Lit Bits

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have had this book on my shelf since the 7th grade, so I know it inside and out.  To tell you the truth, I'm probably not very objective about it - too familiar with the story and the main character, Holden Caulfield.  But on re-reading it recently I noticed that the whole thing is very bleak and depressing - and Holden, being an 'unreliable protagonist' is not very likable.  Yet I kept reading, kind of like seeing a car wreck.  Maybe the story works because there's no real plot to follow, and Holden just wanders from place to place encountering 'phonies' everywhere he goes, and as readers we become 'voyeurs' watching his journey.

Although this is a landmark book, groundbreaking really, a lot elements are dated, which is to be expected after 60 years; a lot of antiquated language abounds, even though the dialogue is superb and very realistic.  My contemporaries and I  found this book out of date when we read it back in 1987, so I imagine it doesn't hold up well in the here and now, in 2011.  But the themes of loneliness and cynicism are universal, and you'll enjoy the book If you can get past a lot of the 1940's style lingo.  Salinger has one thing going for him; he keeps you ambiguous because you never entirely like or trust any of his characters.  A product of his own sick mind? Maybe.

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"... Man is always marveling at what he has blown apart, never at what the universe has put together, and this is his limitation ..."

- Loren Eiseley


Humorous Storytelling || Mark Twain

"... The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it ..."

I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only claim to know how a story ought to be told, for I have been almost daily in the company of the most expert story-tellers for many years.

 There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind — the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.
The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story—understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print—was created in America, and has remained at home.
The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the “nub” of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.

Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub.

Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at. Dan Setchell used it before him, Nye and Riley and others use it to-day.
But the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub; he shouts it at you—every time. And when he prints it, in England, France, Germany, and Italy, he italicizes it, puts some whooping exclamation-points after it, and sometimes explains it in a parenthesis. All of which is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.

  John Steinbeck and Advice for Beginning Writers


"I have written a great many stories and I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.."

Dear Writer:

      Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

      The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all - so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.

      So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher's side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

      It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn't, and maybe it's because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

      If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

      It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

      I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic '20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.

      I was told, "It's going to take a long time, and you haven't got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe."

      "Why?" I asked.

      "Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor."

      It wasn't too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time - a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.

      She told me it wouldn't.


Jack London: On Writing

• You wrote your story at white heat. Hell is kept warm by unpublished manuscripts written at white heat. Develop your locality. Get in your local color. Develop your characters. Make your characters real to your readers. Get out of yourself and into your readers' minds and know what impression your readers are getting from your written words. Always remember that you are not writing for yourself but that you are writing for your readers.
– Letter to Ethel Jennings, aspiring writer, 1915

• Don't quit your job in order to write unless there is none dependent upon you.

• Don't dash off a six-thousand word story before breakfast.

• Don't write too much. Concentrate your sweat on one story rather than dissipate it over a dozen.

• Don't loaf and invite inspiration: light out after it with a club, and if you don't get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.

• Set yourself a 'stint,' and see that you do that 'stint' every day.

• Study the tricks of the writers who have arrived. They have mastered the tools with which you are cutting your fingers.

• Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. Cheap paper is less perishable than gray matter, and lead pencil markings endure longer than memory.

• And work. Find out about this earth, this universe ...

Mark Twain on Writing
Monday September 8, 2008
By Richard Nordquist, Guide to Grammar & Composition

After touring St. Paul's Cathedral during a trip to London in 1872, Mark Twain jotted this fervent response in his notebook: "Expression--expression is the thing in art. I do not care what it expresses, and I cannot tell, generally, but expression is what I worship, it is what I glory in, with all my impetuous nature."

As his readers are well aware, Twain also gloried in expressing himself through language. And throughout his life, this master stylist had much to say about the art of writing.

