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Zinsser

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Just came across something I posted to a mailing list back in mid-1999; thought it was worth recycling as a journal entry. I haven't edited the email other than to clean up the formatting.


Newest addition to the list of Jed's literary idols: Hans Zinsser. Steve just showed me a copy of Zinsser's 1935 book Rats, Lice and History, which, like McNeil's Plagues and Peoples 30 years later, traces the effects of infectious diseases (in this case, specifically typhus, which Zinsser isolated and developed a vaccine for) on human history. The first half of the book apparently contains a great deal of discussion of art and its relation to science. In his preface, Zinsser writes:

For our chapters and comments on matters of literary interest we make no apologies. Although we regard them as pertinent to the general scheme of our exposition, many will regard them as merely impertinent. But, in a way, this book is a protest against the American attitude which tends to insist that a specialist should have no interests beyond his chosen field.... [T]he day has twenty-four hours; one can work but ten and sleep but eight.

We hold that one type of intelligent occupation should, in all but exceptional cases, increase the capacity for comprehension in general; that it is an error to segregate the minds of men into rigid guild classifications; and that art and sciences have much in common and both may profit by mutual appraisal.

Chapter 1 begins with this lovely sentence:

This book, if it is ever written, and--if written--it finds a publisher, and--if published--anyone reads it, will be recognized with some difficulty as a biography.

Opening to a random page, I found this sentence: "Having written the preceding paragraphs, we read them over and came to the conclusion that there was little in them that mattered very much."

Another random page:

...Take T. S. Eliot--who, in his prose, shows great clarity of thought and to whom no one will deny talent, originality, and, on occasion, great beauty. But in much of his poetry he plays, as has been aptly remarked, a guessing game with readers, whom he seems to appraise, apparently with some reason, as imbeciles. "Guess which memory picture of my obviously one-sided erudition I am alluding to? See note 6a." Then he drops suddenly, after a few lines of majestic verse, into completely irrelevant babble.

"In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo."

One is tempted to add, "Eenie, meenie, minie, mo."

Okay, so Zinsser is a little over-vociferous (nice rhythm to that phrase, think I'll keep it) on his particular opinions about art, but he writes about them so entertainingly that I'd be hard-put to be offended. . . . I'll definitely have to keep an eye out for a copy of this.

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