Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A for effort

Joseph Caldwell
Swine-herding, he discovered, had more similarities than he had suspected to the writing of a novel: an unremitting commitment, an unrelenting discipline, an uncertain outcome, and, ultimately, the unpredictable prospects when the time for marketing arrived.
Joseph Caldwell, The Pig Goes to Hog Heaven

All writers are underrated. They're all trying to do their best. It's hard to finish a book.
Nicholson Baker, By the Book,
edited by Pamela Paul

Nicholson Baker
Writers, like everyone else, would like to receive an A for effort. One reason most authors have a low opinion of literary critics is that those critics, charged as they are with evaluating the final product, fail to appreciate the effort that went into that product. (Of course, book reviews take a bit of effort, too, even if not nearly what goes into writing the book under review.)

The above lines from novelists Joseph Caldwell and Nicholson Baker reflect the difficulties and uncertainties that go into writing a book, any book. It represents a huge investment of time for an uncertain reward. In this sense, all writers are underrated, as Baker puts it. (He later, oddly enough, makes an exception for William Shakespeare, who he says is overrated.)

Just a few pages later in his novel, Caldwell peeks into the mind of another character and has her say, "Just because I wrote a novel doesn't make me a writer. Who can't write a novel if she's got half a head?" This is a comic novel, but Larry McMurtry is serious when he says something similar in one of his memoirs. He writes about how difficult screenplays are to write but that he can turn out a novel with ease.

Perhaps when one has written as many books as McMurtry has, the process becomes easier. I suspect that most writers, however, would choose to agree with Caldwell, in his initial comment, and Baker. "Writing is hard work," they would say. "Give us a break."

Monday, August 28, 2017

The joy of rereading

The joy of reading is in the rereading; this is where you get to know the world and characters in deep and rewarding fashion.
Walter Mosley, By the Book, edited by Pamela Paul

This statement by mystery writer Walter Mosley qualifies as overstatement, for most readers can find joy in reading a book the first time. If not, why bother reading it a second time? And how often do most readers reread a book anyway?

Even so, Mosley's statement contains a good deal of truth. Rereading can enhance the joy to found in books, or at the very least repeat the joy or perhaps remind us of the joy we once felt reading it, even if, now at a different stage of life, we no longer experience the same joy.

Mosley compares a reader rereading to a writer rewriting. Most authors do rewrite their work, or at least some of it, even if just changing a few words here and there to make it better. Even the best writers don't always get it right the first time. In much the same way, readers don't always get it right the first time. We miss things, such as symbolism or foreshadowing that becomes more apparent on a second or third reading.

It is much the same way with movies. The first time we watch a film, we are mostly just interested in the story. We may not notice certain details that become more significant in subsequent viewings. Last week, for example, I watched an independent film called The Station Agent for the third time. Only then did I catch the significance of the title or realize what a train symbolizes in the film. Never before had I experienced the same joy in watching the movie. I think this is what Mosley is talking about.

He also compares reading a book for the first time to a first date. On a first date, you do little more than get acquainted and discover whether the relationship is worth continuing. With respect to books, that "second date" may take years to come about, although a few people make it a point to reread a favorite book once a year.

Second dates can sometimes be more disappointing than first dates, of course. This summer I reread Wild Times, a sprawling western saga by Brian Garfield, and found it not nearly as enjoyable as I had remembered it. The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis seemed more intellectually challenging than when I read it in college, although it still offered joy and I was glad I had returned to it.

In recent years I have reread such fiction as J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey, Graham Greene's Monsignor Quixote and Jesse Stuart's The Land Beyond the River, as well as such lighter fare as Donald E. Westlake's Dancing Aztecs and James Grady's Three Days of the Condor. Each rereading brought joy at least equal to the first time.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Presidential reading

John Adams
Nicholas A. Basbanes devotes most of one chapter in Every Book Its Reader to the reading habits of U.S. presidents. (He also discusses the reading habits of British royalty.) On the basis of an interview with David McCullough, a biographer of John Adams, he rates Adams the most dedicated reader of all presidents. Adams didn't just read and reread many books, but he made comments on almost every page he read. Sometimes he left almost as many words in the margins as were printed on the page to begin with. His son, John Quincy Adams, was also a serious reader, even if not up the standard of his father.

