I love good writing.
Let me make a couple of distinctions. First, by good writing I don’t mean telling good stories. I don’t find every good story particularly well-written.
Second, good writing doesn’t have to be overly clever or exceptionally profound.
What I mean by good writing is the ability to communicate a thought, a concept or an observation in a way that makes you want to read it over and over again. I believe this is particularly true in humor, although it is not limited to humorous writing.
I think one of the best-written passages of all time is found in the book Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. He is describing the passengers on a transatlantic cruise on which he is embarking, and he writes this:
“I was proud to observe that among our excursionists were three ministers of the gospel, eight doctors, sixteen or eighteen ladies, several military and naval chieftains with sounding titles, an ample crop of “Professors” of various kinds, and a gentleman who had “COMMISSIONER OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TO EUROPE, ASIA, AND AFRICA” thundering after his name in one awful blast! I had carefully prepared myself to take rather a back seat in that ship because of the uncommonly select material that would alone be permitted to pass through the camel’s eye of that committee on credentials; I had schooled myself to expect an imposing array of military and naval heroes and to have to set that back seat still further back in consequence of it maybe; but I state frankly that I was all unprepared for this crusher. I fell under that titular avalanche a torn and blighted thing. I said that if that potentate must go over in our ship, why, I supposed he must — but that to my thinking, when the United States considered it necessary to send a dignitary of that tonnage across the ocean, it would be in better taste, and safer, to take him apart and cart him over in sections in several ships.”
That’s really good writing. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read that passage, and I laugh every time. (Maybe you have to read the entire book for it to be funny – I have no idea.)
But in the last few years, I’ve become enamored with the writing of Bill Bryson. Best known for the memoir of his hiking the Appalachian Trail entitled A Walk In The Woods, Bryson has a way with words that is Twainesque. His ability to encapsulate a thought is incredible. Here are four examples:
“Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely – make that miraculously – fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forbears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.”
“I know this goes without saying, but Stonehenge really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took five hundred men just to pull each sarsen, plus a hundred more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk six hundred people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside and muscle it into an upright position, and then saying, ‘Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!’ Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I’ll tell you that.”
“Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.”
“The taipan is the one to watch out for. It is the most poisonous snake on Earth, with a lunge so swift and a venom so potent that your last mortal utterance is likely to be: “I say, is that a sn–”