Recently I read Stylize: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style by Mark Garvey. He writes that he may be obsessive about the book. I think that is an understatement. He is definitely obsessed with that little book. Obviously he was impressed with the book and must have done a lot of research, evident by the detailed history.
I was surprised to find myself continuing to read, and enjoy, this book about a book. Garvey aroused my curiosity in the history of William Strunk Jr., a professor at Cornell University and his former student, E. B. White, writer for The New Yorker and author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.
Information about the book written to help students and sold for 25 cents at Cornell and White’s involvement in the various editions with MacMillan editor Jack Case kept me reading. I was bored with some of the excerpts and quotes from other authors throughout the middle of the book. There were just too many.
I’ve had my copy of Strunk & White, Third Edition, as long as I can remember, referring to it occasionally, but I didn’t realize it had such an interesting history, nor that it was so controversial. Writers seem to love it or hate it, praise it or bash it.
Arthur Plotnik’s book, Spunk & Bite: A writers guide to punchier, more engaging language & style, gives reasons why he thinks Strunk & White is too rigid for today’s changing world. Although he admits he does go back to The Elements of Style to review sensible rules, his opinions of strict rules comes through in the title of Chapter One, “E. B. Whitewashed.”
Spunk & Bite offers “A Little Light Unstrunktion,” discussing flexibility, freshness, texture, force and form. “With some ten million copies rooted on as many reference shelves, Strunk and White has become the ivy (if not the kudzu) on our great walls of clarity and correctness.” Later in that chapter he writes that both Strunk and White knew that bending the rules “can give writing its distinction, its edge, its very style.” I agree.
I am enjoying the look at different approaches to writing offered by Plotnik. Although, I’m only half finished the book, I had to check out the last chapter, Contemporaneity.
Plotkin discusses excess and standing out from the crowd – to go for broke – whether you win or lose, you learn and can survive. I enjoyed this section: “What is it that the protagonist of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral declares about writing in general? ‘As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.’ Spunky.”
Isn’t it great that we have access to such variety. We can refer to Strunk & White and then add some spunk and bite to our writing.