Tag Archives: book

Read something good this week, for everyone’s sake

Join my 2018 Ditch the Drivel Challenge

At the start of this year, I had silently hoped to read less drivel – fewer poorly written articles, pointless social media posts and dreadful books. My hopes were dashed, I’ve managed to subject myself to all of these things and more. So for the rest of the year I’m taking a stand: I refuse to read any more crap. Who’s with me?

The enthusiastic babbling of my toddler roused me from a deep sleep yesterday morning, interrupting a rather curious dream in which I was watching him play charades in front of a crowd of rowdy socialist voters in The Hague. I recoiled at the bluish light coming from my phone when I checked the time. 06:52. Pretty good going.

I went to put my phone back on my nightstand, but something stopped me; my thumb hovered over the unlock button, springing it into life. Without thinking, I scrolled to the second page of apps and touched the big blue F.

Oh look, someone’s posted an inspirational, motivational, follow-these-rules-and-you’ll-win-at-life article on a group I’m in. I read it. It was a pretty poor rehash of a million other versions I’d read in that group and plenty of others before, but it was so familiar and so easy to scan that my brain hardly had to wake up to feel some sense of achievement, albeit empty.

Those three minutes spent on my phone felt productive – I was developing myself, after all – but in the cold light of day, I realize it was a giant waste of time. It’s not only a problem for me, either; I fed the monster by reading that article. I validated the drivel by scanning it, so whoever published it gets a tick and a thumbs-up to produce more of the same. This puts me – and all of us, actually – in a terrible cycle: people publish rubbish, we consume it, they publish more, we lose the ability to make judgment calls on quality, so we keep clicking…

This content is ubiquitous online. It’s splashed across websites, it fills blogs and it comes at us through hyperlinked promises in marketing emails. Everyone has something to say, everyone’s an expert and everyone’s a writer. Only they’re not all good at it. The articles and blog posts and books aren’t all valuable, or even true. We’re feeding our brains the literary equivalent of a soggy quarter pounder meal every chance we get – with a side order of nuggets and enough cheap sauce to drown in.

It’s time for me – all of us – to do something about this. We must start demanding quality when we decide whether something’s worth our time. Welcome to my 2018 Ditch the Drivel Challenge.

Information overload is killing our quality radar

It’s hardly news that we’re overloaded with information. We all complain about it, often on social media, giving each other even more information to deal with. Information expert Dr. Martin Hilbert published a study showing that we were bombarded with the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of information every day in 2007. And that was more than a decade ago – just imagine what we’re facing now.

A lot of that information hits us through apps like the big blue F that stole my attention yesterday morning. Facebook and its affiliated apps, like Instagram and WhatsApp, are reported to hold our attention for 50 minutes a day. Add to that a whole host of other social networks, like Twitter, Pinterest, FourSquare, Reddit and so on, and we’re now spending on average 135 minutes a day looking at what other people are doing, saying and writing.

Think about that for a moment. 135 minutes. That’s 2 hours and 15 minutes. Long enough to run a half marathon, drive over 200 kilometres or watch the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (which is only slightly scarier than some of these statistics, even for someone who’s terrified of clowns).

The problem is, in the depths of our information overload, we lose the ability to see what’s good. The strength and focus we need to wade through the relentless attack of links and status updates and motivational quotes overlaid onto whimsical images and automatically-playing videos with mistake-ridden subtitles wanes the more they’re piled on to us. That inability is carried over to other areas too, and before we know it we’re reading Fifty Shades of Grey and the Daily Mail.

A new reality emerges – one in which a listicle of the top 17 things you never knew about the Royal family’s baby-related traditions, with commentary from a writer you’ve never heard of, who is altogether too lax when it comes to typos, seems like engaging content. It’s a world in which a headline swallows you up and spits you into a sales funnel, and you’re powerless to do anything about it by the time you hit the first catch. It’s a world in which good writing has given way to ‘engaging content’, where it’s hard to tell whether you’re being informed, entertained, manipulated or sold to.

It’s a world I’m checking out of.

Ditching the drivel

When I woke up this morning, I ignored my phone, picking up one of the books from my nightstand instead. Bird by Bird, written by the altogether brilliant Anne Lamott. I’ve just finished reading Operating Instructions, a frank, insightful and heart-rending journal of the first year of her son’s life, and I’m now an addict in the very best way. Reading her books inspires me, touches me and teaches me, and I intend to make sure I read a lot more things that do that.

