatus. My health broke down [….] Almost my final memory before I left was of writing a last lyric on that year’s Triangle production while in bed in the infirmary with a high fever.
The next year, 1916—17, found me back in college, but by this time I had decided that poetry was the only thing worth while, so […] I spent the spring doing sonnets, ballads and rondels into the small hours. I had read somewhere that every great poet had written great poetry before he was twenty-one. I had only a year and, besides, war was impending. I must publish a book of startling verse before I was engulfed.
By autumn I was in an infantry officers’ training camp at Fort Leavenworth, with poetry in the discard and a brand-new ambition—I was writing an immortal novel. Every evening, concealing my pad behind Small Problems for Infantry, I wrote paragraph after paragraph on a somewhat edited history of me and my imagination. The outline of twenty-two chapters, four of them in verse, was made, two chapters were completed; and then I was detected and the game was up. I could write no more during study period.
This was a distinct complication. I had only three months to live—in those days all infantry officers thought they had only three months to live—and I had left no mark on the world. But such consuming ambition was not to be thwarted by a mere war. Every Saturday at one o’clock when the week’s work was over I hurried to the Officers’ Club, and there, in a corner of a roomful of smoke, conversation and rattling newspapers, I wrote a one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand-word novel on the consecutive week-ends of three months. There was no revising; there was no time for it. As I finished each chapter I sent it to a typist in Princeton.
Meanwhile I lived in its smeary pencil pages. The drills, marches and Small Problems for Infantry were a shadowy dream. My whole heart was concentrated upon my book.
I went to my regiment happy. I had written a novel. The war could now go on [….] and then the publishers wrote me that though The Romantic Egotist was the most original manuscript they had received for years they couldn’t publish it. It was crude and reached no conclusion [….]
I was absolutely unfitted to be a reporter.
Instead I became an advertising man at ninety dollars a month, writing the slogans that while away the weary hours in rural trolley cars. After hours I wrote stories—from March to June. There were nineteen altogether; the quickest written in an hour and a half, the slowest in three days. No one bought them, no one sent personal letters. I had one hundred and twenty-two rejection slips pinned in a frieze about my room. I wrote movies. I wrote song lyrics. I wrote complicated advertising schemes. I wrote poems. I wrote sketches. I wrote jokes. Near the end of June I sold one story for thirty dollars.
On the Fourth of July, utterly disgusted with myself and all the editors, I went home to St. Paul and informed family and friends that I had given up my position and had come home to write a novel. They nodded politely, changed the subject and spoke of me very gently. But this time I knew what I was doing. I had a novel to write at last, and all through two hot months I wrote and revised and compiled and boiled down. On September fifteen This Side of Paradise was accepted by special delivery.
In the next two months I wrote eight stories and sold nine. The ninth was accepted by the same magazine that had rejected it four months before [….] Then my novel came out. Then I got married. Now I spend my time wondering how it all happened.
In the words of the immortal Julius Caesar: ‘That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.’ “
I hope you enjoyed this ridiculously-long excerpt from this ridiculously-short book.
That’s what this book is–excerpts from Fitz’s letters, memoirs, etc. about how he became a writer, as well as his thoughts on writing. I just quoted the best part of the book up there for you, but the rest of it is pretty good, too. Also, apparently there’s a series of these books– I once read Ernest Hemingway on Writing, for instance.
I think these books are cool. Instead of spending months ferreting out wisdom from old musty archives, here you have a readily consumable sampling of essential wisdom.
2. A Hand to Guide Me: Legends and Leaders Celebrate The People Who Shaped Their Lives Compiled by Denzel Washington
“These days our streets are a hundred times more dangerous than they were when I was growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, in the 1960s. And our worries don’t end on the streets. Today’s children are assaulted with such a constant barrage of negative influences it’s a wonder anyone amounts to anything. But we do, don’t we? We manage. We redouble our efforts and refocus our priorities and find a way to light a positive path for our children. We rise above the world we’ve inherited, and we aim to go our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our role models one better. And our aim is true because we keep hitting our marks, time and time again.”
Although this book features stories from people like Muhammad Ali and Toni Morrison, I found the most valuable wisdom came from people who were not such household names. For instance, Antwone Fisher, a screenwriter who grew up in Cleveland Ohio, talked about how every day he’d walk through a mall that contained plaques with the names of famous people who grew up in that part of Ohio, such as that of Jesse Owens. “If they can make it big, so can I,” Fisher thought every time he walked through the mall. And he did, when he wrote the screenplay for “Antwone Fisher.”
I love the idea that anybody can become amazing if they have the determination to reach their maximum potential.
Other stories tell of people who have been inspired by their parents, their teachers, or their coaches. Bob Woodward didn’t think he would ever get to the bottom of the Watergate affair until he expressed his doubt to the owner of the Washington Post who replied, “Never? Don’t tell me never!” Then he did, and helped change history.
In sum, this heartwarming book is a good read for anybody, whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a coach, or even a student. Maybe you’ll be inspired to become amazing, too.
3. Telling Stories Compiled by Joyce Carol Oates
“In the end, we can depend only upon our own judgment and self-definition guided by our intuition in writing as in our lives.”
Disclaimer: Oates is my professor and I read this book for class, so I have to hope that my review is not biased.
Now, to business.
The book is over 700 pages long. I read it in 3 days. It basically taught me the difference between good fiction and great fiction.
There are 121-ish stories in this book and only four or so are great. The rest are really good. This is my opinion, of course. I doubt anybody else reading it would have the same thoughts.
Highlights for me included Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” (great), William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” (great), Richard Ford’s “Communist” (great), William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force” (great), Tom Wayman’s “Violence” (great), Pinckney Benedict’s “The Sutton Pie Safe” (really good), Robert Taylor Junior’s “Mourning” (really good), and Russell Banks’s “Just Don’t Touch Anything” (really good).
Anyway, the great stories tend to produce a definite effect on the reader (Faulkner, Wayman) or contain fascinating depths (Hemingway, Williams, Ford). The really good stories seem like they will for sure do this, but then may not necessarily follow through all the way. That’s just my highly-subjective opinion. The greatest thing about this book (even greater than Faulkner or Hemingway, etc.) is that there are so many stories, you’re bound to find some that speak to you as being “great.”
I hope you enjoyed my reviews. I’ll be back soon with more thoughts and reviews. One thing I’ve learned from consuming all this wisdom: it’s awfully fun to read many books at once.