“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” Dorothy Parker
Okay. So we are doing this again? The Valentines’ Day post? (Or is it Valentine’s? Valentine’s, right? Because the Saint is called Valentine, and it is his day?). Are we all good with “Valentine’s”? I mean, the punctuation, are we good with it?
God, what an awkward start to this year’s Thing(s) I Love post. I really stumbled out of the gate. Even the punctuation in the title of these series of posts is questionable. “Is it a singular or a plural?” It can’t be both. We’re not doing quantum mechanics here, Keanu.
I was going to write about SOMETHING ELSE for this year’s “Thing(s) I Love” post, but now with all of this grammar and spelling kerfuffle at the top of this post, maybe I should write about ANOTHER thing (actually it’s not a THING, it’s a MAN: spoiler). That’s right. I’m talking about E.B. White, one half of that famous style manual, Strunk and White. (Well I guess the actual title is The Elements of Style but anyone in the know calls it Strunk and White). And for you style enthusiasts, are you pleased with my use of the “it’s” in the first part of this paragraph. You see, it is a conjunction for “it is” which makes the apostrophe appropriate. If I were using “its” as a possessive, like “The cat hurt its paw”, then no apostrophe. I’M GLAD WE CLEARED ALL THAT UP. (All caps for emphasis).
Another reason to talk about E.B. White and The Elements of Style is that this year is the 100th anniversary of its (see what I did there?) creation. Now, back in 1918, White didn’t have anything to do with it. He didn’t come along and edit, expand and update it until 1959, when it became known as “Strunk and White”. Did people refer to the original 1918 version as just “The Strunk”? I like to think so, as in literary types shouting across a room to each other, “Pass me the Strunk!” Strunk struck out on his own, a hundred years ago, and created this manual because as an English professor at Cornell he was tired of seeing poor English usage among his students. In 1918! What would Strunk think of the world of social media today, with its LOLs, IMHOs, and emojis? Luckily we can ask him because in addition to being a former professor of English, Strunk is also a LORD OF THE DARK ARTS and traded his humanity for immortality in 1924. Thing is, he is kind of hard to track down and he is notoriously shy, so I couldn’t really find a useful quotation.
But enough about Strunk! I don’t love him, I love E.B. White! Let’s talk about him for a little bit. E.B. White was a student of Strunk’s at Cornell, which explains his connection to The Elements of Style.
I first came across The Elements of Style in 2000, when I read Stephen King’s On Writing. For those who haven’t read On Writing, it’s all about SK’s take on the craft of writing, and he swears by Strunk and White as the guidepost and bible for all writers. I got so curious I went out and got my own copy of it, and yeah: It’s great. The first thing I noticed that it is short and to the point, which interestingly is one of the points of the book. “Remove unnecessary words”, to which any reader of this blog will know that I often do not adhere. Another rule is “avoid a succession of loose sentences”. Look, I never said I was a GOOD writer, you guys. And I, for one, welcome all sentences, loose or chaste. (The loose ones are a bit more fun). The second takeaway is that they are strong believers in the Oxford comma and I agree, affirm, and support this take. The third thing is that many of the things they discuss no longer apply in the digital era. For example, the whole idea of telling us when to break up words at the ends of lines really doesn’t matter with a word processor that can automatically justify any line width. But Strunk and White didn’t know about this in 1959. They were living in the age of typewriters. Despite Strunk’s play at immortality, he wasn’t a fortune-teller. (Still isn’t!).
Even though I like the idea of Strunk and White, I don’t agree with EVERYTHING in there. Like their first rule about possessives. They say you should stick an apostrophe and “S” after EVERY case of single possession, even those words that naturally end in “S”, so get situations like Charles’s. I’d be inclined to write Charles’ in cases like this. I don’t know if it is right, but it FEELS right to me. Don’t even get me started on plural possessives.
Well, what else is there to say about Strunk and White? Time magazine named it one of the 100 “best and most influential books written in English since 1923”. I guess they were talking about the 1959 version, and I still consult it from time to time, even if some of its advice is a bit questionable to this modern man. I wondered why Time seemingly chose an arbitrary date of 1923, but I looked it up and that was the year that Time began publishing, so I guess it makes sense.
