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What to Read Next: Masters of the Art of Writing
Issue #302, featuring McPhee, White, and Fitzgerald
Happy Friday, readers!
The books featured in today’s newsletter aren’t related in any obvious sense, but are rather tied together by the unmatched quality of their prose.
Levels of the Game (a sports narrative), Elements of Style (a writing guide), and The Great Gatsby (explored through Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On) are short books that are uniquely memorable for their fantastic writing. The sentences of McPhee, White, and Fitzgerald are among the finest you’ll ever read.
If you’re someone who not only appreciates a good narrative but also the art of writing itself, look no further.
Let’s jump in.
Levels of the Game by John McPhee
[Graebner] now becomes the mouse, Ashe the cat. With soft, perfectly placed shots, Ashe jerks him around the forecourt, then closes off the point with a shot to remember. It is a forehand, with top spin, sent cross court so lightly that the ball appears to be flung rather than hit. Its angle to the net is less than ten degrees — a difficult brilliant stroke, and Ashe hit it with such nonchalance that he appeared to be thinking of something else. Graebner feels the implications of this. Ashe is now obviously loose. Loose equals dangerous.
Published: 1969 | Pages: 149 | Genre: Non-Fiction (Sports)
Though John McPhee’s name is not very well known among most readers, he’s often considered among the best narrative non-fiction writers of our modern era. He’s written about oranges (yes, oranges), canoes, and writing itself; he even won a Pulitzer for a geological history of America.
Another subject McPhee is famous for, even though his work on it spans just 160 pages: tennis.
Published in 1969, Levels of the Game is a shot-by-shot re-telling of a U.S. Open semifinal match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. McPhee not only provides incredible action-oriented prose on the game itself, but also manages to go in-depth on the backgrounds, psyches, and playing styles of the two players.
Levels of the Game is a quick, but remarkably memorable read. McPhee paints such vivid pictures of what’s happening on the court that it almost feels like I watched the book. (I mean, read the quote above.) Even if you’re not a fan of tennis, this book tells a great story, uniquely explores mental toughness, and shows the power of masterful writing.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White
When a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a byproduct of vigor.
Published: 1959 | Pages: 95 | Genre: Non-Fiction (How-To)
This classic 95-page guide on the art of writing has become required reading for most college students studying the humanities. Earlier this summer, while transitioning into more of a full-time writing/editing role at work, I decided to revisit the slim title for the first time since my freshman year of journalism school at Drake University.
On every single page, I encountered a bit of witty brilliance that I was delighted to (re)discover. From overarching frameworks to specific tips on word usage, Strunk and White concisely offer a bit of everything.
If writing is part of your life and work in any way, this short volume is an indispensable resource to keep on your desk. Whether you read it all the way through or open to random pages now and then, you’ll find wisdom within. I’m so glad I gave Elements of Style another look and didn’t forever write it off as just college material.
So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan
“Gatsby's fall from grace may be grim, but the language of the novel is buoyant; Fitzgerald's plot may suggest that the American Dream is a mirage, but his words make that dream irresistible.”
Published: 2014 | Pages: 352 | Genre: Non-Fiction (History/Literature)
I love a literary backstory. It’s a very niche subject, but for book nerds, these narratives are catnip. In So We Read On, professor and longtime NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan brings readers on a grand tour of a title perpetually found on the shortlist of Great American Novel contenders: The Great Gatsby.
With a dash of biography, a smidge of cultural history, and a heap of literary explainer, Corrigan offers the perfect read for anyone who wants a deeper understanding of Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic.
What Corrigan does especially well, though, is to take readers beyond the high school analysis of Dr. Eckleburg’s eyes and the green light. Fitzgerald packed The Great Gatsby with all kinds of symbolism that’s only obvious when it’s been pointed out (like the water — there’s water everywhere in this book).
So We Read On isn’t for everybody, but if you’re into classic American lit, you’ll really enjoy it. And, naturally, it pairs really well with reading Gatsby at the same time.
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