Short Readings about, or demonstrating, rhetoric— the art of argument
These readings will help you to understand the art of rhetoric—how we persuade others, through language, to think or act the way we want them to. Before our first day of class, print the pages of this assignment packet. During the course of the year, we’ll discuss all these readings, and I’ll ask you to write briefly about each of them.
‘How to Teach a Child to Argue’
‘I shall always be near you’
John F. Kennedy inaugural address
‘We’ll Go Forward from This Moment’
‘I Told You So’
Using language and visual texts:
‘We Change Our Language Like We Change Our Clothes’ (levels of language)
‘The Case for Short Words’ (writing clearly)
‘Girl Moved to Tears by Cliffs Notes’ (irony and satire)
Three visual texts
Methods of rhetorical development:
‘Remedial Reading’ (narration)
‘The Gramercy Gym’ (description)
‘The Great American Desert’ (example)
‘A Few Words for Motherhood’ (process analysis)
‘Sitters and Squatters’ (comparison and contrast)
‘Here Is New York’ (classification and division)
‘Inside the Interrogation Room’ (analogy)
‘The Meaning of Home’ (definition)
‘Why We Crave Horror Movies’ (cause and effect)
How to Teach a Child to Argue by Jay Heinrichs
Those of you who don’t have perfect children will find this familiar: Just as I was withdrawing money in a bank lobby, my 5-year-old daughter chose to throw a temper tantrum, screaming and writhing on the floor while a couple of elderly ladies looked on in disgust. (Their children, apparently, had been perfect.) I gave Dorothy a disappointed look and said, “That argument won’t work, sweetheart. It isn’t pathetic enough.”
She blinked a couple of times and picked herself up off the floor, pouting but quiet.
“What did you say to her?” one of the women asked.
I explained that “pathetic” was a term used in rhetoric, the ancient art of argument. I had happened across the subject one rainy day in a library and become instantly obsessed. As a result Dorothy had learned almost from birth that a good persuader doesn’t merely express her own emotions; she manipulates her audience. Me, in other words.
Under my tutelage in the years that followed, Dorothy and her younger brother, George, became keenly, even alarmingly, persuasive. “Well, whatever it was,” the woman said, “it certainly worked.” Sure it did. I’ve worked hard at making my kids good at arguing. Absolutely.
Why on earth would any parent want that? Because persuasion is powerful. Rhetoric originated in the lawsuits of ancient Greece, when citizens who weren’t good at persuading could lose their houses—or their lives. It was a staple of education until the early 1800s, teaching society’s elite how to debate, make public decisions, and reach consensus. It probably explains how the founding fathers managed to carve a nation out of 13 squabbling colonies.
And let’s face it: Our culture has lost the ability to usefully disagree. Most Americans seem to avoid argument. But this has produced passive aggression and groupthink in the office, red and blue states, and families unable to discuss things as simple as what to watch on television. Rhetoric doesn’t turn kids into back-sassers; it makes them think about other points of view.
I had long equated arguing with fighting, but in rhetoric they are very different things. An argument is good; a fight is not. Whereas the goal of a fight is to dominate your opponent, in an argument you succeed when you bring your audience over to your side. A dispute over territory in the backseat of a car qualifies as an argument, for example, in the unlikely event that one child attempts to persuade his audience rather than slug it.
George, who took longer than Dorothy did to talk, was at first a devotee of what rhetoricians call argument by the stick. After every fight I’d ask him, “Did you get the other kid to agree with you?” For years he considered that a thoroughly stupid question, and maybe it was. But eventually this question made sense to him: In the world of rhetoric, argument by the stick is no argument. It never persuades, it only inspires revenge. To disagree reasonably, a child must learn the three basic tools of argument. I got them straight from Aristotle, hence the Greek labels: logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos is argument by logic. If arguments were children, logos would be the brainy one, the big sister who gets top grades in high school. Forcing my kids to be logical forced them to connect what they wanted with the reasons they gave.
“Mary won’t let me play with the car.”
Why should she?”
“Because she’s a pig.”
“So Mary should give you the car because she’s a pig?”
Repeat the kid’s premise (she’s being a pig) with her conclusion (therefore she should let me play with the car), and she has to think logically. Ethos, or argument by character, employs the persuader’s personality, reputation, and ability to look trustworthy. (While logos sweats over its GPA, ethos gets elected class president.) My kids learned early on that a sterling reputation is more than just good; it’s persuasive. In rhetoric, lying isn’t just a foul because it’s wrong, it’s a foul because it’s unpersuasive. A parent is more likely to believe a trustworthy kid and to accept her argument. For example, if both children—the entire list of suspects—deny having eaten the last cookie, ethos becomes important.
Me: “One of you took the cookie.”
Dorothy: “Have I ever stolen cookies before?”
Me: “Good point. George?”
