Dr. Elizabeth A. Clark
In the mid-1970s, I decided I needed to develop a better writing style. Yes, I had written many term papers and a dissertation, but I had been out of graduate school for ten years and had not published anything--a situation that, in today’s academic market, would have gotten me fired. How to improve my writing? I decided to read the “great authors,” noting how they constructed their sentences and paragraphs. To whom did I turn? To Henry James, a counter-intuitive choice for someone who aimed to write on late ancient Christianity.
I was recently reminded of the folly of my choice was when I noted an analysis of James’s Autobiographies by New York Times reviewer, Dwight Garner: “He stacked clause upon clause in their [the late novels’] sentences, constructing towering and often opaque chains of thought and feeling. These books don’t merely abstain from American simplicity; they poke it in the sternum.” (Garner here refers to James’s claim, “I hate American simplicity. I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort.”)
Why I imagined that an author who reveled in “often opaque chains of thought and feeling” would enable me to interpret better Augustine and John Chrysostom remains a mystery. But I set out to conquer Portrait of a Lady and went on to most of James’s other novels. They did, I admit, make me notice language. Today, I rather advise students to read The New Yorker to sample excellent style (despite that magazine’s peculiarity with commas).
There probably was an added benefit to reading Portrait of a Lady when I did. Like many young women with intellectual pretensions who had grown up in the 1950’s, I dreamed of meeting “the great man,” who would be beyond all others in intellect, scholarly acumen, and “culture.” Isabel Archer showed all too painfully the unhappy result of her infatuation with Gilbert Osmond. As my reading program went on to George Eliot, I encountered Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch, similarly disillusioned. I hope that my female students today, while not losing romantic idealism, take a more pragmatic approach to organizing their lives!
Elizabeth A. Clark is the John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion, Emerita at Duke University.
Dr. Tal Ilan
Even though I am a scholar and historian who writes non-fiction, I have always been much more deeply influenced by works of fiction. I am a sucker for romance (Jane Austin) and historical novels (Robert Graves), but I was stunned when I discovered Terry Pratchett’s fantasy Discworld novels—above all his magnum opus “Small Gods.” This book portrayed a world that looks like a disc situated on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of the great turtle Atuin, which got me thinking about our world and our discipline.
In the discworld there are many gods—and monotheism is a possibility not yet realized and certainly not yet dominating the world—but there is religious intolerance and an inquisition where “there are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.” I think Pratchett's description of democracy speaks for itself:
Every man should have the vote (provided that he wasn't poor, foreign, nor disqualified by reason of being mad, frivolous, or a woman). Every five years someone was elected to be Tyrant, provided he could prove that he was honest, intelligent, sensible, and trustworthy. Immediately after he was elected, of course, it was obvious to everyone that he was a criminal madman and totally out of touch … And then five years later they elected another one just like him, and really it was amazing how intelligent people kept on making the same mistakes.
Dr. Tal Ilan is Professor of Jewish studies at the Free University, Berlin (Germany).