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I saw this on Facebook at the weekend, in a shortened version. Then I hunted down the original set of rules, apparently written by Frank L. Visco and originally published in the June 1986 issue of Writers’ digest.

writing by AJ Cann

Here they are:

  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren’t necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
  14. Profanity sucks.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement is always best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

And this second set of rules is derived from William Safire’s Rules for Writers:

  1. Parenthetical words however must be enclosed in commas.
  2. It behooves you to avoid archaic expressions.
  3. Avoid archaeic spellings too.
  4. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
  5. Don’t use commas, that, are not, necessary.
  6. Do not use hyperbole; not one in a million can do it effectively.
  7. Never use a big word when a diminutive alternative would suffice.
  8. Subject and verb always has to agree.
  9. Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
  10. Use youre spell chekker to avoid mispeling and to catch typograhpical errers.
  11. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
  12. Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
  13. Don’t never use no double negatives.
  14. Poofread carefully to see if you any words out.
  15. Hopefully, you will use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
  16. Eschew obfuscation.
  17. No sentence fragments.
  18. Don’t indulge in sesquipedalian lexicological constructions.
  19. A writer must not shift your point of view.
  20. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
  21. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
  22. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
  23. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
  24. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  25. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
  26. Always pick on the correct idiom.
  27. The adverb always follows the verb.
  28. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
  29. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
  30. And always be sure to finish what

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As you know, I’m a ‘late adopter’ when it comes to new technology. I hear about things late; I wait around cautiously to see where something is going; I tell myself how happy I have been for so many years of adult life without this dazzling piece of equipment; I hang on until the price drops a bit further; then – sometimes – I take the plunge. So it was with the Kindle, which I bought about six months ago.

What’s remarkable is how quickly it has become a normal, boring and almost indispensable part of daily life. In many ways it’s incredibly retro, even more so after the Google Nexus 7 comes out – dropping the price and raising the stakes for a decent 7 inch tablet. And I betray my own retro-ness in remembering the tipping point that got me pressing the BUY button: it was when I became convinced that the electronic ink pages really were as easy to read as a paper book.

Why do I like it? More to the point, why is it so normal that I have already forgotten it was ever a buying issue? Three main reasons.

(1) Legibility: I was worried it would strain the eyes, and it doesn’t. I can sit in bed and read the Kindle for 2 hours not noticing that I am reading an electronic screen rather than a book (not that I read in bed that long very often…). In fact it is even easier because you can change the font size.

(2) Portability: It goes in the inside pocket of a light jacket, so instead of taking a shoulder bag or a man bag out with me for the sake of carrying a book, I just take the Kindle. So it’s easier than carrying just one book, let alone a whole library of books and journals.

(3) Versatility: I mean the range of stuff that I am reading, and that slips into my pocket so easily. I knew I would use the Divine Office (from Universalis), and the ubiquitous e-Books – a mixture of freebies and paid for. But I’m also downloading journals and websites. And one of the most helpful features is the way you can email documents to your Kindle that then appear as short texts. There are documents, talks, websites, sermons, etc, that I keep thinking I’ll read one day, but never want to read on the computer screen. So I email them to the Kindle, and read them on the bus or tube. I’m actually catching up on piles of interesting reading without having to make an effort.

I’m sorry this sounds like an advert. I’m just delighted when something does what it says, and does what you want it to do, and also does much more.

My fear now is that my present version of the Kindle will be replaced by a higher spec, and the very reason I like it – it’s simplicity – will disappear. I know they have the touch screen versions, which I dislike, because I’d rather a simple click to turn the page than having to tap the screen; that’s why I bought the Kindle rather than the Kobo [correction: apparently there are clickable Kobos as well!]. My fear is that the ‘Retro’ Kindle (my version), like the magnificent, groundbreaking and never bettered Palm, will be overtaken by smart technology. Strange how technology can regress as well as go forward, or at least lose the simplicity and sophistication of its primary purpose in the search for secondary thrills. I said the Kindle was dazzling, but it’s actually the dullness that I like…

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We had a week of silent retreat at the end of last month. Silence, of course, doesn’t mean silence; it means no talking. During meals it meant the clatter of cutlery and the slurping of coffee at breakfast, a selection of classical music at supper, and someone reading to us over lunch – in the monastic tradition.

