Sunday, June 6, 2010

Author Unknown

The dilemma of most anonymous writers is that they crave attention without being identified, but "recognition" is a word that cuts both ways.
This week's read came from the bookshelves and until I was half-way through it, I did not realize it was my husband's book and he had read it.  It, surprisingly, appeared unread.  Nonetheless, this book is fascinating (and, thanks to clever book opening techniques, still appears unread). 

Author Unknown: Tales of a Literary Detective by Don Foster is the account of the first literary attribution expert: how he came into the field, and some of the literary who-wrote-its he has unveiled.  It is a little plodding through the preface and the first chapter, but really takes off when discussing modern day mysteries.  This man has worked in every possible genre of literature: poetic (Shakespearean, no less), political, terrorist, down-right weird, and of course Clausian (Santa, that is). 

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the how of the process.  He discusses, with specificity, the methods of discovering the author of a Questioned Document (i.e. one that is "anonymous").  The author's use of diction, structure, punctuation, and literary allusion are the main tricks of his trade.  While he described this process, I considered my own use of these elements of style.  I will most likely never write under anonymity, but if I do, I can only imagine I would be considerably easy to figure out.  The way a writer writes is indeed a sort of fingerprint.  No two authors are alike.  Foster, of course, is also able to spot forgeries, so don't go trying to change just for the purpose of not being found out.  Joe Klein of Newsweek found out the hard way when Foster outed him as the author of Primary Colors

In the trenches of literary detective work, Foster has outed a long-dead eulogizer, a transgender-impersonating murderer, a reclusive author, skillful liars, and smarmy lawyers.  It seems no one is safe from the detective's tools.  Thankfully, he has used his talent for good, helping police investigators and FBI analysts determine the authors of various writing samples.  This book is a great read for those who love thinking about the written word. 

Rating: 5.5 of 7


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