Class notes from week 5:

  • We talked about the reading briefly, introducing Sertillanges and telling amusing stories about Thomas of Aquinas.
  • For Sertillanges, reading “passionately,” is reading without self-control. In Acts 17, the text describes the Athenians going to hear St Paul speak because they are always interested in something new. That’s the sort of thing Sertillanges has in view here. The reading is not ordered in any way–by love of the subject, a desire to produce something worthwhile, a longing to do meaningful work. Rather, it is ordered by a kind of limitless appetite that simply consumes all that is set before it.
  • Another way of describing this same thing is to call it the sin of curiosity. Read more on that in Brad Littlejohn’s essay on Gluttony in the Digital Age.
  • Reading intelligently, in contrast, is reading ordered toward proper goals. Sertillanges is focused on productivity, chiefly, but don’t think about that in terms of a kind of nose-to-the-grindstone focus or workaholism. Sertillanges sees the cultivation of a quiet, reflective spirit as being essential to doing good work. So when he talks about reading being productive, he means (amongst other things) reading that helps one to cultivate that kind of reflective, quiet spirit.
  • Key idea: Our reading needs to be ordered. Our reading lives should not be marked by a frantic, easily distracted spirit. Rather, we must read in such a way that we can cultivate a rich inner life that allows us to do worthwhile work.
  • NOTE: Let’s dispense with Sertillanges silly dismissal of novels, shall we? If he has a weakness, it is that he has a narrow idea of what can produce the sort of person capable of doing meaningful, good work. Novels that we read for pleasure, that we enjoy so much that we are quite taken out of ourselves and caught up into the thrill of the story… these are good things. Indeed, you can argue that they are precisely the sort of thing that helps us cultivate that rich inner life because they are the sorts of things that help us learn to be less self-conscious.

Turning from the question we’ve been talking about, which is how do we become the sorts of people capable of writing well, we now are going to start moving toward discussions on the mechanics of good written English. To begin, we want to talk about one of the classic rules of writing–show, don’t tell.

  • We are starting here because this one rule actually covers a lot of ground for us–it reminds us of how we can build remarkable things with our writing, but also forces us to be attentive to something that is seemingly quite mundane–verb choice.
  • We noted that a great deal of the issue here comes down to how we select verbs as we write. “‘Wait just a minute,’ he said impatiently,” vs. “Wait a minute,’ he snapped fiercely.” Which is more vivid? Which helps you picture the scene more clearly?
  • The other piece here is that stronger verbs not only help readers understand you, they also help to diversify your sentence structure (instead of using constant subject-verb-prepositional phrase constructions, for example) and make your writing easier to read aloud.

To help illustrate how this works, I want you all to read closely Rod Dreher’s article “Angels Beating Their Wings in Time.” Rod wrote it the week of his father’s death and in this post he talked about the role that music played in his family’s mourning. Choose one of these prompts for your 500 word response:

  • How does Dreher show his readers the ways that music has shaped his family’s grief?
  • Rewrite five sentences where Dreher has shown his readers what is happening so that he is instead simply telling. So, for example, change the bit about him climbing into his son’s bed and holding him to something like “I comforted Lucas.” Explain how these changes affect the article.
  • Write about a time that music transformed your experience of a thing in the way it transformed the Dreher family’s experience of Paw’s death. (This could be a memorable song from church, a favorite song in your family, or something else entirely.)

As always, if you have questions please email me.