Sunday, June 13, 2004

Errors, Lies And Laboured Phrases

I suppose I'm not the only one this happens to, but I don't recall ever hearing anyone else speak of it. (Though, I don't know that I have before this, so that doesn't signify.) Every once in a while when I'm reading a book, I come across something so obviously erroneous that it displays either a tremendous lack of ability and attention by the author or an outright lie. Or perhaps the writing is so bad, yet so obviously what the author intended, one wonders why his editor or publisher was not able to restrain him. I'll give two examples.

1. I was starting to read Edmund Morris' account of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, Theodore Rex, and I ran across a sentence that essentially said (I don't have the book with me) that Teddy had read 20,000 books by the time he became president. I first thought, "That's a lot." Then I thought, "No, that's a lot." I've been trying to keep track of all the books I've read, and I've even noted down as many books as I can remember (with certainty) that I've read in the past. I've been able to read since I was 3, but though I haven't been including things like The Pokey Little Puppy, I have included such things as The Hardy Boys, Dr Seuss and collections of comic strips (Dilbert, Foxtrot, Calvin and Hobbes). My list still isn't over a 1,000 books. We're talking about 20 years of reading by a fairly avid reader and I haven't even reached 5% of Teddy's total in half the time? So, crunching the numbers, here's what I came up with. Assuming that Teddy learned to read at 3, he assumed the presidency at 43, so he had been reading for 40 years. 40 years is about 14,600 days. 20,000 divided by 14,600 is about 1.37. So Teddy had to have averaged about 1 and a third books a day, every day for 40 years. And that's without re-reading any of them. Somewhere in there too, he found time to run a ranch in the Dakota Territory for two years, fight in the Spanish-American war and be elected to and serve as Governor of New York. When examined, the claim that he read that many books is ludicrous. I put the book down and haven't bothered with it since.

2. On the first page of Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity, there is the following sentence.
"The waves rose to goliathan heights, crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage; the white sprays caught in the night sky cascaded downward over the deck under the force of the night wind."
A man who tortures prose in this way should be horse-whipped on the steps of his club for such cruelty. "Crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage." That's an ill phrase, a vile phrase; "crashing into the hull with the power of raw tonnage" is a vile phrase. Tonnage? How much? How is tonnage raw? Tonnage has power? Weight is power? Perhaps some potential energy or what-have-you, but this is not a physics textbook! I am embarrassed to report that I did press on and finish the book, but the ending was so bad that I regretted it even more.

Does this happen to anyone else? Do you ever run across one line that causes you, not to put the book down, but to hurl it from you with great force?