Then there’s pathos, argument by emotion. It’s the sibling who gets away with everything by skillfully playing on heartstrings. In rhetorical lingo, Dorothy’s tantrum wasn’t “pathetic” enough, because she was thinking too much about her own feelings and therefore failing to manipulate mine. Pathos happens to be the root word for “sympathy.” When a kid learns to read your emotions and play them like an instrument, you’re raising a good persuader.
Dorothy: “Dad, you look tired. Want to sit down?”
Me: “Thanks. Where did you have in mind?”
Dorothy: “Ben & Jerry’s.”
Logos, ethos, and pathos appeal to the brain, gut, and heart of adult and kid alike. While our brain tries to sort the facts, our gut tells us whether we can trust the other person, and our heart makes us want to do something about it. They’re the essence of effective persuasion. Admittedly, a toddler might find it difficult to apply logos, ethos, and pathos and read a playmate’s feelings strategically, but as with every other useful skill, you have to start young. Instead of “Use your words,” I would say, “See if you can talk him into it.” When my children made an honest attempt to persuade me to let them watch television, for instance, I gave in whenever possible: The win felt doubly rewarding to them. They got to watch their show, and they enjoyed having earned it. My kids grew so fond of debate, in fact, that they disputed the TV itself.
“Why should I eat candy that talks?”
“A doll that goes to the bathroom? I have a brother who does that.” It was as if I’d given them advertising immunization shots.
I tried to use all three forms of argument on George when, at the age of seven, he insisted on wearing shorts to school in the middle of winter. First I laid some ethos on him with my stern fatherly character: “You have to wear pants because I am your father and I told you to.” But he just looked at me with tears in his eyes.
Next I tried logos: “Pants will keep your legs from chapping,” I said reasonably. “You’ll feel a lot better.”
“But I want to wear shorts.”
So I resorted to pathos. I pulled up my pant legs and pranced around. “Doh-de-doh, look at me, here I go off to work wearing shorts.
Don’t I look stupid?”
“Yes,” he said, continuing to pull his shorts on.
“So why do you insist on wearing shorts yourself?”
“Because I don’t look stupid. And they’re my legs. I don’t mind if they get chapped.”
Oh, my. He had done me one better with ethos (I don’t look stupid), logos (They’re my legs—you don’t have standing in this case), and pathos (Stop worrying—I’ll deal with the pain issue). He was also making his first genuine attempt to argue instead of cry. I couldn’t possibly let him lose this one.
“All right,” I said. “You can wear shorts in school if your mother and I can clear it with your teacher and the principal. But you have to wear snow pants outside. Deal?”
“Deal.” He happily fetched his snow pants, and I called the school. A few weeks later the principal declared George’s birthday Shorts Day, and she even showed up in culottes. It was mid-February. We all had reached a comfortable—rhetorically comfortable, at least—kind of consensus, a belief in our decision by the group or community.
Indeed, as my children get older and more persuasive, I find myself losing more arguments than I win. They drive me crazy. They do me proud.
I shall always be near you
In 1861, as the American Civil War broke out, a 32-year-old lawyer named Sullivan Ballou left his wife of five years and two sons at home, and joined the war effort as a major in the Union Army. On July 14 of that year, well aware that particularly perilous times were approaching, he wrote—but didn't send—the following letter to his wife, warning her of the dangers he faced. A week later, he was killed in the First Battle of Bull Run, along with 93 of his men. The letter was later found among his belongings, and delivered to his widow. Sarah was 24 when Sullivan died. She never remarried, and passed away at 80 years of age. She is buried alongside her husband in Providence, Rhode Island.
My very dear Sarah,
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more. Our movements may be of a few days’ duration and full of pleasure—and it may be of some conflict and death to me. “Not my will, but thine, O God be done.” If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready.
I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans on the triumph of the government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing— perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.
Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence could break; and yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and burns unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.
The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon divine Providence, but something whispers to me that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed.
If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you and our children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights, advised to your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.
President John F. Kennedy inaugural address, 1961
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans —born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more. To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do—for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge: to convert our good words into good deeds, in a new alliance for progress, to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.
To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support—to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective, to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak, and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.
But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course—both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind’s final war.
So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms, and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah—to “undo the heavy burdens, and [to] let the oppressed go free.”
And, if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor—not a new balance of power, but a new world of law—where the strong are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved.
All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days; nor in the life of this Administration; nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need—not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation,” a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it. And the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
We’ll go forward from this moment by Leonard Pitts, Jr. / September 12, 2001
It’s my job to have something to say.
They pay me to provide words that help make sense of that which troubles the American soul. But in this moment of airless shock when hot tears sting disbelieving eyes, the only thing I can find to say, the only words that seem to fit, must be addressed to the unknown author of this suffering.
You monster. You beast. You unspeakable bastard.
What lesson did you hope to teach us by your coward’s attack on our World Trade Center, our Pentagon, us? What was it you hoped we would learn? Whatever it was, please know that you failed.
Did you want us to respect your cause? You just damned your cause.
Did you want to make us fear? You just steeled our resolve.