* On the Best Time to Start Writing
The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.
(Mark Twain's Notebook, 1902-1903)

* On Getting the Right Word in the Right Place
To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself. . . . Anybody can have ideas--the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.
(Letter to Emeline Beach, February 1868)

* On Good Grammar
I like the exact word, and clarity of statement, and here and there a touch of good grammar for picturesqueness.
(The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1924)

* On the Rules of Grammar
I am almost sure by witness of my ear, but cannot be positive, for I know grammar by ear only, not by note, not by the rules. A generation ago I knew the rules--knew them by heart, word for word, though not their meanings--and I still know one of them: the one which says--but never mind, it will come back to me presently.
(The Autobiography of Mark Twain, 1924)

* On Style and Matter
Great books are weighed and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar.
(Speech at the Annual Reunion of the Army and Navy Club of Connecticut, April 1887)

* On Writers Who Favor Foreign Phrases
They know a word here and there, of a foreign language, and these they are continually peppering into their literature, with a pretense of knowing that language--what excuse can they offer? The foreign words and phrases that they use have their exact equivalent in a nobler language--English; yet they think they "adorn their page" when they say Strasse for street, and Bahnhof for railway station, and so on--flaunting these fluttering rags of poverty in the reader's face and imagining he will be ass enough to take them for the sign of untold riches held in reserve.
(A Tramp Abroad, 1880)

* On Revising
You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.
(Letter to Orion Clemens, March 1878)

* On Adjectives
As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.
(Pudd'nhead Wilson, 1894)

* On Verbosity
I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English--it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them--then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice."
(Letter to D. W. Bowser, March 1880)

George Orwell's Rules for Writers
"If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out"
By Richard Nordquist, Guide

The English language generously provides us with more than half-a-million words to work (and play) with. Yet consider how often we find ourselves straining to find the right words to express our thoughts. As the English novelist and journalist George Orwell once asked, "Is there anyone who has ever written so much as a love letter in which he felt that he had said exactly what he intended?"

Some might be surprised to hear a wordsmith such as Orwell talking about the inherent limitations of language. After all, the author of 1984 and several classic essays is famous for his taut, lucid style. Why, if anybody could make writing look easy, surely it was George Orwell.

But maybe it takes a master craftsman to recognize the inadequacy of his tools. As Orwell observed in the essay "New Words" (1941), "So soon as we are dealing with anything that is not concrete or visible (and even there to a great extent--look at the difficulty of describing anyone's appearance) we find that words are no liker to the reality than chessmen to living beings."

Orwell's Five Rules

Another reason some readers might be surprised to hear such thoughts from Orwell is that one of his best known essays, "Politics and the English Language," seems to assume a contrary stance. There, after illustrating "the decay of language" in his time (the 1940s), he offers as an antidote six elementary rules. Here are the first five:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Similar to the "practical rules" delivered 40 years earlier in Henry Fowler's The King's English, Orwell's precepts, though simplistic, appear to be sensible enough. We can fix the language, he seems to be saying, if we'd just stop doing these bad things.
Orwell's Sixth Rule

But it's Orwell's sixth and final rule that deserves special attention: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It's this last point (one that never appeared in The King's English, by the way) that signals Orwell's deeper understanding of the power and the limits of language and prescriptions. "A writer," he once said, "can do very little with words in their primary meanings. He gets his effect if at all by using words in a tricky roundabout way."
The Limits of Language and Rules

When instinct fails, rules may guide us. But rules shouldn't preoccupy the writer. The real job, the enduring task of the writer, is cultivating the instinct for language--even when language so stubbornly resists the precision we seek.

Another great stylist, French novelist Gustave Flaubert, expressed the point more eloquently: "Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."

No typewriter for old men: Cormac McCarthy to part with beloved Olivetti

Veteran novelist to auction treasured portable that he bought in a pawnshop in 1963
Sam Jones -, Tuesday 1 December 2009

Hemingway stood before his to hammer out tales of men and bulls who were noble and brave and doomed, EE Cummings used his to innovate and discombobulate, and now Cormac McCarthy is ending a five-decade partnership that has corralled 5m words by selling his.

However, McCarthy's decision to retire the portable Olivetti typewriter whose ribbons have unloosed such novels as No Country For Old Men and The Road is not wholly of his own choosing.

The machine, which he bought in a Tennessee pawnshop for $50 in 1963, is beginning to betray understandable symptoms of old age and hard usage. If the Lettera 32 had hooves, it would have been dragged out to meet the bolt gun years ago.

