by Terry Pederson

If you dreaded English class and still stumble over there, their and they’re, then Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” may not be the best use of your leisure time. But if you love the English language – if you approach it with reverence, if you delight in translating thoughts into words – then jump right in and enjoy the ride.

Subtitled “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” this book refutes the popular notion that the Internet is systematically destroying the language and our ability to clearly express ourselves on paper or screen. In fact, self-appointed scolds have been deploring the perceived decline in proper usage for centuries, as Pinker documents in a series of citations dating to the invention of the printing press.

Conversely, Pinker believes that evolving linguistic standards keep English vibrant and relevant. Far from an inflexible purist, Pinker – chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards juror – generally embraces this progression. He notes that 10,000 new words and word senses made it into the dictionary’s fifth edition, published in 2011.

Yet the real value of Pinker’s new book lies less in refereeing the incessant grammar wars than in probing the magic that permeates fine prose. All writers, he maintains, labor under the curse of knowledge: “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” Hence the impenetrable, jargon-filled corporate announcement or the pompous academic paper that defies understanding. Skillful writers know how to surmount the curse of knowledge.

Proper grammar, word choice and punctuation are potent weapons in this struggle, but Pinker’s opinion of what is acceptable today can seems arbitrary. Thus, he sanctions the increasingly common “comprised of,” which grates on the ear of many a careful writer who believes that the whole comprises the parts, while he nitpicks “parameter” as a synonym for “boundary.”

Such quibbles aside, Pinker is persuasive and writes exceedingly well, enlivening his text with references to that renowned linguistics expert, humorist Dave Barry, and colorful examples of syntactic strife, like a Yale student’s news release advertising “a faculty panel on sex in college with four professors.”

“The Sense of Style” is an entertaining romp with a contemporary message about the timeless gift of clear, graceful writing.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.— who served as executive producer, host, and writer for “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” —learned this week that his six-part documentary won the highest honor in broadcasting: a Peabody Award.

“This is a great victory of all of us that love African-American history and those of us that want to see it become an explicably intertwined part of American culture,” Gates said in a statement on TheRoot.com. “This took five years and is a great victory for our ancestors and their sacrifices, and they should be celebrated every day in a school curriculum, and my hope is that the DVD will be used in every classroom from kindergarten to college.”

For the first time in its 73 year history, the Peabodys were announced live on television. CBS This Morning broke the news, naming the winners for the best work in TV, radio, and Internet storytelling, Gates, who chairs the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, shared his elation with the rest of the jury – poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama. Each sent their congratulations. Gates, who wrote that he was “ecstatic,” celebrated by taking in a Knicks game.

Other winners include the comparable PBS series “Latino Americans” and Michele Norris’ Race Card Project. Read the entire list of winners here.

Filmmaker Eduardo Montes-Bradley knew he wanted to make a film on Rita Dove. So the director of documentaries on former NAACP chairman Julian Bond and revolutionary Che Guevara decided to finance the project out of his own pockets.

“To have someone like Rita Dove expressing herself in generational terms by talking about her father and grandfather in her poetry was, to me, like a triple jackpot,” the Virginia-based filmmaker said. “I got the writer I was looking for. I got the story I was looking for, and I had it all right here at home.” 

The result is “Rita Dove: An American Poet” built from family photos, home videos and interviews with its subject  Montes-Bradley explores the former poet laureate’s formative years and asks how a girl from Akron, Ohio, became one of the most lauded poets of our time. 

The film premiered in late January to a sold-out crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Dove, 61, has been a professor at the University of Virginia since 1989. Boyd Tinsley, violinist with the Dave Matthews Band, gave remarks post-screening, followed by a few selected poems from Dove herself. Later, Dove sat for a brief Q&A with the director of University of Virginia’s creative writing program. 

“What I love about the film is that it manages to maintain some mystery,” Dove remarked. “It resists the stamp of ‘this is Rita Dove.’ And his attention to the influence of music in my life — I am just extremely grateful for.”

Indeed, music is her center. The accomplished musician, whose talents extend to the viola da gamba (related to the cello), finds that both music and poetry “scratch the same itch.” Dove’s connection to music lead to the little-known story of African-European violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower, a protege of Ludwig van Beethoven. He inspired her 2009 book, “Sonata Mulattica.” 

