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Max Beerbohm, self-caricature, c.1897.

Max Beerbohm, self-caricature, c.1897.

Caricaturist of some note and essayist beyond compare, Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) was one of those serenely talented Victorian aesthetes one not only doesn’t see anymore, one can barely imagine walking the planet. He understood that one of the great rules of writing is this: Never let them see you sweat. If you make it seem easy, that relaxes the reader.

Not that it wasn’t work. Beerbohm:

Writing, as a means of expression, has to compete with talking. The talker need not rely wholly on what he says. He has the help of his mobile face and hands, and of his voice, with its various inflexions and its variable pace, whereby he may insinuate fine shades of meaning . . . but the writer? For his every effect he must rely wholly on the words that he chooses, and on the order in which he ranges them, and on his choice among the few hard and fast symbols of punctuation. He must so use those slender means that they shall express all that he himself can express through his voice and face and hands or all that he would thus express if he were a good talker…

When talking, we have all the senses to work with. With writing, there is really just one. But great writing, even with such a narrow toolset to work with, can nevertheless excite every single one of the senses.

(h/t Gopnik)

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