November 20, 2011

New books to feed your brain

“Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces” by Roy Peter Clark (Little, Brown and Company, 304 pages, $22.99)

Writing instructor extraordinaire Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute begins his latest guide with trademark practical advice: “Writing is not magic. It’s a craft, a process, a set of steps.”

Clark identifies seven steps in the writing process – from getting started to making what you’ve written better – then zeroes in on problems encountered in each of those steps and offers clear, practical solutions to address those problems. This book is bigger-picture compared with his previous “The Glamour of Grammar,” which digs into sentence structure and word choice, but it’s just as useful.

“Help! For Writers” is for every writer, the title says, and really, anyone who writes will find value: term-paper-assigned students, daily journalists and bloggers, report-writing professionals, aspiring novelists. Clark even ends with a little pep talk and “affirmations” for writers in case the process still seems daunting.

“Grammar Girl’s 101 Words to Sound Smart” by Mignon Fogarty (St. Martin’s Griffin,120 pages, $5.99)

Who doesn’t love a word book? Especially one filled with such delicious words as “gossamer,” “purloin” and “sclerotic.”

Building on her previous “101 Words” books (Every High School Graduate Needs to Know, Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again), Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, has selected 101 words that stay on the educated side of the educated-pretentious divide, so you’ll sound smart but not “pedantic” (page 75).

Each one gets a definition, an etymology and an example or several from literature, journalism and pop culture. They’re words that you may not encounter or want to use every day, but words that serve a specific purpose that it’s good to know.

“You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself” by David McRaney (Gotham, 302 pages, $22.50)

Based on the blog of the same name, “You Are Not So Smart” takes commonly accepted “truths” and looks at psychological research to show why they are, in fact, myths. The explanations are backed up by science, the writing is fresh and accessible, and the topics are fascinating. Catharsis, procrastination, hindsight – none of it works for the reasons we commonly think it does.

For example, the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy” busts the myth that we account for random factors in judging cause and effect. Using the “spooky” coincidences of the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, McRaney shows how, when something seems meaningful (or we want it to), we are prone to ignore chance or randomness.

If you’re a regular reader of the blog, this isn’t all stuff you’ve read before: The book consists of about half expanded and refined blog posts and half brand-new material. We may not be so smart, but we’re smarter after reading McRaney’s book.

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