Basbanes says Jimmy Carter could read at a faster clip than any other president. Theodore Roosevelt was famous for taking boxes of books with him on his hunting trips. He gave books a higher priority than food. The purpose of the trips were to hunt for food, but books weren't likely to be found in the wild.

In a New York Times Book Review essay at the end of the Clinton administration, Harold Evans wrote that 22 of 42 presidents had been bibliophiles. That's slightly more than 50 percent, an impressive number and far in excess of the population at large. But that depends on how one defines bibliophile and how one determines how much someone, such as a relatively obscure 19th century U.S. president,  actually read.

Harry Truman at his desk.
There does not appear to be any correlation at all between how much a president read and how successful his presidency was, or between level of education and success in the White House, or even between education and fondness for books. Abraham Lincoln, for example, had little formal education, but he was an avid reader who memorized much of Shakespeare. He was among the greatest presidents. Harry Truman, another serious reader, was the last president not to attend college, but another outstanding president.

Herbert Hoover was highly educated and a reader, but his presidency could hardly be termed a success. Ronald Reagan was no reader, but he served two terms with distinction. Carter, for all his reading prowess, earned much less distinction.

Some president have been famous for their light reading, John F. Kennedy for his fondness for James Bond and Dwight Eisenhower for his western novels. Yet both read much more serious books, as well. Eisenhower was a devoted student of history, especially military history. There may have been no major battle in history that he hadn't read about and studied in detail. If his reading didn't make him a better president, it certainly helped make him a better general.

Many presidents, Kennedy and Eisenhower among them, have also written books. Theodore Roosevelt was a prolific writer on a variety of subjects, including those hunting trips. Carter and Richard Nixon, among others, have also been writers, especially after their White House days were over. Of all presidential memoirs, those of Ulysses S. Grant continue to receive the highest marks.

Among the standard questions Pamela Paul asks in her New York Times Book Review feature By the Book, and reprinted in her book of the same title, is what book the president should be required to read. The responses were diverse, everything from Shel Silverstein's Don't Bump the Glump! to Fifty Shades of Grey to Team of Rivals to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. There have certainly been exceptions, but it appears most presidents have not needed required reading lists.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Still more surprises

Pamela Paul's collection of her By the Book interviews from The New York Times Book Review was full of unexpected things. Here are a few more.

Walter Mosley
Walter Mosley believes it's sinful to keep books after one has finished reading them

If that is true, I am among the greatest of sinners. I have always believed that almost any book worth reading is worth keeping. But here is how Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins mysteries, puts it: "I am proud to say that I give away or sell at little or no profit almost all of my books. ... After I have read, reread, and reread a book it seems sinful to keep such a reservoir of fun and knowledge fallow on a shelf. Books are meant to be read, and if I'm not reading them then someone else should get the opportunity."

OK, there are several things about that statement that surprise me. 1) Why is it more "sinful" to keep a book than to sell it for "little or no profit"? 2) How does one sell used books for profit anyway, unless they are rare books or were free in the first place, such as review copes? Perhaps Mosley's name on a book, whether he wrote it not, enhances its value. 3) Isn't pride, such as for giving away books, itself a sin? 4) If Mosley keeps a book long enough to read it three times, doesn't that require keeping a book for a long time? And if a book is worth reading three times, why not a fourth? 5) Most books, if taken care of, will outlive us all. So most will eventually find their way back into circulation. Why hurry the process? 6) Why would it be more sinful for a book to sit on my shelf than somebody else's shelf? All books spend most of their lives on shelves, not in readers' hands.

Sebastian Flyte and Franny Glass as role models?

Certainly Sebastian Flyte from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Franny Glass from J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey are memorable characters from literature, but they are also extremely tortured characters, not the sort I would expect to be literary heroes. Sebastian is tortured by wealth, privilege, his mother's insistence on Catholic conformity, his own homosexuality and his alcoholism. Franny suffers a severe breakdown, whether spiritual or mental, in the two related Salinger stories. Yet Andrew Solomon says he identified with Sebastian in his youth, and Donna Tartt says she identified with Franny Glass when she was in her teens.

Harriet the Spy was a favorite childhood book for Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen

None of the women interviewed mentioned Harriet as a childhood literary hero, but Chabon and Franzen did. Yet I was interested whenever certain children's books received multiple mentions, demonstrating the influence such books have had on literary careers. Among those stories future storytellers loved were A Wrinkle in Time (mentioned perhaps more than any others) the Narnia books, Little Women, the Sherlock Holmes stories, Alice in Wonderland and Charlotte's Web. Of course, most children love these books, so perhaps there is no surprise here after all.

