One of the most scintillating author events with which I have ever been involved was when we played host to Steven Pinker at the Sheldonian Theatre. On that occasion, he spoke about his book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, which still rates for me personally as the greatest work of non-fiction I have ever read. In that book, Steven Pinker suggests that humanity is becoming less rather than more violent. That argument is then supported by an astonishing 500 pages of history, anthropology and sociology and what is more, those 500 pages do not forget to be, in parts, appealingly anecdotal and yes, even amusing.
Pinker’s new book, ‘The Sense of Style’, is a scientific look at crafting graceful and articulate prose. Determined not to bemoan the degradation of modern standards, and even more determined to express how important it is to add beauty to the world, what Steven Pinker is doing here is writing a style manual of an elevated kind, one which is thoughtful and inspiring and which anatomises language with a steady precision. As you would expect, Steven Pinker gives examples along the way, citing snippets of what he considers to be both good and bad writing. Pinker’s own writing is undeniably elegant, which of course helps to reinforce the entire raft of arguments he expounds through each chapter.
Explaining how the human mind works and relates to language is of course key to a good deal of this – and we can be in the hands of no more qualified an expert that Professor Pinker in that regard. I could expand on this point, but that would necessitate turning a pithy blog piece into a much more substantial review, so I will leave you to read his book instead!
Some of his contentions and observations bring to mind, tangentially, something that the novelist David Mitchell was saying just this week when asked about his writing style – he talked about the look of the words on the page and the fact that the eye is like the blind person’s finger reading braille on the page (he talked about how ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybe’ mean the same thing, but we instinctively know when to use one and when to use the other. He also talked about ‘perhaps’ being spikier-looking on the page, whereas ‘maybe’ is smoother).
I am looking forward a very great deal to hearing Steven Pinker speak and to meet the great man once again, and if you haven’t obtained your tickets already, I exhort you to come along to what is bound to be a mind-expanding and life-improving event – and quite probably a little mischievous as well.
Zool Verjee, 12th September 2014
Steven Pinker appears at the Sheldonian Theatre on Tuesday 23rd September at 7pm, tickets cost £6 and are available by calling 01865 333623 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (if you wish to sign up to our events mailing list simply request this in the email)
Our full events schedule, including the likes of Marilynne Roninson, Deborah Levy and Michael Morpurgo can be found here