Reading for Writing

copyright © Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas, 1997

People normally do not think they want to learn a style of writing; they think they want to learn to write about a particular subject. But in fact what they develop is a style of writing, unconsciously acquired by reading in their subject. What motivates them to read is their interest in the subject, but in opportunistic fashion, they conduct a secondary hunt for insight into writing. Sooner or later, almost all writers will find a predecessor who speaks to their temperament and therefore teaches them something about writing. But this is a random and inefficient process because when readers follow their interest in a subject matter, whatever insights into writing itself they may carry away are random, unsystematic, and episodic. Absorption in a subject matter will often draw attention away from the problems writers must solve as writers. Our Museum, by contrast, offers a selection based not on subject matter in the conventional sense but on the exemplary success of the writers’ command of a style. What these writers know about constitutional law or the germ theory of disease may be wrong or outdated, but what they know about writing can never be outdated and is permanently useful to anyone writing about anything.

Paradoxically, masters of classic style have the power momentarily to absorb readers in the most unlikely subjects. The pleasure of thinking with the writer is not the pleasure of being absorbed in the subject, although in the act of reading, it may seem to be. It is possible to be under the illusion that we are fascinated by the proof of the infinity of prime numbers for the fifteen minutes we spend in G. H. Hardy’s company in this exotic field even though once we close his book, we may never give it another thought for the rest of our lives. The pleasure we think derives from subject matter derives from a consistently gratifying motion of thought.

What our writers have in common is a style of writing congruent with a basic style of thinking. It is this congruence that makes their style classic. The classic grammar of understanding postulates an objective situation that is “the world.” It postulates that our understanding of that world depends upon our focus and our attention but is not created or altered by our understanding. Classic recognition is a kind of clean interaction, and during our moments of recognition we do not count ourselves as part of the world that we recognize.

This classic grammar of understanding is misleading—it takes the stand that it produces an objective description, when in fact it produces a selective sequence of recognitions that amount to a distinctive presentation. It is not really an invitation simply to see what is there, but rather an invitation to recognize what can be seen once it is pointed out by a guide. The classic guide, however, pretends to be doing nothing but pointing you in the right direction, as if the rest could be left to your own competence. If the reader merely occupied the same perch as the writer, the reader would see the same things. Classic writing is an invitation to think with the writer, that is, to follow what may be a highly idiosyncratic sequence of recognitions, but this invitation is always framed as if the writer had merely selected a post from which to observe, as if the reader is to do his own thinking, and as if that thinking would agree perfectly with the thinking of anyone else who happened to occupy that same post. The reader is actually taking pleasure in someone else’s thought, but with the sensation of performing the thought himself.

When this is done successfully, an individual set of recognitions constituting one of many possible paths through a complex reality is offered and accepted as an inevitable presentation of what is undeniably there. The product of the classic recognition is simplified, unambiguous, presented as if it is objective and never merely personal, but animated by the force of individual cultivation. The result is presented as self-evident truth. Much of the charm of classic writing lies in its peculiar combination of eternal freshness and inevitable finality.

The experience of reading classic prose is the experience of a refined pleasure. The reader has a sense of accomplishment without any sensation of labor. People would rather think than not think just as they would rather see than not see. But very few of us enjoy thinking or perceiving in a systematic and careful manner from scratch over difficult terrain to a finished and definite recognition. It is more pleasing to arrive at a definite thought or perception than to arrive at amorphous and incoherent fragments, but it is also much more work. The classic writer is an unobtrusive guide who gives us the sensation of spontaneous thinking that nonetheless effortlessly arrives at a definite and finished recognition of what is coherent, inevitable, and true.

To the perfectly focused and relentlessly attentive reader, the selection and arrangements of our authors will be the best exposition of classic prose. But these writers are so successful at communicating and expressing the fascination of their subject that their achievement as writers is almost inevitably lost to sight. For some exhibits, we provide a headnote to focus on what the writers are doing as writers.

Thinking About Writing