Did you want to tear us apart? You just brought us together.
Let me tell you about my people. We are a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political and class division, but a family nonetheless. We’re frivolous, yes, capable of expending tremendous emotional energy on pop cultural minutiae—a singer’s revealing dress, a ball team’s misfortune, a cartoon mouse. We’re wealthy, too, spoiled by the ready availability of trinkets and material goods, and maybe because of that, we walk through life with a certain sense of blithe entitlement. We are fundamentally decent, though—peace-loving and compassionate. We struggle to know the right thing and to do it. And we are, the overwhelming majority of us, people of faith, believers in a just and loving God.
Some people—you, perhaps—think that any or all of this makes us weak. You’re mistaken. We are not weak. Indeed, we are strong in ways that cannot be measured by arsenals.
Yes, we’re in pain now. We are in mourning and we are in shock. We’re still grappling with the unreality of the awful thing you did, still working to make ourselves understand that this isn’t a special effect from some Hollywood blockbuster, isn’t the plot development from a Tom Clancy novel. Both in terms of the awful scope of their ambition and the probable final death toll, your attacks are likely to go down as the worst acts of terrorism in the history of the United States and, probably, the history of the world. You’ve bloodied us as we have never been bloodied before.
But there’s a gulf of difference between making us bloody and making us fall. This is the lesson Japan was taught to its bitter sorrow the last time anyone hit us this hard, the last time anyone brought us such abrupt and monumental pain. When roused, we are righteous in our outrage, terrible in our force. When provoked by this level of barbarism, we will bear any suffering, pay any cost, go to any length, in the pursuit of justice.
I tell you this without fear of contradiction. I know my people, as you, I think, do not. What I know reassures me. It also causes me to tremble with dread of the future.
In the days to come, there will be recrimination and accusation, fingers pointing to determine whose failure allowed this to happen and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. There will be heightened security, misguided talk of revoking basic freedoms. We’ll go forward from this moment sobered, chastened, sad. But determined, too. Unimaginably determined.
You see, the steel in us is not always readily apparent. That aspect of our character is seldom understood by people who don’t know us well. On this day, the family’s bickering is put on hold.
As Americans we will weep, as Americans we will mourn, and as Americans, we will rise in defense of all that we cherish.
So I ask again: What was it you hoped to teach us? It occurs to me that maybe you just wanted us to know the depths of your hatred. If that’s the case, consider the message received. And take this message in exchange: You don’t know my people. You don’t know what we’re capable of. You don’t know what you just started.
But you’re about to learn.
I told you so by Leonard Pitts, Jr. / May 2, 2011
This will be the last letter I write you. I don’t think they have newspapers where you are.
I first wrote you ten years ago on that cloudless blue Tuesday morning when 19 men under your command hijacked four airplanes. They crashed two into the towers of the World Trade Center, one into the side of the Pentagon, and the last into a field near Shanksville, PA. Nearly 3,000 people died that day, and I remember being numb with the weight of it all.
I didn’t even know your name at the time, so I addressed myself to a monster, a beast, a bastard—which, as it turns out, was an accurate salutation. You had bloodied us, I said, as we had seldom been bloodied before.
But I warned you that you had not defeated us—and I promised you retribution. “When roused,” I wrote, “we are righteous in our outrage, terrible in our force. When provoked by this level of barbarism, we will bear any suffering, pay any cost, go to any length, in the pursuit of justice.”
There have been times over the years when I wondered if I overstated American resolve, times you seemed to have slipped off the radar, to have become less a priority for the nation. Then came Sunday night’s news that you had been killed during a raid by US forces upon a safe house in Pakistan, and I knew I never should have doubted.
Sam, I’m not one to gloat over someone’s death. My preference would have been to see you captured alive to face the righteous judgment of the nation you hated so profoundly. But if somebody’s got to get shot in the head, well…it could not happen to a more deserving guy.
I think of you often, Sam. I think of you when I throw away bottled water and shuffle through airport security in stocking feet. I think of you when I see metal security barriers rise out of the street in Washington, DC, or concrete planters barricading federal buildings. I think of you when some lawmaker suggests we bomb Mecca or some state feels compelled to legislate against sharia law. I think of you when I see what my country has become.
You made us something we were not on September 10. You made us afraid. You tapped that rich seam of paranoia and intolerance that has always lurked in the American psyche. You changed us for the worse. But you did not topple us. You did not drive us out of the Middle East. You failed.
And yes, I know your followers will take up your cause with renewed vigor. They will fail, too.
Because, though your cause wrapped itself in righteous anger, there is nothing righteous about your chosen tool of expression: the indiscriminate murder of women, men, children. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Americans.
That tool must always fail, because the world cannot negotiate with a gun to its head. Civilized people are required to understand this, or else not have a world worth living in.
Your ignominious fate—shot to death, your body dumped into the sea—was predictable, then, from the moment the first plane struck the first tower.
I salute the military and intelligence personnel whose skill and courage made the predictable into the reality.