“I am obsessed with music,” Dove mused. “And poetry is a perfect vehicle for it because words are music. I’m obsessed with trying to capture what sensations music gives us.”  

Watch footage following the premiere of the documentary, captured by Dove’s husband of 35 years, writer Fred Viebahn.  

If you follow Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Twitter or Facebook, you are probably already privy to the bevy of heavy hitters he has recruited for his new PBS series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross,” premiering Oct 21. The six-part documentary features names as varied as the Black Panther Party’s Kathleen Cleaver to Roots’ drummer Questlove. Gates has mentioned that he is particularly proud of procuring the insights of General Colin Powell.

The chair of the Anisfield-Wolf book awards serves executive producer, host and writer for the series, using his unparalleled knowledge of African-American history (and access to some of the nation’s foremost historians) to flesh out what most history books only skim. The series aspires to document the entire 500-year history of African-Americans, from the beginnings of the slave trade to the present-day occupant of the White House.

In a recent interview, Gates said this series was 40 years in the making. His inspiration for “The African Americans” was the 1968 program, “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” hosted by Bill Cosby, a seven-part look at the unheralded contributions of blacks in film, science and other endeavors. Gates’ series is a deeper dive into narratives much enhanced by leading historians, including former Anisfield-Wolf winners Ira Berlin, David Eltis and Annette Gordon Reed.

After the premiere on October 21, a new hour-long episode will air each Tuesday until the finale on November 26. Join us on Twitter as we tweet with Gates during each episode, using the hashtag #ManyRiversPBS. Catch a peek at the first episode with this two-minute video on a slave girl simply known as Priscilla: 

Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove is 61 today.  Her father, chemist Ray Dove, took her and her brother from Akron, Ohio, to Washington, D.C. when she was 11, where Mr. Dove participated in the March for Jobs and Freedom.

This video, created by Rita Dove’s husband Fred Viebahn, features rich personal photographs and vintage film.  Please note that the music in the background is former U.S. Poet Laureate Dove herself, playing bass viol.

Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Rita Dove delivered the 2013 commencement address to the graduates of Emory University in Atlanta.

The Anisfield-Wolf jury member spoke on the beauty of imagination and finding confidence as they journey into the unknown. Dove also received an honorary degree, with Emory President James Wagner praising her ability to “generously illuminate the world of beauty that formerly was hidden.”

How did you respond to Dove’s message? Just for fun—do you remember your commencement speaker or their message?

Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Henry Louise Gates Jr. has been busy the past few months, filming episodes of his new PBS series, “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The six-part documentary will cover more than four centuries of African-American history, starting with the origins of slavery in Africa and moving to the present day.

Leading up to the series premiere, Gates has written a weekly column for TheRoot.com, “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro,” in which he uncovers little-known tidbits about African-American history.

“Over the past 500 years, our ancestors in this country have been as stubborn, determined, idiosyncratic, individualistic, argumentative and complex as the 42 million African Americans living today are,” Gates wrote in the inaugural column.

“Many Rivers To Cross” will premiere Tuesday, October 22 at 8:00 p.m. EST. A new hour-long episode will air each Tuesday until the finale on November 26.

Follow Gates on Twitter and Facebook, as he has been giving occasional behind-the-scenes peeks at filming locations and subjects.

At age 2, Joshua Coyne was removed from his Kansas City home with broken legs and hips. His foster mother was responsible.

He was placed in the care of Jane Coyne, a single woman with a love of classical music. During his recovery, Jane began to play a Puccini aria and to her surprise, Joshua was able to hum it back, note for note. From there, Jane began to help him hone his gift as a musical prodigy.

Young Joshua began formal musical lessons at 4 and two years later, debuted as a paid violinist. He performed for then-Senator Barack Obama at a campaign rally at the tender age of 14. He put his studies at the Manhattan School of Music to use, composing the score of Janet Langhart Cohen’s one-act play Anne and Emmett.

Now, at 20, he is the face of the film adaptation of Rita Dove’s acclaimed book, Sonata Mulattica, Dove’s interconnected poems that tell the story of another prodigy, 19th century violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower.