Monday, August 21, 2017

More surprises

I wrote last week (Aug. 16, 2017) about my surprise that several authors interviewed in By the Book give what Michael Connelly calls "a short leash" to books by other writers. But that was just one of the surprises for me in Pamela Paul's collection from The New York Times Book Review, which she edits. Here are some others.

J.K. Rowling doesn't read fantasy

You might expect the author of the Harry Potter books, one of the most successful fantasy series in literary history, would be a reader of fantasy novels written by others. But apparently not. This may be why the Harry Potter series strikes readers as being so unique. She didn't, deliberately or not, borrow ideas from others.

The book that had the greatest impact on Richard Dawkins was The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle

It shocks me that The Black Cloud, a science fiction novel I read as a teenager, could have had a significant impact on anyone's life. It wasn't very good, and Dawkins admits as much. At least as a work of fiction it wasn't very good, but Hoyle was one of the major astronomers of his day, and Dawkins said he "learned more science from it, at a formative age, than one ever expects from a work of fiction."

The novel may also have been important to Dawkins because, like himself, Hoyle was an outspoken atheist. Although he coined the phrase "the big bang," Hoyle rejected the idea of the big bang to explain the origin of the universe, preferring the theory that the universe has always been either expanding or deflating and will continue to do so forever. Just as some Christians reject the big bang theory because it is inconsistent with the book of Genesis, some atheists reject it because it is consistent with Genesis, namely the idea that everything had a beginning, out of nothing.

James Patterson admires James Joyce

Somehow I wouldn't have expected James Patterson, whose many thrillers are among the best-selling books of our time, to read, let alone idolize, James Joyce. Yet he says, "Gabriel Garcia Marquez, James Joyce and Gunter Grass are important to me because their writing made it crystal clear that I wasn't capable of the write stuff. Those three dream-killers are still among my favorites."

So apparently, if he had his druthers, Patterson would prefer to write great literary works that few people read than thrillers that millions of people read.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Clear glass, stained glass

"Good prose is like a window pane," George Orwell once wrote. That is, it should frame the view from that window without obstructing that view. You see the world through the window, not the window itself.

David McCullough
That analogy seems more apt for some kinds of writing than for others. When we are reading history or biography, for example, or a front-page newspaper story, we are more interested in the information being presented than in the way it is being presented. That's why a writer like David McCullough is so popular. Whether he is writing about John Adams or the history of the Panama Canal, his prose is crystal clear, allowing even readers of no special intelligence to understand what is going on and stay interested. The reader is able to see the picture McCullough frames without being distracted by flowery or obtuse prose. His style is effective because, until we stop to think about it, it is invisible.

Many writers of fiction are also like this, tellers of vivid stories that seem to flow effortlessly and naturally along, as if the writers themselves had almost nothing to do with it. I am currently in midst of Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War, and Simonson strikes me as this kind of writer.  She plays no tricks with time, like so many modern writers, but tells her story in chronological order. She never tries to be obscure or flashy. She may win no literary prizes, but readers love her stories and, whether they realize it or not, appreciate her window-pane prose.

P.G. Wodehouse
Yet sometimes we want stained glass, not clear glass, in our windows. Sometimes we appreciate the glory of the author's language as much as, or more than, the author's story. A case in point has to be P.G. Wodehouse. He wrote dozens of novels, and the plots, while interesting, are often pretty much alike. Usually young love stands in jeopardy in some way. An older person, normally an aunt or a gruff father, stands in the way. Some wise person, such as Jeeves in the Bertie Wooster novels or Uncle Fred or Galahad in the Blandings novels, concocts a convoluted plan to save the day, but not before there are numerous hilarious complications. Yet we read Wodehouse novels just to delight in how he tells these stories.

I recently finished Galahad at Blandings, published in 1965. Among the stained-glass gems in this novel are these:

"Lady Hermione did not strike her brother with a bludgeon, but this was simply because she had no bludgeon."

"He was standing in the middle of the room with something of the air of a public monument waiting to be unveiled ..."

That's the kind of prose one notices and wants to read a second or third time to savor. Other novels I've read recently have also had lines good enough to make a reader stop.

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson: "We pass through a den that died and got embalmed way back in 1967, down a dingy hallway, past a pink-tiled bathroom."