A pulpit in the refectory of a Carmelite friary in Malta, where a friar would read to the community during meals

It’s very rare, as an adult, that you just sit back (or hunch forward over your lunch) and have someone read to you. One part of the mind is concentrating on the words, and enjoying the language and thoughts and stories. Another part is able to be more attentive than usual to the surroundings, to the senses – the taste of the food, the sheer physical presence of the person opposite you, the sounds of the room and the world outside. And another part of the mind, or perhaps the heart, falls into a semi-conscious slumber, like when you are sitting on the back seat of the car as a child, gazing out the window, as your parents talk about important things you only vaguely understand.

And the soul, somehow, at least in the context of a retreat like this, can be liberated into a kind of domestic contemplation, a stillness that you carry from the chapel into the dining room, that isn’t disturbed by the need to chat over lunch.

It reminds me of the film The Reader (I haven’t read the original novel), where the central part of their complicated relationship is her request to be read to (I won’t give any plot away!). And one of the parents who helped me with the parents booklet gave this simple advice:

Encourage your children to read. Go to the library with them. And continue to read aloud to them, even if they can read well themselves. It gives you an opportunity to talk and learn and grow together. You can usually find a book to read to children of different ages, so your children can be together in this way now and then.

So it’s good to be read to now and then!

Do you have any moments, as an adult, when someone reads to you, or when you are in a group that is being read to? I think it’s quite rare, but I might be wrong.

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I had a few minutes in the British Museum last week – not long enough to visit the Hajj exhibition, so instead I wandered round the Islamic section by the back door.

I came across this beautiful unbound copy of the Qur’an from West Africa, together with its leather carrying case. There was a tradition of having an unbound edition of the book, so that the individual leaves could be distributed around a class of boys for study and memorisation, and then collected together at the end.

I have always loved unbound books, filing cards, manuals that come apart or consist of discrete detachable sections, etc. I don’t know if it takes me back to pre-nursery flash cards (although I don’t think my mum had a stash of these!), or my huge collection of Top Trumps.

I certainly remember being fascinated by a series of history ‘books’ at school which were really folders filled with facsimile documents, and one of my favourite birthday presents was a set of architectural blueprints (or whatever the technical word is) of each individual floor of the Starship Enterprise – with every lift shaft and escape hatch and ‘beam me up Scotty’ floor-disc carefully marked.

And I have had such a disrespect for books (or a love at the idea that they can easily and usefully be deconstructed) that – don’t be shocked – I have been in the habit of cutting them up into different sections so I can take just the next few necessary pages with me on the bus.

Perhaps it’s the idea of a ‘whole’, a unit, that can be taken apart and put together again – like a Lego or Meccano structure. Perhaps it’s the joy of taking out a beautiful object (in this case a piece of paper) and knowing that it has its proper place to go back to – the delight of storage. Or it’s just that something is useful and adaptable and practical.

Is there such a thing as an unbound bible? Bible flashcards? So you can take out your chapter of the week and carry it around with you without having to carry all two thousand pages? Let me know if you have something useful like this.

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Henry Porter writes a lovely reflection about the importance of being unserious every now and then.

There is no case of seriousness in the adult male that cannot be treated by a fortnight with a magnifying glass, binoculars, fishing line, box of watercolour paints, bird book, or a sleeping bag in which to stay a night under the stars… whatever the crisis.

It’s about stepping out of ourselves and noticing the world around us more. How hard it is for many people to live less in the mind. Porter continues:

When I travel alone, I read a lot because I need to do something on the journeys and to fill the evenings, but long ago I gave up the hope that I would make any impression on the prairies of my ignorance with a fortnight of study in August. The classics that I wished I had read, the biographies that I felt I ought to get under my belt, all remained unmolested in my suitcase. As a result, holidays were tinged with guilt and sense of my own fecklessness.

So, I now take a couple of unserious paperbacks and a lot of equipment – most of the inventory above – and revert to boyhood.

A magnifying glass, for instance, is the cheapest source of entertainment I know, and I am genuinely astonished by the idea that you will find a million cameras in the luggage of those leaving for holiday this week, but not a single magnifying glass. I am rarely without one.

A few years ago – in the build-up to the Iraq invasion – I spent the best part of an afternoon on Snowdon looking at tiny aquatic creatures and plants that lived in a rock pool. I never reached the summit, but I still remember the detail of that little universe today.

The same applies to binoculars, which allow you to scout out a landscape, are useful in mountains and at sea, and add a lot when looking at old buildings and frescoes.

