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Shelf Improvement: Tips for Improving Your Writing and De-stressing at Your Desk

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January is traditionally the time when a large number of people take stock of their activities from the previous year and vow to make changes in their lives. They work to quit old habits or adopt new ones. Recently two new books crossed my desk that relate to the law and self-reformation, and I wanted to highlight these volumes for those times when users are taking a break from their research.

Everyone who writes wants to be understood clearly and use appropriate grammar. If you write with regularity, Garner’s Modern American Usage may very well have a place on your bookshelf, so you can realize that goal of clarity. If you don’t have a copy of Garner’s or some other usage dictionary, you may want to get one after reading Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing. The book is a transcription of an interview between Garner and Wallace held on February 3, 2006 at the Hilton Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles.

Bryan A. Garner, writer of the influential Dictionary of Modern American Usage, and David Foster Wallace, famed author of the novels Infinite Jest, and The Pale King, shared this discussion on grammar and language usage. They formed a friendship when Wallace wrote the essay “Tense Present” in which he discusses and applauds Garner’s usage dictionary. It was later published in its full form as “Authority and American usage” in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, and brought Garner greater recognition for his work. The conversation in Quack This Way is easy to follow, entertaining, and is one of the better literary arguments for paying attention to language.

The volume is so short that by talking about its highlights you’re talking about the entire text; there’s no fat here. Wallace gives advice on how to write effectively: “you don’t pretend it’s a letter to some individual you know, but you never forget what you’re engaged in is a communication to another human being. The bromide associated with this is that the reader cannot read your mind. The reader cannot read your mind.” (p. 26). He talks about his writing methods. Garner recommends Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay collection, Learning to Write. They discuss the reader’s needs from a piece of writing, how to develop a writing style, the difference between a good reader and a bad writer, and the reasons a writer needs a usage dictionary (Wallace: “As a teacher, about 90% of my job is getting the students to understand why they might need one”). Chapters of the book have typically unorthodox titles, familiar to fans of Wallace’s style: “Crummy, turgid, verbose, abstruse, abstract, solecism-ridden prose” and “The trunk cable into the linguistic heart”. You can tell you’ll learn some truths about writing from the chapter titles alone, and from their very quirkiness, you know the text will be amusing at the same time.

One of the key charms of this book is that the conversation is technical and yet so modern and casual. You’ll likely finish the book more inspired to put pen to paper, carrying a license to be a linguistic “snoot“–Garner and Wallace’s term for usage sticklers.

After being inspired to tighter writing with Quack This Way, users of the Law Library could work on their physical selves by copying some yoga poses. We’ve newly added the ABA imprint Yoga for Lawyers : Mind-Body Techniques to Feel Better All the Time, written by Hallie N. Love and Nathalie D. Martin, to the collection. The reasons for a lawyer taking up yoga seem compelling: it is a meditative physical activity that exercises the musculoskeletal system and reduces stress. Those are key benefits for largely sedentary professional practitioners who consider high stress a normal condition of daily life. The NIH has declared yoga one of the top ten complementary health approaches; in their most recently collected statistics, 13 million Americans practiced yoga to improve their back pain, their health, to reduce their stress, and to comply with the recommendations of their doctors. Written by lawyers, the book is full of clear black and white photos of a yogini demonstrating individual yoga poses (asanas). The photos seem easy to follow, and with careful attention and repetition a reader could probably advance beyond śavāsana (corpse pose). The text works at inspiring readers to push past creakiness and tension. These books aren’t the quotidian selections we make; they’re definitely marginalia in a collection of scholarly focus, yet valuable nonetheless–and key tools for users to draw on during their next self-improvement kick.

A man, facing left, wearing several layers of clothing, sitting with arms raised over his head, practicing yoga (Drawing by Hokusai Katsushika)  (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
A man, facing left, wearing several layers of clothing, sitting with arms raised over his head, practicing yoga (Drawing by Hokusai Katsushika) (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

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