And I offer four words of epitaph to follow your body down as it falls through a murky abyss, henceforth to be seen only by the fish:
I told you so.
We Change Our Language Like We Change Our Clothes From “English Belongs to Everybody” by Robert MacNeil
“[It is fascinating] how differently we all speak in different circumstances. We have levels of formality, as in our clothing.
“There are very formal occasions, often requiring written English: the job application or the letter to the editor—the dark-suit, serious-tie language, with everything pressed and the lint brushed off.
“There is our less formal out-in-the-world language—a more comfortable suit, but still respectable.
“There is language for close friends in the evenings, on weekends—blue-jeans-and-sweat-shirt language, when it’s good to get the tie off.
“There is family language, even more relaxed, full of grammatical shortcuts, family slang, echoes of old jokes that have become intimate shorthand—the language of pajamas and uncombed hair.
“Finally, there is the language with no clothes on; the talk of couples—murmurs, sighs, grunts—language at its least self-conscious, open, vulnerable, and primitive.’
In the following selection, Lederer sings the praises of small words. Too often we think that someone is measuring the quality of our work by counting the number of long words we use. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lederer reminds us that well-chosen, simple words can be a writer’s best friends—they are functional and pack a powerful punch.
The Case for Short Words by Richard Lederer
When you speak and write, there is no law that says you have to use big words. Short words are as good as long ones, and short, old words— like sun and grass and home—are best of all. A lot of small words, more than you might think, can meet your needs with a strength, grace, and charm that large words do not have.
Big words can make the way dark for those who read what you write and hear what you say. Small words cast their clear light on big things— night and day, love and hate, war and peace, and life and death. Big words at times seem strange to the eye and the ear and the mind and the heart. Small words are the ones we seem to have known from the time we were born, like the hearth fire that warms the home.
Short words are bright like sparks that glow in the night, prompt like the dawn that greets the day, sharp like the blade of a knife, hot like salt tears that scald the cheek, quick like moths that flit from flame to flame, and terse like the dart and sting of a bee.
Here is a sound rule: Use small, old words where you can. If a long word says just what you want to say, do not fear to use it. But know that our tongue is rich in crisp, brisk, swift, short words. Make them the spine and the heart of what you speak and write. Short words are like fast friends. They will not let you down.
The title of this chapter and the four paragraphs that you have just read are wrought entirely of words of one syllable. In setting myself this task, I did not feel especially cabined, cribbed, or confined. In fact, the structure helped me to focus on the power of the message I was trying to put across.
One study shows that twenty words account for twenty-five percent of all spoken English words, and all twenty are monosyllabic. In order of frequency they are: I, you, the, a, to, is, it, that, of, and, in, what, he, this, have, do, she, not, on, and they. Other studies indicate that the fifty most common words in written English are each made of a single syllable.
For centuries our finest poets and orators have recognized and employed the power of small words to make a straight point between two minds. A great many of our proverbs punch home their points with pithy monosyllables: ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ ‘A stitch in time saves nine,’ ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’
Nobody used the short word more skillfully than William Shakespeare, whose dying King Lear laments:
And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life! Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all? ... Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips. Look there, look there!
Shakespeare’s contemporaries made the King James Bible a centerpiece of short words—“And God said. Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.” The descendants of such mighty lines live on in the twentieth century. When asked to explain his policy to Parliament, Winston Churchill responded with these ringing monosyllables: “I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all our strength that God can give us.” In his ‘Death of the Hired Man’ Robert Frost observes that “Home is the place where, when you go there, / They have to take you in.” And William H. Johnson uses ten two-letter words to explain his secret of success: “If it is to be, / It is up to me.”
You don’t have to be a great author, statesman, or philosopher to tap the energy and eloquence of small words. Each winter I ask my ninth graders to write a composition composed entirely of one-syllable words. My students greet my request with moans and groans, but, when they return to class with their essays, most feel that, with the pressure to produce high-sounding polysyllables relieved, they have created powerful and luminous prose:
What can you say to a boy who has left home? You can say that he has done wrong, but he does not care. He has left home so that he will not have to deal with what you say. He wants to go as far as he can. He will do what he wants to do.
This boy does not want to be forced to go to church, to comb his hair, or to be on time. A good time for this boy does not lie in your reach, for what you have he does not want. He dreams of ripped jeans, shorts with no starch, and old socks.
So now this boy is on a bus to a place he dreams of, a place with no rules. This boy now walks a strange street, his long hair blown back by the wind. He wears no coat or tie, just jeans and an old shirt. He hates your world, and he has left it.
For a long time we cruised by the coast and at last came to a wide bay past the curve of a hill, at the end of which lay a small town. Our long boat ride at an end, we all stretched and stood up to watch as the boat nosed its way in.
The town climbed up the hill that rose from the shore, a space in front of it left bare for the port. Each house was a clean white with sky blue or grey trim; in front of each one was a small yard, edged by a white stone wall strewn with green vines.