The Writing Class by Jincy Willett: "Only in art were there cliches, never in nature. There were no ordinary human beings. Everybody was born with a surprise inside."

Headlong by Michael Frayn: "Then the door's open, and we're in the middle of a genial battle to squeeze past a lunging tangled slavering amiable mass of dog."

Most of the time we prefer our reading matter, like our homes, to come with clear windows, but sometimes, as of a Sunday, we enjoy a little stained glass.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Something for everyone

I put down most books, unfinished. Most books aren't very good, and there's no reason they should be.
Richard Ford, By the Book

Richard Ford
While reading By the Book, Pamela Paul's collection of interviews published in The New York Times Book Review, I was surprised how many published authors, like Richard Ford, quickly put down books that don't immediately grab their interest. I would have expected that professional writers, who expect other readers to give their own books a fair chance, would be more tolerant of books written by others.

Jonathan Franzen said, "Most books I pick up I put down without finishing." "I put down at least a book or two a week," James Patterson said. "My time to read is too short," said Michael Connelly, "so I only give a book -- any book -- a short leash. It's got to draw me in quickly." E.L. Doctorow said, "Sometimes I put books down that are good but that I see too well what the author is up to."

Joyce Carol Oates
At the other extreme is Colin Powell, former secretary of state and an author in his own right, who said, "I find some greatness in every book." Joyce Carol Oates said she was trained to view disappointment with a book as a character flaw on the part of the reader, "a failure to comprehend what others have clearly appreciated." Ford actually made a concession to this viewpoint when he added to his own comment, "sometimes I return to a book I've left unfinished and discover -- pleasurably -- that it was I, not the book, that was unsatisfactory."

Pliny the Elder once wrote, "No book so bad but some part may be of use," which would seem to place him in the Powell-Oates camp.

My own view lies somewhere between the extremes of most books are good and most books are bad. It is expressed in the title of a 2005 book by Nicholas A. Basbanes, Every Book Its Reader. This comes from Five Laws of Library Science, written in 1931 by S.R. Ranganathan. Two of these laws are Every Reader His Book and Every Book Its Reader.

Perhaps this is a romantic idea, like saying, "There's someone out there for everyone," but I find it appealing. Even the self-published book that never sells a single copy has its reader, namely the person who wrote it and thought highly enough of it to pay to get it published.

The writers and others whose reading profiles are presented in By the Book reveal an amazing variety of reading tastes. Books that excite some of them, turn off others. That variety is multiplied many times over among the rest of us readers. For each of us there is a book somewhere that will speak to us, and for every book there is someone who will respond to what it says.

While searching for that one ideal book, each of us, like Richard Ford, has every right to put aside those books that fail to interest us, even if, as Joyce Carol Oates suggests, the fault lies more with us than with the books.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Making a family

No one here talks like me or gets my references or knows the songs I know. I don't look like any of them. Even my bond with Joya was based on not belonging here.
Joshilyn Jackson, The Opposite of Everyone

Paula Vauss views breaking up families as her specialty. A divorce lawyer in her mid-30s, ever resistant to starting a family of her own, she continues to be plagued by guilt for the 911 call she made as a girl that led to a prison sentence for her mother on drug charges and her own stay in a home for girls. Although later reunited with her mother, their relationship was rocky after that, and she left home in her teens and hasn't spoken to her mother in years

But now a young man named Julian shows up at her office and reveals he is a younger brother she didn't even know she had. He was born while her mother was in prison and given up for adoption. Then comes a letter from her mother revealing she is dying of cancer and has another daughter, Hana, now 10. Paula finds she has a family, whether she wants one or not. But can she, of all people, find a way to locate Hana and bring it together?

Joshilyn Jackson, the author of The Opposite of Everyone, begins every chapter with Paula's reflections on her youth, when she could "measure the years of my childhood by my mother's boyfriends," and especially that terrible period spent in the orphanage. Clearly those years weigh heavily on her, and the feeling she's had all her life, that there is nobody else like her, persists. Yet she makes unexpected discoveries, not only the two siblings but also that Birdwine, her alcoholic boyfriend, is burdened by his own broken family and that even some of the girls she despised in that home have, like her, managed to make something of their lives. Rather than being the opposite of everyone, she is actually not so different after all. "There were more of us," Jackson writes. "The world was full of us, the leftovers and the leavers, the bereaved and the broken."