Also, I want to know what birds I come across – the blue rock thrush, golden oriole and eagle owl have been ticked off in my bird book – and I certainly want to sweep the night sky, and see whether the fisherman in the bay is having any luck.

A magnifying glass and binoculars help you live in the moment – oddly in contrast to the camera, which seems to me to have become just another demanding screen in our lives, squaring off and flattening experience and, crucially, putting it at one remove forever.

It is no more complicated than this: the most successful and relaxing holiday is the one that takes you out of your head and allows you to see, hear, taste and smell the immediate wonders of a new environment.

But despite the advocacy, Porter still feels guilty about it all!

At the back of my mind, I worry a little about the speed with which I become so completely un-cerebral, almost incapable of reading, or coherent thought. Still a brief period of mindless pleasure, free of the demands of ideas and events, as well as the view that we should always be on a path of self-improvement, is no bad thing.

We are bound by the laws of prudence and take ourselves far too seriously. Too many inner checks govern our behaviour and stop us seeing the wonders at our feet, and we are overwhelmed by stimuli to a degree that cannot be good for us.

Life is short, and whatever the problems of this year of unbelievably hectic news, it seems worth easing back for a spell and drinking in the sights and smells that will sustain us while grappling with the machine through the winter.

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My other highlight from the Royal Wedding was the trees that were brought into the nave of Westminster Abbey. It wasn’t just that they beautified the interior of the Abbey, like an oversized bunch of carefully arranged flowers; it was the magical sense they created that by entering into this building you were actually going out into another completely different world.

I’ve always loved this kind of illusion. It demonstrates how going inside can sometimes take you outside; how fixing your glance on something small can sometimes make your vision much broader. It’s like a metaphor for the power of the imagination itself, which uses something ordinary to transport you somewhere extraordinary. The very act of reading, for example – so still, so stationary, so solitary – is to float up into another world, or fall down into a rabbit-hole of adventure.

The trees in Westminster Abbey made me think of one of my favourite childhood books, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, where the inner walls of Max’s bedroom are transformed into the treescape of a terrifying jungle. And the wallpaper in David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth that turned his sitting room into an autumnal forest. And Lucy clambering through the wardrobe as the coats turned into leaves and branches and the darkness opened out into the forest snow of Narnia. And Dr Who stepping into the Tardis.

My favourite example of this kind of imaginative inversion is St Francis of Assisi’s Portiuncula. This is the little medieval chapel that once sat in the forest in the plain below Assisi. But they cut down the trees and built an enormous basilica over the entire chapel. So now you leave the streets, walk into the Church of St Mary of the Angels, and instead of being ‘inside’ you are transported ‘outside’ to the forest glade surrounding the chapel. Every time I have been there I have been struck with child-like wonder.

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The Guardian’s comment is free turned five last week. It’s a good site to bookmark if you haven’t come across it before; there is always something interesting or surprising. And even though the readers’ comments at the bottom can be a bit predictable, there is enough variety in the subject matter to keep it fresh.

But then the whole point of the site is to allow not just comment, but comment on the comment. So it was a delight to find this piece, by Joe Moran, on the topic of marginalia – the original form of the comment box.

I am almost neurotically law-abiding, but there is one area of life where I am an outlaw, beyond the pale, a fugitive from justice. I only do it in pencil, and sometimes I remember to rub it out, but … I write in library books. Those spaces down the sides of the page seem so inviting that the impulse to anoint them with scribbles is irresistible. History is on my side: until the 19th century books were often used as scrap paper, and few people had qualms about scrawling on a pristine copy. No jury in the land would convict me. Books are meant to be written on.

Is such annotation a dying art in our online era? Most ebook readers allow you to highlight text and take notes, but there isn’t the same aesthetic of columns of alluring white space. On the other hand the web has whetted our appetite for sharing reading experiences. Amazon has just introduced a facility for the Kindle which posts your marginalia online so others can read it. Social reading websites like BookGlutton, where you can attach notes for other readers of the same book, have been around for a while.

You could argue that this impulse is really a return to the great age of marginalia, which the literary scholar HJ Jackson identifies as lasting from about 1750 to 1820. The practice then was widespread and communal. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the word “marginalia”, wrote his own marginal comments with an audience in mind – and even published some of them. “You will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic,” he wrote, a little smugly, in one of Charles Lamb’s books. Many of today’s social networking sites similarly create a kind of ongoing collective commentary – not just on books, but on the world in general.

