Review: Shelby Steele’s Shame

Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country came out in 2015, but it remains as relevant as ever as an analysis of race and the political divisions that have become inflamed in America.

Shame is autobiography interspersed with historical and political context, making it a book that is more interesting, though perhaps less dryly academic, than the work of many others like Thomas Sowell (in, for example, The Quest for Cosmic Justice).

Steele follows a similar trajectory to Sowell; starting out as a young black man in America and then experiencing a world that had prejudged him. Steele’s account of racism shows how even those who perceived themselves as enlightened took part in bigotry and were unwilling to make personal sacrifices to reach the proper standard of just behavior.

And like Sowell, Steele brings his concerns with the political machinations of the modern left to the table. As a staunch advocate of individual rights and reforms, he argues that the philosophical and intellectual leaders among the conservatives have undertaken a noble quest to remove injustice and create a more perfect system.

He compares this perspective–the perspective of his father–with the modern belief that the past oppressions of America have shown it to be unfit and that only radical changes can improve society.

In 2015, this might have been derided as a strawman of the left, but recent events have shown Steele’s judgment to be eerily prescient.

His experiences with student radicalism and the Black Panthers in exile play a prominent role in forming his perception of the left, and one of the fundamental distinctions that he cites is the question of American exceptionalism: the idea that something novel about liberty, freedom, and self-reliance has been responsible for America being distinct from other countries.

Steele is less focused on the nature of American exceptionalism–he discusses it only in passing–but it is the divide between the political right, who see the exceptionalism as something that makes America worth preserving, and the political left, who are cynical about whether it even exists that forms the underlying foundation of the work.

Although it is less academically rigorous and more anecdotal than some other books written by prominent conservative voices on race in society, Shame is an important contribution to the corpus. Perhaps it is exactly the personal nature, the intersection between the world and the man, that makes it as powerful and valuable as it is.

Find it: Amazon affiliate link. I listened to the Audible version, available from the same page.

Rating: 5 out of 5

For the kids: It’s not a light text, but it blends personal interest and useful information. Shame includes accounts of real events and quotes that might trouble younger readers.

Who will enjoy it?

Conservatives seeking an answer to Critical Race Theory-derived views on the American history of race. People who like biographies with a touch of extra cerebral material. It’s well-written enough to hold broad appeal to audiences as a relevant text to understanding the American experience.

Review: Thomas Sowell’s The Quest for Cosmic Justice

Thomas Sowell is one of the most prominent American conservatives, and his The Quest for Cosmic Justice is a testament to why he’s achieved that status.

Sowell breaks down the distinction between what one could call the conservative (e.g. Austrian economics, universalist theories of law) plan to improve the lives of all Americans and the progressive (e.g. Keynesian/Rawlsian) method.

He focuses primarily on the concept of justice, and where he feels that progressives have gotten things wrong.

I will not seek to replicate Sowell’s argument, but the points that stood out to me are:

  1. The statistics and factors that lead into poverty (and why the Rawlsian approach should not be applied in particular to race and gender, as is in vogue with progressives)
  2. The distinction between traditional justice which seeks redress for grievances regarding crimes committed by individuals, and cosmic justice (which is more in line with modern “social justice” theory) which seeks to balance outcomes across a broad variety of people.
  3. The hazards of creating power structures required to seek cosmic justice; both in their propensity to create unintended consequences and tools for people who seek to abuse power.

Sowell’s work is brilliant at building a case and offering a well-read insight to social and political philosophies. However, if you want vibrant delivery, you may find his lectures, debates, and interviews more engaging.

In Sowell’s defense, the reason for the dryness of this book is that it is short for the level of content it delivers. While much of the book has interest, it relies more on the logic of its arguments and high-level analysis. This is not to imply that it leaves out key details. It just doesn’t have Hayek’s fervor or Steele’s personal connection that can bring some more engagement to a reader-unfriendly subject when it delves into economics.

With that said, I have more than a passing interest in economics, political philosophy, law, and cultural issues, which makes me the ideal target audience for Sowell’s work.

