Elemental Stylism

Jonathan Yardley at the Washington Post wrote a little praise for Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style a couple of days ago, which drew some criticism from Jan Freeman at the Boston Globe and some follow-up criticism from various bloggers across the Web.

It make me think about the “little book.” I’ve owned a copy since my freshman year at college. It was the fourth edition then, as it still is, with its introduction by Roger Angell. It’s a little gray paperback that I read through back then and though was great — not as great as Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams (a book that has inspired me for years) but still pretty good nonetheless. When I “retired” from newspaper reporting, my editor gave me a first-edition, a copy that I’ll probably treasure until the day I die.

But that’s just it. I’ll treasure it; I probably won’t use it much. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seriously cracked open the Elements since that first reading a decade ago. My love for that little book is like my love for baseball. It’s a passion that I have when I’m feeling poetic and deep, when I feel like I should be cultured, but it gets laid aside when practical concerns arise and force me to get real work done, rather than sit back and admire the watchmaker’s perfection.

I understand Yardley’s love for the book. I have it myself, in spurts. Do I recommend people read the book? Absolutely. I also recommend they read the King James Bible. I just don’t advocate die-hard belief.


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