And yet there is something missing from this electronic marginalia. First, it seems so ephemeral. Pencil marks left on a page will last several lifetimes, perhaps as long as the paper itself. Public Notes, on Kindle, are less tangible and, even if someone is archiving them, are likely to be unreadable in future because of hardware or software changes. The most basic motive for writing marginalia is surely to create a sense of ownership: children often write their names over and over again in books. You can’t do that with a Kindle.

Second, this public note-taking seems too much like performance. For the last two centuries, marginalia has been semi-private, almost furtive, a silent communion with the author or the unknown reader who might pick up the book, secondhand, a generation later. Marginalia is, by definition, something on the margins – undervalued, overlooked.

Do you write in your own books? Do you write in other people’s books? Is it the same putting notes on your Kindle?

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Last Saturday saw the first ever World Book Night, when a million books were given away across the UK. The Guardian had the wonderful idea of asking writers which books they most often give as gifts, and which they’ve been most pleased to receive. Take a look here – it gives you so many new ideas about what to read.

This, as an example, is Margaret Atwood’s entry:

The book I most often give as a gift is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde (Canongate). I keep four or five copies around the house at all times, for swift giving to people who need them. Most often they are artists of one kind or another, and are worrying about the disconnect between what they do and how hard they work, and how little money they make. Hyde’s book explains the differences between the money economy in which we think we live, and the gift economy, in which we also live. Gifts – including artistic gifts – travel in mysterious ways, but travel they must, or else they die. The Gift is essential reading for anyone who has embarked on this journey. (It also inspired the creators of World Book Night. That is one of its gifts.)

Twenty-five titles were chosen to be given away. How? The World Book Night website explains that they “were selected by a committee of people committed to books, based on recommendations from publishers, booksellers and others”.

I’ve copied the covers below. If you click on the title-links it takes you to the World Book Night comments on the book. (I can’t get all the titles and covers to line up nicely – oh well!)

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If you are looking for something intelligent and thought-provoking to read on the net, and haven’t yet discovered it, then visit Arts & Letters Daily – an ‘aggregator’ that collects the best articles in the fields of:

Philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, gossip.

Dennis Dutton, it’s founder, died a few weeks ago. This is from an obituary by Margarit Fox.

Professor Dutton was perhaps best known to the public for Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998. The site is a Web aggregator, linking to a spate of online articles about literature, art, science, politics and much else, for which he wrote engaging teasers. (“Can dogs talk? Kind of, says the latest scientific research. But they tend to have very poor pronunciation,” read his lead-in to a 2009 Scientific American article.)

Long before aggregators were commonplace, Arts & Letters Daily had developed an ardent following. A vast, labyrinthine funnel, the site revels in profusion, diversion, digression and, ultimately, the interconnectedness of human endeavor of nearly every sort, a “Tristram Shandy” for the digital age.

As one of the first people to recognize the power of the Web to facilitate intellectual discourse, Professor Dutton was hailed as being among “the most influential media personalities in the world,” as Time magazine described him in 2005.

Arts & Letters Daily, which was acquired by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, currently receives about three million page views a month. The site is expected to continue publishing, Phil Semas, The Chronicle’s president and editor in chief, said in a statement on Tuesday.

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After yesterday’s slightly mystical post about a new sun rising on the eastern horizon each morning, quite by chance I happened to start reading Augustine’s Confessions later in the evening.

St Augustine writing one of his works

And in Book 1, Chapter 6, I came across this remarkable passage about the relationship between time and eternity; between the succession of created days and God’s ever-present Day:

For thou art infinite and in thee there is no change, nor an end to this present day – although there is a sense in which it ends in thee since all things are in thee and there would be no such thing as days passing away unless thou didst sustain them.

And since “thy years shall have no end,” thy years are an ever-present day. And how many of ours and our fathers’ days have passed through this thy day and have received from it what measure and fashion of being they had? And all the days to come shall so receive and so pass away.

“But thou art the same”! And all the things of tomorrow and the days yet to come, and all of yesterday and the days that are past, thou wilt gather into this thy day.

What is it to me if someone does not understand this? Let him still rejoice and continue to ask, “What is this?” Let him also rejoice and prefer to seek thee, even if he fails to find an answer, rather than to seek an answer and not find thee! 

This is a translation by Albert C. Outler, available online. My own version is by J. G. Pilkington, in a beautiful edition published by The Folio Society, and given to me by a dear friend for the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I’d seen these Folio editions in second-hand bookshops, but never in my life had I dreamed of ever possessing one!

