Book Pick: ‘Quack This Way’


Book Pick: ‘Quack This Way’

At one point in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing (2013), Wallace suggests that usage dictionaries are perfect bathroom readers because the entries have the appeal of trivia, are brief, and connect with usages the reader will inevitably encounter soon thereafter.

While Garner’s usage dictionary is one of my go-to references, I prefer to leave it at my desk, as it’s a hefty volume.

But even so, Wallace’s observation is spot-on, and you can do worse than randomly selecting a page in Garner’s Modern English Usage and reading a few entries.

A much slimmer volume, Quack This Way can be enjoyed in its entirety over a cup or two of coffee, though you’ll want to make a home on your bookshelf for this transcript of the filmed 2006 interview (Wallace’s last long interview).

Packed with insights into language and writing, the book features highlight-worthy lines on nearly every page, no surprise considering Wallace’s reputation as one of the finest authors of his generation and Garner’s as one of the world’s premier lexicographers.

“[T]he average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity.” — David Foster Wallace

In the introduction, Garner touches on the friendship between the two men, and it is here Wallace’s suicide, in 2008, is most immediate, especially when Garner relates the author’s habit of crossing out his name on the title page when signing his work.

Garner handles these difficult passages well, providing insight into the men’s relationship and leaving the reader with a greater appreciation for the privilege of taking in this conversation.   

The pages that follow feature the text and only the text of their interview, with Wallace’s speech preceded by a simple “DFW:” and Garner’s with “BAG:”.

Garner engages, encourages, and steps back enough to let Wallace’s thoughts come to the fore, and Wallace, as Garner described him in the introduction, strikes the reader as “self-effacing, apologetic, and endearing.”

In what is essentially a master class on writing and language, Garner and Wallace explore the following:

  • Learning to write well
  • The difference between expressive and communicative writing
  • Writing that mistakes complexity for intelligence
  • Vogue words
  • Structure (openings, middles, endings)
  • Passive voice, beginning sentences with conjunctions & buried verbs and nouns
  • Officialese and genteelisms

In addition, readers are treated to mentions of writers whom Wallace admired (all good additions to your reading list) and Wallace’s thoughts on the importance of a writer’s “big trio”: dictionary, usage dictionary, and thesaurus.

Quack This Way is a perfect single-sitting read, a welcome addition to your bookshelf, and a smart gift for anyone even marginally interested in language and writing.


Leave a Comment