"It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose," said the writer. "I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not published. Including all drafts and correspondence, I would put this at about 5m words over a period of 50 years."

When a friend offered to buy the 76-year-old Pulitzer-prizewinner a replacement, McCarthy volunteered to auction his machine and has promised the proceeds to the Santa Fe Institute, a "transdisciplinary research community" dedicated to expanding the boundaries of scientific understanding.

Christie's, which is due to auction the machine – complete with a letter of authentication from McCarthy – in New York on Friday, reckons the typewriter will fetch between $15,000 (£9,000) and $20,000.

Although some might argue that such a sum is a bit steep for a pawnshop purchase, the rare book dealer acting for McCarthy in the sale insists the Olivetti is now almost an icon in its own right.

"When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac's typewriter," Glenn Horowitz told the New York Times. "It's as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss army knife."

McCarthy himself told the paper that it was those very qualities that had won him over. Before heading off to Europe in the early 1960s, he said, he had used a Royal machine – the make beloved of Hemingway – but had been won over by the little Olivetti. "I tried to find the smallest, lightest typewriter I could find."

Despite the advent of the PC, the author remains attached to the sound of the metallic keys, even if others struggle to understand their archaic appeal.

He recalls working at the Santa Fe Institute one summer and attracting the attention of a curious visitor.

"I was in my office clacking away," he told the NYT. "One student peered in and said: 'Excuse me. What is that?'"

McCarthy is not the only writer to stick by his faithful machine.

Will Self, who admits to "fetishising" typewriters, has often extolled the virtues of doing things the old-fashioned way.

"Writing on a manual makes you slower in a good way, I think," he said. "You don't revise as much, you just think more, because you know you're going to have to retype the entire thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it."

On McCarthy's side of the Atlantic, Don DeLillo is another famous devotee.

"I need the sound of the keys, the keys of a manual typewriter," he told one interviewer.

"The hammers striking the page. I like to see the words, the sentences, as they take shape.

"It's an aesthetic issue: when I work I have a sculptor's sense of the shape of the words I'm making. I use a machine with larger than average letters: the bigger the better."

McCarthy, whose post-apocalyptic novel The Road has been turned into a film set for release in the UK next year, hopes the sale of the typewriter will go some way to reversing the "not-so-benign neglect" to which the 1950s building that houses the Santa Fe Institute has been subjected.

The writer is now helping to renovate the property and its library. "It's just a great place," he said.

Even if the Olivetti makes only its lower estimate later this week, it will dwarf the $2,750 that one of Hemingway's manual Royals fetched two years ago.

McCarthy himself would doubtless bridle at paying so much for a simple machine.

His generous friend has already tracked down a replacement Olivetti which, miraculously, cost even less than the original.

"I think he paid $11, and the shipping was about $19.95," said McCarthy.

Cormac McCarthy's Olivetti Lettera 32: the writer has written 5 million words on it but is now selling it and donating the proceeds to the Santa Fe Institute. Photograph: Christie's

The Strange Meadowlark, Jack Kerouac
Among the writings Jack Kerouac set down specifically about his Spontaneous Prose method, the most concise would be his "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose", a list of thirty "essentials." A lot of it may not make much sense to the average "grounded" modern writer, but I thought it was an interesting look into the mind of a literary legend, although I suspect that someone like Kerouac, who eschewed "Straight Literature", would plant tongue firmly in cheek rather then try to explain why he wrote the way he did.

Jack Kerouac's roll of teletype paper, on which he wrote his masterpiece, On the Road.

"Belief and Technique for Modern Prose"

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside your own house
4. Be in love with your life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Don't think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

Interesting Fact: Jack Kerouac wrote 'On the Road' on a one hundred and twenty-foot scroll of tracing paper, single-spaced without margins or paragraph breaks

Addendum - Jimmy Breslin on Kerouac: Get Him a Box of Periods!

