mark twain on being a writer and a reader

Es­ti­mated reading time is 2 min­utes.

“WHEN MARK TWAIN OPENED HIS MOUTH, strange things came tum­bling out. Things like hoaxes, jokes, yarns, ob­scen­i­ties, and non se­quiturs. He had a drawl—his ‘slow talk,’ his mother called it—that made his sen­tences long and sin­uous. One re­porter de­scribed it as a ‘little buzz-saw slowly grinding in­side a corpse.’ Others thought that he sounded drunk.

He loved to talk: to friends, to re­porters, to the crowds of adoring fans who filled lec­ture halls to hear him. He gave fa­mous after-dinner toasts and tossed off witty one-liners that made great copy for the next day’s papers.

He could talk all night, prefer­ably with a plen­tiful supply of cigars and Scotch on hand. He was al­ways bursting with opin­ions on topics large and small and hum­ming with ideas for new books and new busi­ness ven­tures. He often had trouble sleeping, and drank to numb his nerves. But he never had trouble talking.

He kept talking until the end. In the last years of his life, when he began writing his au­to­bi­og­raphy, Twain de­cided to do it mostly by dic­ta­tion. He sat in bed, with his head propped up on pil­lows, and riffed and rem­i­nisced for hours at a time, while his stenog­ra­pher took down every­thing in short­hand. When he was done, he had more than five thou­sand pages of typescript.

The re­sult is the Au­to­bi­og­raphy of Mark Twain, a mon­ster that has haunted Twain scholars for a hun­dred years. Its for­bid­ding size and free­wheeling struc­ture have puz­zled and in­fu­ri­ated gen­er­a­tions of re­searchers who have de­scended into the archives, hoping to find a fin­ished memoir and in­stead dis­cov­ering ten file feet of mus­ings, in­ter­spersed with let­ters and news­paper clippings. ”


The above is from an ar­ticle ti­tled “Mark Twain’s Eternal Chatter” by Ben Tarnoff forThe New Yorker (No­vember 13, 2013). The fol­lowing is from var­ious bits and pieces of that eternal chatter by Mark Twain

“I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.”

“A classic is book which people praise and don’t read.”

“Ide­ally a book would have no order to it, and the reader would have to dis­cover his own.”

“The dif­fer­ence be­tween the right word and the al­most right word is the dif­fer­ence be­tween light­ning and a light­ning bug.”

“Sub­sti­tute ‘damn’ every time you’re in­clined to write ‘very’; your ed­itor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

“A person who won’t read has no ad­van­tage over one who can’t read.”

“Ed­u­ca­tion con­sists mainly of what we have unlearned.”

“Books are for people who wish they were some­where else.”


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