As the town basked in the heat of noon, not a thing stirred in the streets or by the shore. The sun beat down on the sea, the land, and the back of our necks, so that, in spite of the breeze that made the vines sway, we all wished we could hide from the glare in a cool, white house. But, as there was no one to help dock the boat, we had to stand and wait.
At last the head of the crew leaped from the side and strode to a large house on the right. He shoved the door wide, poked his head through the gloom, and roared with a fierce voice. Five or six men came out, and soon the port was loud with the clank of chains and creak of planks as the men caught ropes thrown by the crew, pulled them taut, and tied them to posts. Then they set up a rough plank so we could cross from the deck to the shore. We all made for the large house while the crew watched, glad to be rid of us.
You too can tap into the vitality and vigor of compact expression. Take a suggestion from the highway department. At the boundaries of your speech and prose, place a sign that reads ‘Small Words at Work.’
Girl Moved to Tears by Of Mice And Men CliffsNotes
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA—In what she described as “the most emotional moment” of her academic life, University of Virginia sophomore communications major Grace Weaver sobbed openly upon concluding Steinbeck’s seminal work of American fiction Of Mice And Men’s Cliffs Notes early last week.
“This book has changed me in a way that only great literature summaries can,” said Weaver, who was so shaken by the experience that she requested an extension on her English 229 essay. “The humanity displayed in the Character Flowchart really stirred something in me. And Lennie’s childlike innocence was beautifully captured through the simple, ranch-hand slang words like ‘mentally handicapped’ and ‘retarded.’”
Added Weaver: “I never wanted the synopsis to end.”
Weaver, who formed an “instant connection” with Lennie’s character-description paragraph, said she began to suspect the novel might end tragically after reading the fourth sentence which suggested the gentle giant’s strength and fascination with soft things would “lead to his untimely demise.”
“I was amazed at how attached to him I had become just from the critical commentary,” said Weaver, still clutching the yellow-and-black-striped study guide. “When I got to the last sentence—’George shoots Lennie in the head,’—it seemed so abrupt. But I found out later that the ‘ephemeral nature of life’ is a major theme of the novel.”
Weaver was assigned Of Mice and Men—a novel scholars have called “a masterpiece of austere prose” and “the most skillful example of American naturalism under 110 pages”—as part of her early twentieth century fiction course, and purchased the Cliffs Notes from a cardboard rack at her local Barnes & Noble. John Whittier-Ferguson, her professor for the class, told reporters this was not the first time one of his students has expressed interest in the novel’s plot summary.
“It’s one of those universal American stories,” said Ferguson after being informed of Weaver’s choice to read the Cliffs Notes instead of the pocket-sized novel. “I look forward to skimming her essay on the importance of following your dreams and randomly assigning it a grade.”
Though she completed the two-page brief synopsis in one sitting, Weaver said she felt strangely drawn into the plot overview and continued on, exploring the more fleshed-out chapter summaries.
“There’s something to be said for putting in that extra time with a good story,” Weaver said. “You just get more out of it. I’m also going to try to find that book about rabbits that George was always reading to Lennie, so that I can really understand that important allusion.”
Within an hour of completing the cliffs notes, Weaver was already telling friends and classmates that Steinbeck was her favorite author, as well as reciting select quotations from the “Important Quotations” section for their benefit.
“When I read those quotes, found out which characters they were attributed to, and inferred their context from the chapter outlines to piece together their significance, I was just blown away,” said a teary-eyed Weaver. “And the way Steinbeck wove the theme of hands all the way through the section entitled ‘Hands’—he definitely deserved to win that Nobel Prize.”
Weaver’s roommate, Giulia Crenshaw, has already borrowed the dog-eared, highlighted summary of the classic Depression-era saga, and is expecting to enjoy reading what Weaver described as “a really sad story about two brothers who love to farm.”
“I loved this book so much, I’m going to read all of Steinbeck’s Cliffs Notes,” said Weaver. “But first I’m going to go to the library to check out the original version Of Mice and Men starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise.”
In his autobiography Hunger of Memory, Richard Rodriguez recounts his experiences as a Mexican American growing up in Sacramento, California in the 1950s. In the following passage, the young boy discovers the comfort that reading provides and “the lonely good company of books.”
“Remedial Reading” from Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez
OPEN THE DOORS OF YOUR MIND WITH BOOKS, read the red and white poster over the nun’s desk in early September. It soon was apparent to me that reading was the classroom’s central activity. Each course had its own book. And the information gathered from a book was unquestioned. READ TO LEARN, the sign on the wall advised in December. I privately wondered: What was the connection between reading and learning? Did one learn something only by reading it? Was an idea only an idea if it could be written down? In June, CONSIDER BOOKS YOUR BEST FRIENDS. Friends? Reading was, at best, only a chore. I needed to look up whole paragraphs of words in a dictionary. Lines of type were dizzying, the eye having to move slowly across the page, then down, and across... The sentences of the first books I read were coolly impersonal. Toned hard. What most bothered me, however, was the isolation reading required. To console myself for the loneliness I’d feel when I read, I tried reading in a very soft voice. Until: “Who is doing all that talking to his neighbor?” Shortly after, remedial reading classes were arranged for me with a very old nun.