Yesterday's Clip Job (an excerpt every day from the Voice archives) featured a dispatch from a writer by the name of James Breslin who chronicled Jack Kerouac's visit to Brooklyn College in March of 1958. Curious as to whether this Breslin was the Pulitzer Prize-winner who later wrote under the byline Jimmy Breslin, I asked the Voice's Tom Robbins about it. And he put in a call to the man himself.

It's not the same Breslin. But, as you might have guessed, Jimmy had a little something to say about Jack:

"It is not me. I knew Kerouac he lived in Richmond Hill, on 134th, near 101st.... The Philadelphia Inquirer, gave him the whole roll of UPI [teletype] paper so he could just keep typing. I should've given him a fucking box of periods. Taught a whole generation how to write run-on sentences. A disgrace!"

March 5, 1958, Vol. III, No. 19
The Day Kerouac Almost, But Not Quite, Took Flatbush
By James Breslin

[No, not that Jimmy Breslin -- Tony O.]

"Man, how come I like your book, but I don't like you?" This remark was made amid loud jeering while Jack Kerouac played "meet the author" last Tuesday evening for Brooklyn college students.

Every campus Bohemian, Hobohemian, and Subterranean had donned crew-neck sweater, taken pen and notebook in hand, and marched right down to that lecture to find out just what this crazy Kerouac and his beat generation are all about, anyway.

Jack, however, who had left Columbia "because I quit the football team and had to start paying tuition," declined to make any pronouncements for the academy.

"What's the beat generation's outlook on life?"

"It's an illusion."

"What do you mean?"

"It's an illusion, not real--man, you ought to know, you go to college!"

The simmering hostility of the crowd boiled up as Kerouac identified his literary influences as Dostoevsky and Walt Kelly. He calmly informed the Brooklynites that he wrote because he was bored, and published to make money.

Jack further declared that he was a story-teller and preacher, like Dostoevsky, and that his writing, like a Chinaman, "spits forth intelligence."

When a student inquired whether Kerouac was at present sober, Danny Price, one of Jack's bushed entourage, broke in:

"There's probably not one person in this room who doesn't think he can write a book. But remember, this guy you're putting down has written one."

"Why don't you answer our questions?" someone complained.

"I'm a Zen Master," replied Kerouac.

The prosecution rested, and the defense opened with two energetic readings by poets Philip Lamantia and Howard Hart. A French horn blew a muted background.

Then the Kerouac group interrogated the crowd.

"What about love--nobody has even mentioned love?"

With an answer forthcoming, Lamantia read his poem on love to close the hearing.

'Poe toaster' misses 60-year ritual at poet's tomb

(AFP) – Jan 19, 2010

WASHINGTON — A mysterious visitor who each year leaves roses and cognac on Edgar Allen Poe's tomb in Baltimore, Maryland, missed his rendezvous Tuesday for the first time in 61 years, the Poe Society said.

"He did not show up this morning," Jeffrey Savoye, secretary and treasurer of the 380-member society, told AFP.

Each year since 1949, the 100th anniversary of Poe's birth, an often-times cloaked individual left a bottle of cognac and a few roses at the foot of Poe's tomb, usually at night, in tribute to the legendary poet.

"Occasionally he showed up early, like 11:00-11:30 the evening before. But normally it's from midnight to 5:00 am," Savoye said.

Around 50 people waited in vain from Tuesday night to watch the "Poe Toaster," as the visitor has been dubbed, he added. Many traveled from across the United States for the 201st anniversary of Poe's birth.

"As far as we know, they have not missed a year until now," Savoye said of the Poe Toaster.

The original yearly visitor apparently died in 1998, but left the pilgrimage up to his two sons.

"We were left a note some years ago saying that the original toaster had died... We interpreted the message that the torch will be passed... We are assuming that two sons of this person have been carrying it on," he said.

"We don't know who they are."

- Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved.


  1. Wow! This is a fabulous post. I'm not sure whose advice I love the most. Steinbeck or Twain? But then there is Orwell's concise advice, his five rules. Alas, I cannot choose.

  2. I am so happy to have found this site. Thank you for taking the time to post so much information and inspiration. I had nearly forgotten what inspiration was!


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