Wonderful things from the Times book review section, #1


The novelist Richard Powers had an article this weekend about dictating, rather than writing, literary works. There's sparkly trivia in it, which I'll share in a bit, but first I have a question: Powers is arguing that when it comes to writing things down, "you'd be hard-pressed to invent a greater barrier to cognitive flow." As a reporter, though, I've often found that people are surprised at how clumsy their off-the-cuff speech is and, on reading their own quotes in an article, often want to write in something more mellifluous instead. That seems to go directly against what Powers is saying. Thoughts, anyone? Are people more eloquent or less when they speak, as opposed to when they write? And where does the old advice to "write like you talk" come in?

Anyway, on to the trivia:

For most of history, most reading was done out loud. Augustine remarks with surprise that Bishop Ambrose could read without moving his tongue. Our passage into silent text came late and slow, and poets have resisted it all the way. From Homer to hip-hop, the hum is what counts. Blind Milton chanted "Paradise Lost" to his daughters. Of his 159-line "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth said, "I began it upon leaving Tintern ... and concluded ... after a ramble of four or five days. ... Not a line of it was altered, and not any part of it written down till I reached Bristol." Wallace Stevens used to compose while walking to work, then dictate the results to his secretary, before proceeding to his official correspondence as vice president of the Hartford insurance company. ... Even novelists, working in a form so very written, have needed to write by voice. Stendhal dictated "The Charterhouse of Parma" in seven weeks. An impoverished Dostoyevsky had just six weeks to deliver the manuscript of "The Gambler" or face complete ruin. He hired a stenographer, knocked the book out in four weeks, then married the girl. ... Once, while dictating "Finnegans Wake" to Beckett, Joyce is said to have answered a knock on the door; Beckett dutifully jotted down his "Come in." Surprised by the transcript, a delighted Joyce let it ride. Legend claims that the astoundingly prolific William Vollmann once tried speech recognition software while suffering from repetitive stress injury. He sat down to write his folks. "Dear Mom and Dad" came out as the much more Vollmannesque "The man is dead."