Category Archives: prose

Wonderful Words, Like Starshine

Starry Splendor in Core of Alpha Centauri, from hubblesite.orgThe Power of the Word

If you are reading this today, June 2, then you will see, to the right of this blog post, a Flickr thumbnail photo of a pregnant woman lying naked on a bed. If you read this tomorrow, or another day that is not today, then I think you can find the full-size photo by clicking here. The photo—“Laid Bare at 37 Weeks”—is breathtaking, but the comments made me weep like a fool… words of goodwill, out there in the cosmos, like starshine….

The photo’ed mama writes, “This weekend has been hell with Violet’s pox (We had to take her to the dr. today as she’s really poorly, turns out her whole mouth is lined in them and she needs antiBs…poor baby).”

 

Underneath are scores of comments… maybe hundreds… “stunning stunning wonderful beautiful picture” is typical.

 

It’s the words of consolation, encouragement, and compassion, though, that gave me a little jolt. All that power! It pounds, it pulses, it fairly runs off the page. (Wow! Sounds pretty erotic—unintentional on my part, but it works. Power is sexy. Sex is powerful. “Laid Bare at 37 Weeks” is living proof.)

Little prayers

  • I’m so sorry to hear that V is having such a toughie of it, though. What a rotten nasty infection. Poor thing, hugs
  • Hope Violet gets better soon – especially before your boy arrives!
  • Get well soon vibes for V.
  • So sorry to hear that V is so poorly. I hope she’s soon feeling better.

Do you suppose all these commenters know “Laid Bare” personally? Or are they like me, passers-by drawn in by a remarkable image and caught up in the drama of Violet’s virus? (It’s apparently chickenpox, by the way. I infer* from some of the idioms that “Laid Bare,” whose name is, I think, Lyanne, is British. Perhaps they don’t vaccinate babies for chickenpox in Britain, or maybe Violet’s mum and dad decided against the vaccine, as many responsible parents do, for whatever reason. Could it be that Violet had the vaccine and it didn’t work?)

 

In any case, Lyanne’s and Violet’s lives have intersected with mine, and now with yours, in a small way because of technology, and I say, God bless technology! I am not an active member in an Internet community. You won’t find me in MySpace. I use songlists from imeem.com on my website, and several imeem users have asked to be my “friend.” I checked out the last person who asked, and she had something like fifteen thousand “friends.” I looked around a little, and lots of folks have even more. I don’t get it. Someone explain it to me, please. 

Make friends, don’t be stupid

The people whose job it is to worry while the rest of us fly by the seat of our pants—the control freaks who want to put warning labels on shoelaces (“Do not wrap these objects around your neck, or anyone else’s neck. Do not snake these objects up your nose. Do not slice these objects into little pieces and put them in your salad with cucumbers and baby carrots.”)—these people issue nonstop warnings about Stranger Danger. It seems that, before you agree to meet, in person—say, at Target for coffee at 8 a.m. on a Saturday—an Internet Friend hitherto unseen by you, you ought to have that person investigated, preferably by the National Clandestine Service, and “patted down” at the door.

Me, I’m crazy about the Internet as a communication tool, and I know of several joyous long-term relationships that originated online, with the participants’ observing a modicum of common sense before getting together face to face. In any case, I like to think of all the “vibes for V” converging on Violet like a gentle wind, or a soft white light, hastening the healing her little body already knows how to do.

 

* Don’t use infer when you mean imply. Infer is roughly synonymous with deduce: “You just smashed me in the face with your enormous, warty fist, causing me to infer that you are angry with me.”

 

Is Barack Obama ‘Black’?

From a February 20 story on Newsmax.com:

[A Reuters/Zogby poll]… showed [Barack] Obama, who would be the first black president, with a 14-point edge over [Hillary] Clinton, 52 percent to 38 percent, after being in a statistical tie with the New York senator last month. [emphasis mine]

I got out my 1956 World Book Encyclopedia and looked up “presidents of the United States,” found a portrait or a photo for each president, and observed that none of them, sure enough, appeared to be black. I can name, and give a fairly good physical description of, all the presidents since 1956, and I am quite certain that none of them was (or is) black.

