A Doug Wilson Reader via The Chestortonian Calvinist

Posted: December 27, 2012 in Bible Study, Book Review, Devotionals, Uncategorized
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One of the chief interests of this blog, should it ever get off the ground, will be to encourage crunchy young Calvinists to aspire to Chestertonian turns of phrase. Few crunchy old(er) Calvinists do this better than Douglas Wilson. And his short, pithy book Wordsmithy is a primer for those who would wed the world-shaking gospel with the well-turned phrase.


So, first off, you need to go read Wordsmithy. Go ahead, do it. Borrow it if you can’t afford it. You can get it from Canon Press or Amazon.

Have you read it yet? Good. But you probably noticed something pesky: Doug drops recommended readings not just at the end of each chapter, but at the end of each point. That’s a lot of recommended reading.

I started looking up these books to see which ones I really wanted to read. And then I thought, I bet other folks will be doing this, too… I should make it easier. Two hours later, and here we are.

All of the links below go to Amazon. Don’t forget that you can get any of the Canon Press books (and a few of the others) straight from canonpress.org. But if you buy through the links below, (even if you go get batteries or something), I get a very small kickback from Amazon Associates. I say that for full disclosure, but also as an appeal: this helps me get books. As a full-time husband/dad/teacher who’s a part-time seminary student, I need all the help I can get. So, thanks!

An Outline of Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life with Recommended Reading

Chapter 1: A Veritable Russian Doll of Writing Tips

Know something about the world, and by this I mean the world outside of books. This might require joining the Marines, or working on an oil rig, or as a hashslinger at a truck stop in Kentucky. Know what things smell like out there.

Angels in the Architecture – Douglas Wilson and Douglas Jones

1. Real life duties should be preferred over real life tourism.

God at Work – Gene Veith

2. Authenticity in writing will only arise from authenticity in living.

Bobos In Paradise – David Brooks

The Authenticity Hoax – Andrew Potter

The Conquest of Cool – Thomas Frank

Stuff White People Like – Christian Lander

3. Always remember that your writing will have a message.

That Hideous Strength – CS Lewis

The Abolition of Man – CS Lewis

All Art Is Propaganda – George Orwell

Politics of Guilt and Pity – Rousas Rushdoony

4. Use your conversations to hone your writing voice, and not the other way around.

History in English Words – Owen Barfield

5. When you are out and about, you are watching the gaudy show called life and are trying to learn from it.

Tremendous Trifles – GK Chesterton

The Christian Imagination – Thomas Peters

The Substance of Style – Virginia Postrel

6. Live an actual life out there, a full life, the kind that will generate a surplus of stories.

Our Culture, What’s Left of It – Theodore Dalrymple

Life at the Bottom – Theodore Dalrymple

7. Enjoy yourself.

Orthodoxy – GK Chesterton

Chapter 2: Read Until Your Brain Creaks

Read. Read constantly. Read the kind of stuff you wish you could write. Read until your brain creaks. Tolkien said that his ideas sprang up from the leaf mold of his mind. These are the trees where the leaves come from.

Loving the Little Years – Rachel Jankovic

England Swings – Rebekah Merkle (forthcoming)

The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

Planet Narnia – Michael Ward

Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl – ND Wilson

1. The first thing is that writers should be voracious readers.

An Experiment in Criticism – CS Lewis

2. Read widely.

The Everlasting Man – GK Chesterton

Surprised by Joy – CS Lewis

Newspaper Days – HL Mencken

Leave It to Psmith – PG Wodehouse

3. Read like a reader and not like someone cramming for a test.

The Culture We Deserve – Jacques Barzun

Poetic Knowledge – James Taylor

The Paideia of God – Douglas Wilson

4. Read like a lover of books and not like someone who wants to be seen as knowledgeable, or well-read, or scholarly.

The Screwtape Letters – CS Lewis

Mind of the Maker – Dorothy Sayers

5. Pace yourself in your reading

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek – Annie Dillard

6. As a general pattern, read quality literature, and go “slumming” occasionally to remind yourself what quality is and why quality matters.

