Paperback review: From The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker to Revival, by Stephen King

Also The Making of Home, by Judith Flanders, The Making of Home, by Judith Flanders and Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi

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The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker - Penguin £9.99

We’re all familiar with those style guides that lecture us about confusing infer with imply, or berate ignoramuses who say “between you and I”. They can be fun, and sometimes informative, but even if you agree with most of their strictures, there’s something irritating about their cocksure certainty. What’s more they are seldom written by real experts on language, just well-read people with strong opinions and memories of grammar they learned at school. Steven Pinker’s style guide is different. First, he is an expert, the author of The Language Instinct and a Chomskian linguist who understands, and can explain, the underlying rules and logic of sentence structure. And his aim here is not to teach us how to avoid solecisms, but to write well – clearly, gracefully, with respect and consideration for the reader. He gives and discusses examples of good style and also analyses the habits that lead to soggy prose: “metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologizing, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives”. Much bad writing stems from what he calls “the Curse of Knowledge” - where experts simply don’t put themselves in the position of the non-expert reader. An entertaining section “Telling Right from Wrong” discusses some favourite rules of grammarians and debunks them; it’s fine to split infinitives and to use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, OK? Finally Pinker dons his purist’s hat and explains common errors which there is good reason to avoid, on grounds of clarity, elegance, or precision. It helps that Pinker himself is an admirably clear and graceful writer, a master of what he calls “the classic style”. You can read this for the pleasure of the prose alone. Both in its example and its precepts it could make you a better writer.

The Making of Home, by Judith Flanders - Atlantic books £9.99

A fascinating slice of social history on how the idea of home has developed from the Middle Ages to the present day, this book is full of “who knew?” facts, and perceptive observations. In an introductory chapter, Flanders distinguishes between countries which have a separate word for “house” and “home” and those which don’t; the “home countries” tend to be Northern European, Protestant, late-marriage societies, whilst the “house countries” are Southern, Catholic, early marriage societies. It’s the home countries where innovations such as curtains, corridors, front gardens, and rooms devoted to specific functions first appeared. Flanders uses the home as a lens through which to view changes in the role of women, the family, working patterns, and other cultural shifts. Her knowledge is encyclopaedic. I loved it. My only quibble is that Flanders does not always put names to her sources, writing of “a modern historian of sexuality” (but who was it?), or “a magazine [read by] the urban English upper classes” (but what was it called?).

Revival, by Stephen King - hodder £7.99

All Stephen King’s books hook you from page one, and this re-telling of the Frankenstein story is no exception. A boy in a New England town befriends a charismatic new preacher, Jacobs, who performs intriguing experiments with electricity and then, after a personal tragedy, leaves town. Years later, when the boy has grown up to be a rock musician and drug addict, he meets Jacobs again; and Jacobs’ mastery of the power of electricity is far greater. But is he using it for good – or evil? It’s an enjoyable piece of American Gothic. King writes extremely well about childhood; but the later parts are less engaging, and the ending seemed a little perfunctory. Like all Stephen King’s books, though, it would make a great movie.

The Human Age, by Diane Ackerman - Headline £8.99

Most geologists agree that we are now in a new epoch, the Anthropocene: an age in which human domination of the planet will leave dramatic changes in the fossil record. We’re changing the climate, destroying habitats, and driving species extinct whilst breeding at a furious rate ourselves. Yet Diane Ackerman stresses the creative possibilities of our new scientific knowledge and technological powers; we can preserve the DNA of endangered species; farm the seas sustainably; recycle the body heat of human crowds; plant living walls in cities; print our own medicines, and maybe even living tissue and body parts, using 3D printers. It’s heady stuff. But Ackerman’s prose is too florid; when the content is this exciting, you can say it quietly.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi - Picador £7.99

“Boy” is a young woman. She flees her violent father (“the rat catcher”) and makes a new life in a new town, where she marries and acquires a step-daughter (“Snow”) and has a daughter of her own (”Bird”). Snow is sent away. It’s an odd story, with dashes of fantasy (Bird cannot see herself in mirrors, for instance): a re-visiting of Snow White, but mostly from the stepmother’s viewpoint. It’s about race and about family secrets, and springs some surprising, indeed barely credible revelations. I’m afraid I found the style pedestrian. Sometimes you run into a novel that you just can’t get on with, and that happened to me here. However, Oyeyemi has won plenty of critical plaudits, so I’m the one that’s out of step.