Book Memo: An Extraordinary Time
Topic: Why did Levinson title his book “An Extraordinary Time”?
Assignment: Provide your argument in a short memo, with a maximum of 300 words.
Not included in the word count: your name, class and the date, the Honor Code pledge and a proper bibliographic citation of Levinson at the bottom of the memo.
Due: As a hard copy, in class, on Monday, September 25, 2017
We will look at the material Levinson presents in An Extraordinary Time throughout the remainder of the term. However, you don’t need to read the entire book for this paper, though it’s a good idea to start thumbing through it. Instead ask yourself: if I have only 1 hour to “read” a book, what do I look at first? What do I skip, what do I skim? Now a rational approach only works if a book is well-written. Levinson, however, was a journalist for the Economist and has two previous books under his belt. This one is carefully structured. I can attest to that because I’ve read it twice, skimmed it to confirm that it’s feasible to do so in under an hour, and then typed an 300 word memo.
This is not an easy assignment. Many a writer – Mark Twain, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill – has opined that they went on for too long because they lacked the time to edit something. In English that’s been a refrain since 1658, with the translation of a quip by Blaise Pascal: “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” He may have pulled it from Cicero.
Brevity requires that you focus on one main point. You have no leeway for digression. You also need to pay careful attention to your prose. The passive voice adds words; stick to active verbs. Avoid indefinite modifiers: “some” and “often” convey imprecision. They stand out in a memo, where you cannot expand on the exceptions to “frequently” or what is small in scale so as to make something else “very.” Obviously, you must pare repetition so as to leave only the bare bones of your argument.
On brevity: In 1918 Woodrow Wilson was asked about the time he spent preparing speeches:
“That depends on the length of the speech,” answered the President. “If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it; if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week; if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.”
Proofreading and format: Please, please get a classmate or friend or parent or someone to proofread your paper! Of course you should acknowledge them at the end. IF you were preparing a memo that your boss was going to hand to the Big Boss, don’t you think it would get proofread? Get in the habit!
As to the physical format, it should be in New Times Roman or similar with an 11pt or 12pt font size, double-spaced and with 1″ margins all around. Your name etc at the top right, your pledge, acknowledgements and source(s) at the end. Count the words of the body of your paper. If you end up at 301 words, it’s not a big deal, but if it’s 330 words, cut something.