I've suffered repeated crashes of my CPU today, which worries me, and unfortunately lost one good essay. Into the ether, never to return. You know what they say: Oh well.
Whether you read what I'm about to recommend this weekend or not, have a good weekend!
When you write a blog intended for entertainment or pleasant diversion, you get used to the fact that not every post is for everyone. Some are. Some might interest 80%, others 40%. Some might interest only 5%, but that's okay because everyone's important.
The fewer people a given item might interest, the more it ought to reward them, however. I have to admit that this is probably going to interest maybe only half of 5%. Call it 2.5% of all of you, as a wild guesstimate.
Still, this is something remarkable.
When I was young I wanted to teach, and one thing I wanted to teach was expository writing. "Expository writing is writing that seeks to explain, illuminate or 'expose' (which is where the word 'expository' comes from)," says writing instructor Andrew Cedillo. "This type of writing can include essays, newspaper and magazine articles, instruction manuals, textbooks, encyclopedia articles and other forms of writing, so long as they seek to explain. Expository writing differs from other forms of writing, such as fiction and poetry."
One of my running fantasies as the years have gone by was that one day I would edit, or compile, a book of short examples of great expository and nonfiction writing. So, naturally, over the years I've been on the lookout for these, and have noted them as they've flitted past. They've included everything from great magazine articles, to letters, to online writing, to sections of books. Examples of the latter might include David Stafford's description of Hitler's death in Endgame: 1945, Jon Krakauer's account of climbing Devil's Thumb, or Susan Jacoby's "Middlebrow Culture from Noon to Twilight," which is Chapter Five of her book The Age of American Unreason. I even had in mind including a few examples of "nonfiction within fiction," for example in David Copperfield where David tells about his time working as a bottle washer at Murdstone and Grinby's. Dickens worked as a bottlewasher when he was 11, and that section has a detectable veracity that makes it resemble reporting.
In other words, this is something I care about and pay attention to. I mean that to amplify what I'm going to say next.
I recently ran across a long essay which I honestly think is one of the best essays I've ever read. Possibly, if this isn't fantastical to say, the best—and I've been seeking out great essays since I read Dryden and Hazlitt standing in the dim stacks of Baker Library at Dartmouth. A moving and nuanced nutshell history of World War II, it tries to both illuminate the enormity of the cataclysm yet also to burrow into the hidden experiences of individual soldiers. It's also a useful rumination on the nature of memory and the transience, even the unknowability, of history.
It's called "Losing the War" and it was written by Chicago author Lee Sandlin, who died just a few years ago at the age of 58. I had never heard of him a week ago. Here's a sample, even though any sample will only give you the merest taste of the magisterial whole:
Hitler loved architecture. He'd been an architecture student when he was young; his few surviving paintings from those years are studies of the classic buildings of Vienna. He sometimes seemed to get more pleasure out of architectural tours of his conquered territories than he did from all their looted wealth. When he went to France after it fell to his armies in 1940 he didn't give a damn about lording it over his abased enemies. All he wanted was a private visit to the Paris opera house, with a knowledgeable guide to show him the fine points of its design. That's why to this day the only book that conveys any sense of the personality behind his tirades is Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich—the memoirs of Hitler's architect.
Hitler and Speer talked endlessly about theories of architecture and urban planning. They grew particularly fascinated by a concept they called "ruin value." They'd both been impressed by how imposing and beautiful the monumental constructions of the Roman empire still looked after so many centuries of catastrophe and vandalism, of storm and earthquake and the slow incessant gnawing of the wind; and they wondered how the great works they were planning would hold up a couple of thousand years down the road, when the Reich itself was half forgotten and new empires were contending for the world. Maybe it was possible to factor a certain decay mode into their designs, to ensure that some picturesque element of each structure would survive. Arches or pediments or rows of pillars could be reinforced far beyond the requirements of the load they would carry, so that they would still be standing after the rest of the structure was dust—ensuring that even the wreckage of the Reich would inspire awe.
Speer's memoirs reproduce some of the sketches he did to illustrate the idea of ruin value. They show the immense public works projects he'd been designing—the titanic capitol dome, the new ministerial buildings, the 300-foot-tall triumphal arch—in a state of picturesque decay, half-crumbled and overrun by weeds. Hitler adored them. The members of his inner circle loathed them. They were uncomfortable with the idea that the Reich would ever fall, then or in a thousand years, and they darkly wondered if Speer was some kind of subversive troublemaker, playing to the fuhrer's mysterious and disturbing fondness for images of twilight, decay, and tragedy.
For those few of you who have the patience for the equivalent of 40 pages of reading this weekend, I believe you'll end up feeling that you were amply and deeply rewarded for your trouble. Hope so. Don't feel obligated, of course—I do know this will appeal to only a few!
Either way, see you on Monday. Have a nice weekend.
Original contents copyright 2017 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Kurt Shoens: "Oh, my heavens! I found that essay on Lee Sandlin's site years ago, copied it, formatted it nicely, and now have read it dozens of times. I have a version on my Kindle and on Google Docs. If I chance to read just a little bit of it, I will re-read the entire thing again. Sadly, I have recommended it to several friends and I'm pretty sure none of them have read more than a few pages. Until I read this recommendation, I thought I was the only one who finds it spellbinding."
Mike replies: I'm with you. I just discovered it, but I am really looking forward to reading it for the second time. And I doubt the second time will be the last time.
Speed: "I'm just now reading John McPhee's Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. A fine and entertaining piece of expository writing. Alas, (and for me thankfully) it is likely not short enough to fit inside Mike's book."
Mike replies: I adore McPhee, and corresponded with him for a while many years ago. There are many bits of him here, there and yonder that would serve, but I think I'd go with his amazing collection of bear stories from Alaska, in Coming Into the Country.
Keith Haithwaite: "Out of curiosity I download the essay and formatted it for reading having read the first page (I hate on-screen reading)...I hit the close button some three hours later having been emotionally stirred more than I have been in many, many years. Thanks Mike."
Frank Grygier: "Thank you for posting the essay. After reading this...
They soon invented a ritual to be performed as soon as they were fitted with their new uniforms. They'd rush out to photographers' studios and document the occasion for their proud families. The mantels and nightstands of America were strewn with these relics—soldiers posed with quiet dignity against a studio backdrop, half turning to face the camera with an expression both grave and proud. Some guys couldn't help clowning and left photos that baffle people to this day: foreheads furrowed, jaws clenched, eyes fixed and furious—tinted by the studio not ordinary pink, but a belligerent orange rose, like a Halloween mask.
"...This portrait of my father took on a whole new meaning for me."
[Ed. note: Frank tells me his father survived the war. "He is gone now but lived a good life."]