Feb 16, 2010

"Concepts of Consciousness" next on SGO

On March 15, the six-week "Concepts of Consciousness" study group will begin working through Chapter 4 of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ayn Rand's revolutionary treatise on epistemology. Our rate of study will average two to three pages per week, and a final "Summary" week will allow for a re-reading and overview.

Chapter 4 is one of the most difficult in the book, because the subject matter, introspective concepts, is especially abstract and complex. But it is very worthwhile to study the way in which some of our most important concepts (e.g., love, logic, property, and marriage) are objective, as well as to understand the mechanics of "teleological measurements" which underlie value decisions.

More explicitly than for most SGO study groups, I will be issuing formal posts, including optional study questions, during the three Prep weeks prior to the start of week 1, in order to study and review the first three chapters of the book -- which are challenging but mind-expanding in themselves. The Prep weeks will begin on Feb. 22, but participation in those is optional.

Brad Williams
Co-founder of Study Groups for Objectivists

Feb 10, 2010

A writer's working library?

A carpenter needs tools. A surgeon needs tools. What tools does a writer need? Among others, he needs books as resources.

My purpose here is to identify the kinds of books a frequent or full-time writer might accumulate. I offer examples from my bookshelves; I have not performed a systematic survey of the books available today in each category.

First, a general-purpose, unabridged dictionary is indispensable for me. Online dictionaries can be helpful for quick reference to common, customary usages of terms. I prefer a book because I can mark it up. Using a fine-line black pen, I encircle each word I study. I underline to highlight one meaning or word-origin among many. I write comments in the margins. Thus, as the decades pass, I accumulate knowledge in the form of notes in the dictionary itself. If I return to a word years later I can read my earlier notes and use them as an advanced starting point.

The dictionary I use is the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged, 2nd edition. It offers primary, secondary, and less common usages of English words; and it presents a brief history of each word, including its Latin, Greek or other origin. This large-format book (about four inches thick, and nine by twelve on the face) also includes: maps; tables of weights and measures; translation mini-dictionaries for several European languages; a list of commonly confused words (e.g., "ambiguous" and "ambivalent"); and many other features. I keep it open on a stand next to my desk.[1]

The style manual I generally follow is The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition. It has 900 pages packed with detailed information about the process of developing a manuscript; writing style (for example, when to write "18" or "eighteen"); and production of a book (design, printing, binding). An example section is 6.19, "Possessives, General Rules." In some sections, the manual's authors discuss alternative systems of style but emphasize the system that The University of Chicago Press prefers. I support many of their recommendations, but not all of them. Their discussions allow me to make an informed decision.

Other aids for developing the sort of style I want (objective, clear, concise, and readable) are works -- from most concise to most explanatory -- such as William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style; Rudolph Flesch, The ABC of Style: A Guide to Plain English; and Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. These stylists do not always agree with each other. Good. Each presents reasons for his view, allowing the reader to decide for himself in each application. Bernstein in particular is helpful in distinguishing meanings, for example, distinguishing "annihilate" (destroy completely) and "decimate" (destroy one-tenth).

The premier guide to the writing process is Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers. It deserves slow, careful study. It covers big issues, for example, when to use the conscious mind and when the subconscious (for example, Chs. 5 and 6), as well as narrower issues, such as rhythm in writing (p. 134), the writing of book reviews (p. 145), and the error of editing unwritten sentences (p. 73).

I also use a variety of specialized resources to help me achieve my central purpose in life, which is telling success stories from history. For the beginner, Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing About History, 2nd ed., covers every phase of researching and writing history.

I love histories that cover vast subjects. I focus on the history of philosophy and its primitive predecessor, religion. I have used W. L. Reese, Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion: Eastern and Western Thought, hundreds of times. For instance, it has a full page on "Faith" offering 16 entries chronologically arranged, from the 1st Century Christian apostle Paul to the 20th Century philosopher-theologian Frederick R. Tennant.

Last is a category for amusement as well as education: myth-busters. Tom Burnam, The Dictionary of Misinformation, sets the record straight on such items as the often-quoted sentence, "Brevity is the soul of wit," from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Burnam explains that "wit" is short for "witan," which meant "knowledge" to Shakespeare.

What additional tools for writers would you suggest?

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] In his lecture series, Principles of Grammar, Dr. Peikoff offers advice on selecting a general-purpose dictionary.