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Snippets of GRE-type Prose on the Internet

The first excerpt is a paragraph from a two-paragraph write-up on a review of Cusk’s memoir. The reviewer uses some tough GRE-level vocabulary, including the word ‘portentous’, which was recently on the GRE paper-based test. (I have bolded the vocabulary words).

Her reaction to the book is rendered in prose reminiscent of a short Reading Comprehension passage, one on a subject very likely to pop up test day: literary analysis/criticism.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the book at first: an extended metaphor early on, in which Cusk draws upon her experience of dental surgery to represent the rottenness at the core of her domestic life—”Had we, then, reached the moment at which extraction had become impossible to defer any longer?” she writes—seemed to teeter portentously on the brink of absurdity. But as I read on I came to admire Cusk more and more for those very reasons that her critics berated her—for the gravity and ruthlessness of her self-examination. Much that is written these days about what are regretfully called “relationships” feels overly processed, with emotions filtered bloodlessly through irony, or diverted into easy sentimentality. Cusk’s book, on the other hand, is emotionally raw and deeply uncomfortable-making, while also being finely turned as a literary artifact. (Cusk can nail a simile like Gabby Douglas can execute a backflip). Cusk, admirably enough, is not afraid to take herself seriously—which is a tendency that George Eliot, among others, understood the value of.



This excerpt, taken from the London Review of Books, discusses a photograph by Ian Burry. The photograph is taken using full-size prints (or Magnum Contact Sheets). As you can read, the author uses the photograph as a point of departure to ruminate on how something ineffable is lost when one technology of photography displaces another.

Berry admits that ‘the man in the tweed cap first drew me to this scene’ at a time when tweed caps ‘were already becoming unfashionable’. His remark gets to the heart of a book in which the sense of vanishing worlds is painfully insistent, both in terms of the photographic subject and the manner of its production. So much of what photography has to say about appearance, it turns out, is really about disappearance: cultures and places changed beyond recognition, lives long gone, and the old arts of the analogue camera and the darkroom with them. Both subject and practice take on a lyrical, heritage quality as they’re superseded or extinguished. In his piece about the end of the Kodachrome colour slide (LRB, 3 February 2011) Julian Stallabrass pointed out that nine of the images produced by the American photographer Steve McCurry – another Magnum member – when he petitioned to shoot the last roll of Kodachrome in 2010 were of a vanishing nomadic tribe in Rajasthan. The commemorative style of Magnum Contact Sheets is less rhetorical. The procession of photos is anything but stately: over and over they assert that the moment when the light struck the surface of the film is the only one that matters. It’s like hearing a succession of short passages, each proposing a climax, from a sublime piece of music that has yet to be written or performed.


Perhaps a little more down-to-earth—meaning not as difficult to understand—and thus more indicative of a passage on the easy Verbal section is the following excerpt taken from the Economist. It asks a question that is perhaps more familiar then, say how the evolution of photo technology carries with it the disappearance of a certain aesthetic. Essentially, are we alone in the universe? And if not, how come E.T. and is buddies haven’t landed in our backyards. Down to earth indeed.

THE idea that intelligent life on Earth is a cosmic oddity strikes many as unwarranted terrestrial exceptionalism. There are some 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy besides the sun and, by the latest estimates published earlier this month in Nature, each has, on average, at least one planet orbiting it. (See our  on the latest planet-habitability index.) Even if only a tiny fraction could, in principle, sustain life, and only a tiny fraction of those actually do, that should still leave an awful lot of neighbours. Some of them would surely have called on man by now.

Why, then, haven’t they? The question, first posed explicitly in 1950 by Enrico Fermi, an Italian-American physicist, has elicited a plethora of responses. Perhaps civilisations just do not feel like chatting, or fear that humans could not handle it, or invariably destroy themselves before reaching the technological threshold at which interstellar communications become feasible? Alongside such inherently untestable proposals, however, are some more tractable ones. One is that although civilisations exist, they are few and slow to expand—and so have yet to reach Earth. Another is that galaxy is teeming with intelligent lifeforms, but they are unevenly distributed; Earth just happens to find itself in a bare patch.



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