Born to a Polish-German mother and Afro-Carribean father, Bridgewater performed all over Europe, thrilling royal audiences and garnering rave reviews. Ludwig Van Beethoven named one of his greatest violin sonatas after his friend and contemporary, but a spat between them caused Beethoven to re-title the work and cut off his friend. Bridgetower continued composing and teaching but gradually fell into obscurity.

It is gratifying that Dove, an Anisfield-Wolf jury member who plays the cello and its forerunner, the viola da gamba, has brought Bridgewater’s life center-stage.

Rita Dove, playing the viola da gamba

The film intersects Coyne’s present journey with Bridgewater’s rightful place in history, adding layer and nuisance to the lives of two prodigies born centuries apart. “This story is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of extraordinary obstacles,” said director and executive producer Andrea Kalin. “It reveals how music and art have the power not only to open our hearts, but transform our lives.”

For more on the film, visit the website at www.ProdigyDocumentary.com

Chances are, Joyce Carol Oates’ latest work is unlike anything you’ve ever read before. “The Accursed” takes readers on a wild ride through Princeton, N.J., in the years 1905-1906, viewed through a host of characters who are all struggling with their own demons as the result of the Curse (always capitalized).

In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, the Princeton University professor and Anisfield-Wolf jury member completed an interview with the Seattle Times in which she explored some of the themes in the book more in depth. Oates began writing the novel in the 80s and left it alone for more than 20 years while pursuing other projects. She came back to it a few years ago and emerged with a novel some are calling Oates’ best work yet.

As Stephen King said in his New York Times review, this book just might be “the world’s first postmodern Gothic novel: E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ set in Dracula’s castle. It’s dense, challenging, problematic, horrifying, funny, prolix and full of crazy people. You should read it.” His review is fun, which is always a good sign for the book at hand. He showcases the complex and ambiguous nature of the novel, leading readers down a path he himself isn’t 100% sure exists and feeling comfortable without a firm grasp on the truth Oates presents. But such complexities often make for good storytelling.

Read an excerpt of “The Accursed” here and let us know if this title makes your list of books to read. 

We’ve long felt honored to have Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the nation’s most preeminent African American scholars, as our jury chair. Having met him numerous times over the past few years, I’m always awed by his depth of knowledge and his ease in front of a crowd.

All of this makes him a wonderful human being and all the more deserving of his latest honor. Henry Louis Gates Jr is the one of the latest Americans to have his portrait displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. In a portrait commissioned by Harvard University, Gates is depicted with several influential works, those of W.E.B. DuBois, Wole Soyinka and Kwame Anthony Appiah.

We are very, very proud for his portrait to be included amongst some of the most prominent people in U.S. history. Kudos on a well-deserved honor!

The events of the past few months have really been hard on the nation’s psyche. An uptick in mass murders and violence seems to have everyone on edge and debating what everything really means.

But our Anisfield-Wolf jury member Steven Pinker would argue that while current events are troubling and no less disturbing, we should know that life even a few hundred years ago would have been a lot different. In his latest book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, Pinker discusses the peace that is seemingly invisible all around us.

In a recent interview with George Stroumboulopoulos, Pinker explains that perception isn’t always reality. “You turn on the news and it seems like there’s nothing but bombings and shootings and stabbings,” he says. “We’re better and better at covering violence…If your impression of how dangerous the world is comes from how many events you can remember, you’re going to think it’s getting worse and worse.” Check out the video above and let us know if you agree with Pinker’s thesis.

Anisfield-Wolf jury member Joyce Carol Oates explains how writers can get in touch with the core of their characters, using examples from her book, The Gravedigger’s Daughter. “If you allow your people to talk, they will express themselves in a way that the writer might not have thought of,” she says. “I give my students an assignment to create people talking to each other and my students say, “I don’t know these people.” I tell them, you have to listen.”

Check out the video below and let us know which characters from literature you most deeply resonated with. 

We know we highlighted him a few weeks ago, but is something to be said for a man who is so passionate, so prolific, so generous with his time, that he dedicates a significant portion of his time working with us here at Anisfield-Wolf as our jury chair. As he puts it, “Chairing the jury for the Anisfield Wolf Book Awards is one of the signal pleasures of my life. The thought that a poet—a white, female poet—had the foresight to endow a price to honor excellence and diversity, at the height of the Great Depression, is something of a miracle, isn’t it?”

