Its Own Punishment

If you wish to inflict a heartless and
malignant punishment upon a young person,
pledge him to keep a journal for a year.

—Mark Twain
lame old humorist and writer

Peace and joy. Certain young persons of Your Uncle Jerry’s acquaintance have alleged that a tone of gentle bitterness occasionally creeps into this blog. Bitter? Uncle Jerry? Nothing could be further from true. Your Uncle Jerry is not now, nor has he ever been, a lonely, rancid, and bitter, bitter old bachelor who wears the same longjohns all winter without changing. In fact, Uncle Jerry has two pair of longjohns, and changes them religiously just after Christmas.

Nor is Uncle Jerry an old man soured by a childhood of hardship and isolation. Not at all. Uncle Jerry’s childhood was a joyous one. Uncle Jerry’s foster family included him in all family activities, just as if he were one of the servants. Uncle Jerry is certainly not embittered by memories of the chores, the rags, the nights shivering in the barn, or the constant hazing by six older orphan boys.

If there was one cruelty inflicted by Uncle Jerry’s foster family, it was that, one winter, they encouraged Uncle Jerry to write.

After only two years of sixth grade, Uncle Jerry had begun to show some promise as a student. He was caught sometimes rhyming. On occasion he invented stories—stories of pirates or dragons or orphans who grew up to find themselves heirs to fortunes. This will never do, said Uncle Jerry’s foster family. Great believers in natural consequences, Uncle Jerry’s foster parents devised a scheme to teach him the danger of too much literacy. It was a scheme that Mark Twain himself would salute.

Each evening after chores, Bible study, and polishing the older boys’ shoes, Your Uncle Jerry was sent to sit alone at the hearth with charcoal and tablet. Write, said his parents. Write what you know. Write what happened today. Write your hopes and fears, your disappointments and your dreams. Fill the page, they said. Write. Only after you write, may you go to bed.

A heartless and malignant punishment indeed. Every night, exhausted from the day's labor and the older boys' playful tortures, Uncle Jerry faced that tablet. Write a page, they said. The ghastly emptiness of that page lay like a white desert Uncle Jerry must cross to reach the land of sleep.

Soon the page began to rise up in his mind during the day, hauntingly, so that he could hardly enjoy his chores or the humiliations of school without imagining what he might write about before bed. Accidentally turning to a blank leaf in a schoolbook, Uncle Jerry would flinch and sweat, and compulsively begin to fill it with verse. Hospital walls, train cars, toilet paper---every blank surface cried out to be covered with words.

Alas, the white cow in the barn.

But never mind about her. This cruel regimen, Camper, is the sole cause of what the nice doctor calls Uncle’s Jerry’s “difference.” So don't think it's bitterness, nor cynicism nor misanthropy (that means a hatred for ants, boy; look it up), nor any moral failing at all. What triggers Uncle Jerry’s unique twitches is actually quite simple.

Blancopapyriferaphobia: fear of the empty page.

Joy and peace.

In our story, however, you will find some bitter people. Bitter and conniving and highly amusing. Chapter thirteen is ready.

Book Reviewing—A Thankless Job

If you can’t say anything nice,
Say nothing at all.

lame old folk wisdom

Peace and joy.

From time to time, Your Uncle Jerry will hear a young camper resolve never again to write a negative book review. This is a mistake.

It’s a mistake, my friend, because a book review is supposed to be negative. That’s why they call it a book review.

A good, vicious, unfair, uninformed response from an ill-tempered reader is just what most books and most writers need. It’s like Uncle Jerry’s mom (Grandma Jerry) always used to say as she dragged him by the wrist to the woodshed: A proper thrashing actually makes a person stronger. Why? It stiffens the spine, thickens the skin. Even if you don’t deserve it? Listen, camper: you know you deserve it, if not for this time, then for times before when you didn’t get caught.

And, think about it: a bad review brings just as much attention to the writer as a good review. They’ll thank you later. Your Uncle Jerry always writes negative book reviews for just this reason. There are writers all over the country who are speechless with gratitude for Your Uncle Jerry. 

Often, Uncle Jerry will review a book that he hasn’t even read. You may be surprised to hear it isn’t necessary to read a book in order to know what you think of it. That’s only because you don’t read School Library Journal. For a professional reviewer, knowing just the title or the author is usually enough. Take a glance at the cover online, if you need to feel all research-y. 

And negative reviewing is good not only for the writer; it’s good for the reviewer, too. Sharpen the pencil, sharpen the mind. If you want to improve your own work, spend some time destroying the work of another.

But remember, Camper, insulting someone in public is a thankless job. It takes practice, dedication. Fortunately, a book review is a perfect venue for practice, because your target cannot retaliate without being accused of sour grapes. 

Now, some may call it chicken to trash another human being while hiding behind cheap cover like “it’s only my opinion.” But let’s face it, as a reviewer, you need any protection you can get. 

Chapter Twelve is ready for your review.

Joy and peace.