Monday, October 26, 2009

Going in Style

Mark Garvey’s new book Stylized  tells the back story of how The New Yorker magazine writer E. B. White took his former teacher Will Strunk’s The Elements of Style, a long-forgotten “little book” of grammar rules, self-published in 1918, and turned it into a best-seller. 

In 1959, White, who regarded some of Strunk’s prescriptions as “narrow and bewildering,” rewrote many of the rules, discarded a whole chapter on spelling, and added one of his own about how to write well — presumably in the sometimes bewildering style of The New Yorker.  The changes White made were dazzlingly successful: Strunk’s book had long since fallen into disuse, and only one copy remained gathering dust in Cornell University’s library. In the fifty years since White’s revision was published, The Elements of Style  has sold more than ten million copies.

Stylized recounts how Strunk turned D-student White into a stellar stylist as they discussed the art of writing while sipping shandygaffs (a noxious blend of beer and lemonade). The Bard of Buffalo Bayou imagines this reaction by White when he appraised Strunk’s book:

Said White to Strunk:
“The way you write
I think you’re drunk
Or slightly tight

From shandygaffs
That we’ve been guzzling.
Your paragraphs
Are sometimes puzzling.

Now, Will, just look,
You're some great speller,
But your little book
Is no best-seller.

It’s far too dry
Too full of grammar—
Now I’m the guy
Who’ll add some glamor.”

Thus White took hold,
With little fuss,
And now it’s sold
Ten million-plus!

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