BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Writer Who Stayed’
THE WRITER WHO STAYED
By William Zinsser
Paul Dry Books, $14.95, 176 pages
Now 90 years old, William Zinsser has spent his adult life campaigning for clarity of writing which, of course, can only flow from clarity of thought. Nearly 40 years ago, he wrote a book titled “On Writing Well.” It has become an essential guide for many a nonfiction writer. That book was inspired by a writing course he taught at Yale in the 1970s.
In addition to his stint at Yale, Mr. Zinsser has been a feature writer and film critic for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune, a senior editor at the Book-of-the-Month Club, a freelance writer and a teacher at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Over many of those years, in addition to “On Writing Well,” he has written 17 other books — but no more. Glaucoma has reduced his sight for writing, but not for coaching. Until last year, he walked to his Manhattan office each day. Now, he coaches nonfiction writers at his home.
In his coaching, he emphasizes clarity, simplicity, directness of expression. In “On Writing Well,” he declares, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. … We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
You will find none of these obstacles to clarity in “The Writer Who Stayed.” This is a book of short essays, a genre at which he is a master. A lover of the English language and its endless variety, he employs it to immediately draw the reader into each essay with a promise of pleasure, joy, warmth or surprises ahead.
We can thank the American Scholar for this book, for the 58 essays in the book first appeared in its essay series. For a man who does not do email, let alone “social media,” Mr. Zinsser quickly found that this new medium for him presented an opportunity to cover whatever topic suited his fancy at the moment.
He has divided the essays into the following sections: “Culture and the Arts,” “Craft of Writing,” “Tech Age,” “Faraway Places,” “Language and Reverberations.”
The tone of these essays is positive. He is quoted as saying, “I choose to affirm.”
Even when he is bemused, as in “Sharing the Issues,” there is both a wry smile and a positive pitch for clarity. In it, his young grandson says, “I have weather issues,” referring to a windstorm in which the boy had been caught. The author writes, “Today in America, nobody is too young to have issues. Toddlers have sandbox issues. Issues are the routine hills and bumps of getting from noon until night. By calling them issues, we wrap ourselves in the palliative language of therapy. We no longer phone or visit friends who are in trouble, we reach out to them. This way we can find closure.
“And don’t get me started on ‘share,’ the word I most loathe in the feel-good lexicon.”
Consider the funny word mix-up when his wife ordered the digital archive service of The New York Times. The telephone salesman said the fee would be waived for those who had home delivery. As the Zinssers had had home delivery for years, the man looked it up on his computer and could not find their names. A child of the digital age, the young man insisted that “home delivery” meant a subscription of the newspaper’s computer edition. He seemed unaware that several hundred thousand copies of the Times were delivered to doorsteps every day.
The author’s warm and positive philosophy is captured in one title, “Lighten Up, Even When Your Story is Dark.”
Mr. Zinsser received the National Magazine Award for digital commentary for his 2011 essays. This is a book to be enjoyed from cover to cover, and best savored in two or three essays to a reading.
Peter Hannaford is the author of 11 books, the latest of which is “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold Editions).