One note for audiences in 2020 might be to point out that Sowell refers to progressive thought primarily in the Rawlsian sense. While modern critical theorists build on this foundation, they have philosophical distinctions. Sowell’s arguments are still valid regardless, but you might find that postmodernists have different values than Rawls did.

Find it: Amazon affiliate link. I listened to the Audible version, available from the same page.

Rating: 5 out of 5

For the kids: If they have an interest in the subject. It’s not the most engaging and thrilling read, but it’s good solid stuff.

Who will enjoy it?

Political philosophy types, economists. If you’re a fan of Sowell, this is a classic work of his. It’s in the vein of Hayek’s blend of economics, political theory, and philosophy as seen in The Road to Serfdom, with a stronger emphasis on America in specific.

Review of Stephen King’s On Writing

I recently read Stephen King’s On Writing (Amazon affiliate link), which I found to be interesting. I’ve read a few other books on writing recently, so I figured it’d be interesting to compare King to other writers.

In the past I’d heard that King’s book was not really all that great for a writer, so I approached it with a certain amount of skepticism.

I split my reading across four days; the first two days covered roughly a third of the book each, then I split the remaining third up between the rest of the main text and the appendices.

At the end of the first day, I was in agreement with the skeptics. On Writing contains enough autobiographical content to be considered King’s memoir (which, coincidentally, is mentioned right on the cover, so there’s not really a surprise there). If you like King’s writing (I do) it will be a pleasant enough read, but other than seeing some traits and habits you can emulate there’s not a whole lot there in the way of practical advice.

The rest of the book, the remaining days of reading, were much more effective. King launches into a top-to-bottom overview of his writing process, which is quite interesting. Although it generally doesn’t do a whole lot of coaching on some of the elements, it gives a certain amount of insight to each.

And this is really where the recommendation gets tricky.

You see, King doesn’t give a whole lot of details about how you should write. He gives points you’ll need to address if you want to be a good writer, sometimes in a very basic way (e.g. “What is a good starting seed for a story and how can you tell?”) and sometimes being more specific (e.g. “How should you structure paragraphs?”), but he never goes into meticulous detail about anything.

For me, as someone who’s a fairly comfortable writer who wants to open up the world of creative writing, that’s useful. But I taught English, and while I don’t always adhere to best practices (do as I say, not as I do), I am at least familiar with them.

If you’re writing and you worry that the quality isn’t good enough, King doesn’t really have a lot of stuff for you, other than the reminder that he practiced a ton and wrote a lot of subpar stuff before he got good (which is largely communicated in the memoir portion of the book). If you’re putting out work that other people find unintelligible, you’re going to need to learn to fix that elsewhere.

I think this is best illustrated by his example for editing.

Now, this comes from work that was contemporary with On Writing, so it’s after he’s already become an expert writer, but his first drafts look tremendous compared to any first draft I’m currently in the realm of (not that I’m a good benchmark for quality), or any I’ve ever seen outside Stephen King’s (people do not usually rush to present me with first drafts, so again I’m not the best benchmark here).

By the time King’s showing us the process, the manuscript would probably be in a publication-worthy state for a lesser writer.

Now, a lot of that’s because King doesn’t want to waste his reader’s time time; proofreading isn’t the focus, revision is.

But it is an example of how the book generally goes.

As someone who’s been through four books on writing in two (three?) months, I think it’s a great example of a companion to other books. A more advanced, less specific book that leaves more to the individual and treats them like a journeyman or master instead of as an apprentice.

Plus, it’s written by Stephen King. Even if the lessons are occasionally thin, the writing is good enough that I found it a pleasant read; King intersperses humor and examples well enough that you forget you’re reading what could be an incredibly dry book (and I’ve read the dry writing manuals, ones with exercises, for crying out loud!).

Review of Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Amazon affiliate link) offers a different look at writing than you are likely to see in other writing books. It does so with passion, zeal, and above all else a sense of clarity and purpose which combine make it refreshing.

I’ve read or listened to quite a few books on writing recently, like John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which I also highly recommend (my review), but Lamott takes an approach that is conversational and cordial, making the reader (or listener) a co-conspirator with her in the ups and downs of life as a writer.

