One of my Christmas gifts from F was Steven Pinker’s The sense of style, subtitled The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. In it he quotes the opening lines from Richard Dawkins’ book Unweaving the Rainbow. The first dozen words capture all of your attention. The next dozen or so do the same with your curiosity. And the rest lead to a resolution that must surely set the scene for the rest of the book. Magical, and a perfect example of how good prose needn’t be confined to novels.
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die, because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
I’m going to enjoy reading Pinker’s book, in part because it isn’t, as its title might suggest, simply another list of what appear to be near arbitrary, very conservative and highly personal rules and preferences for writing style. Instead Pinker sets out to draw on his own and others’ research into the mental dynamics of reading and “the waxing and waning of mental load as readers comprehend a passage”. That’s worth learning for anyone who writes more than text messages.