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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

September 08, 1996|Susan Salter Reynolds

MARK MY WORDS: Mark Twain on Writing edited by Mark Dawidziak (St. Martin's Press: $17.95, 160 pp.). Mark Dawidziak has a good point: There are a zillion books on how to write by people you've never heard of; why not take a few suggestions from the author of "Huckleberry Finn"? Twain wrote for his audience, claiming that he could "live for two months on a good compliment." He was usually amusing and rarely earnest, except when waxing on the merits of the literary life ("Books are the liberated spirits of men.").

Some favorites: From a 1900 letter to a "presumptuous editor": "You are really perfect in the great art of reducing simple and dignified speech to clumsy and vapid commonplace. . . . It was sound English before you decayed it. Sell it to the museum." On the importance of training from "Pudd'nhead Wilson": "Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education." On reviewers, from an 1887 letter to William Dean Howells: "Haven't you had reviewers talk Alps to you, and then print potato hills?" And on his notorious hatred for Jane Austen: "Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shinbone."

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