Two of the most challenging parts of writing are finding a spark, figuring out what you want to write, and then figuring out how to transfer it to paper. Lamott focuses on these two subjects almost to the exclusion of everything else, but she does so with such depth and from so many different angles that she never repeats herself and covers a good portion of everything else that you would want to know as a writer on the side.

Lamott captures the spirit of writing without feeling preachy or over-romantic. I think of Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (my review) as an example of a book that is sentimental rather than practical, basically a collection of calls to action and motivational speaking rather than an example of what writers are likely to encounter. Lamott, on the other hand, takes the experiences from her own personal perspective, giving the reader emotional attachment and lending them part of her drive.

Lamott is bitingly sarcastic and incredibly funny. She is transparent about her personal crises, leading to a book that shows both the bigger picture of the publication process and the smaller moments that make up the triumphs and ordeals of the writing process; from the feel of getting galley copies in the mail to the shared anxiety of calling another writer on the day of publication to realize that neither she nor he achieved the runaway success that they had dreamed of.

I wouldn’t suggest this book to younger readers due to some of the language and content in it, but it is still one that I would recommend to novice writers because Lamott never does anything that might come across as intimidating or elitist (at least, not without lampshading it in a devilish self-aware fashion). You get a feel for her personality and character and how her life has motivated her to write:

“I try to write the books that I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives… and that can make me laugh… Books, for me, are medicine.”

I think this is a meaningful outlook, and it’s worth noting that unlike some authors Lamott leaves it to the writer whether they want to have any overarching message or ideas. If all you have to say is a small truth that you learned from something that happened to you, Lamott gives as much encouragement as you would expect if you were to say that you had figured out the way to fix the universe. She also avoids giving too much of a dogma. A large part of her advice is to figure out methods that work for the individual writer, as a more airy and vapid individual or someone who wishes to sabotage their potential rivals might, but she actually gives enough advice and framework to make it possible to follow that path.

I went into this book with no knowledge of Lamott or her work, and left feeling like she had given me an intimate look into both her writing process and her advice for writers. Comparing it to something like Stephen King’s On Writing, which is definitely more autobiographical and takes longer to get into the craft side of things, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which is heavily predominated by craft.

I’d recommend Bird by Bird without reservation. It’s like having an intimate conversation with a great writer, and even barring an interest in writing it’s funny enough to be worth reading. That it has surprisingly practical and down-to-earth writing moments tucked underneath every joke and anecdote is a triumph that makes it sublime.

Review of Unbroken

I recently read the book Unbroken (Amazon affiliate link), written by Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken came out as a “major motion picture” a few years back, and I saw it in theaters and thought it was pretty good, but the problem with any film is that they have to choose between making things interesting and dumping a bunch of information on you.

A book, on the other hand, offers the potential to provide both information and engagement, since good writing can carry even a dry and boring subject to an amusing or fulfilling conclusion.

I’ve been meaning to read the book, written by Laura Hillenbrand, ever since I watched the movie. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian and WWII veteran, as he goes from a youth during the Great Depression to a man who overcomes some of the worst situations and harshest environments that people have ever found themselves in.

The book doesn’t pull any punches (a young-adult version is also available, aimed at students), but this helps it overcome the potential boredom that a 500 page book could descend into. A good portion of the book is dedicated to footnotes and notes, which turn Unbroken from mere story into a well-researched history and biography.

The story by itself would still be inspiring. Louis finds himself in Germany for the 1936 Olympics, joining the likes of Jesse Owens and others. Although Zamperini doesn’t directly experience or witness any persecution in Germany (which was trying to hide its crimes from the world at that point), he does see the gathering storm through a variety of signs, both subtle or otherwise.

Louis’s role as a bombardier in WWII is one of the more harrowing parts of the book. The sheer toll of the bombers on their crew and the number of airmen lost not just to the enemy but also to accidents sets a bleak precedent.

When Louis’s bomber crashes and he escapes along with two others (from a crew of around 10) to rafts, the story gets even more desperate, culminating in his eventual capture by the Japanese.

The POW experiences are captured well by the film, but the book goes into more detail about Louis’s fellow prisoners, showing them with a depth and richness that the film was incapable of replicating.