At the end of each school day, for nearly six months, I would meet with her in the tiny room that served as the school’s library but was actually only a storeroom for used textbooks and a vast collection of National Geographics. Everything about our sessions pleased me: the smallness of the room; the noise of the janitor’s broom hitting the edge of the long hallway outside the door; the green of the sun, lighting the wall; and the old woman’s face blurred white with a beard. Most of the time we took turns. I began with my elementary text. Sentences of astonishing simplicity seemed to me lifeless and drab: “The boys ran from the rain... She wanted to sing... The kite rose in the blue.” Then the old nun would read from her favorite books, usually biographies of early American presidents. Playfully she ran through complex sentences, calling the words alive with her voice, making it seem that the author somehow was speaking directly to me. I smiled just to listen to her. I sat there and sensed for the very first time some possibility of fellowship between a reader and a writer, a communication, never intimate like that I heard spoken words at home convey, but one nonetheless personal.
Edward Hoagland is especially well known for his nature and travel writing. This passage, however, is drawn from an essay on boxing—a “waning sport,” says Hoagland, and one of the most “poignant ways to earn a living.” Here he describes the old Gramercy Gym on East 14th Street in Manhattan.
The Gramercy Gym from “Heart’s Desire,” by Edward Hoagland
The Gramercy Gym is two flights up some littered, lightless stairs that look like a mugger’s paradise, though undoubtedly they are the safest stairs in New York. Inside, two dozen bodies are chopping up and down, self-clocked, each fellow cottoned in his dreams. Some are skipping rope, turbaned in towels, wrapped in robes in order to sweat. These are white-looking figures, whereas the men who are about to spar have on dark headguards that close grimly around the face like an executioner’s hood. There are floor-length mirrors and mattresses for exercising and rubdowns, and two speedbags banging like drums, and three heavy bags swinging even between the rounds with the momentum of more than a decade of punches. The bell is loud, the fighters jerk like eating and walking birds, hissing through their teeth as they punch, their feet sneakering the floor with shuffly sounds. They wear red shoelaces in white shoes, and peanut-colored gloves, or if they’re Irish they’re in green. They are learning to move their feet to the left and right, to move in and out, punching over, then under an opponent’s guard, and other repetitive skills without which a man in the ring becomes a man of straw. The speedbags teach head-punching, the heavy bags teach body work, and one bag pinned to the wall has both a head and a torso diagrammed, complete with numbers, so that the trainer can shout out what punches his fighter should throw. “Bounce, bounce!” the trainers yell.
Once described as “America’s prickliest and most outspoken environmentalist,” Edward Abbey wrote about the American Southwest with equal parts bitterness and affection. In more than 20 books of nonfiction and fiction, he passionately conveyed his “surly hatred of progress” and his love of stillness, solitude, and freedom.
Abbey described the theme of his book Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West as “the need to make sense of private experience by exploring the connections and contradictions among wildness and wilderness, community and anarchy, between civilization and human freedom.” In this passage from Journey Home, he identifies some of the most unappealing characteristics of desert life through a series of vivid examples. At the end of the chapter, he answers the question that he raises here: “But there was nothing out there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the silent world. That’s why.”
“The Great American Desert” from The Journey Home by Edward Abbey Anyway—why go into the desert? Really, why do it? That sun, roaring at you all day long. The fetid, tepid, vapid little water holes slowly evaporating under a scum of grease, full of cannibal beetles, spotted toads, horsehair worms, liver flukes, and down at the bottom, inevitably, the pale cadaver of a ten-inch centipede. Those pink rattlesnakes down in The Canyon, those diamondback monsters thick as a truck driver’s wrist that lurk in shady places along the trail, those unpleasant solpugids and unnecessary Jerusalem crickets that scurry on dirty claws across your face at night. Why? The rain that comes down like lead shot and wrecks the trail, those sudden rockfalls of obscure origin that crash like thunder ten feet behind you in the heart of a dead-still afternoon. The ubiquitous buzzard, so patient—but only so patient. The sullen and hostile Indians, all on welfare. The ragweed, the tumbleweed, the Jimson weed, the snakeweed. The scorpion in your shoe at dawn. The dreary wind that blows all spring, the psychedelic Joshua trees waving their arms at you on moonlight nights. Sand in the soup du jour. Halazone tablets in your canteen. The barren hills that always go up, which is bad, or down, which is worse. Those canyons like catacombs with quicksand lapping at your crotch. Hollow, mummified horses at night, iron-shod, clattering over the slickrock through your camp. The last tin of tuna, two flat tires, not enough water and a forty-mile trek to Tule Well. An osprey on a cardon cactus, snatching the head off a living fish--always the best part first. The hawk sailing by at 200 feet, a squirming snake in its talons. Salt in the drinking water. Salt, selenium, arsenic, radon, and radium in the water in the gravel in your bones. Water so hard it bends light, drills holes in rock and chokes up your radiator. Why go there? Those places with the hardcase names: Starvation Creek, Poverty Knoll, Hungry Valley, Bitter Springs, Last Chance Canyon, Dungeon Canyon, Whipsaw Flat, Dead Horse Point, Scorpion Flat, Dead Man Draw, Stinking Spring, Camino del Diablo, Jornado del Muerto...Death Valley.