Who knew?

Blackness defined

By “black,” I mean “African American.” Ulysses S. Grant, of course, had a fine, robust black beard, but we are speaking of ethnicity here.

It appears, based on my limited research, that the official U.S. definition of an African American is “a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.” Wikipedia’s “African American” entry begins, “African Americans or Black Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.”

Wikipedia points out that the “vast majority” of African Americans now have “varying degrees of admixture” with people of Native American and European ancestry. Various courts in various states at various times have adopted other criteria: In Virginia, you were black if you had “one-sixteenth black ancestry,” elsewhere if you possessed “a single drop of ‘black blood.’”

Why it matters

In one sense, it seems anachronistic to call attention to a person’s ethnicity (even if that person is running for president), especially in the courtroom, since it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of his or her race, color, creed, sexual orientation, and so forth.

In the real world, ethnic background still matters, for several reasons:

(1) Freed black slaves—largely uneducated, ill prepared to compete for lucrative jobs, essentially powerless—were objects of pity, scorn, or hatred. All the civil rights legislation in the world cannot erase that legacy, which is with us still in many forms—poverty, educational inequity, and antagonism are just a few.

(2) Many African Americans, especially those whose ancestors were slaves, share a unique and fascinating culture, idiom, and solidarity—which is not to say that they have uniform ideals and beliefs. “Blackness” is more than skin-deep.

(3) In June 1998, three white men chained a 39-year-old black man, James Byrd, Jr., by his ankles to the back of their truck and went for a joy ride. Racism, subtle or overt, is not dead. James Byrd is.

Is Barack Obama ‘black’?

Last week, a caller to one of the conservative radio talk shows—the caller was an African American—contended that Barack Obama (who would be the first black president) wasn’t, technically, black. The caller’s rationale was that Obama’s ancestors were not slaves. His father, in fact, was a native of Kenya who had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, and his mother was a Kansas-born white woman. Thus, though Barack Obama’s skin is dark(ish), he doesn’t share the legacy or the culture of most African Americans—or, strictly speaking, the ethnicity, since most slaves were West Africans and Kenya is in East Africa.

It would be accurate to refer to Obama as a mulatto—the offspring of a white person and a black person or, more generally, a person of mixed black-and-white ancestry. The origin of the word mulatto is Spanish; it means “small mule”—a mule being the offspring of a horse and a donkey—making the appellation anything but complimentary.

“Mulatto,” according to Wikipedia, was “an official census category until 1930.” In parts of the Old South, mulattos had different, and often more favorable, legal status than blacks—which illustrates my point (and I do have one, in case you were wondering): Race is not a black-and-white issue, and the single label black hardly suffices to describe such a rich assortment of people.

I and Thou

I recommend to you the book I and Thou, by Martin Buber (1878-1965), a Jewish philosopher who urged human beings to always “meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another” (Wikipedia).  

“The ones who count,” Buber writes, “are those persons who—though they may be of little renown—respond to and are responsible for the continuation of the living spirit.”

I was shocked, not too long ago, to hear a friend refer to a particular black person as “a n—-r.” (I can’t write the actual word. My parents would rise from the grave to wash my mouth out with soap. In their home, profanity might be ignored but the N-word was never said more than once; the mouth-washing was that ferocious.)

When I chastised my friend, the N-word-user, he said, “Mary, there are blacks and there are n—-rs.” I disagree with the word choice, and with the logic behind it, but I got the point. Our vocabulary is insufficient. In any case, the “particular black person” at issue was a scoundrel, and would have been a scoundrel regardless of his origin.

I would not like to see all references to diversity disappear. I do not long for a color-blind society (except in the courts), any more than I would enjoy the banishment of celebrations of Irish, Hawaiian, or Jamaican heritage. Diversity is fascinating, as are the remnants of almost-forgotten dialects throughout the country.

Still, in all human interaction, including the current lead-up to November’s presidential election, I hope and pray that each person will be assessed “not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.”

♦ 

Check out the definitive business-writing workbook Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell.