The film also ends with Louis’s freedom at the end of the war (a sequel was made, but went direct-to-disc), where Hillenbrand’s book carries through to the end of Louis’s life, with a major focus in the immediate postwar years.

It adds a level of complexity and hope to the story, showing not just what Zamperini went through but also what he accomplished.

Unbroken tells a tremendous story through its subject, but it matches the strength of its narrative with precise and deep language, the willingness to slow down to explain where necessary coupled with the skill to keep the pace flowing, and a raw and objective look at important events in history.

Unbroken may aim to tell a single person’s story, but it manages to speak to the human condition through its remarkable subject.

I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Review: Of Dice and Men

I recently read David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men (Amazon affiliate link), a book that provides an overview of what roleplaying games are and how they came to be.

I’m a game designer myself, so I’m fairly familiar with the industry. However, Ewalt’s work is intended for anyone; a novice or outsider can benefit just as much as an old-school gamer.

This can be credited to his journalistic work, actually going on the ground and talking to people who were intimately involved with the advent of Dungeons and Dragons.

And the book predominantly focuses on D&D. There’s a few reasons for that; not the least of which being that D&D is the largest game and that the events surrounding it tend to have to been played out over and over again within the industry. Ewalt’s own gaming hobby extends beyond D&D, though most of the examples of gaming are given from the context of D&D’s “3.5” edition.

With that said, it’s worth pointing out that in a 250 page book, more mention could be made of alternative games. Ewalt has a connection to D&D that runs deep, both in terms of the game itself and the interviewees throughout the book, but he misses a lot of potential by not looking outside the box. While he is able to draw a few connections that would be difficult to draw from scattered details and show a side of the industry that you don’t always get to see from the outside by getting an inside look at how the sausage is made, so many of the events are part of “nerd canon” as it were that there’s a little bit of overlap.

And it’s worth noting that Ewalt’s story is deeply personal. If you have no experience with D&D at all, this serves an illustrative purpose. I can appreciate it as a journalistic device as well, since it’s giving an insight to how the game is actually played.

These interludes are not poorly written, though I wouldn’t describe it as being made up of grand narratives. They’re evidentiary, not epic, and somewhat romanticized and streamlined (at least compared my own experiences).

I personally enjoyed the book quite a bit. It covers a variety of angles: personal interest, living history, explanation of a phenomena, and so forth. However, the one place where I will give it a bit of grief is this: Of Dice and Men really wants to be incredibly dramatic, and there are places where it is willing to sacrifice to do so.

Let me give an example. There’s a section where Of Dice and Men covers the whole history of gaming, but goes through it in maybe twenty or thirty pages. It also spends thirty pages on wargaming, which directly preceded D&D (Gary Gygax was primarily involved with wargaming when D&D became the new hot thing, as was Dave Arneson). The legal woes of TSR practically get a chapter unto themselves (which is not necessarily bad), while the decade and a half following them gets largely blipped over until we come to D&D Next.

Admittedly, this is the time which would be familiar to most gamers at the time of publication, but at the same time it feels like it’s a bit of a jarring transition. When you’ve already got 250 pages, what are another 50? Some incredibly influential games, like White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade get hardly any mention, and despite the in-depth history of TSR almost none of their other games get any serious coverage.

I don’t think that this is accidental, but I do think that if Ewalt had wanted to cover the full phenomena of roleplaying games as a culture he could have included some of the more notable alternatives, both because they’ve had a huge influence and because they serve as a potential gateway to people who don’t have an interest in the swords-and-sorcery setting that D&D is most known for. Likewise, the main discussion of D&D’s many settings is limited to Greyhawk and Blackmoor, both of which are noteworthy and meaningful, but the transition to different settings marks noteworthy philosophical shifts.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It has a lot of good ideas for people who want to get into gaming, and it has stuff that even an old hand like myself can get into and learn from. However, it doesn’t quite achieve what I think it set out to achieve. If you rely on it for all your knowledge you’ll be left with gaps. This is true of almost any book, but Of Dice and Men comes so close to greatness that it legitimately hurts when it only nears its potential.