Well, then, why indeed go walking into the desert, that grim ground, that bleak and lonesome land where, as Genghis Khan said of India, “the heat is bad and the water makes men sick”?
Why the desert, when you could be strolling along the golden beaches of California? Camping by a stream of pure Rocky Mountain spring water in colorful Colorado? Loafing through a laurel slick in the misty hills of North Carolina? Or getting your head mashed in the greasy alley behind the Elysium Bar and Grill in Hoboken, New Jersey? Why the desert, given a world of such splendor and variety?
One of America’s foremost essayists and social critics, Wendell Berry is a farmer in northeastern Kentucky and an agrarian writer in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey. In the following excerpt from his essay “A Few Words for Motherhood,” Berry describes the process of assisting at the birth of a calf— an experience that leaves the author “feeling instructed and awed and pleased.” Berry’s style, characterized by straightforward diction, is deceptively simple.
from A Few Words for Motherhood by Wendell Berry
My wife and son and I find the heifer in a far corner of the field. In maybe two hours of labor she has managed to give birth to one small foot. We know how it has been with her. Time and again she has lain down and heaved at her burden, and got up and turned and smelled the ground. She is a heifer—how does she know that something is supposed to be there?
It takes some doing even for the three of us to get her into the barn. Her orders are to be alone, and she does all in her power to obey. But finally we shut the door behind her and get her into a stall. She isn’t wild; once she is confined it isn’t even necessary to tie her. I wash in a bucket of icy water and soap my right hand and forearm. She is quiet now. And so are we humans—worried, and excited, too, for if there is a chance for failure here, there is also a chance for success.
I loop a bale string onto the calf’s exposed foot, knot the string short around a stick which my son then holds. I press my hand gently into the birth canal until I find the second foot and then, a little further on, a nose. I loop a string around the second foot, fasten on another stick for a handhold. And then we pull. The heifer stands and pulls against us for a few seconds, then gives up and goes down. We brace ourselves the best we can into our work, pulling as the heifer pushes. Finally the head comes, and then, more easily, the rest.
We clear the calf’s nose, help him to breathe, and then, because the heifer has not yet stood up, we lay him on the bedding in front of her. And what always seems to me the miracle of it begins. She has never calved before. If she ever saw another cow calve, she paid little attention. She has, as we humans say, no education and no experience. And yet she recognizes the calf as her own, and knows what to do for it. Some heifers don’t, but most do, as this one does. Even before she gets up, she begins to lick it about the nose and face with loud, vigorous swipes of her tongue. And all the while she utters a kind of moan, meant to comfort, encourage, and reassure—or so I understand it.
In Chapter Two ("Commodity and Delight") of Home: A Short History of an Idea, Canadian architect and writer Witold Rybczynski contrasts cultures that have adopted a sitting-up posture with those that favor squatting.
“Sitters and Squatters”from Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski (1986)
Differences in posture, like differences in eating utensils (knife and fork, chopsticks or fingers, for example), divide the world as profoundly as political boundaries. Regarding posture there are two camps: the sitters-up (the so-called western world) and the squatters (everyone else). Although there is no Iron Curtain separating the two sides, neither feels comfortable in the position of the other. When I eat with oriental friends I soon feel awkward sitting on the floor, my back unsupported, my legs numb. But squatters don't like sitting up either. An Indian household may have a dining room with table and chairs, but when the family relaxes during the hot afternoon, parents and children sit together on the floor. The driver of a three-wheeled motor scooter in Delhi has to sit on a seat, but instead of doing so in a western manner he squats cross-legged, his feet on the bench instead of on the floor (precariously to my eyes, comfortably to his). A Canadian carpenter works standing up, at a bench. My Gujarati friend Vikram, given the choice, prefers to work sitting down, on the floor.
In the first paragraph, drawn from the opening of “Here Is New York,” E.B. White approaches the city through a simple pattern of classification. In the next two paragraphs, taken from the end of the essay, White anticipates the terror that would visit the city more than 50 years later. Notice White’s habit of putting key words in the most emphatic spot in a sentence: the very end.
from “Here Is New York” by E. B. White (1948)
There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company....
The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.
All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.
Journalist David Simon has served as a writer and producer on two of the most highly acclaimed programs to appear on American television: Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC, 1993 to 2000) and The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008). Both programs were inspired by Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991), a book that chronicles the work of the homicide unit of the Baltimore Police Department. In the following passage from Homicide, Simon relies on a series of analogies to convey, from the dual perspectives of detective and suspect, what goes on in a police interrogation room.
