August 26 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of William James, a giant in American intellectual history. James was a founder of pragmatic philosophy and of modern psychology. His two greatest works, The Principles of Psychology (1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), are towering achievements, still relevant today in providing insights into why we behave as we do and why we believe what we do.

 

For years, I had little knowledge of William James and was instead an enthusiast of his younger brother Henry. It still mystifies me how two such extraordinary minds could have come from the same family. I first read Henry James in college and was soon a fan of his late work. I loved his complex style and subtle if wrong-headed heroines (with whom I identified).

Only much later did I… More…

 

Omit needless words!

That’s what you’d have if you reduced the 105 pages of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — to three words. The idea is that fewer words leads to clarity. Clearness and brevity go together, as do confusion and prolixity. You are also advised to avoid pretentious words like “prolixity” (though I’m not sure a more concise word exists in this instance). But when in doubt, omit, simplify, pare.

The fun of The Elements of Style is in Strunk’s outrageous confidence. Bill was enjoying himself. He wrote the book as a manual for his English students at Cornell University. E.B White, Strunk’s student at Cornell, loved the tone, the advice, and the man. How could he not? In the “Principles of Composition” section,… More…