Review: The Role of the Scroll

The Role of the Scroll (Amazon affiliate link) is a non-fiction book by Thomas Forrest Kelly, a professor of music at Harvard. It focuses primarily on how scrolls were used in the Middle Ages in Europe (but also covers the global use of scrolls in passing), and gives plentiful examples from a variety of contexts.

When I say that The Role of the Scroll covers a niche topic, I do not mean to say that it is strictly scientific and bland. Far from going into meaningless specifics about minutiae, it focuses on the historical significance of scrolls both as a class of document and as individual examples of manuscripts that changed or represented the world.

I generally enjoyed the book, though I have a few complaints that I’ll get to later. First I’d like to start with what I liked about it, and I’ll get to the rougher patches in a bit.

The strongest point of this whole book is that it elevates a very humble thing and dives into it in a way that to my knowledge has never been done before. As someone who likes reading quite a bit and has a connection with the written word, it’s interesting to see examples of a device that is not quite as dead as it may seem (I am typing this review in a text-box, a sort of digital scroll), and which had a tremendous value for shaping our world.

The opening chapters are strictly limited to scrolls themselves, giving examples from across world history and not just Europe (something I consider a strong point), and they’re probably the most similar to the sort of history book you’d expect.

Once you get past the opening chapters, Kelly moves into overviews of the various types of scroll used in the Middle Ages. Each overview uses examples from surviving scrolls, and the overall style is more lively and deep.

Kelly is professor of music, but he handles history fantastically well. The only hint that one gets that Kelly’s focus is in music and not history is in his deeper focus on musical works than some of the other documents, but even this is handled in a way that’s tremendously accessible.

The print edition I had was printed on thick glossy paper and had beautiful illustrations. The actual printing itself is fantastic and the book feels both good in the hand and easy to read. Some text for the captions around the illustrations of scrolls was hard to read in certain light (white text on a glossy black page background), so I might recommend the digital edition for anyone who would find this to be an issue. The scrolls themselves are not always able to be read; the reproduction is good, but often a whole scroll of several feet in length winds up on a page. Fortunately, Kelly points out interesting excerpts from the text, sometimes in captions by the illustration and sometimes in the main body text of the book, and one gets a feel for the beauty and majesty of the scrolls without necessarily being able to read them.

My only gripe is that The Role of the Scroll feels like it’s half-way between being a book for laypeople and a book for historians. On one hand, Kelly goes into a lot of detail explaining what people might need to know and establishing the human condition that led to the creation of scrolls. This is generally done in a way that even those not familiar with European history would be able to appreciate.

On the other hand, Kelly’s focus on making things immediately comprehensible to a layperson also means that basic things that would be common knowledge for people with a good knowledge of history get expanded upon greatly. This is then mirrored by an abstention from going into the most deep and complicated elements of the situations surrounding scrolls (except as pertains to music, where Kelly goes into greater detail). It may be that some of this information is not immediately available or would quickly veer off topic (for example, only a very cursory account is given of alchemical scrolls, but to give greater detail would definitely require going on a tangent).

Ultimately, this is a good book for an interesting read, and the illustrations stand out wonderfully throughout. It gives both a personal and serious look at its historical subjects, and leaves one with a greater understanding of the topic.

Writer’s note: Because The Role of the Scroll has no reviews on Amazon, I cross-posted this text there. I gave a five-star review, though if given more granularity I’d probably give it more of a 4.5 or 4.7 out of 5. It’s far from a perfect text, but it is a pioneering one.

Review of The Hero With an African Face

I read Clyde Ford’s The Hero with an African Face (Amazon affiliate link) this week and found it to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Now, with that said, it’s not a book I’d recommend to a disinterested novice. It targets an audience already familiar, to an extent, with the work of Jung and Campbell. While this knowledge isn’t strictly necessary, it helps. People familiar with literary criticism in general should not have difficulties.

The Hero with an African Face shines in its respect and depth of interaction with the myths it presents. Ford does a tremendous job bringing everything together in a meaningful way. Likewise, he builds from simple to complex themes and topics.

