Simple & Direct

A Rhetoric for Writers
Jacques Barzun
Harper & Row, 1975; Harper Perennial Fourth Edition, 2001

I still use the first edition of this book, as the tattered dust jacket at left suggests. The sell copy on the jacket’s front flap may not have said it all, but it goes a long ways* toward capturing the virtues of Jacque Barzun’s Simple & Direct:

Good writing depends on the ability to make intelligent choices, not so much between what is “right” and what is “wrong” as between what is best in a particular case and all the other alternatives. It depends on becoming sensitive to the meanings of individual words and on being able to put them together in a manner suited to your purpose, whether you are writing a scientific paper, a romantic novel, or a note to the milkman.

The book’s six chapters include “Diction, or Which Words to Use”; “Tone and Tune, or What Impression Will It Make?”; and “Composition, or How Does It Hang Together?” Exercises at the end of each chapter challenge readers to translate blocks of text into the language Barzun calls “simple & direct.” (If you want to thumb through the latest edition all by yourself, click here.)

The author’s name may make you wonder if the book is translated from the French – but it isn’t. Barzun was born in France in 1907, emigrated to New York at age 13, and obviously mastered English in short order, considering he graduated as valedictorian of Columbia College seven years later. Barzun would make his name as a Columbia history professor, and his impeccable prose was on display in more than thirty books of great diversity. Among them is the bestselling From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (2000), published the year Barzun turned 92 and called by many critics one of the finest histories on western civilization ever written.

*Look for What’s Up with Ways vs, Way? in the Goodies Bag.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *