Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

Acts of Simplifying
Sense and Sentences in Sam Pickering’s
“Composing a Life”

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary
words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that
a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no
unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his
sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only
in outline, but that every word tell.

―Will Strunk, quoted by E. B. White, The Elements of Style

To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to
win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquillity in our
conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.

―Montaigne, “On Experience”

SAM PICKERING MAY STILL BE BETTER KNOWN as the teacher on whom Dead Poets Society is based than as an essayist. Robin Williams’s portrayal of John Keating, dedicated prep-school teacher, engaged millions; Pickering’s volumes of personal and familiar essays also engage and endear for many of the same reasons. The movie is truthful to the character of the teacher-essayist, for years now professor of English at the University of Connecticut. That character is a definite persona, closely related although not identical to the man.

Of all of Pickering’s essays, I have chosen to read here the last in A Continuing Education, published in 1985 and still in my judgment his best collection (I do very much admire his recent book Letters to a Teacher). “Composing a Life” lacks the home-spun yarns and local color of Pickering’s later essays as well as the indulgent preoccupation with mundane details of a man’s life—all to the good. It is a fine piece of writing, at times

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