Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Month: July, 2016

Destiny of the Republic

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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

James A. Garfield is the type of US President known only to people who want to win Trivial Pursuit. But Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic makes a very good case for why the man and his times are not something we should ignore so easily.

As good as many US presidents have been, the era around the Civil War – with one standout exception – produced a lot of dullards and duffers as presidents. Either too willing to indulge the slave holders in the South, or too captured by the corruptions of the North, the second half of the 19th century is a somewhat sorry period in US governance.

While an assassins bullet denied Garfield the time to make a mark on history (he served just 4 months in health, and lived only 3 more as an invalid), he had all the qualities to launch an industry of biographers. Born in deep poverty in rural America, he ran a school, worked on the canal boats, fought in the Civil War, served in the House of Representatives for nine terms, and won the Presidency without actually seeking to be the candidate or campaigning.
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The Elements of Eloquence

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The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth
Generally, it’s not the done thing to be laughing while on a plane trip. And doing so with a book on the English language in your hand is especially frowned upon. But such were the circumstances I found myself in last week when devouring this brilliant little tome.

Each of the 40 or so chapters is only a few pages, but that is all that is needed for the author to outline dozens of rhetorical techniques and show how they are integral to many of your favourite lines, from Shakespeare to Katy Perry.

Forsyth explains why ‘Bond, James Bond’ works (it’s a diacope), why the repetition of words at the start of each sentence captures attention (the power of epistrophe), and why epizeuxis is the real estate agents’ best friend (location. location. location).

As a particular emphasis, Forsyth shows how Shakespeare practices and improved on these techniques across his plays, and what makes some of his best lines tick (‘to be or not to be’ gets its power from the symmetry and repetition of ‘to be’ rather than simply as a rhetorical question). He also adds in little asides, such as noting that for absolutely no good reason at all, all adjectives in English have to be in the order of ‘Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun’. Hence why you’ve never read about a ‘great green dragon’ (as seven year old Tolkien once tried to describe).

While this is a bleary and badly written review, I found myself adopting a handful of techniques from Forsyth’s book in a speech I gave a few days after reading the book. Not in a forced “can I be clever” way (though I’m always open to such illusions), but in a “oh if I move this to here, or repeat that there, the paragraph will work much better). Small edits that aid eloquence.

Strongly recommended. If only to dispel the idea that learning how language works should be boring.