Review: Don Juan

Review: Don Juan

Don Juan by Lord Byron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let us have wine and woman, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda water the day after.

The legend of Don Juan appears to be one of the most productive stories in all of literature. After its first setting by Tirso de Molina—still a classic of the Spanish stage—it has been adapted innumerable times. Molière’s powerful version may be the most famous for the theater, and Mozart’s opera is considered to be among the greatest works of music even sounded. After speaking in French verse and singing in mellifluous Italian, the infamous seducer of Seville lived on—though much altered—to speak iambic pentameter in Lord Byron’s comedic epic.

Nonetheless, Lord Byron’s use of the legend is free to the point that it may as well have been discarded entirely. The protagonist is, indeed, an attractive young man from Seville with a formidable sexual appetite. Byron’s Juan, however, is usually the seducee rather than the seducer. He does not lie to get his way, he does not have a wisecracking servant, he does not kill the fathers of his victims, and he does not meet his end at the hands of a living statue. There is none of that here. Instead, Don Juan is an attractive young boy with a good heart who runs into a lot of trouble, mainly because every woman who sees him wants him. It is a pleasant twist on an old tale.

Though a member of the Romantic age, Byron does not strike me as a Romantic poet. His poetry is witty, snappy, sharp, irreverent, and lean. There is nothing sentimental, meditative, or wistful in this long poem. Indeed, the verse is so prose-like that it is hardly even poetical. His most obvious literary forebear is not Milton or Donne, but Pope—another witty versifier. It seems strange, then, that of all the great English Romantic poets, it was Byron who was arguably the most famous and influential. Perhaps tastes did not change as much as we are prone to believe.

This epic poem has a loose and baggy structure. That is to say that it is full of holes and an awful lot of wind blows through it. Byron appears to have begun with a fairly concrete idea in mind, and the first three or four cantos are brilliant fun. Soon thereafter the poem falls apart, however—dissolving into an endlessly long aside, in which the main action is lost. The poem ceases to be the comic epic of Don Juan and instead becomes a vehicle for Byron’s own endless editorializing. This is still mostly worth reading, for Byron’s wit if not for his logic, but it is not exactly a work of high art.

Poor Don Juan is left in the lurch, and never does get to meet his final end—whatever that may have been. Byron met his own end before he could give one to Don Juan. If not for that, this poem may have gone on for twenty cantos more. But at the rate the story was progressing in the final cantos, twenty more may not even have been enough to bring this sprawling story to a satisfying conclusion. So let us be thankful for what we have. The parts that are weak are readable, and the parts that are strong are delightful.

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Review: Writing to Learn

Review: Writing to Learn

Writing to Learn: How to Write--And Think--Clearly about Any Subject at AllWriting to Learn: How to Write–And Think–Clearly about Any Subject at All by William Zinsser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Humor is the most perilous of writing forms, full of risk; to make a vocation of brightening the reader’s day is an act of continuing gallantry.

Specialization inspires in me a certain existential dread. This is of two sorts. The first is the despairing thought that, by specializing, I will come to know only a certain, restricted corner of the vast universe. The second, more puerile fear is that, by becoming a specialist, I will commit myself on a path I won’t like very much.

Generalization is often, I suspect, motivated as much by fear of commitment as by humanistic curiosity. In Spanish there’s a word for a man who likes to sleep around—a picaflor—which conjures up the suggestive image of a bee going from flower to flower. Well, picaflores and Don Juans and Lotharios are generalists. Devoted husbands are specialists.

Promiscuity aside, we continue to do homage to generalists with our notion of the “Renaissance Man,” and the quintessential Renaissance Man was of course Leonardo da Vinci. His notebooks are filled not only with “art,” but studies of anatomy, light, physics, engineering, music, and so much else.

Last year I read a selection of Leonardo’s notebooks, hoping to find out how one man could tackle so many disparate subjects. My conclusion was that his versatility was due to the application of his medium: drawing. By making careful, detailed sketches of things—bees, bodies, bridges—he came to understand them. His pencil thus acted as antennae, with which he probed and investigated his world.

I thought: Could I do something similar? Certainly I have little talent as regards visual art. But I do have a verbal addiction. Perhaps I could use writing in a way similar to how Leonardo used sketching? Such an idea was hardly original. Soon I found out that Zinsser, the writing guru, already had a book about it.

The idea of reading another Zinsser book was not especially appealing. I had already read his popular book On Writing Well, and came away with a sour taste in my mouth. But if I was going to be the next Leonardo, I had to swallow some pickles. Dutifully I bought this book; and, after equally dutiful procrastination, I am here to tell you about it.

My first reaction is distaste. This is not entirely rational. Every good writer has what I call a “literary personality”—related to, but not identical with, their real personality—and I simply do not like Zinsser’s. I do not wish to spend time with him or to invite him to supper. I cannot really articulate why I dislike him, in the same way I can’t say exactly why I don’t like the sound of people eating apples. He’s a strong writer and I agree with much of what he says. He is thoughtful, curious, broadly educated, sensitive to art, music, and literature, and generally benign in his means and ends. When I think about it, I really ought to like him quite a bit. Yet I don’t.

Maybe this is because I object to the way he romanticizes his craft. Zinsser would have you believe writing clearly is one of the most difficult, dangerous, and distasteful activities in the world. It is so hard and so strenuous that it requires continual, backbreaking effort. Good writers are saints, many of them martyrs, including Zinsser himself: “I don’t like to write, but I take great pleasure in having written.” Zinsser makes very clear that his vocation is a heroic one, especially considering that he not only writes himself, but teaches it too:

Why, then, would anyone in his right mind want to be a writing teacher? The answer is that writing teachers aren’t altogether in their right mind. They are in one of the caring professions, no more sane in the allotment of their time and energy than the social worker or the day care worker or the nurse.

It takes serious audacity (to use a polite word) for a writing teacher to compare himself to a nurse. I also gag at this self-pity about the how hard it is to write well. Yes, it can be hard. Lots of things are hard. The only thing that sets writers apart is that they tend to whine the most eloquently.

Even when I put my personal dislike aside, however, I still must conclude that this book is disappointing. It begins with an unnecessary autobiographical section on Zinsser’s childhood education. (Considering how much Zinsser likes to talk about omitting unnecessary material, I found this especially ironic.) The rest of the book consists of long excerpts of what Zinsser considers to be successful examples of writing in different subjects, from anthropology to chemistry, from geology to mathematics. The book could easily have been an anthology, and probably should have been.

Most of what I wanted from this book is lacking. Yes, any subject can be written about engagingly—Zinsser didn’t need to prove this to me—but how do you go about doing that? Zinsser avoids the problem of methodology by insisting that good writing is learned by imitation. This is no doubt largely true; still I found it to be an abdication of this book’s promise: to give the would-be autodidact a strategy, or at least a few tips, for writing to learn.

Another serious omission is that Zinsser does not provide any concrete advice for teachers looking to apply this philosophy to their classes. There are a few reported examples of teachers who have done so, and a lot of hortatory passages about the benefits of “writing across the curriculum,” but very little in the way of concrete strategies for implementing this idea. As both a student and a teacher, I was irked by this.

Still, I suppose this book does have its value as a piece of propaganda. Zinsser is enthusiastic about writing, and his enthusiasm is contagious. For anyone skeptical that any subject—even chemistry, physics, or math—can be written well, or if you’re unsure whether writing can help you think and learn, you’ll find these doubts addressed here. For all its faults, this book does provide a glimpse of a compelling educational ideal: one that allows all of us to be picaflores in good conscience.

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