Monday, September 24, 2012

Great non-fiction writing (1) – Dava Sobel

H. L. Mencken said, “There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.” That quotation has always fascinated me. It implies, of course, that any subject can be made interesting by a highly skilled and highly diligent non-fiction writer. One such writer is Dava Sobel (pictured), author of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.

Ms. Sobel has a straightforward, slightly understated style that makes you feel that the story is effortlessly telling itself. For example, in the first chapter of Longitude, she summarizes the history of latitude and longitude measurements, from ancient times to the Age of Exploration. She explains that it was relatively easy to determine latitude with adequate precision. All you needed was the sun or stars.

Longitude, however, was nearly impossible. A precise reading of longitude would require a navigator to know both the local time and the time at the home port. In other words, solving the problem of longitude required a clock that kept good time during a voyage:
Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once – a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches – was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks. On the deck of a rolling ship, such clocks would slow down, or speed up, or stop running altogether. Normal changes in temperature encountered en route from a cold country of origin to a tropical trade zone thinned or thickened a clock’s lubricating oil and made its metal parts expand or contract with equally disastrous results. A rise or fall in barometric pressure, or the subtle variations in the Earth’s gravity from one latitude to another, could also cause a clock to gain or lose time.

For lack of a practical method of determining longitude, every great captain of the Age of Exploration became lost at sea despite the best available charts and compasses. From Vasco da Gama to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, from Ferdinand Magellan to Sir Francis Drake – they all got where they were going willy-nilly, by forces attributed to good luck or the grace of God.
The Takeaway: To improve the clarity of your writing, spend at least 10 minutes a day reading aloud from writers who write clearly. You will see, hear and feel the stark contrast between careful, grown-up diction and the careless, infantile diction (sample here) that besets us every day. If you would like a list of recommended writers and works, please email me at joeroy(at)joeroy(dot)com. Ask for my “List of Writers to Absorb.” I will respond via email.

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