By Jon Connell, founder and editorial director of The Week, and editor of Connell Guides
If I’m writing an editor’s letter in The Week, and want a lively response from readers, there’s one subject that never fails: the English language and how we use it. Sound off about the imminent danger of World War Three and you’ll draw a total blank, email-wise. Venture a thought or two about the pros and cons of the semi-colon and your inbox will rapidly start to fill (often, it has to be said, with readers pointing out your egregious errors). Well that’s my experience anyway. People have very decided views about grammar, punctuation and the subtleties of the written word. Mark Twain, for example, loathed proof readers who interfered with his copy. “First God created idiots,” he said. “But that was just for practice. Then he created proof readers.”
So when Heads of English at some of our leading schools began suggesting I produce a little guide on how to write well, one which would be simple, friendly and accessible to 13 and 14 year olds, I worried I’d be stepping into a minefield. Take the dreaded semi-colon. Is it basically a Good Thing? Or was Kurt Vonnegut right that the only point of using it is to show you have had a “college education”?
All the same it was a nice idea. I read all the sorts of things you’d expect me to read about the use of language, from Orwell to Simon Heffer, and found that, yes, it was true – though there has been a treasure trove of witty, wise writing about writing, there was very little of the kind of advice my Heads of English had in mind. And much of what there was either too long, too stuffy, or too complicated. So who could write such a book? A friend suggested Tim de Lisle, the former arts editor of The Times and editor of Wisden who is now the rock critic of the Mail on Sunday and a cricket writer for The Guardian. It was an inspired idea and the brisk, breezy chapters of his little guide do everything one could wish for. As one of his fellow cricket writers put it when he read it: “This is the book Tim was born to write.” I agree. But read it, and judge for yourself.
The Heads of English who suggested the language guide also had another idea. They wanted a similarly short, pithy guide to how to read a poem, again with a 13/14 year old student in mind. Most books of this kind, they felt, are not pitched for their kind of audience. They take too much for granted. The poetry they analyse is too complicated. They don’t tell us, simply and vividly, the simple ways we can get more out of poetry – looking for the unusual words in a poem, for example, or looking for the conflict in a poem.
For this I turned to Malcolm Hebron, who teaches English at Winchester, and is an elegant writer with a deep reservoir of knowledge. With a little help from the wonderful Caroline Moore (author of our Connell Guide to Paradise Lost), he has, I think, produced something rather special.
I have now edited more than 50 guides to English literature, most of them on individual texts and aimed principally at GCSE and A level English students. But these two? They are for everyone, whether or not they do English. After all, you can’t get the most out of life without knowing how to write – and life is more fun if you fully enjoy poetry. Surely those two subjects are worth an hour or two of any student’s time.