Tag Archives: Verlyn Klinkenborg

Some good reading for a lovely Sunday

If you haven’t read Verlyn Klinkenborg’s piece in today’s New York Times, here’s a chance to read it now.

Called ‘The Decline and Fall of the English Major,” it considers the tangible and intangible benefits of reading good literature.

Klinkenborg is one of my favorite writers, and in this piece he seems to be speaking for me as well as for himself. Click the link above and enjoy.

“There is a point in people’s lives where they should not need someone’s hand to hold to do something…”

Wordy and awkward but true: at some point people should be able to function without others (Mommy, probably) holding their hands. Usually in the context of a process, such as maturing, we expect the “point” to be more “when” than “where,” but I suppose if we think of life as a journey…. Well, let it pass.

In case you’re wondering what “somethings” should be subject to independent accomplishment, read on:

“There is a point in people’s lives where they should not need someone’s hand to hold to do something, and eating shouldn’t be one of them.”

I imagine my student just forgot how she started her sentence. But to get the particular second negative she’s chosen into the second part of the sentence, she must have forgotten pretty much everything. People shouldn’t need someone’s hand to hold to do something, AND eating shouldn’t be one of those somethings they shouldn’t need someone’s hand to hold to do? So people should need someone’s hand to hold while eating for as long as they live?

Perhaps a vagrant n’t just snuck into clause #2. Certainly my student meant to say that at some point people have to be mature enough to eat by themselves.

Actually, “hand to hold” in this case is meant to be figurative. The essay concerned fast-food consumption and obesity; several of the essays my class read as background raised the question of who is to blame for becoming obese—Macdonald’s, or the person who decides to eat at Macdonald’s. In this sense, then, my student is talking about the ability, or responsibility, of choosing; the “hand to hold” is probably meant to suggest dependence, the need for guidance.

But here I am, picturing a 45-year-old man (for example): his mitt is wrapped around his fork, and his Mommy’s mitt is wrapped around his, helping him guide his speared French fries toward his gaping and eager mouth. Will she take his tie and wipe his chin later? This is the scenario my student has recommended.

Last semester I read some of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s engaging book Several Short Sentences About Writing to my first-year students. (I know they could read it themselves, but I think everybody deserves a little being-read-to.) His intended audience is writers farther along in the developmental process and more committed to the task than freshmen, but oh, how much more control my students would discover if they would begin by trying to express their ideas and observations briefly. Klinkenborg and I expect them of course to combine some of those sentences as they revise, but the first task is to say what they mean clearly. Most of the catastrophes my students create occur as a consequence of trying to say a lot in a complex way before they have actually clarified their thoughts.

I hope they all reach the point in their lives where (when?) they don’t need my hand, or anyone else’s hand, guiding theirs when they write. More first-year students than we dare to count have not reached that point, and for some it may not even be on the horizon.