 

We, We, We, All the Way Home

This fall, we intend to march forward as one Democratic Party, united by a common vision for this country. Because we all agree that at this defining moment in history — a moment when we’re facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril — we can’t afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush’s third term. We need change in America. —Barack Obama, North Carolina primary-election victory speech, May 7

Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!… We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. —The Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Doesn’t it just make you squirm when speakers and writers use the word we as if they’re talking about you, as in, “We Americans have gotten too comfortable, too complacent, with our 9-to-5 jobs and our weekend lakeside retreats…”?

And you’re in the audience, and you’ve just been fired from your eighty-hour-a-week job, or you’re late on the rent of your four-hundred-square-foot walkup, or you recently lost a spouse or a dear friend and the last thing you’re feeling is complacent.

Too many writers and speakers use we irresponsibly. It misleads, sometimes by design, sometimes by accident.

Senator Obama announces, “We intend to march forward as one Democratic Party….” For whom is he speaking? It’s not clear.

The rest of the paragraph is a throwaway. Which moment in history is not, in one way or another, “defining”? And of course we need change in America. We always need change in America. Right now I’m thinking we need a three-party system in America.

 

 

The Reverend Mr. Wright, in the paragraph quoted above, doesn’t mean we at all. He means they, the unenlightened, the selfish, the blind, the powerful. Using the word we might be a nod to humility, as if he means, “We as a society, and I’m a member of that society, so I’m guilty, too.” Might be. From what I know about the Rev. Mr. Wright, humility isn’t a conspicuous trait.

I never trust we statements, and the phrase “in our society” puts my back up. Americans are a bunch of oddballs, really, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. “Our society” has only as much power as we, individually, one at a time, give it.

Find answers to your writing questions in Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell.
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Cosmic Context

‘Some part of the world still cares what color the kitchen is’

If there really is a collective consciousness, it must be something like the Internet. We could, if we wanted to, virtually hold hands and sing “Kum-Ba-Yah,” but we choose instead to huddle in our little corners — the News Junkies sipping cybermartinis over there by the plasma-screen TV, the NASCAR buffs drinking domestic beer in their chat rooms — and they wouldn’t even be aware of one another’s existence if there weren’t a line at the virtual bathroom.

Or maybe they get together all the time. Maybe they Do Lunch. Who am I to say? I don’t even know if there are NASCAR chat rooms.

Meanwhile, right under our virtual noses, side by side, sharing some massive server in Seattle or Silicon Valley, are the Recipe-Exchangers and the Terrorist-Plot-Hatchers.

It’s astonishing, when you think about it, how differently people define what’s important.

Recently, doing some research on Scotland, I stumbled upon a Web site that describes the unrelenting grip of temazepam addiction. Back when prescription temazepam was dispensed in gel-filled capsules, certain adventurous types who like to blaze new trails on the frontiers of self-destruction figured out that it was much more fun to melt the capsules and inject the liquid than it was to (yawn) swallow the capsules. (These visionary pioneers were Scots, which is how my research and the temazepam phenomenon happened to intersect.)

All good things must end, it seems. Not only did injected temazepam (“jellies”) cause inflammation around the injection site, it also congealed in the arteries. Gangrene was a not-infrequent consequence.

I read on, in masochistic revulsion. A temazepam addict whose leg has just been amputated barely blinks before he starts punching holes in the other leg. A man dies after injecting temazepam into one of his eyeballs.

You read stuff like that, it makes you want to listen to Yanni, take a lavender-scented bath, carry an armful of lilacs to your grandmother, and all the way to Grandma’s you pray that while you’re pulling into the driveway she’s pulling cookies out of the oven.

There’s so much we don’t know, couldn’t even imagine, about one another. Everybody suffers, everybody rejoices, but for each, regardless of geography, the causes of pain and bliss might be galaxies apart. A woman in Darfur weeps because of the flies that cover her baby’s pus-encrusted eyelids. A woman in Tacoma weeps because a contractor installed the wrong hardware on her kitchen cabinets. She wanted eggshell porcelain drawer pulls, for God’s sake, not winter white.