Inside the Interrogation Room from Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon
Homicide detectives in Baltimore like to imagine a small, open window at the top of the long wall in the large interrogation room. More to the point, they like to imagine their suspects imagining a small, open window at the top of the long wall. The open window is the escape hatch, the Out. It is the perfect representation of what every suspect believes when he opens his mouth during interrogation. Every last one envisions himself parrying questions with the right combination of alibi and excuse; every last one sees himself coming up with the right words, then crawling out the window to go home and sleep in his own bed. More often than not, a guilty man is looking for the Out from his first moments in the interrogation room; in that sense, the window is as much the suspect’s fantasy as the detective’s mirage.
The effect of the illusion is profound, distorting as it does the natural hostility between hunter and hunted, transforming it until it resembles a relationship more symbiotic than adversarial. That is the lie, and when the roles are perfectly performed, deceit surpasses itself, becoming manipulation on a grand scale and ultimately an act of betrayal. Because what occurs in an interrogation room is indeed little more than a carefully staged drama, a choreographed performance that allows a detective and his suspect to find common ground where none exists. There, in a carefully controlled purgatory, the guilty proclaim their malefactions, though rarely in any form that allows for contrition or resembles an unequivocal admission.
In truth, catharsis in the interrogation room occurs for only a few rare suspects, usually those in domestic murders or child abuse cases wherein the leaden mass of genuine remorse can crush anyone who is not hardened to his crime. But the greater share of men and women brought downtown take no interest in absolution. Ralph Waldo Emerson rightly noted that for those responsible, the act of murder “is no such ruinous thought as poets and romancers will have it; it does not unsettle him, or frighten him from his ordinary notice of trifles.” And while West Baltimore is a universe or two from Emerson’s nineteenthcentury Massachusetts hamlet, the observation is still useful. Murder often doesn’t unsettle a man. In Baltimore, it usually doesn’t even ruin his day.
A highly regarded art critic, novelist, poet, essayist, and screenwriter, John Berger began his career as a painter in London. In this passage from And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, Berger draws on the writings of Mircea Eliade, a Romanian-born historian of religion, to offer an extended definition of home.
“The Meaning of Home” by John Berger
The term home (Old Norse Heimer, High German heim, Greek komi, meaning “village”) has, since a long time, been taken over by two kinds of moralists, both dear to those who wield power. The notion of home became the keystone for a code of domestic morality, safeguarding the property (which included the women) of the family. Simultaneously the notion of homeland supplied a first article of faith for patriotism, persuading men to die in wars which often served no other interest except that of a minority of their ruling class. Both usages have hidden the original meaning.
Originally home meant the center of the world—not in a geographical, but in an ontological sense. Mircea Eliade has demonstrated how home was the place from which the world could be founded. A home was established, as he says, “at the heart of the real.” In traditional societies, everything that made sense of the world was real; the surrounding chaos existed and was threatening, but it was threatening because it was unreal. Without a home at the center of the real, one was not only shelterless, but also lost in nonbeing, in unreality. Without a home everything was fragmentation.
Home was the center of the world because it was the place where a vertical line crossed with a horizontal one. The vertical line was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld. The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places. Thus, at home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and to the dead of the underworld. This nearness promised access to both. And at the same time, one was at the starting point and, hopefully, the returning point of all terrestrial journeys.
An enormously popular writer of horror fiction for the past 35 years, Stephen King has more recently begun to attract significant critical attention as well. In this excerpt from an article that first appeared in Playboy magazine in 1981, King examines the causes and effects of an experience that points, he says, to the “insanity” inside us all.
from “Why We Crave Horror Movies” by Stephen King
When we pay our four or five bucks and seat ourselves at tenth-row center in a theater showing a horror movie, we are daring the nightmare.
Why? Some of the reasons are simple and obvious. To show that we can, that we are not afraid, that we can ride this roller coaster. Which is not to say that a really good horror movie may not surprise a scream out of us at some point, the way we may scream when the roller coaster twists through a complete 360 or plows through a lake at the bottom of the drop. And horror movies, like roller coasters, have always been the special province of the young; by the time one turns 40 or 50, one’s appetite for double twists or 360- degree loops may be considerably depleted.
We also go to reestablish our feelings of essential normality; the horror movie is innately conservative, even reactionary. Freda Jackson as the horrible melting woman in Die, Monster, Die! confirms for us that no matter how far we may be removed from the beauty of a Robert Redford or a Diana Ross, we are still light-years from true ugliness.
And we go to have fun.
Ah, but this is where the ground starts to slope away, isn’t it? Because this is a very peculiar sort of fun, indeed. The fun comes from seeing others menaced—sometimes killed. One critic has suggested that if pro football has become the voyeur’s version of combat, then the horror film has become the modern version of the public lynching.