I chanced to pick up this book today from one of the shelves lining the narrow stairway at Shakespeare & Co. as people were crowding up behind me. I literally glanced at the cover, snatched it off the shelf and pushed my way on up the steps to the reading room, found a place on one of the ancient couches and opened it up to read:
“Shakespeare was not a genius. He was, without the distant shadow of a doubt, the most wonderful writer who ever breathed. But not a genius. No angels handed him his lines, no fairies proofread for him. Instead he learnt techniques, he learnt tricks, and he learnt them well.”
With that opening gambit, I was hooked. The author, Mark Forsyth, goes on (skipping a bit) to say:
“Shakespeare got better and better and better, which was easy because he started badly, like most people starting a new job.”
An astonishing assertion, perhaps, but he makes a good case for his position (which I won’t trouble to quote here). At which point he declares:
“Shakespeare got better because he learnt. Now some people will tell you that great writing cannot be learnt. Such people should be hit repeatedly on the nose until they promise not to talk nonsense anymore.”
Yes, yes, yes!
Forsyth then gets into the meat of his introduction, laying out his program for the book, which is to elucidate, chapter by chapter, the various “rhetorical figures” that form the basis of great writing. Not sure what the rhetorical figures are? You’re not alone. While Shakespeare learned (or learnt if you’re British) them in school, they don’t get taught much anymore. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter, that they don’t work, or that they’re somehow irrelevant.
“The one line from that song or film that you remember and don’t know why you remember is almost certainly down to one of the figures, one of the flowers of rhetoric growing wild.”
Do you use words? Do you do any writing? Any writing at all? Then read this book. How wonderful it would be if facility with words wasn’t just the province of the chosen few, the so-called geniuses, but something ready to hand for all who wish to communicate. Read this book. At the very least you will be entertained, for Mr. Forsyth knows his craft. I’ve been by turns amused, enlightened, impressed and amused once again with each successive chapter (and did I mention that I just picked it up today?).
If you write, read this book.
(I’ll save you the web search: find it on Amazon here.)