He also does not try to cram the whole of African mythology into a single schema. He addresses the contrasting and parallel elements within individual cultures without over-simplification. Ford talks about both the myths and the culture surrounding them with great detail. This allows Westerners with different cultural assumptions than Africans to better appreciate the myths.

As is common among surveys of mythology, Ford groups the myths by topic. He spends some time with creation myths, then on to myths about the underworld, and so forth. He also, as mentioned earlier, focuses on the cultural origins of the myths. The Yoruba oreishas’ stories come separate from the stories of ancient Ghana. The exception to this is when they are deliberately compared, which is always marked.

I’m not an expert on African myth. My limited knowledge of the subject is much less than Ford’s, so I can’t critique his own knowledge. I can say with confidence that my knowledge of African mythology has grown by reading this book.

A book like this has three ways it can provide value.

The first is its information. Assuming Ford’s work is correct, The Hero with an African Face delivers. His work is recommended by experts, which I will have to satisfy myself with. While the body is just 200 pages long, each page carries new and significant information. The book cannot cover the entirety of African mythology, but it gives a foundation.

As a source of stories, the book has more ambiguity. Its length limits it, and its stories are often abridged. Despite this, it still offers glimpses at captivating, and unfamiliar, stories. Many of the stories show the deep archetypal underpinnings of storytelling. These stories are absent in the Western canon, and give a feel for the breadth of human expression. It gives a whole new context for understanding the modern African writer.

The last criteria is how pleasant the book is to read. Ford uses diagrams and images to great effect, and bolsters the text. He intersperses personal and historical experiences with stories and literary theory. The whole text rings with passion and conviction, and carries such meaning that it is hard to pull away from.

Ford is a master wordsmith. Although he contents himself to apply others’ methods to a new frontier, he elevates their work. By applying a different perspective, Ford unlocks secrets that others were blind to. In particular, his take on the heroic cycle is refreshing. Ford contrasts the fact-based Western culture with the expression-based African culture. This paints the picture of a hero who gains qualities, instead of one who passes waystones.

This is an easy book to recommend. It’s academic, but also bears intrinsic interest. It tells stories that touch on universal themes, and helps us interpret all stories. It deals with the individual and the whole of humanity in one marvelous attempt.

Review of Letters to A Young Writer

I recently listened to Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (Amazon affiliate link), and since I often write reviews I figured I’d write a review of it.

If that feels like an uninspiring opening, you might not be too far from the truth.

Letters to a Young Writer was born out of the seeds of a blog, which McCann mentions in an early chapter, and it feels kind of like a blog.

So, with that said, you have the crux of the weakness in the book. It’s a collection of essays, but they’re all largely independent of each other. The result isn’t terrible, but it means that the entire book has very little build-up and delivery.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive book on writing, I’d suggest John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (my review), or quite frankly any of the longer-form books.

With that said, there’s only a couple criticisms that I would care to level McCann’s writing itself instead of the format of the book.

First, it’s overly flowery, and this is keeping in mind that it’s written for writers, and we tend to be flowery sorts. When McCann’s trying simply to inspire, this works really well. However, there are times when he could be giving a practical insight but it’s lost under layers of wanting to look good.

Second, it’s very experiential. McCann acknowledges this and provides plenty of places where he confesses to not knowing things (which I consider a great positive), but the problem is that when you combine this with the flowery nature of the prose you wind up with situations where you get an almost Montaigne-esque “Oh, but I don’t know for sure.”

While that’s certainly better than pretending to know, and it does enable McCann to explore some avenues he might not otherwise want to talk about because he wouldn’t feel authoritative on them, it feels like he’s going off the cuff and hasn’t done research (the idea of whether writers should go for a MFA in writing, for instance, is one where he prevaricates in a particularly noticeable fashion).

As for inspiration, McCann is very inspiring in the sense that he offers good pick-me-ups and a lot of encouragement. Some of the work feels overly political or, perhaps, not political but attached to the notion that the current moment is radically different than all past moments.

To clarify what I mean, it feels like McCann tells the writer to write because only writers can bring truth and purpose to being. Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to that, as someone who is very into the theories of Jung and Campbell and the roles stories play to our psyche, but this sort of weird teleological devotion sends him off-topic.

If you’re into that, it works well for inspiration. It’s very emotional, however.