I had a neighbor once who threw a big party after her doctor gave her wonderful news: Her malignant tumor hadn’t grown. Great bash. Totally impromptu. She went up and down the block, inviting everyone on the street, even people she’d never met. There must have been thirty-five people there.

It’s a wakeup call. I ask myself: How big is your world? How inclusive is the context of your joys and sorrows?

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Untouchables. Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Costner are Catherine and Eliot Ness, observed billing and cooing as Elliot packs for a business trip. Destination: Chicago. Mission: To put crime boss Al Capone (Robert de Niro) away.

Ness arrives in Chicago. Chaos turns to bedlam. Ness is getting his butt kicked until he enlists the help of a street cop named Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery).

At one point, when Ness and Malone haven’t slept for, I don’t know, months, what with people being “offed” and buildings exploding all over the place and Robert de Niro’s Capone strutting around Chicago, magnificently arrogant and wicked — and smug, because the Feds can’t touch him — the phone rings in Ness’s headquarters, where he and Jimmy are looking at maps, or maybe they’re perusing photographs of evildoers — the sneering Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) and his ilk. 

Ness picks up the phone. Listens. Says something like “I don’t care, Sweetheart. Sure. Yellow would be fine.”

He hangs up the phone and — this must be the hardest part of film acting — he has to stand there for a long time, not saying anything, just looking bemused. For us, the audience, there’s music, there’s motion, there’s context for the look. But Kevin, he’s sizzling in a studio, facial muscles twitching from overexertion, having to look bemused for what must feel like hours without the benefit of bemusement-inducing music and with all those people listed in the credits (the Key Grip, the Secretary to Mr. Costner’s Masseur, etc.) looking on.

Jimmy says, “Was that your wife?” Ness replies that it was.

          Jimmy: What did she want?

          Ness: She’s sitting in some room, surrounded by people she doesn’t know, going over kitchen color charts or something. [Pause. Bemusement.] Some part of the world still cares what color the kitchen is.

Damn good thing, too.

I love that line. I look for ways to work it into conversations.

Sara: Looks like rain.

Me: Yeah… Well, some part of the world still cares what color the kitchen is.

Got a writing question? Leave a comment!

 

Flatulence Is Uncommon in Candidates’ Speeches

The leading presidential candidates are well served by their speechwriters. In the three senators’ speeches, among those I’ve read, most of the text is pretty tight. I’ve been surprised by the amount of actual substance they manage to pack in, when they’re not poking at each other. Fresh content abounds—or the talented speechwriters make it seem fresh.

There are many ways to manipulate an audience’s emotions. The best way is to paint sharp word pictures that evoke clear images in the minds of the audience. The worst way is to talk about emotions.

If you want your audience to feel as you feel about the beauty of a mountain meadow, you don’t say, “The mountain meadow is beautiful. I feel very emotional about it.” You say, “In the crisp, clean air, you can almost see the needles of a pine tree on a distant peak. The colors vibrate like neon—velvety green grass, lanky coral poppies with blooms like bobbleheads in the breeze—and fat bees swim in a hazy honeysuckle scent…,” and so forth.

It’s unusual, among the candidates’ speeches I’ve read, to find what I call emotional flatulence. The following, from Senator Clinton’s speech at Hunter College, is a rare example of the bloated rhetoric that is symptomatic of verbal flatulence. I wish there were verbal Tums. We could all send her some.

(Note: This is reproduced as it appeared on the senator’s website, mechanical missteps and all.)

This campaign is not about a campaign, this campaign is not about a personality, this campaign is about hundreds of millions of Americans who are yearning for leadership again. People who across this country do the hard work that makes America work. I’ve spent most of my life helping people who are trying to make it…. The results that I’ve been part of producing for the last 35 years are rooted in my dreams for a better future. We all carry dreams in our hearts and we need to keep dreaming. Dreaming keeps us hopeful, it lifts our spirits, it sets our sights high. Without dreams you can’t aspire to be great but without action, we cannot turn those dreams into reality. I want you to fulfill your dreams and I want America to fulfill ours. It will take hard work and resolve and determination but there isn’t anything we can’t do once we set our minds to it. I intend, as your president, to make sure that America does fulfill all of our dreams.