It’s not just the box or the binding; every page is a work of art. The font (Palatino), the paper, the illustrations. We were arguing over lunch about whether iPads and Kindles will soon replace books. Now I have an answer: “Not if every book were the quality of these Folio books”.

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I know you are on the edge of your seats waiting for part 2. Here are the other five ‘greatest novels’, following on from the previous post. I’ve already apologised for the thoroughly misleading title.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.

Gilead

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

 E. M. Forster, Howards End.

Howards End

Michael D. O’Brien, Father Elijah.

Flannery O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge.

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Well, I needed a catchy title. What I mean is: Out of the handful of novels I have read in my short life, and out of those I managed to remember driving up the M1 to Leeds a few days ago, here are some that have touched me profoundly and stayed with me. Another title could be, ‘Summer reading suggestions – if you are stuck for ideas’.

Oh, and one isn’t quite a novel, more an autobiography (but on the novel end of autobiography); and another is quite definitely not a novel but a collection of short stories, but I can’t leave it off a list of books like this, and they fit together like chapters in a novel.

This all started because I re-read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while I was in Lourdes, which moved me even more than it did the first time, and got me thinking about other books that have shaken me to the core, or just shifted the axis of my being a few degrees. So McCarthy takes first place.

I was going to copy the publishers’ blurb below, but even that would break my rule about giving away plot details. If you are intrigued enough you can click on the picture links and read the Amazon reviews etc.

So here is the list:

Cormac McCarthy, The Road.

The Road

Don DeLillo, Underworld.

Underworld

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory.

The Power and the Glory - Vintage classics

Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding.

The Member of the Wedding

 Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Out of Africa.

Out of Africa

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Just for fun, here is another ‘best of’ post. This time it’s the 100 best books of the decade, as judged by the Times. [I've linked here to the printer-friendly version to save you plodding through all 17 pages.] I’ll reprint the top ten, as they do, in reverse order:

  • 10 The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003)
  • 9 Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
  • 8 Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood (2008)
  • 7 Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002)
  • 6 The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)
  • 5 Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (2006)
  • 4 Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers trans Robert Bringhurst (2002)
  • 3 Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (2004)
  • 2 Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)
  • 1 The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Lot’s of food for thought here. You get the impression that ‘best’ sometimes means ‘bestselling’ or ‘most influential’ or ‘of the moment’ rather than, well, best. But of course it is impossible not to be subjective. Or is it?! (I’d better stop, before I get into a whole discussion about the possibility of making objective value judgments.)

More Monsoons by ethan.crowley.

I’m not sure if The Road should be at the very top – but it is certainly a staggering work. Yes, it’s as brutal and stark as the reviews say; but it is at heart a story of a father’s love for his son. And there are moments of hope – one in particular – which I can honestly say shifted the existential ground within me and made me gasp with unanticipated relief and with gratitude at what the human spirit could bring.

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On Not Knowing the Plot

This has happened twice in the last few months: I’ve discovered a new author, devoured one of his or her novels, rushed to read the next one (without knowing anything about it), and then discovered a few pages in that this second novel is in fact a continuation or a re-telling of the first one. The same people I had loved; still breathing. It’s hard to describe the sense of astonishment; the sheer delight of realising that something so precious and personal – the world of the first book and all that it meant to me – was still continuing. The reason any of this was possible was because, almost on a whim, I decided not to read the back cover before I began.

Our Escape by Felipe Morin.

It has renewed my determination to shield myself from all knowledge of any plot. On my estimation this is how it works: The back cover of a novel typically gives you about 20% of the plot – it takes you just a few steps in; a book review gives you about 40% – the reviewer wants to prove that he or she has read more than the back cover; a film review gives you roughly 60% of the storyline; while a two minute trailer at the cinema will give you 80% to 90% of the forthcoming film in miniature – saving only the final twist for the two hour film itself.

For years now I have tried to avoid the trailers in a cinema. It’s difficult. If only they showed them before and not after the adverts. I close my eyes of course. And if the sonorous voice-over is too revealing I resort to humming loudly with my fingers in my ears. Don’t ask what they think of me.

Anyway. I have realised anew the thrill of not knowing the plot. The joy of turning a page and discovering what I didn’t know, of seeing a story unfold before my eyes. Isn’t this what authors want? I’ve realised that 20% is too much. And I have made another resolution: never again to read the back covers of novels.

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