All-in-all, the fifty-two essays feel almost like they’re intended to be a once-a-week thing, but the question then is why one wouldn’t just look at a blog. McCann certainly is a gifted writer, and he hits some high points, but with an average length of about three pages the essays generally don’t build on what there is to know about writing beyond a very elementary level.

There are also parts that would be a little too crude for a young writer (i.e. a child), with McCann letting his language get a little coarse. It’s not excessive vulgarity, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting it in a classroom library or giving it to a student.

The audiobook was read by McCann himself, and I actually found him to do a really good job of putting emotion into it and making his meaning clear. He has an Irish accent and musical cadence that really makes his point build to a crescendo and carries more than just the letter of the word.

So do I recommend it?

It’s hard to say. At its price ($14 for a Kindle version at the time of writing), there are a lot of alternatives that could serve just as well, either in the form of blogs or more authoritative volumes. If you like McCann, or you’re looking for something like a writer’s devotional, then it might be more of an option.

Review of Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4 (Amazon affiliate link) by John McPhee is one of the clearest and best books on writing I have ever read, if not the best book on writing I have ever read. It really helped me break through some of the blocks I’ve had as a writer and move on with my writing in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.

When I started reading, I didn’t know who McPhee was. Over the course of reading, I discovered more about him, but the goal of Draft No. 4 isn’t to provide a biography, it’s to provide guidance.

The best way that I can describe this is as follows: McPhee shows how he earned his place in the writing world by giving an overview of what a writer has to do to get there.

This doesn’t mean the book is perfect; it doesn’t cover a lot of adiaphora and is generally focused on non-fiction writing (including creative non-fiction, a field I don’t have much experience in), and also on the general practice of writing.

Now, maybe I’m just a nerd, but I found McPhee’s constant insights to the writing world to be actually quite fun. Like, even in lieu of the whole “oh hey, I can learn something here” aspect of such a book, you get to have the pleasure of hearing about people and places and how those people and places got turned into a story.

The best example of this comes at the end of the book, where McPhee recounts an encounter with Eisenhower (yes, that Eisenhower). Eisenhower was painting a still-life and had left out some grapes, and McPhee recounted that:

“Ike said, ‘Because they’re too God-damned hard to paint.’”

This is just one example of how McPhee recounts lessons (the lesson here is that sometimes a writer just can’t capture something in words) by combining practical, but theoretically presented, advice with personal anecdotes that go beyond just serving as evidence and instead are used to add some vibrancy to the text.

Draft No. 4 is a book that I often found myself saying “Just one more chapter” to, even though each chapter is rather substantial. The organization of the book is such that each chapter focuses on a particular domain of the writer.

The great thing about the book is that McPhee has actually written some very impressive books and he recounts a lot of his process within Draft No. 4. Not only is it full of personal anecdotes, it also features fairly detailed accounts of the making of a couple of his personal favorite works.

The first couple chapters in particular do this quite a bit. At first when I started reading, I felt overwhelmed. McPhee starts with technical writing advice, explaining his work using diagrams and terminology that even I, an English major, struggled with at first.

Then he gave an example of how he wrote in process, and it all made sense. It was a showcase of how to tell a story and how to lay out a text, but also how to figure out the methods you want to use for each, and how to move from writing simple things as a novice to more complicated things as a master.

Couple that with more domain-specific overviews of the writing process and you’ve got a great book that can help both someone with relatively little professional writing experience (like myself) and someone like a veteran writer looking for tips and inspiration.

It’s worth noting that while McPhee showcases his own experience, he never does it out of self-indulgence. It’s always part of an object lesson, and sometimes he points out embarrassing or foolish mistakes on his own part to make sure that a lesson learned painfully can be passed on to people who hopefully listen and learn from his mistakes. That’s the mark of a great teacher.

Draft No. 4 is a tremendous book, and I highly recommend it. There is some harsh language, in academic or mimetic context, and a couple more adult moments described in the context of journalism, so it’s not something that I would feel comfortable using in anything lower than a college classroom, but it’s something that I would find invaluable for any student with the maturity to see McPhee’s talent and advice for what it is.