On Reading-Part IX: The art of exposition

On the Origin of Species
One of the few scientific treatises to be known , if not unfortunately read, by all. There is far too much unnecessary controversy about Darwin but you can hardly find a better example of clear and careful expository prose writing. On the Origin of Species is exact without being overly technical, intelligent without relying on jargon. All the while being interesting and enjoyable to read. And it should be read. It’s careful analysis brought the scientific method to the wider world while its many detailed observations can still delight with their beauty and charm.

U. S. Grant Memoirs

Ulysses S. Grant was a great General, an under appreciated President, and if that were not enough he practically invented the modern American prose style. He wrote it to counter and correct the extravagant post-war Southern propaganda machine and “Lost Cause” mythology. Their arguments were often florid, their content sentimental. They fit stylistically with much pre-war American prose. This style was based on the rhetoric of classical oration, the erudition of the transcendentalist lecture and the exaggerated tropes of evangelical evangelism. Grant’s Memoirs brought to a wide popular audience a new post-war writing style: the clear, direct and unemotional prose of science and empiricism.

Interpretation of Dreams

I fear many avoid reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams thinking it to be a dry and dusty technical treatise, but nothing could be further from the truth. Freud is yet another example of the late nineteenth century desire to bring scientific clarity to expository prose. His Interpretation of Dreams is, like Darwin, a model of clarity and detail. It is an amazing work of creative vision married to careful detailed observation and reads with all the excitement of a detective story. He brings us step-by-step through his original approach to dream interpretation, every step supported with fascinating anecdotes, stories and examples.

Charles DarwinOn the Origin of Species
Ulysses S. Grant-Memoirs
Sigmund FreudInterpretation of Dreams



~ by severalfourmany on January 20, 2013.

3 Responses to “On Reading-Part IX: The art of exposition”

  1. I found your section on Grant’s memoirs to be the most interesting. So, he really invented modern prose style? Now, I really have to read it.

    Yet, I will say that the Classical style seems preferable in terms of educating the mind in more complex structures of thought. Being simple and direct can be nice; but, it seems to be more useful, from the standpoint of developing one’s mental prowess, to be able to both sift through complex sentences in order to find the main idea as well as determine how the subordinate parts nuance the meaning of the main clause.

    At least, we got a writer like Hemingway out of this movement!

  2. I remember as a student I had Freud as beach reading. OK, I was young and pretentious then, but I found the stories that he shared by turns amusing, disturbing, fascinating, repelling… there didn’t seem to be much to distinguish it from well-written fiction!

    • Somebody once told me they thought of Freud’s case studies as novellas and read them as such.
      “It is most often concerned with personal and emotional development rather than with the larger social sphere. The novella generally retains something of the unity of impression that is a hallmark of the short story, but it also contains more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description.” (Encyclopedia of literature in Canada)
      Seems a fitting description that brings out the aesthetic, rather than the clinical features, of his studies. I imagine the fictional psychoanalytic case study could become a popular literary genre.

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