Pen of Iron – Robert Alter

The Western Canon – Harold Bloom

7. Read widely enough that you are not provincial, but not so widely that you become some sort of deracinated cosmopolitan.

The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

Chapter 3: Word Fussers and Who-whomers

Read mechanical helps. By this I mean dictionaries, etymological histories, books of anecdotes, dictionaries of foreign phrases, books of quotations, books on how to write dialog, and so on. The plot will usually fail to grip, so just read a page a day. If you think it makes you out to be too much of a word-dork, then don’t tell anybody about it.

The Art of War for Writers – James Scott Bell

The Art of Fiction – John Gardner

Save The Cat! – Blake Snyder

1. Read boring books on writing mechanics.

Plot & Structure – James Bell

The Elements of Style – Strunk and White

Clear and Simple as the Truth – Thomas and Turner

Thinking Like Your Editor – Rabiner and Fortunato

Our Mother Tongue – Nancy Wilson

2. Collect and read dictionaries.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang – Jonathon Green

Words – Paul Dickson

Forgotten English – Jeffrey Kacirk

Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary – Mrs. Byrne

3. Read books of complaint about the decline of our language by the word fussers and who-whomers, and read the hilarious refutations of those word fussers by word libertines.

American Tongue and Cheek – Jim Quinn

Paradigms Lost – John Simon

Eats, Shoots & Leaves – Lynne Truss

4. Read etymological histories, histories of idioms and phrases, and dictionaries of word roots.

Dictionary of Word Origins – John Ayton

A History of the English Language – NF Blake

Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories – Wilfred Funk

The Origins of English Words – Joseph Shipley

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology – TF Hoad

The American Language – HL Mencken

5. Read books and manuals that help you gain mastery of your word processing program, whatever that is.

The PC is Not a Typewriter – Robin Williams

6. Read books of quotations and anecdotes.

Baseball’s Greatest Quotations – Paul Dickson

2,500 Anecdotes for All Occasions – Edmund Fuller

Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations – Ned Sherrin

Churchill By Himself – Richard Landworth

The Little Brown Book of Anecdotes – Clifton Fadiman

7. Read wordcraft books.

Dare to Be a Great Writer – Leonard Bishop

The Seven Basic Plots – Christopher Booker

My Life as Author and Editor – HL Mencken

Spunk & Bite – Arthur Plotnik

Chapter 4: Born for the Clerihew

Stretch before your routines. If you want to write short stories, try to write Italian sonnets. If you want to write a novel, write a few essays. If you want to write opinion pieces for the Washington Post, then limber up with haiku.

The Seven Laws of Teaching – John Milton Gregory

1. This helps to keep the content vibrant.

Poets’ Handbook – Clement Wood

The Book of Forms – Lewis Turco

2. If you are in a position to do so, which usually means that you are young enough, make sure to get a thorough and broad liberal arts education.

The Case for Classical Christian Education – Douglas Wilson

3. You may discover that your wordsmithing gift was centered in the wrong spot.

The First Clerihews – E Clerihew Bentley

4. Trying your hand at different forms helps to fend off flattery.

The Poet’s Handbook – Judson Jerome

5. The gift of language is one of the most versatile tools imaginable.

The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan

Selected Poetry of Ogden Nash

6. Allusion is lovely, and experience with other forms brings the ability to use that device persuasively.

The Code of the Woosters – PG Wodehouse

7. I have long said that good teaching consists of loving the subject you are teaching in the presence of students whom you also love.

A Preface to Paradise Lost – CS Lewis

Chapter 5: The Memoirs of Old Walnut Heart

Be at peace with being lousy for a while. Chesterton once said that anything worth doing was worth doing badly. He was right. Only an insufferable egoist expects to be brilliant first time out.