Gates himself is a 1989 Anisfield-Wolf award winner, for his work, The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. In the midst of churning out impressive tomes on African American history (or as he would put it, American history), filming PBS specials, his duties as the the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, and his role as the editor-in-chief of TheRoot.com, he is fully invested in his role as our jury chair. We are grateful to have Gates’ wit and deep intellect associated with this prize. We thought we’d have a little fun this Friday and share a clip of our friend on the Colbert Report, where he goes toe-to-toe with the funny man Stephen Colbert but also makes us learn a little something at the same time.

It’s so often repeated that it has lost most of its meaning, but the old saying is true: “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Skip Gates’ latest PBS show, “Finding Your Roots” takes it one step further by connecting the past and the future. In the video above, he assists Newark mayor Cory Booker and Sen. John Lewis (1999 nonfiction winner) in exploring their past. Check out the video and let us know – what questions do you have about your past? What would you hope researchers could find out about your family? 

The website and corresponding book, “The Top Ten,” tackles that very question, asking celebrated writers to list their favorite 10 books. It’s so simple yet incredibly fascinating to see which authors select which books and what genres they love.

A few of our own Anisfield-Wolf authors have been featured on the site—Joyce Carol Oates and Edwidge Danticat. Check out their picks below: 

Edwidge Danticat

Top Ten List for Edwidge Danticat

  1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston 
  2. The Stranger by Albert Camus 
  3. Germinal by Emile Zola 
  4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 
  5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison 
  7. Night by Elie Wiesel 
  8. The Color Purple by Alice Walker 
  9. The Trial by Franz Kafka 
  10. Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain

Joyce Carol Oats

Top Ten List for Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
  2. Ulysses by James Joyce 
  3. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner 
  4. The Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson 
  5. The Stories of Franz Kafka by Franz Kafka 
  6. The Red and the Black by Stendhal 
  7. The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence 
  8. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence 
  9. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville 
  10. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 
Are any of these books on your top 10 list? Share your favorites in the comments below! 
Kwame Anthony Appiah

Watch Anisfield-Wolf jury member Rita Dove get presented with the 2011 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama and Kwame Anthony Appiah be presented with the 2011 National Medal of Humanities.

Today, President Obama will present the 2011 National Medal of Arts to distinguished Anisfield-Wolf jury member Rita Dove. Ms. Dove will be honored for her contributions to American poetry.

Ms. Dove creates works that are equal parts beauty, lyricism, critique, and politics.  Ms. Dove has worked to create popular interest in the literary arts, serving as the United States’ youngest Poet Laureate and advocating on behalf of the diversity and vitality of American poetry and literature.

She has also won the National Humanities Medal, also being awarded today, becoming only the third person to have the honor of both medals. We send up a hearty round of congratulations to Ms. Dove!

We’re so pleased to share this bit of good news about Anisfield-Wolf jury member Joyce Carol Oates!

From Oregon State:

Joyce Carol Oates, celebrated author and National Book Award winner, will receive Oregon State University’s inaugural Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement in May.

The biennial award is given to a major American author who has created a body of critically acclaimed work and who has – in the tradition of creative writing at OSU – been a dedicated mentor to young writers. The honorarium for the award is $20,000, making the new Stone Prize one of the most substantial awards for lifetime literary achievement offered by any university in the country.

The award will be presented to Oates at a special event at on Thursday, May 10, at thePortland Art Museum Fields Ballroom beginning at 7:30 p.m. OSU Distinguished Professor of English Tracy Daugherty will conduct an on-stage interview with Oates. A reception and book signing will follow. Tickets are available at:https://pam.spotlightboxoffice.com/purchase/step4?ticketID=63600

“Joyce Carol Oates is that rare literary figure who, over the course of an extraordinarily productive literary career, has also given generous attention and energy to young writers,” said Marjorie Sandor, director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at OSU. “Unflagging in her support for literary magazines and presses, she has enriched and enlivened our nation’s cultural life.”

Please join us in congratulating Joyce on this terrific accomplishment!