Jackson weaves a powerful story offering hope that both broken families and those broken by families can be restored.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The place to go in your head

Writing is a job, a talent, but it's also the place to go in your head. It is the imaginary friend you drink your tea with in the afternoon.
Ann Patchett, Truth & Beauty

Novelist Ann Patchett identifies three qualities that make a writer.

Ann Patchett
First, writing is a job and should be viewed as such. That means working hard to earn the expected compensation, whether that be a book contract, royalties, a magazine sale, a weekly paycheck, public recognition and respect or simply the satisfaction gained from a job well done. Many published writers, Patchett included, don't believe there is such a thing as writer's block. One writer calls it laziness block. A job requires work whether you feel like it or not, or maybe you are in the wrong occupation.

Second, some talent is required. Some people with little writing talent have had several books published, simply because they worked hard and got lucky. Others have a great deal of talent but never seem to get around to actually writing anything. Yet the best writers are those with a natural gift for putting their thoughts down on a page, as well as the determination to follow through.

The third quality is one often overlooked, that imaginary friend in your head. Not all writers are introverts, but so many of them are because writing is lonely work, and introverts don't mind being alone for long hours at a time. In fact, they prefer it. Extroverts need other people to bounce off ideas. Introverts can do this more easily within their own heads. It comes natural to them.

"Writing is talking to oneself," Alan Bennett has said, and so it is. You say it in your head to see how it sounds, then transcribe it to written form. Readers are just other people eavesdropping.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Out in the storm

Ordinary thunderstorms can sometimes turn into violent and destructive super-cell storms. William Boyd runs with this metaphor in Ordinary Thunderstorms, his thinking-man's thriller from 2010.

Adam Kindred, a climatologist in London for a job interview, has a casual restaurant conversation with another scientist, a drug researcher. When Philip Wang departs he leaves behind a file, which Adam finds. It has Wang's address and phone number on it, so Adams calls him and offers to drop the file off at his place. This minor inconvenience is the ordinary thunderstorm.

When he arrives at the flat he finds the door open and Wang with a knife in his chest. He pulls out the knife, Wang dies and just like that Adam finds himself the chief suspect in a murder case, his fingerprints on the murder weapon and his name on the visitor register. But this is now a super-cell thunderstorm, and Adam's even greater danger is that Wang's killer, an ex-soldier called Jonjo, is hiding in the flat and, because of that file, wants to kill Adam, too.

Boyd keeps up the tension in the novel's first few pages, but after that those who make a steady diet of thrillers, with their constant action and murders every other chapter, may get bored with Ordinary Thunderstorms, for the center of this storm is prolonged lull, though hardly an uninteresting one for more discerning readers. The author takes us into the London underground, not the subway system but rather the shadowy world into which countless people disappear each year.

Adam finds it amazingly easy to disappear from view, even in a city that has cameras everywhere. He supports himself by begging in the street, avoids using his real name or his credit cards, grows a beard and, for a time, sleeps outside. Gradually he forms a new identity, gets a job as a hospital porter and begins to probe the mystery of what got Philip Wang murdered.

Some of this may strain belief, as when Adam starts dating a police officer and she falls in love with him without bothering to probe his past even a little bit. Still it is fascinating stuff. The novel ends with the suggestion that, while this particular storm may be over, another one may be just over the horizon.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The genetic code of America

There's nothing rhetorical about the question Nathaniel Philbrick asks in the title of Why Read Moby-Dick?, for his 2011 book, brief as it is, answers it in full.

Herman Melville's American classic, he says, has just about whatever one might want in a book: history (he calls it "nothing less than the genetic code of America"), natural history, poetry, theology, humor, psychology, philosophy and a terrific story besides. OK, female characters are scarce, so don't expect great romance, but there is action, suspense and drama aplenty.

What Philbrick doesn't say is that the fact that Melville packs so much into Moby-Dick is what makes the novel intimidating to readers. If it's just the story one wants, those detailed chapters on whales and whaling can be off-putting. Of course, they can also be skipped or skimmed without missing any of the story, as I learned as a college freshman when the novel was assigned reading. When I read it again years later, I gave more attention to these chapters.

Philbrick calls this "the greatest American novel ever written." Others might argue in favor of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises or some other work, but Philbrick makes a good case for Meville. He says it "deserves to be called our American bible."