I See Satan Fall Like Lightning – Rene Girard

1. Concert pianists can do what they do because they practiced scales for years.

The Message in the Bottle – Walker Percy

2. If a striking expression hits you, don’t hold back because you are writing an email to your sister.

Money, Greed, and God – Jay Richards

The Good of Affluence – John Schneider

3. Make sure you don’t have a faulty and deterministic view of talent.

Freedom of the Will – Jonathan Edwards

The Genius in All of Us – David Shenk

4. If you are good with practice runs, if you are okay with not being as good as you are going to be, if you see the need for playing in the minors, then it should follow that you are emotionally prepared for negative feedback.

I Only Say This Because I Love You – Deborah Tannen
5. Speaking of criticism, your enemies will sometimes be more accurate, more perceptive, and more to the point than your mom.

The Girard Reader – Rene Girard

6. Openness to criticism is not the same thing as that faux-humility that prepares to inflict itself on everybody with absolutely no reason to do so.

Rescuing Ambition – Dave Harvey

7. Remember that relative competence cannot be universal, and that this applies to your critics, reviewers, editors, and publishing houses as much as to you.

Agents, Editors, and You – Michelle Howry

The Black Swan – Nassim Taleb

Chapter 6: Ancient Roman Toddlers

Learn other languages, preferably languages that are upstream from ours. This would include Greek, Latin, and Anglo-Saxon. The brain is not a shoebox that “gets full,” but is rather a muscle that expands its capacity with increased use. The more you know the more you can know. The more you can do with words, the more you can do. As it turns out.

Archaic Words and the Authorized Version – Laurence Vance

1. God approves of translation, and by this I am referring to the process of translation.

Latin for People – Paul Humez

2. Learning languages is a very good way to learn your language, even if you don’t go on to speak fluently whatever language it was you thought you were learning.

Latin for All Occasions – Henry Beard

Amo, Amas, Amat and More – Eugene Ehrlich

Les Bons Mots – Eugene Ehrlich

Veni, Vidi, Vici – Eugene Ehrlich

The Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases – Jennifer Speake

3. Learning different languages helps a writer get a firm grasp of grammar in the abstract.

The Paideia of God – Douglas Wilson

4. At the same time, be judicious and thoughtful in what you transfer from one language to another.

The Idea of Decline in Western History – Arthur Herman

Heaven Misplaced – Douglas Wilson

5. All this is being recommended as an aid to English.

Who Killed Homer? – Hanson and Heath

6. One key to good writing is to have a wide-ranging vocabulary.

Lingua Latina – Hans Orberg

7. This certainly involves extra work, but it doesn’t take up extra room.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue – John McWhorter

Chapter 7: Uncommon Commonplaces

Keep a commonplace book. Write down any notable phrases that occur to you, or that you have come across. If it is one that you have found in another writer, and it is striking, then quote it, as the fellow said, or modify it to make it yours. If Chandler said that a guy had a cleft chin you could hide a marble in, that should come in useful sometime. If Wodehouse said somebody had an accent you could turn handsprings on, then he might have been talking about Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland. Tinker with stuff. Get your fingerprints on it.

The Clicking of Cuthbert – PG Wodehouse

1. The writer’s life is a scavenger’s life.

Carry On, Jeeves – PG Wodehouse

2. It is dishonest to take the wit and wisdom of others and represent it as your own.

Right Ho, Jeeves – PG Wodehouse

3. These concerns have led to the saying that if you steal from one person, it’s plagiarism, but if you steal from many, it’s research.

Lord Emsworth and Others – PG Wodehouse

4. Having a commonplace book does not mean that you will use everything in your commonplace book.

Galahad at Blandings – PG Wodehouse

5. Don’t be afraid to learn from your own typos.

Uncle Dynamite – PG Wodehouse

6. Don’t shy away from a striking phrase, even if it has been promoted into a cliché.

Blandings Castle – PG Wodehouse

7. When you collect phrases, points, metaphors, and what-not in this way, you are, as Cicero used to put it, loaded for bear.

Uncle Fred In The Springtime – PG Wodehouse


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