Ask an English Teacher: “Like” vs. “Not Unlike”

A regular reader of this blog recently wrote with the following quandary:

Q: It drives me crazy when I hear someone say “It’s not dissimilar to…” or “It’s not unlike…”  THEN IT’S SIMILAR OR IT’S LIKE, YOU IDIOT! Please explain this language phenomenon to me.

A: What we’re dealing with here is a matter of degree. To say one thing is “like” another is like saying the two things have a lot in common. To say one thing is “not unlike” something else is not unlike saying that while the two things may be largely different, they still have a couple of common traits.

Q: Sounds to me like a mechanism for avoiding a commitment.

A: It’s not unlike that at all.

Q: I think I’ll go pull out my fingernails with pliers.  The pain is not unlike what I feel when I hear someone say these things.

A: Now you’re catching on!

If you have a question for “Ask an English Teacher” feel free to drop me a line. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back!

On Writing in Books

Last week, I talked a bit about the value of what I call active reading. One of the things I mentioned was that readers — particularly students of literature — shouldn’t be afraid to write in their books (assuming, of course, they’re not library books). In response, a couple of people, both on my blog and in my classes, said that they couldn’t bring themselves to write in books. While I respect that position and have been known to feel that way myself quite frequently, I’d also like to make an argument in favor of writing in books.

Needless to say, there are some good reasons for not writing in books. One reason my students frequently cite is that they might not be able to sell their books back to the bookstore if there’s writing in them. It’s tough to argue with them other than to say that knowing college bookstores like I do, there’s very little likelihood that they’ll get much money for their books either way.

A second argument I’ve heard, though perhaps not in so many words, is that books are somehow “sacred,” that writing in a book is akin to defacing a work of art. My guess is that this attitude is, historically speaking, rooted in two ideas. The first is that books were at one time, before mass production, very hard to come by and hence inherently valuable. The second is that if a family owned a book in the United States, it was probably a Bible, so books were literally sacred. These two theories are sheer speculation on my part, but my thinking is that our hesitation to write in books is a holdover from a time when we had more compelling reasons not to write in books.

My response to the idea that books are sacred may come as a shock to some people who know me, especially since I’m an English teacher and I also fancy myself a writer: There’s nothing special about a book. Unless it’s a collector’s item like an autographed first edition, any book you’re holding in your hand at any given moment is likely one of thousands of copies just like it. Sure, there are exceptions to this rule, like maybe a particular copy of a book has sentimental value because someone special gave it to you, but for the most part, a book is not a snowflake.

If you’re still hesitant, consider the fact that marking up books will put you in good company. Writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Herman Melville were known to be voracious annotators of books, as was Ralph Waldo Emerson. According to a brief piece on marginalia on the Harvard library website,

Marginalia provide unique records of the reader’s experience. Offering insights into how and why a reader reads, marginalia take many forms. These range from glosses on difficult words or passages and lengthier notes on the meaning of a text, to illustrations and personal marks used to denote passages of particular interest. While marginalia are often highly systematic, they are also as individualistic: every reader’s engagement with a text is unique. Marginalia shed light on the mental, emotional, and intellectual process of reading, as well as changing historical patterns of reading practice.

In terms of your own reading, years from now, you might return to a book that you’ve annotated and be reminded of where you were mentally and emotionally the last time you read it.

Finally, I think that discouraging people from writing in books is akin to saying that a book is the final authority on a given subject. In other words, it’s like saying you can’t talk back when the fact is that you can talk back to a book. I’d go so far as to argue that you should talk back, that the best and most fruitful reading experiences are those in which you feel like you’re engaged in a dialogue — and writing in the margin is one way to have that dialogue. Along these lines, I’ve heard some readers say that a good book is like a good friend. If this is the case, what kind of friendship is it if the conversation is only moving in one direction — if the book does all the talking and all you ever do is listen?

