Saturday, January 9, 2010


The full title of the book is Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. My mother gave it to me for Christmas, and it's a sign of what a grammar geek I am that I was excited about getting this book.

The author, Mark Garvey, is very enthusiastic about his topic, to the point that he gushes a little too much. He needs to heed Strunk's brilliant rule of "Omit needless words" in many places.

Even though I regard Elements as one of my go-to books when I'm editing, I never really knew the history behind it. When Stunk was a professor at Cornell, he self-published a slim little pamphlet filled with writing rules and style suggestions. He thought it would make grading papers easier, because he and other professors could just scribble "see rule #2" in the margins of papers instead of explaining every editing mark again and again.

E.B. White, author of the children's classics Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web among others, and long-time writer for "The New Yorker" magazine, had Strunk as a professor when he was at Cornell. He and Strunk kept in touch through the years, and long after Strunk's death, White wrote an essay for "The New Yorker" about Strunk and his little pamphlet. The rest is writing history.

Garvey was given access by Cornell and by the Strunk and White families to letters between the two authors and letters to and from the publishers and fans/critics of the book. And, really, those were the best part of this little book. In the letters you can see the affection that both authors had for each other and for the English language.

After I finished this book, I pulled out my well-worn copy of Elements and thumbed through it again. Reading White's introduction and Strunk's rules of usage really makes me want to be a better writer. As White contends, in order to be a good writer, you have to understand the rules, even if only to break them. Too many "writers" today don't have a grasp of the basics of language and usage. They should all be given copies of the little book.

A side note - in my life before kids I worked as an editor for the Texas Attorney General's Office. I reviewed all publications the agency produced and other documents on demand. One day, an attorney asked me to take a few moments to review a letter he was getting ready to send to members of the state legislature. I made a few edits and handed the letter back. He disagreed with one of my edits and questioned me on it. I informed him of the rule I was following, and he asked to see proof that it was really a rule. So I brought out my Elements and showed him the relevant entry. This is the conversation we had at that point:

Him: What year was that published?
Me: 1979 (the third edition)
Him: Well, the book is out of date.
Me: Grammar rules don't go out of date.
Him: I went to Harvard Law School.
Me: Congratulations, but you're still wrong on this.
Him: Well, I'm doing it my way.
Me: Fine. It's your name on the letter, not mine.

I found out later he complained about me to my boss, who told him that I was correct in my edit and to stop asking me to review his letters if he wasn't going to take my advice. Ha - score one for the grammar geeks!

love stories in this town

my friend gave me this book, by amanda eyre ward, for my birthday. it's received a lot of press here because ward lives in austin.

i've never really been a fan of the short story as a whole, and this book didn't do much to change that. the stories, most of which are set just after 9/11 revolved around the loss of loved ones and coping with life and love in the wake of the attacks.

perhaps it was the frame of mind i was in when i read the stories several months ago, but i found them too sad for my liking. ward is an excellent writer, but i felt worse after reading the collection. ward has published several other books, and i liked her writing enough that i may give those a look, just to see if the stories are less sad.

*i'm writing in lower case because my keyboard is broken. the shift key is on the fritz.

switch bitch*

i've read most of roald dahl's children's lit, both when i was a child and with my kids, but i've never read any of his adult fiction before this book. and i don't think i will ever again. switch bitch contains four novellas that revolve mostly around sex, and they're fairly disturbing at that.

dahl's fantastical worlds and great imagination work well in children's lit, but in these works he seems to trying to be whimsical for the sake of being whimsical, and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

i'm going to stick to his children's books.

*i'm typing in lower case because the shift key on my keyboard is broken.

bleak house*

several books i've read in the past year referenced bleak house, so i figured it was the universe's way of telling me it was time to tackle it.

for the most part i enjoyed the story. you can definitely tell that dickens was writing this book for serialization because there are chapters that do nothing to move the plot forward and characters who really don't serve any purpose - like the caddy jellyby and everything about her.

i'm in the process of watching the masterpiece theater mini-series of the book, which is excellent, and the producers have done an excellent job of whittling the story without losing any major plot points.

i do have a love-hate relationship with dickens, though. i had to read several of his books in college and grad school, and i was always bothered by how he treated women in the novels. bleak house is no different. without giving anything away, i really don't like what dickens did with esther summerson and lady dedlock at the end.

but it was still worth the read, and i may revisit some others of his, like our mutual friend and a tale of two cities.

*i'm writing in lowercase because my keyboard is fried and my shift key doesn't work.