While reading By the Book, Pamela Paul's collection of interviews with notable writers, and a few others, about their reading habits, I was struck by how often Moby-Dick is mentioned. Joyce Carol Oates says it should be required reading for American presidents. "This truly contains multitudes of meanings: the Pequod is the ship of state, the radiantly mad Captain Ahab a dangerous 'leader,' the ethnically diverse crew our American citizenry." It is one of the books Michael Chabon would want on his desert island. Andrew Solomon somehow missed it in his literary education but still yearns to read it. Actor Bryan Cranston says it is the novel that has had the biggest impact on his life.

Unfortunately, Why Read Moby-Dick? is a book most likely to be read by those of us who have already read the novel, rather than those who haven't. Perhaps it should have been titled Why Read Moby-Dick Again? It certainly has made me want to.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Patron saint of Lucy Grealy

Whether Truth & Beauty, Ann Patchett's memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, another writer, makes her look like a saint or a fool readers must decide for themselves. But then saints often look like fools, and fools, if you watch the movie Being There, sometimes look like saints.

Lucy Grealy
Patchett and Grealy went to college together but didn't actually become friends until they both showed up at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1985, Patchett an aspiring novelist, Grealy an aspiring poet. They ended up sharing an apartment together and becoming devoted friends. The friendship continued for nearly two decades, even after Patchett settled in Nashville and Grealy, an Ireland native, moved to New York City.

Yet it was never an equal friendship. From the beginning Patchett was the giver and Grealy the taker.

Grealy, who died from a drug overdose at the age of 39, underwent nearly 40 operations in her short life because of a facial disfigurement caused by cancer of the jaw. Even though her vibrant personality resulted in more friends and lovers than most other women could imagine, she became dependent upon Patchett to reassure her constantly that, yes, she was loved and, however her ever-changing face happened to look at the moment, she would have sex again.

Ann Patchett
At one time Grealy was the more famous of the pair. "I was famous for being with her," Patchett writes. Her friend wrote a fictionalized memoir called Autobiography of a Face, which became a best seller and led to television interviews in which she wowed audiences. But then, despite a handsome book contract, she could write nothing, while Patchett began turning out one novel after another, beginning with The Patron Saint of Liars.

Never able to manage money, nor anything else, Grealy gave no thought to paying her mounting medical bills, and she would just move to another apartment whenever her landlord became too demanding. Patchett, or some other friend, was always there to help her out and take care of her after those frequent surgeries. At one point Patchett even offered to write her novel for her.

Eventually Grealy became addicted to painkillers, then resorted to harder drugs, all the while insisting she was not an addict. She died in 2002, and Patchett's book came out in 2004.

I vote for saint.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Passed is present

Amy didn't like hearing a euphemism like "she had passed" from a physician. It sounded smarmy, and besides, yes, he really should have come along in the ambulance.
Jincy Willett, The Writing Class

Had Jincy Willett written her novel in 2017 instead of a decade ago, I wonder if she would have written those lines, for it seems to me that in those few short years the terms passed, passed on and passed away have gained much wider acceptance.

Such euphemisms have long been favored by the general public, especially when loved ones die. Euphemisms serve to distance us, at least in our minds, from an unpleasant subject, whether it be death or defecation.  In more official circles, not counting funeral homes, the usual practice was to say that someone had died.

During my newspaper career, which ended in 2010, people died, they didn't pass away. When funeral directors used a euphemism in an obituary, we would change it to "died." But then, like most other papers, we began charging funeral homes to print obituaries, with the costs passed on to the families or estates. If someone is paying to have something printed, they can say whatever they want. Whether someone died, passed away or went to glory is now up to family members.

More recently I have notice phrases like "passed on" showing up even in front-page stories and headlines in major newspapers. If it once sounded smarmy, at least to some of us, it doesn't anymore, although I continue to favor the word died even when talking about my own parents.

I found a Huffington Post article in which William B. Bradshaw comments about a minister using the word died at a funeral. The word choice seemed a bit shocking when the funeral home and everyone else had been using a euphemism. Bradshaw notes that nobody says that Jesus passed away on the cross, so why should the word died be too strong for anyone else? Good point.

At some point in the future, perhaps not many years from now, even the phrase "passed away" will begin to sound too blunt and a new euphemism will be required. Euphemisms tend to need euphemisms themselves in time. Who knows what the new euphemism will be, but it may have already started and I just haven't noticed it yet.