Words, etc.

POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?
HAMLET: Words, words, words.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2:2:191-192)

Ah, I love quoting Shakespeare in the morning. Or something. The truth is, I’ve always liked this little exchange in Hamlet, precisely because the prince’s answer is one that never happens.

If I were to ask you what you’re reading, you’d probably tell me the name of a book, or perhaps something of the plot. Maybe you’d give me an author’s name, and you might mention how it’s written (good or bad), or you might not. These are all good answers, and I’m not trying to imply otherwise, but how often do we actually discuss the books we’re familiar with in terms of their makeup, their words?

LitKicks member beatvibe recently asked:

Which literary work do you feel makes the best use of the English language?

It’s a simple question, yet I think it’s deceptively so, because how do you judge? Do you judge a good use of language in terms of clever wordplay? No-frills simplicity? Careful craftsmanship? Something else?

I’m sure that there’s a diversity in methods (and as such, a diversity of choices), but when you think about all the things you’ve read, is there something that blew you away because its use of language? (Or maybe it didn’t blow you away, but you respect its use of language all the same.)

I’d really like to know your answers.

26 Responses

  1. Carry On Jeeves by P. G.
    Carry On Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

    Great question … and I’m going to nominate “Carry On Jeeves” by P. G. Wodehouse, a comic writer from London. Wodehouse has a way with slang and dialogue … it’s hard to describe without quoting, and an extract doesn’t really do the voice justice, so I’m not going to try to demonstrate. In my opinion, though, other famous practitioners of slang like Damon Runyon and J. D. Salinger have nothing on Wodehouse. This book is a collection of short, entertaining stories, not the least bit heavy or serious. All but one are narrated by Bertie Wooster, whose unusual internal thought processes are responsible for the richness of the narrative. At the end of the book, we suddenly switch points of view and read one story narrated by Jeeves, Bertie Wooster’s valet (what they used to call personal assistants), and suddenly Wodehouse is delivering us a completely different, and equally fascinating voice. This sudden switch in perspective adds a cubist/modernist touch to the Wodehouse narrative, totally appropriate for a book written in the age of Pablo Picasso and James Joyce.

  2. Buk and KerouacOn the road by
    Buk and Kerouac

    On the road by
    Jack Kerouac
    And anything by
    Charles Bukowski

    On the Road is the best of Kerouac books. I think in later books he just tried so hard he ended up running in to an alien world of words and slashes that I think at times is unreadable, but On the Road because of its simplistic yet, (for me at around 18 when I read it) “mind blowing” and interesting conversation piece with the character Dean Moriarty. I believe that Kerouac in On the Road really did find the voice of a certain frame of mind, of a phase (I find it hard to read over) of human development…

    Post Office is a good place to start with Buk and is also his first book (more or less, aside from small publications that were produced in 300 copies or so) …. Again like Kerouac with easy language, and maybe I like these kinds of books because I don’t want to be running for a dictionary every two seconds and they flow but it also makes me feel that the person telling me the story is a normal, or less than normal guy. Sure the both, Kerouac and Bukowski, had huge drunken egos if you read careful you can see passages where they are fighting of the sad hang over and trying to champion them selves.

    I guess really what I like about these writers is that I identify with them and there writing. I have read other people that write more complicated language or spelling and have enjoyed them and have read more of the author. But I think I identify with this style the most so therefore enjoy it the most … at least at this stage of my life.

  3. A Clockwork Orange by
    A Clockwork Orange by Burgess

    I was blown away by the “language” Burgess created when I first read this book. And it’s one of the few (in my opinion) that translated very well to the big screen.

    I agree with Burroughs’ assessment: “I do not know of any other writer who has done as much with language as Mr. Burgess has done here-the fact that this is also a very funny book may pass unnoticed.”