For the rest of this year, I’m challenging myself to read something good every day – and I’m challenging you to join me. I’m not going to kid myself that it’s possible to completely give up the drivel, but I’m going to ask myself a few questions before I read anything from now on. Here’s my very own literary sewage filter: Will this help me? Is this good? Will I be somehow better after reading it?

I want to make sure that each time I pick up a book or click on a link it’s to read something fulfilling. Something beautiful. Something good. I want to look up to the people who have written the words I’m reading, take notes from them and become a better writer myself as a result.

I challenge you to set up your own literary sewage filter. And who knows? If we stop being baited to click and say no to the dregs, maybe, just maybe, we’ll avoid the overload, get better at spotting – and choosing – quality and actually help lift the stuff we’re subjected to out of the gutter.

I’m off to read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. What’s next on your list?

(Want some ideas for great books? Check out Joe Queenan’s One for the Books for a fascinating journey through an avid reader’s memory, or The Novel Cure for ideas of books that will match your mood.)

Sunday book review: Origins of the Specious

This is the first of a weekly book review post – if you’ve got any suggestions please share them!

Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language

Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman

Origins of the Specious
sets the record straight on some common misconceptions about the English language. It’s so good, it actually made me angry.


If you’re the kind of person who cringes at the sight of a word with a ‘z’ where there ought to be an ‘s’ (“look at all these Americanisms… it’s just not proper English!”), tells the joyful tale of how Thomas Crapper, toilet mogul, lent his name to the act (“before that they didn’t have a rude word for it”), and gets hot under the collar when people mispronounce niche (“It’s NEESH!”), then prepare to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed and slightly cross. It’s never nice when someone shows you how wrong you are.

Authors Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman pair up again, after writing You Send Me and running the popular website Grammarphobia.com (which you should definitely visit). O’Conner is the bestselling author of several books on the English language, including Woe is I. A former editor at the New York Times, O’Conner has written for many outlets over the years, and it shows. Her engaging, clear, readable, witty style makes sailing through her books a breeze. Written in her voice, Origins is no exception.

I read the paperback version of the book and, while I’m a big advocate of the idea that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I do want to comment on it. The book is delightfully floppy. It’s nice to hold, which makes its page-turning quality even more enjoyable. And the cover itself is vibrant and eye-catching. Dead easy to locate on my bookshelf.

Origins of the Specious addresses several misconceptions, concluding that:

  • The common contention of the British that American spelling is ruining the language is misguided: American spelling is often closer to the original English. Same goes for pronunciation
  • The assertion of some old-school grammarians that you shouldn’t split infinitives, and any number of other rules, is outdated. Language evolves. And you can start a sentence with ‘And’
  • Sometimes incorrect English falls into common use, becoming acceptable (think ‘ain’t’ and double negatives)
  • The origins of some of our best swear words aren’t as fun as you think (ship high in transport; kunda; Thomas Crapper – all wrong)
  • You don’t just sound a bit silly if you throw a lot of French phrases into your speech – you’re probably using phrases made of French words that the English invented

I could go on, but that would spoil the surprise.

One of my favourite sections of the book is all about plurals; specifically Latin versus Greek word endings. Have you ever stumbled over how to refer to the octopus when you want to talk about more than one of them? I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people plump hopefully for ‘octopi’. Incorrect. The authors explain delightfully that this common mistake is down to the Latinists, who replaced all the Greek word endings with Latin ones (octopi instead of octopodes, or octopuses as is now accepted; gymnasia instead of gymnasiums; syllabi instead of syllabuses), happily making them sound pompous. Incidentally, this section also helped me calm down a bit about paninis. (“Would you refer to a piece of spaghetti as a spaghetto?” – p185.)

This is one of the most entertaining romps through language I’ve had in a long time. It’s beautifully written, hilariously funny and at times unbelievably shocking. That’s what makes it so good – it makes you question yourself, your own beliefs about the language. It’s brilliantly researched (although reaching the notes section at page 205 of 266 made me feel sad that I hadn’t prepared myself for the end) and expertly executed.

I highly recommend this book. It’s on my list of books to read for a second time.

Origins of the Specious
Random House, New York, 2009; ISBN: 978-0-8129-7810-0