But like I said, I understand the reluctance to write in books. It’s a taboo activity to say the least, so let’s start with a small experiment:

  • Buy an inexpensive copy of your favorite book at a used bookstore.
  • Find a quiet place where the two of you can be alone.
  • Whip out your pen, and see what happens next.

Who knows? It might feel dirty at first and a little obscene. But over time, you might grow to like it!

A Book in My Head: Mike Doughty on The Book of Drugs

As leader of the band Soul Coughing, Mike Doughty scored a major hit in 1998 with “Circles.” Yet for all of his apparent success, Doughty’s life was falling apart — a fact he acknowledges freely throughout his forthcoming memoir, The Book of Drugs. A compelling read, The Book of Drugs chronicles Doughty’s life as an artist, his struggles with addiction, and the last fleeting hours of the music industry’s glory days. Curious as always to chat about craft with writers from all genres, I dropped Mike a line, and picked his brain about his process and the challenges inherent in writing memoir.

What inspired you to branch out from music and into memoir?
Basically, I just had a book in my head. It wasn’t so much wanting to write a book as realizing I had a book to write.

I’m curious about the title. Drugs are definitely one subject you tackle, but the book offers commentary on a wide range of topics—your childhood, the music industry, and psychology, to name just a few. Why did you decide to call your memoir The Book of Drugs?
Drugs are the near-constant companion in the book — as in my life. Either doing them, or conspicuously not doing them. Though, honestly, I really just liked the title, and the way it frames addiction as a relationship.

As I was reading the book, it occurred to me that the drugs you’re discussing might also be metaphorical—that as human beings, we’re always looking for something to take away our pain or distract us from everyday life. So music, in its own way, can be a drug, and so can things like self-pity, for example. Is this valid, or am I reading too much into things?
I definitely was drawn to music as a means of medicating myself, to ease pain. My album from 2005, Haughty Melodic, has songs that are often in one verse about an ex, and in the next, a drug, but they mesh together seamlessly as songs about women.

You do a good job of not mentioning your former band mates by name. What was behind this decision?
I didn’t want to throw mud on their names. Really, not that many people would make the effort to search online.

As you were writing, did you ever find yourself using their names, or were they easy to avoid?
Very easy to avoid. Easier than typing their names, perhaps.

You’re brutally honest throughout the memoir. Were there any topics you were reluctant to discuss?
It was difficult writing about my family, but everything else wasn’t. I have a lot of fear about losing people because they don’t like who they are in the book, but I think people who really know me realize that I’m pretty fervent in my loyalty to the work, the art, as opposed to my interests.

Along similar lines, did you ever run into any difficulties in terms of technique—not so much what to say about difficult topics, but how to say it?
I was pretty in-shape as a writer when I got into it. There were two great boons for me. Firstly, Twitter. You learn to write briefly, to excise the unnecessary. And I studied German for a few years, just took an interest in it long after I’d left school. German is so convoluted grammatically, that I really learned an incredible about of stuff about sentence structure, and simplicity.

How did you find time to fit writing a memoir into your schedule?
I had to put the writing first — to clear time to devote to it. I’m more surprised that I was able to fit a schedule into my memoir.

I’m also curious about editing. Did you work with an editor at Da Capo Press? What was the dialogue like between you and the editor? How did it shape the book?
Yeah, and, funnily, my editor used to play bass in my oldest friend’s band. He was very easygoing about deadlines, so I more or less consciously resolved not to do a thing until he started poking at me, reminded me that I’d been given money. Deadlines help, a lot. Something funny is that I couldn’t figure out how to divvy it up with a chapter structure, so I sent it in as it was, and expected to get suggestions. He called and said, “Hey, the decision not to have chapter breaks was really interesting.”

Were you surprised by anything as you worked on your memoir? Did you learn anything about yourself?
I was surprised that I was able to do it. It’s a hefty gig. Also, I tend to minimize how painful things were, in my head, and sometimes, when I’d see it on paper, I’d realize how sad or hurtful things could be. I rarely give myself permission to have real feelings, but when I read the book back, I got this very thorough sense of what I’d gone through, and how it affected me.