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Books at hand?

Adrian Sroka, on May 18th asked where we chose to work. Always a good thing to find out how others go about their tasks.

I would like to take the matter further and ask; what ‘technical’ writing books do you keep at hand for regular use?

With reaching distance as I work, I have the following: Collins Dictionary (large single volume); Roget’s Thesaurus (Longmans); Fowler’s Modern English Usage - edited by Burchfield (Oxford); Usage and Abusage (by Eric Partidge); Eats, Shoots & Leaves (by Lynne Truss); Le Mot Juste (foreign terms and phrases that have ‘strayed into English’); latest edition of ‘W & A Yearbook’ – though I do keep back copies for up to five years (not in the front line of course)

At a greater distance are the ‘everyday’ tools of the trade; books of quotations; books of verse; Biographical Dictionary (Chambers); The Oxford Companion to English Literature; The Oxford Dictionary of Music; a complete Shakespeare; French- English Dictionary, and similar for German, Italian, American English, Spanish and Latin.

From there on it is a ‘free-for-all’ of reference books that interest me or are of direct use in my writing.

For many years I have ‘collected’ literary reference books, many from charity shops (at bargain price!), for I was once told, “If you only receive one good idea from a book, that book was worth its price.” It was good advice, and I have picked up many literary tips from my collection.

One unusual set of books is ‘The Children’s Encyclopaedia’ by Arthur Mee (the ten volume edition), these I find invaluable when searching out ‘odds and ends’ for quotes or situations. It is a personal choice, but I find the earlier editions much better than the later ‘coloured picture’ slimmer editions.

‘Britannica’ I use via my local library ‘on line’ service. I would like a bound set on the shelves – but if they were there I would probably never get any work done – I would be engrossed in the pages!

Asked by: Edward Richardson

  1. Edward Richardson on August 21, 2019

    I will allow that. Though I did make it clear the giant and the dwarf were in a flat desert.

    My impression of a flat desert is perfectly given in ‘Ozymandias’ by Shelley; ‘The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

    Perhaps, at some time in the far far distant future, someone will write a similar poem, but the name inscribed on the pedestal will not be ‘Ozymandias’, but most probably ‘Trump’.

    Shelley? Yet another giant upon whose shoulders we may all stand.

    Keep on writing.

  2. Libby Justice on August 20, 2019

    Wouldn't it be more interesting for the dwarf to find his own way up a mountain and discover the views for himself?

  3. Edward Richardson on August 20, 2019

    You are perfectly correct; ‘Stories wouldn't be worth reading if they were all the same, …’

    Before I go on, I wonder if you and I are the only people paying attention to what we are doing in this series of conversations? If anyone else is ‘listening in’ I would be pleased to know.

    Back to the plot. I had no intention of giving the impression I expected all writers to be the same or even producing the same sort of work if they followed my advice. What I was attempting to say was this, ‘We all have to learn our trade’.

    My usual explanation of this ‘learning’ is to cite Beethoven, wondering if he would be as good if he had not had Mozart to study. He may have been ‘different’ of course, but Mozart saved Beethoven from a lot of wasted effort.

    ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ is one of my ‘standard’ themes, and I carry, in my jacket pocket, a definitive Two Pounds coin – the one with the quoted slogan stamped round the edge. I use the coin to entertain people (children and adults) when the subject of education comes up.

    My story is the obvious one.

    Two people stand in a flat and boundless desert. One a giant, one a dwarf; I then ask the vital question, which one can see furthest, the giant or the dwarf? Most people jump in without thinking, and tell me it is the giant, for being taller than the dwarf the giant can see further. I tell them they are wrong (usually to some consternation on their part). The dwarf is able to see much further, for the dwarf can stand on the giant’s shoulders.

    I still maintain we all stand on the shoulders of others, be they family, teachers, mentors and so on.

  4. Libby Justice on August 20, 2019

    Having just read the Gormenghast trilogy, I'm amazed at how exciting writing without traditional structures can be. My best friend, hates it though.
    Stories wouldn't be worth reading if they were all the same, so it's a good job we've all got different opinions and approaches.

  5. Edward Richardson on August 18, 2019

    One of the greatest reasons to study history is that it prevents people making the same mistake twice. The same thing might be said about art, with the question asked, ‘How can anyone know what to do without studying what has been done before?’

    We all stand on the shoulders of giants; and by taking account of, and advice from, those who have gone before, we do not have to make the same mistakes they may have made.

    I will allow there are ‘primitive’ painters, and ‘primitive’ sculptors, but am not aware of ‘primitive’ writers. I wonder what their typescripts would look like?

    Some years ago I decided to take up painting, and study various artists via their DVD courses. I found it enlightening, and it saved me from launching myself into the wilderness. In particular the work of Frank Clarke (the artist from Ireland), for Frank tells us, in many of his training courses, “The world’s greatest artist has never painted a picture”.

    What a lovely phrase, and food for thought indeed!

    We all need to learn out trade, writing being one of them; and to save time, and a considerable amount of wasted effort, it is wise to read what others have to say. We do not have to take any notice of their advice – but I believe we ignore it at our peril.


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