 

Obama, Clinton, McCain Speeches: A Hasty and Lopsided Assessment

This evening I examined one speech from each of the three leading presidential candidates’ websites. I compared the three documents for style, readability, substance, and other, more subtle, characteristics.

The evaluation was far from scientific or conclusive. For one thing, the speeches were presented to different types of audiences for different purposes. For another, my judgment is clouded by my strong preference for one of the candidates. And plucking one speech, more or less at random, off each candidate’s website can hardly be considered a fair basis for comparison.

Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s my assessment:

Senator Obama

And to those who think that the decline in American manufacturing is inevitable; or that manufacturing has no place in a 21st century economy; we say right here and right now that the fight for manufacturing’s future is the fight for America’s future. And that’s why we’ll modernize our steel industry, strengthen our entire domestic manufacturing base, and open as many markets as we can to American manufactured goods when I’m President.

Grade for substance: B
Grade for style: A
Grade for readability: A (2,760 words, 5% passive voice, 63 Flesch reading ease, 9th-grade reading level)

Overall, Senator Obama’s speech is the best of the three, hands down—and my approval doesn’t reflect my bias. Senator Obama is not my candidate of choice. Even so, there’s no denying that the speech is articulate, energetic, and upbeat. It’s well structured, with plenty of meat on its bones, and it contains very little opponent-bashing.

In fact, philosophy and politics aside, I have only one criticism of Senator Obama as a speaker. I had originally chosen another of the senator’s speeches to critique. In that speech, and to a lesser extent in the one selected, he refers to himself in the plural: “We say right here and now that the fight for manufacturing’s future is the fight for America’s future.”

Richard Nixon used to refer to himself as “Richard Nixon” and as “we” or “us,” as though there were several of him. Why do public figures do that? Inflated ego? Reluctance to assume individual responsibility? I don’t know, but I don’t quite trust the arrogance that use of the “royal we” suggests.

On the other hand, I have to give Senator Obama points for minimal use of the passive voice. Not only do passive-voice constructions lack clarity, they also imply evasion of responsibility, as in “Mistakes were made.”  

Senator McCain

If that authority is entrusted to me, I will use the veto as needed, and as the Founders intended. I will veto every bill with earmarks, until the Congress stops sending bills with earmarks. I will seek a constitutionally valid line-item veto to end the practice once and for all. I will lead across-the-board reforms in the federal tax code, removing myriad corporate tax loopholes that are costly, unfair, and inconsistent with a free-market economy.

Grade for substance: A
Grade for style: B
Grade for readability: B (4,137 words, 17% passive voice, 53 Flesch reading ease, 11th-grade reading level)

I chose the excerpt above because it illustrates the specificity of Senator McCain’s positions on the issues. Although the excerpt is a litany of “I wills,” the speech as a whole is not egocentric. (Senator Clinton actually wins the “me, me, me” championship, referring to herself more often than do either of her opponents.) Senator McCain mentions his opponents numerous times, generally to show how their views differ from his, not to chew them up and spit them out.

Senator McCain is articulate enough, but Senator Obama owns the sound bite. 

Senator Clinton

I believe in the power of the presidency to set big goals for America and to solve the problems of Americans, to ensure that our people have the tools they need to turn challenges into opportunities, to fulfill their God-given potential, and to build better lives for themselves and their children. That’s the kind of president I will be every day in the White House, whether the issue is health care or child care, foreign policy, or the future of our economy…. I am running for president because I believe in the promise of America and I believe in the power of the presidency to help fulfill that promise…. It’s what I have learned, experienced and intended, as best I could, throughout my life. I’ve had many opportunities. I’ve been blessed. And I understand that those blessings came from the hard work of my parents, my teachers, others in the village that surrounded and helped to nurture and raise me; my church, which helped to guide me; and, of course, the positive actions of my government that directly affected my life.

Grade for substance: B-
Grade for style: B-
Grade for readability: B- (4,013 words, 8% passive voice, 49 Flesch reading ease, 12th-grade reading level)

Senator Clinton’s speech has an off-the-cuff feel to it, and, if it was indeed extemporaneous, the senator deserves higher grades. I doubt, however, that there is much left to chance at this point in her campaign.

