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The Words On the Page

I feel like I’ve been reading at a much more rapid rate recently, and I think it’s because I’m so busy that I need to do something where I can’t multi-task (at least mentally). I can’t write while I’m reading, and I increasingly have a hard time listening to music while I’m reading. And that sense of escape and discipline has been especially strong as I’ve been working my way through Brenda Wineapple’s White Heat. The book, a sort of co-biography of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a writer and advocate for social change, is excellent (this New Yorker review is a good summary). And it’s also a refreshing reminder of a time when wide swaths of society took writing seriously.

Dickinson and Higginson ended up correspondents when she sent him a letter following a piece of advice to young writers he published in The Atlantic. It’s hard to imagine, in a day when print space is so precious, that the magazine would devote column inches to a similar piece today. And we also live in a time when, though we produce an enormous number of words, prose style seems less important than ever. The number of writers who have made their names on a distinctive prose style, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, is really very small. I feel some real longing for the days when writing skill, rather than subject material, be it partisan, policy-oriented, or cultural, was what made an author, when being a generalist was encouraged rather than a limitation.

I’m sure that’s romantic and even a bit silly, but I also think it’s the product of concentration. Dickinson found that power in a room where she essentially confined herself, Higginson in the social conflicts of his day. Wineapple’s book is a reminder that I ought to seek more of it, that even as a writer about our vast and fast-changing popular culture, I might benefit more from stepping back, and away from the maelstrom, even just for a couple of hours a week.

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