The Book For Wordsmiths: ‘Dreyer’s English’ by Benjamin Dreyer

Benjamin Dreyer is making grammar cool. There’s a spectrum of grammar appreciators that swings from what I’ll call creative to…insistent, and Dreyer has taken the whole spectrum and said, “Here’s the rule, and something else you didn’t know, and this is why it’s funny.”

You might even compare Benjamin Dreyer’s approach to language in ‘Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style’ to Scott Schuman’s approach to fashion in the blog, The Sartorialist. Both have brought expertise and a touch of something special to their industry. What each one creates is a reflection of his artistry but also something larger than the artist himself. To put too fine a point on it, they have style.

If there was one word for the way Dreyer has written this modern guide for prose, it would be “approachable.” If there were two words I’d add “practical.” The book is a bit like a dictionary mixed with a glossary mixed with a comic strip without pictures, all sprinkled with witty phrases that take on a memoir-like quality. It’s a bowl of mixed nuts—full of nutrition, variety, and just a little salty.

It’s just the kind of thing a person might actually read if they truly needed to improve their writing. The advice he provides and rules he explains are not only useful but memorable. And if the book weren’t memorable enough, there’s now a game you can play to stay sharp.

That being said, it’s also the kind of book you’ll want to have around for reference, for the sake of remembering how many l’s are in the word skulduggery, and whether or not the word is in vogue (it is). As such, you might not find yourself reading it from first page to acknowledgements (which are thorough, btw, as is Dreyer’s wont), but every page is a treat.

In the vein of poking a little fun at the serious art of prose, this book reminds me of an amusing song commissioned for my friend who is a professional copy editor. The song was written by Trevor Strong of the Arrogant Worms, and if you like this bit of musical creativity, Trevor still writes personalized songs. You can commission your own at this link.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you love words and how they’re used
  • If you appreciate footnotes, particularly if they’re used to convey wit
  • If you can’t remember how to spell most things, and autocorrect be damned!
  • If you find yourself correcting the grammar and spell checkers that come with word processing software

Finding a long-lost love of country: ‘What Unites Us’ by Dan Rather

After years of civic breakdown in America, where just sitting around the dinner table with opinionated family members can be considered a toxic environment, it sometimes feels like there’s no hope for our democracy. Maybe you feel yourself, like everyone else, slipping down your own rabbit holes with little chance of escape. Then you pick up “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism” by iconic reporter Dan Rather and everything changes.

This book feels like sipping a cold one with an old reporter friend in a slightly seedy downtown bar, the kind frequented by journalists working for near minimum wage, and sharing stories about the US of A. For every story that Rather shares, you feel a story of your own surface in your mind. It becomes a conversation. Rather talks through not only the highs and lows of his career, but the highs and lows of the nation since the darkest days of the cold war. He describes with surprising passion (for a former TV anchor) how the world has changed, and how the world changed him. 

A special treat is listening to the audiobook narrated by Rather himself. You’ll probably hear his steady, nightly-news-broadcast voice in your head while reading his words, but having his earnest, thinly-veiled Texas drawl in your ears will put you on the barstool next to him. You’ll feel your eyes get misty as he recounts stories of how his family shaped him, selfless acts of courage, and even little “p” patriotism. It will be in those moments when you’re looking around to see if anyone is watching you that his voice will break with emotion as well. You’ll share a moment remembering a love of country you thought you lost during this period of hyper-polarized rhetoric. 

This book is as unapologetically American as a Springsteen song. While there’s plenty of apple pie and Fourth of July, Rather dives into the darker side of society, approaching everything from race to fake news with a clear-eyed depth of understanding that only comes with reporting the news for over seventy years. Rather’s clarity about the differences between patriotism and the kind of blind nationalism that’s wreaking so much havoc today is a refreshing pathway back toward what makes the American social and governmental experiment something to celebrate.

Rather loves his country. It’s an inclusive, inviting love that you can’t help but get swept up in. Maybe it’s because he’s asking something of the reader. He’s not telling you that America is perfect and you should love it without question. Quite the opposite. He challenges you to question it. He’s also emphatic that America is pretty darn good and will only remain pretty good only if you, whoever you are, get involved in the messy processes of trying to make it better. That might be as heady as running for office, or as pedestrian as taking a plate of food to a neighbor who’s just experienced a loss. What makes America great is everyday Americans actively creating better communities.

This book might be your next read if:

  • You’re looking for a steady voice of civility to walk you through the America of today while providing the context of the past
  • You need to be reminded that the vibrant tapestry of America is actually its strength, rather than its weakness
  • You love America, but you’re not sure you really like it
  • You’re wondering if the American experiment can survive the next fifty years
  • You want to have a quiet conversation about history, the present, and how you can be a better member of society
  • You’re looking for hope, [even if it’s going to take some work]

Photo Credit: Amazon, Publisher: Algonquin Books

The Book for Coping with 2020: ‘Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope’ by Mark Manson

(The headline probably tipped you off, but just in case, there’s some profanity in this book experience. Ye be warned.)

If you’ve reached the stage of the pandemic/post-election/post-insurrection surreality where you’re ready to dive deep into the abyss-like psychology of the United States but don’t want to get the bends, then the oxymoronic ‘Everything Is F*cked: A Book About Hope’ by Mark Manson, is just what this uncertified bibliotherapist ordered.

While not required, consider reading ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’ or Mark Manson’s blog first, if only to orient yourself to his particular brand of ‘self-help.’ If that brings up feelings of TL:DR, this description from his website should give you a pretty good idea of what he’s about:

I write life advice that is science-based, pragmatic, and non-bullshitty – a.k.a., life advice that doesn’t suck

With that out of the way, this book will both overwhelm and make you feel like you’re getting the CliffsNotes. You may want to seek out some of the primary texts mentioned in the book, like Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ or the works of Friedrich Nietzsche.

The tone of Manson’s writing is a bit like a burnt marshmallow. You’ll have a mouth full of ash but then you’ll find a sweet, gooey center. Manson’s rhetoric is both sarcastic and contemplative, apathetic and industrious. He respects the thinkers who have come before him and endeavors to take thought to its next logical conclusion. SPOILER ALERT: it’s robots.

Since he advertises his brand of self-help as being science-based it’s no surprise that the book eventually veers toward the singularity. Yet with it’s breaks for subtle humor and overall Gen Xer attitude, there’s nothing that will get you more in the mood for this book than this work of musical genius:

(you were warned, this video is also NSFW)

So, how does this book help with the quagmire of feelings we’re still sorting through from 2020? Well, it’s tough love. Simple as that. It’s a friend who’ll tell you there’s vomit on your shoe and helps carry you to the Uber in the same breath.

This Book Might Be Your Next Read:

  • If you have a penchant for parodies
  • If you don’t have time to study philosophy, or the interest, but you like making thoughtful conversation at parties
  • If you think you might be interested in philosophy but you don’t know where to start
  • If you like gray areas

photo credit: HarperCollins (purchase the book here)