The answer to, ‘What are you reading?’ isn’t the same as, ‘What’s on your bedside table?’ when you’re caught in the thrall of Homeland.
Yes, despite the average dialogue and Clare Danes’ histrionics, my boyfriend and I are addicted. It’s 1:00am midweek. We turn to each other pleadingly, ‘Another one?’
So as the episodes roll on, my pile of books increases. And I kid myself: at least the intention is there. There’s Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and short stories by Hemingway—both of which I’ve been reading erratically—Oriana Fallaci’s The Rage and The Pride, The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and an ever mounting pile of The New Yorker.
One book, however, has kept my attention; it doesn’t demand commitment and…it has pictures. I’ve also returned to it while researching Maira Kalman for her profile in the next issue of Dumbo Feather.
When I landed my first gig as a writer, my mum gave me The Elements of Style. Originally written by Will Strunk Jr. and revived by his student E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web) it is the classic writer’s handbook. In print for over forty years, its latest incarnation has been whimsically illustrated by New York author/artist Maira Kalman. It has become my wise mentor in the lazy era of OMGs and typo-ridden emails.
The Elements of Style is comforting in its strict and omniscient approach to the English language. It covers rules of usage, composition, form, spelling, commonly misused words and expressions and provides an approach to style (White’s addition). Strunk, whom White describes as a man who believed ‘it was worse to be irresolute than wrong,’ makes clear his deep-seated, and arguably subjective, ideas about English. This however, is what makes The Elements of Style—despite its status as a grammar book—anything but dry. It is eccentric and commanding, witty and sagacious. Kalman’s absurd sketches accentuate its personality.
One of my favourite commandments is ‘rule seventeen: omit needless words’. Strunk was known to speak so concisely that he often had nothing to say, yet time to fill. He is said to have remedied this by repeating most phrases three times. When I’m writing and editing, there’s Strunk in my mind’s eye, bellowing, ‘Cut, cut, cut!’ His advice? ‘Not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail… but that every word tell.’
One particularly dog-eared section of my copy is ‘Words and Expressions Commonly Misused’. My favourite is the analysis of the word ‘unique’, accompanied by an illustration of a fairly ordinary looking eggbeater, and the sentence, ‘It was a unique eggbeater.’ Strunk stresses that there can be no degrees of uniqueness; you shouldn’t write, ‘the most unique’ or ‘very unique’. A lecturer once told me to avoid the word altogether: to say something is ‘without like or equal’ says nothing much of the subject at all.
I love this book because it delves into the complexities and nuances of language through personal opinion and humour. It adheres strictly to its own rules, making it brilliantly perfect, in content and form.
It’s not easy, as a writer, to admit you should be reading more. But even Maira Kalman—a seasoned contributor to The New Yorker, children’s book author and blogger—identifies. During her interview, Kalman confesses there are things she’s skimmed, pretended to read, or wishes she had read. Now, though, in her sixties, she’s turned a corner: she’s actually reading Proust.
While Elements is like an old friend from whom I can seek advice, I know, deep down, it won’t replace the experience of immersing myself in a novel. I’ll definitely be taking a leaf out of Kalman’s book. That is, after I finish Homeland.
Livia Albeck-Ripka is a Melbourne writer. She is the Deputy Editor of Dumbo Feather, has written for Broadsheet Melbourne and worked as a journalist.
10 Dec 12 at 16:59
Love it liv! Makes me feel less guilty about all the things I ‘intend’ to read as they pile up in my room!
13 Dec 12 at 11:56
Fabulous piece! Thank you Livia. Admission – I loved the old boring Strunk and White but now you’ve inspired me to upgrade and laugh a bit more with Maira Kalman’s version… then I might also get to all the kindle books I’ve downloaded as well as the piles of must reads by the bed! Looking forward to your piece in Dumbo Feather.
13 Dec 12 at 12:56
A lovely read – and makes me want to revisit ‘The Elements of Style’.