Brain Pickings

A Brief History of The Elements of Style and What Makes It Great

by

On depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness.

“I hate the guts of English grammar,” E. B White once famously proclaimed. Yet Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is among the most important and timeless books on writing. With its enduring legacy and cultish following, it has inspired countless derivatives and homages, from a magnificent edition illustrated by Maira Kalman to a rap. The book has become a legend in its own right, its story part of our modern creative mythology — but, like a good fairy tale, it brims with more curious, unlikely, even whimsical details than a mere plot summary might suggest. Those are exactly what Mark Garvey, a 20-year publishing veteran and self-professed extreme Elements of Style enthusiast, explores in Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

From how White, a former student of Strunk’s, resurrected the original text after Strunk’s death, to White’s thoughtful, stubborn, heartfelt, and often snarky correspondence with his editors and readers, including many never-before-published letters, to original interviews with some of today’s most beloved writers, including Adam Gopnik, Nicholas Baker, and Elmore Leonard, the slim but fascinating and wholehearted volume offers a rare peek inside the creative process behind one of the most iconic meta-meditations on the English language.

A large part of what made the Strunk and White collaboration so potent, it turns out, is the stark contrast between the two authors’ attitude towards the rules of language. Garvey writes:

E. B. White described Strunk’s voice on the page as being ‘in the form of sharp commands, Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his platoon,’ and it’s true, the professor seems to spend much of this time in an imperative mood: ‘Do not break sentences in two,’ ‘Use the active voice,’ ‘Omit needless words.’ It’s a natural enough idiom, considering his day job; Strunk sounds teacherly, though he’s not without humor.

White’s voice, on the other hand, is that of the writer, the practitioner of long experience whose sympathies favor the artistic side of the enterprise.

But, above all, Garvey captures the intangible essence of what makes The Elements of Style as much a subject of workshops as it is an object of worship:

True believers have always felt something more, an extra dimension that has likely been a fundamental source of the book’s success all along: As practical as it is for helping writers over common hurdles, The Elements of Style also embodies a worldview, a philosophy that, for some, is as appealing as anything either author ever managed to get down on paper. Elements of Style is a credo. And it is a book of promises — the promise that creative freedom is enabled, not hindered, by putting your faith in a few helpful rules; the promise that careful, clear thinking and writing can occasionally touch truth; the promise of depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness; and the promise that by turning away from artifice and ornamentation you will find your true voice.

Rigorously researched and infectiously narrated, Stylized is an exquisite labor of love, a love that honors one of the most quintessential paragons of creative labor in modern literary history.

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