But this post isn’t just about Strunk and White, you guys. I want to talk about some of the other stuff that White got up to while Strunk was buying incense and mail-order wizard’s robes. He wrote a book that actually turned out to be the first chapter book I ever read. Yes, that’s right. Charlotte’s Web. My grade two teacher read it to us, chapter by chapter, and we were supposed to follow along the best we could with our own scholastic copies. Of course I fell in love with Wilbur, Charlotte, Fern and even that rascal Templeton over a few weeks of reading together. A couple of the more clever kids in my class would “read ahead”, either independently or with their parents, and know what was coming next, but I thought that was dumb. Why would you not just let the story unfold at the pace Mrs. Lajeunnesse intended? We are all going to get there at the same time, pal. I wasn’t prepared for the “kick in the crotch” ending E.B. White lays on us. I was in grade two! I know there’s the whole “circle of life” business but STILL. The poignancy of the ending stayed with me a long time after we were done.
And up until very recently, aside from The Elements of Style, that was the only E. B. White book I ever read.
A couple of years ago, I reread Charlotte’s Web for the first time to my daughter. I think she enjoyed it, and I know it rubbed off on her because we had a guy come by to do some drywalling who she mistakenly called Wilbur. (His name was Weldon and didn’t seem to mind). I choked up a little reading the sad ending again, 35 years later, but it didn’t seem to leave much of an impression on my daughter. She’s made of tougher stuff than me, I think.
We went on to read The Trumpet of the Swan together shortly after that. That’s a bit of weird one, huh? A mute swan (Louis) ends up using a stolen trumpet to communicate. He gets odd jobs as a bugler at a summer camp, working for the Swan Boats in Boston Common, and later on in the Philadelphia zoo, reconnecting with his girlfriend and bargaining with the zookeeper for their freedom by dropping off a sacrificial swan now and again. Still, it was a rather lovely story, and inspirational in the sense that despite facing numerous hurdles, this swan is able to adapt and overcome them and lead a fairly successful life. I mean, how many swans do YOU know that can play trumpet, write on a slate and make cash dollars? An even better question: how many swans do you know, full stop? My point exactly.
E.B. White’s third classic was Stuart Little. I am a little ashamed to admit that I have never read it, or seen any movies or TV or puppets shows based on it. I was always a Mouse and the Motorcycle man when I was a kid, #teambeverlycleary and I just didn’t have room in my life for another talking mouse. Beverly Cleary is still alive you guys! She’s 101! Maybe she drank some of the ol’ “Strunk Juice”? Beverly Cleary is better known as the author of the Ramona books, and I can tell you after a recent reread of them with my daughter: they still hold up, although I sympathize with the parents now throughout. Hopefully I’ll get to Stuart Little with my daughter before she grows out of the age where she wants stories read to her. I understand it’s a dystopian look at what happens when a human woman gives birth to a horrible mutation that takes the shape of a talking mouse. Chilling.
Aside from the style book and his children’s novels, E.B. White wrote a series of articles for the New Yorker. Many of these eventually became collected as The Essays of E.B. White. I read this collection last summer and was moved by their excellence. Many of them were little “slices of life” either of his life as a writer in New York, or his adventures in owning a farm in Brooklin, Maine. They struck me as being very “blog posty”, and perhaps E.B. White would have published an entertaining and popular blog if he had only followed in Strunk’s footsteps and remained alive to this day. As I made my way through the essays, I found myself reading passages out loud to my wife because I didn’t want to hog the pleasure. Some of them sounded even better out loud than they did in my head. His one essay about driving from New York to Maine and all the feelings it evokes as he gets closer to his destination sent shivers up my spine, and I still recite the little poem from the essay in my head on a regular basis: “The river flows through Orland every day.”
More recently E.B. White was referenced tangentially throughout John Hodgman’s book of essays, Vacationland. Although he never mentions him by name, he does say that he is his wife’s favourite author and quotes from one of his poems. In one of the essays, Hodgman toys with the idea of buying E.B. White’s old farmhouse, but thinks better of it. The spirit of E.B. White is felt throughout this collection, and is just one more reason why he gets my nod for 2018’s Thing(s) I Love. You could even say that I think E.B. White is TERRIFIC.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody!