Friday, April 06, 2012

Book Review: "Stylized"

Mark Garvey's Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White's The Elements of Style (Touchstone, 2009) is, like the book it chronicles, a little volume full of delights. While I'm not sure the subtitle quite fits, since there isn't all that much about this book that I would call even slightly obsessive, on the whole I enjoyed the book for what it is: the story of The Elements of Style and how it came to be, alongside observations and reflections on the book from various writers.

Garvey hasn't written a bibliographical history of The Elements of Style; while he offers some comparisons of the changes E.B. White made to Strunk's original text during the initial reworking and then on through the subsequent editions through the 4th, published in 1999, his main point certainly is not a thorough analysis of these revisions, nor of the book's publication history.* That said, he makes excellent use of the correspondence between White and the editors at Macmillan during the process of creating the first Strunk/White edition in 1958-59: some of those letters had me literally laughing out loud. And Garvey goes a step beyond, including here responses White sent to readers when they wrote in about the book asking about particular points of style or usage, pointing out mistakes, &c.

Short capsule biographies of Strunk, White and a few others who have played key roles in the life of The Elements of Style over the years make up a fair portion of the volume, as do Garvey's interviews with writers (from Dave Barry to Adam Gopnik) about some of the precepts and ideas laid out in the volume. Garvey also gives himself free rein to muse about the importance of the book over the years, and the ways in which it has been and is viewed by its readers.

After reading this, I'm rather sorry to say that I don't think I've opened my copy of Strunk & White since college, when we used it in a "Freshman Precept" class. I recall enjoying it then, and finding it both amusing and useful ... but I think it may well be time to read it again. And everytime I read a little bit about White, it makes me want to gather all his books around me and just gorge myself on them, reading his essays and poems and letters and stories one right after the other. Probably better to read a little at a time, so I always have something else to look forward to.

*If anyone writes such a book, please let me know; I'd love to read it.

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