Thursday, September 30, 2010

STYLIZED Celebrates THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE and Its Authors Strunk & White

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of William Strunk & E.B. White's iconic book THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. If you have a soft spot for ELEMENTS or a curiosity about its inception and its authors, author Mark Garvey offers an fascinating look at Strunk, White, and their book in STYLIZED: A SLIGHTLY OBSESSIVE HISTORY OF STRUNK &WHITE'S THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE.
Mark, who's been writing and working in publishing for two decades, has a collection of various editions of ELEMENTS, and when he found out the golden anniversary of its publication was coming up, he began researching the authors, doing interviews, and reading letters, which became STYLIZED. (Many previously unpublished letters by Strunk, White and others appear in the book.)

I recently attended a signing for STYLIZED at Joseph-Beth Booksellers and learned a few facts about Strunk & White that were really cool to this English major and long-time editor.

William Strunk was from Cincinnati and was born in 1869. His house is still standing. (There is no plaque. It's now broken into apartments.) He graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1890. He taught at Cornell, and originally wrote and self-published THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE (43 pages, 25 cents/copy) for his comp and lit courses. Strunk died in 1946.

E.W. White was born in 1899. He took Strunk's class at Cornell and the two struck up a life-long friendship. (They corresponded until up until the year of Strunk's death.) In 1957, more than a decade after Strunk passed away, White was working at the NEW YORKER and wrote about Strunk's ELEMENTS for the magazine. White was then contacted by Jack Case, an editor at Macmillan, asking White to do a revision on Strunk's original text.

White agreed and he revised, tinkered, added, and altered for a year. White's NEW YORKER piece was used as an intro and a chapter called "An Approach to Style" was added in which White referred to the book as "small, consice, opinionated, and incomplete." He sent off his finished manuscript to Jack Case without making a copy. The book was published in 1959. White died in 1985.

Mark Garvey thinks THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE has been so popular for so long for several reasons:
  • The book worked as advertised.
  • There's an appealing complexity in the voice, textured by its coauthors (who have a Spock/Kirk-like dynamic).
  • The book embodies a world view, a credo, one which really appeals to Mark--that it's possible to create a little order in the world by writing about it.

I've got an old dog-eared copy of ELEMENTS from my late 80s college days, of course, but I'm partial to the 2005 edition with illustrations by Maira Kalman. It lives on my nightstand. ELEMENTS OF STYLE makes for good bedtime reading. Really. (If you've got seven minutes, check out this NPR story about the illustrated edition. It made me smile. For seven minutes.)

Also check out STYLIZED. It's a fascinating look at the creators of an indispensable and classic guide for writers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice write-up! Every time I hear the song “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” I am reminded of ‘goals.’ A writer's journey starts when he bites the tip of his pen, thinks about ideas, and put it to writing. But how does a writer create an effective narrative?
"the elements of style "