  4. I agree with what you say
    I agree with what you say about Kerouac. On the Road is his best. I like his other books but they really do seem, as someone once said, to need editing down. Like, Doctor Sax has some great stuff in it but some parts just seem to go on too long or end up repetitive or something. In Desolation Angels, I grew weary of the first half, when he is up on the mountain. I mean, much of that part is good but it just goes on too long. Hell, no wonder he was ready to start drinking again by the time he came down…so was I!

    Have you read Tristessa? It’s one of his best and not very long at all. Some would say too short, but that’s better than being too long, I believe.

    Bukowski. I’ve been saying for a long time that I want to read some Bukowski. Maybe soon. I’ve heard from so many people how good he is.

  5. Rhythm and PowerI’d have to
    Rhythm and Power

    I’d have to put ON THE ROAD up there. It’s wushu in writing.

    Hsing-Yi straight lines
    Pa Kua circular Sunday punches

    FIGHT CLUB was a good use of the word, conveying well the mounting anxiety and confusion of the main character.

    ASHES OF MID AUTUMN by D. Garcia-Wahl is a moody account of obsession that brings to mind the inner ruminations found in the work of Dostoevsky.

    CATCHER IN THE RYE hit me right, too. Style matched subject matter flawlessly.

  6. Good pick. This one actually
    Good pick. This one actually popped into my head this morning as a potential candidate when I was writing the post.

  7. I’d sayJames Joyce, Gertrude
    I’d say

    James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller.

    Those are the kind of writers that when, as a writer, one reads them and one has a strong unconscious prediliction to start writing like them.

    (Tho I guess a less favorable reader might call them stylists more than writers)

    Joyce with his dream language, Kerouac with his spontaneous prose, Stein with her circular sentences repeating, always repeating and Hemingway with his bare stacatto rhythms; you read them and they’re stuck in your head for the rest of the day like a Kelly Clarkson song.

  8. Shakespeare Wins, Hands
    Shakespeare Wins, Hands Down

    Shakepeare is the best writer bar none if for no other reason than his phrasing (“God gives you one face and you make yourselves another”) and double entendre (“by cock they are to blame”, “I know not seams”). Just for good measure, he includes advice: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be. For it loses both itself and friend and dulls the edge of husbandry”.

    There is a beauty to his plays and sonnets that cannot be compared to any modern writer. Shakespeare made his characters relatable and his staying power cannot be disputed. Relevant, lyrical, and completely unique.

    My personal faves? Where do I begin?

    -“Oh, pray not by the moon, the inconstant moon that monthly changes in its circled orb!”


    -“A little more than kin and less than kind”


    -“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays have lighted fools their way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life is but a walking shadow. A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

    Damn that’s good…

  9. Don’t overlook K’s Dharma
    Don’t overlook K’s Dharma Bums and Big Sur-both are strong in my opinion. I have enjoyed all of Buk’s novels maybe with the exception of Hollywood, a later novel. My personal two Buk favorites (prose) are Women and Factotum. I give a fair nod to Ham on Rye also.

  10. this has nothing to do with
    this has nothing to do with oprah

    I’m going to have to go with The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, a book that I have loved intensely since I first read it when I was 19. Faulkner’s use of language to convey the inner lives of his characters absolutely astounded me, and though it was a tough read (I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I studied the novel in a class taught by a Faulkner expert), I think the payoff was definitely worth the inital difficulty of getting inside Faulkner’s rhythm.

    The Sound and the Fury‘s prose is outstanding:

    I wasn’t crying, but I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t crying, but the ground wasn’t still, and then I was crying. The ground kept sloping up and the cows ran up the hill. T.P. tried to get up. He fell down again and the cows ran down the hill. Quentin held my arm and we went toward the barn. Then the barn wasn’t there and we had to wait until it came back. I didn’t see it come back. It came behind us and Quentin set me down in the trough where the cows ate. I held on to it. It was going away too, and I held on to it. The cows ran down the hill again, across the door. I couldn’t stop. Quentin and T.P. came up the hill, fighting. T.P. was falling down the hill and Quentin dragged him up the hill. Quentin hit T.P. and I couldn’t stop.

