Tag Archives: language

Brains in Vats

Sometimes a book seems to have dropped into your lap from an alternate universe. In the spectacular cases, the authors’ worldviews are located on the other side of the moon from consensus reality. Some write nonfiction from wildly eccentric bibliographies, or just don’t do much research at all. Some write fiction based in astonishingly off-base assumptions about human psychology or the workings of the world. My favorite alternate-universe moments are the subtle ones that seem to hail from ever-so-slightly divergent branches of the multiverse. Unexpectedly, in the middle of an otherwise perfectly sensible book, your attention trips over some little side reference to a subject the author didn’t understand well enough to realize it needed fact-checking… or the author’s single weird hobby-horse delusion… or just an image suggesting unintended implications. (This last one is the raison d’etre of Thog’s Masterclass, from David Langford’s newsletter Ansible.) Your concentration takes a pratfall. For a moment, all you can do is stare at the textual banana peel and think “Wait, what?

I’ve been reading Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. It looks like one of those how-to-write books, but it’s really something more interesting. The blurb promises the book will teach you how to write in a particular way, what the authors call “classic style.” Actually, it’s is an extended essay on style in general. The book uses “classic style” as an illustration, but makes it clear that classic style isn’t the style and isn’t useful in every situation. (Practically none of the authors’ examples of classic style are taken from fiction. Classic style, they’re telling us, is good for essays, histories, or field guides. For novels, not so much.)

Thomas and Turner argume that style isn’t a set of usage rules—it’s not about where you put your commas. Style is determined by assumptions about the purpose of your writing and who you’re writing to, assumptions which, consciously or not, you’ve made before you even sit down to the keyboard. Interestingly, they appear to argue—just implicitly, but it’s there—that some of these assumptions can be untrue and still result in a useful style. (One of the working assumptions behind “classic style” is that the author has a pure and undistorted grasp on the Truth, something Thomas and Turner aren’t even pretending is ever actually the case.)

So, yeah, pretty good book… but what I wanted to mention was the alternate-universe moment. Around page 65, Thomas and Turner are talking about “image schemas,” how sentences are often structured around metaphors, often involving movement. And they drop in, ever so casually and with no apparent sarcasm, this sentence (emphasis mine): “For centuries, visual representations of scholars have included a case of books in the background, and this form abides tenaciously even now, when scholarly work is as likely to involve brains in vats or electronic texts.”

I’m not certain where in the multiverse Thomas and Turner work, or how their book found its way to me. I know one thing: in whichever universe they reside, the English departments are very interesting.

Cover of Donovan's Brain