John McPhee’s Draft #4 and the “Right” dictionary

A link over at kottke landed me at a post by John Somers which laments the awful prose in modern dictionaries. The dictionaries most of us now use, online or built into our computers, have definitions which have been sapped of their vitality:

words are boiled to their essence. But that essence is dry, functional, almost bureaucratically sapped of color or pop, like high modernist architecture. Which trains you to think of the dictionary as a utility, not a quarry of good things, not a place you’d go to explore and savor.

Somers refers to John McPhee’s essay on the essential stage of good writing where the author takes the rough hewn work and polishes into something truly beautiful, what he refers to as Draft #4:

the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.

Somers argues that in writing, an excellent dictionary—itself composed of thoughtful, vibrant, writing—is a necessary tool in this process.

Is revenge a human evolutionary advantage?

Norwegian author Harry Hole explores the idea that revenge is natural extension of the human ability to think abstractly. He suggests that while revenge may be specifically rationalized out of modern legal systems, it still lies somewhere in the foundations of civilized behavior.

That is why revenge is more than a shortsighted and pointless instinct; it is an example of man’s sublime capacity for abstract thought. By avenging a misdeed we don’t regain what we have lost, but we ensure that misdeeds have consequences that we hope can be a deterrent in the abstract future: Your adversary knows that attacking your offspring has a cost, even if the attack is successful. Or especially if it is successful.

“I don’t own a radio”

So happy to learn that Ira Glass is bringing This American Life to the BBC. The Guardian seems to think that a reference to Ira Glass taking Ecstasy was was the headline. But the thing about TAL and Ira Glass is the program’s transcendence of the medium. The fact that it is more than just a radio show allows it to expand beyond the realm of radio and indeed beyond “American Life”. Ira Glass crafts stories which help us understand the world by connecting us deeply to the experiences held by other human beings.

There are stories that change the way I see stuff, like the Harper High School story. I didn’t really understand what it was like to live in a neighborhood like that, or be a kid like that. One of the things we learned is that every kid in the school is in a gang. The nerd kids are in a gang. The drama kids are in a gang. Before I read that series, and this is kind of ugly to say, but I would think, ‘Well, if they got shot they’re a gang kid … that’s a bad kid.’ I don’t feel that any more at all. Those of us who don’t live in neighborhoods like that, we’re so dumb.

Don’t waste your time on rubbish…

The Observer recently ran an extract from cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett’s new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. He offer’s some lessons for life which he presents as “seven tools for thinking”. I particularly liked the sixth tool, a where he notes that there is a lot of crap out there not worth arguing about:

A good moral to draw from this observation is that when you want to criticise a field, a genre, a discipline, an art form …don’t waste your time and ours hooting at the crap! Go after the good stuff or leave it alone. This advice is often ignored by ideologues intent on destroying the reputation of analytic philosophy, sociology, cultural anthropology, macroeconomics, plastic surgery, improvisational theatre, television sitcoms, philosophical theology, massage therapy, you name it

Let’s stipulate at the outset that there is a great deal of deplorable, second-rate stuff out there, of all sorts. Now, in order not to waste your time and try our patience, make sure you concentrate on the best stuff you can find, the flagship examples extolled by the leaders of the field, the prize-winning entries, not the dregs. Notice that this is closely related to Rapoport’s rules: unless you are a comedian whose main purpose is to make people laugh at ludicrous buffoonery, spare us the caricature.