    That passage is from the first section of the book, which is told by Benjy, the man whose mental age never surpassed childhood. I could pick some more examples from different parts of the book, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I think Faulkner’s use of dialect and the rhythm of thought is incredibly great, and makes for a wonderful novel, which means that yep, The Sound and the Fury gets my vote.

  11. Tristram ShandyWhen anyone
    Tristram Shandy

    When anyone brings up the English language, I immediately think of this masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Everything it evokes is hilarious. He systematically tears down everything written before him and rebuilds it however he sees fit, and his version must really appeal to me. Clever wordplay does not begin to explain what Sterne accomplished. Approximately:

    It’s a story of a cock and a bull, and one of the best of it’s kind, I ever heard.

  12. I believe I agree. Although
    I believe I agree. Although many of us do not speak today in “the Old King’s English”, Shakespeare presented an English language with a timeless beauty.

  13. i think about how certain
    i think about how certain writers come to me, and people that like them, i’ve hung out with Finnegan’s Wake some, and i read ‘A Movable Feast’ and some short stories by Hemingway, Gertrude Stein never came across my path exactly, ‘A rose is a rose…’, I lived in ‘Black Spring’ by Henry Miller, and i was slow to come to Kerouac, but Dharma Bums lived on my coffee table like a Beat Bible. Now ‘On The Road’ floats around my bed. But i’m sleeping with Joyce so he will dream me.

    P.S. oh and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls, with that ending …

  14. Factotum is the one that’s
    Factotum is the one that’s been most recommended to me.

  15. Yes. Though it bears
    Yes. Though it bears similarity to Twister (and really, what doesn’t?), the difference between this and the film is that there is no mention made of the suck zone.

  16. I read this twice. The first
    I read this twice. The first time I really liked it. I shouldn’t have read it the second time.

    I guess The Sound and the Fury is kind of like having great sex with a smoking hot girl. And then the second time you have sex with her, it turns out she’s a hag. And she’s not sexy. And she got boring. And you end up really not liking her. And she’s kind of smelly.

    Yeah. When that happens, I just try to think of the first time. Like Foreigner says “it feels like the first time. It feels like the very first time.”

    So, to me, The Sound and the Fury is like sex with a formerly hot girl with Foreigner blaring in the background.

  17. underworldwho else but don

    who else but don delillo could make the gray anomie of fading love, nuclear fear residue, and waste disposal so beautiful linguistically. not to mention the baseball…

  18. Now I’m all hungry to know
    Now I’m all hungry to know what you’re talking about. And no examples? Boo! Hiss! At least gimme a sample…a crumb to whet my appetite?

  19. Desert IslandThis question
    Desert Island

    This question almost sounds like the proverbial “which book would you want to have on a deserted island?”

    My answer would be Shakespeare. (With Dante as a close second.) Shakespeare is the most innovative writer in the language itself, inventing hundreds of new usages. Indeed the OED is partly based on a good grounding in Shakespeare. So the language itself was changed by this one man. (And no I don’t subscribe to the theories that he was not Shakespeare.) In addition to plot, character, action, we have the exquisite use of language, of words, words, words.

  20. Pedro Paramoby Juan Rulfo,
    Pedro Paramo

    by Juan Rulfo, this book is so dreamlike you can read it in your sleep, an incredible mexican writer.

    also while you are at it, Octavio Paz.

  21. Well, the truth is I can’t
    Well, the truth is I can’t find my copy of the book! I know it’s in that pile somewhere, or maybe I lent it away. I will just have to get a new copy, and perhaps you should too …

  22. I’ve often paged through this
    I’ve often paged through this at bookstores, but have been too intimidated to buy.

    But it’s interesting, because although I’m unable to answer my own question, this is the type of book I had in mind.

    Maybe this will end my 6-month affliction of not being able to get more than a few pages into anything.

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