Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd 2013
I read this book some years back and enjoyed it very much then, but this reading was entirely different. Perhaps it was that Todd had died in 2019 at the age of 78. Perhaps it was that Kidder, a Harvard classmate Class of ’67, had autographed my copy at a book reading in 2018 (ironically, the dedication he wrote on the frontispiece was “To Gordon” but I must have never given the book to my son-in-law). But I think the main reason I loved this book so much is that since my first reading, I have become what I will modestly refer to as a ‘writer’. These BookMarks reviews as well as the longer reviews I write for three Vermont newspapers and the web site Literary North, have invested me with a deep interest in the process of getting thoughts into words on paper, and this book is a wonderful and readable ‘how to’ guide. It’s also the story of a deep friendship and professional partnership between writer and editor that began when Kidder was writing free lance pieces for the Atlantic Monthly where Todd was an editor. They collaborated on Kidder’s first book, the Pulitzer Prize winning ‘Soul of a New Machine’ in 1974 and worked until Todd’s death in a close, mutually respectful, and fruitful partnership. The book addresses the genres of narrative, essay, and memoir and provides the reader (and writer) with dozens of useful suggestions illustrated by examples from contemporary writers. They had me on page 7 when in a section labelled ‘Beginnings’ they quote the first line of Nabokov’s memoir, ‘Speak Memory’. Since Nabokov has been my favorite writer for nearly 50 years, since ‘Speak Memory’ is widely acclaimed as one of the best autobiographies ever, and since I had no memory of his brilliant metaphor for life and death (‘The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”), I instantly dug out my pencil and paper and covered several sheets with notes and ‘memo to self’ jottings. I won’t go into detail but if you have any interest in writing or reading, I think you’ll love this book, perhaps even as much as I did.