To her credit, Senator Clinton doesn’t even mention her opponents. Of course, that might be because she’s too busy talking about herself.

Strategically, Senator Clinton being the media-designated Nanny-State Candidate, it might be injudicious for her to make such a point of using “the power of the presidency… to solve the problems of Americans.”  Just a few sentences later, she again refers to “the power of the presidency.” Unfortunately, she has just finished berating George W. Bush for abusing the power of the presidency, which raises doubts about her grasp of such nuances and their implications.

Summary

Senator Obama’s is the best speech, followed by Senator McCain’s and then by Senator Clinton’s. I’d rank their websites in the same order. Visiting Senator Clinton’s site, in particular, is a bit like going through an obstacle course where you have to jump through, climb over, and veer around all the solicitations for funds before you can get any actual information.

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Of Lists, Commas, and Doubtful Parentage

 

One of my former jobs was to introduce new faculty members in a college newsletter. At least half of each introduction consisted of the person’s educational attainments, teaching awards, innumerable publications, and so forth. The dean insisted that the entire introduction be in narrative format, so I was constantly inventing new ways to say, “After earning his Master of Science degree at Prestigious University, he received a Ph.D. from Even More Prestigious University, where he continued to teach until joining the faculty of Backwater University,” and so forth.

When you are conveying data, as above, the data belong in a list — which may be in paragraph format or in the usual “list format,” one item under another. List format has the advantage of breaking up daunting blocks of text.

Either way, items in a list should be parallel (similar in type and construction).

Yes: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback riding, and making crank phone calls. [All items in the list are gerunds or gerund phrases.]

No: Our powerful software is flexible, intuitive, easy-to-use and integrates seamlessly with your other tools.

No: Artemis’s Labrador retriever, Margaret, had several jobs in the household:
1. She licked Artemis’s face when he was sad.
2. She brought Artemis his pipe and slippers every evening.
3. Barking at intruders.

No: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback-riding, and the opera.

Yes: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback-riding, and going to the opera.

 

 

About the Harvard Comma, or the Oxford Comma, or whatever you want to call the comma that belongs before the final item in a series

I’m for it. Associated Press style omits it. Here’s an example, followed by my rationale:

With Harvard Comma: I’d like syrup, guacamole, and peanut butter on my eggs, please.
Without Harvard Comma: I’d like syrup, guacamole and peanut butter on my eggs, please.

1. When you say it out loud, your voice pauses after guacamole. One of the purposes of a comma is to signal such a pause. Be courteous to your readers: Let them go with the flow of text that simulates natural speech.

2. Often the items in a series are phrases rather than single words. In complex sentences, omitting the final comma can muddy the meaning, causing the reader to reexamine the sentence or stop reading altogether. I know what you’re going to say: If the sentence is that complex, it should be recast. Here’s what I say: Go soak your head.

3. Even in short sentences or phrases, omitting the Harvard comma can be all but fatal, as in the famous (possibly apocryphal) book dedication “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Adapted from Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell
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Ah! I Am Writing

Bad writers sit down to write, and they think, “Ah, I am writing. I must use special Writing Language.” These people may communicate beautifully in conversation, but their writing is stilted and usually verbose. They write to impress rather than to communicate.

The difference between writing and conversing is that conversation isn’t a unit. When you are talking with, say, Marcella, she is usually talking too. So your conversation is interactive. You and Marcella give each other verbal and nonverbal cues that guide the conversation. You can tell if she doesn’t understand something, and you say it a different way. You can also use body language to make your point. The two of you make constant little adjustments to keep the communication flowing.

When you’re writing, however, the reader (Arturo) can choose to read or not read your writing (unless he is your English teacher). He can stop reading at any time without letting you know. Arturo bases his choice on three things:

(1) his interest in the subject,
(2) the energy in your writing (your style), and
(3) the integrity (unity) of your narrative (that is, does the piece hang together?).

Excerpted from Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell, designed for business writing but useful for any nonfiction genre

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