Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The teacher appears

Bookstores may well be my favorite places. New books, used books, tidy and set in orderly arrangements or dusty chaos, I am welcomed by the scent, the feel, the words yet unread. And then there is amazon.com which is no different than having a fairy godmother.

My far-away brother sends us books as gifts and amazon manages to drop them at the front door in as few as two days. If this isn't magic, then I misunderstand the concept. And as a devotee of doing business with small, local shops, this produces misgivings. Please notice I did not say guilt, for that would be untrue. It is simply logical that when books can be ordered from Australia and delivered to California within a few days, one would choose that option. But it is not without emotional conflict. The best one can hope for is to find a balance between supporting a local merchant who may not have a title in stock yet provides the pleasure of browsing, touching, carrying home something equally acceptable, and having the finger-snap gratification and ease of an on-line business. Life is fraught with ambivalence.

In the last few days, my gift boxes contained the long-desired "The Elements of Style (Illustrated)" by Strunk/White/Kalman and a Little, Brown and Co. paperback edition of "The Catcher in the Rye," the lack of which on our shelves I discovered when J. D. Salinger died. The paperback is a Back Bay imprint of Little, Brown and Co., original publishers of the hardcover novel in 1951. Both of these volumes link me to other ages and aspects of my life, those of teenage years and a term of service in journalism. Both incarnations remain part of who I am.

When I first saw this edition of "The Elements of Style" on the New York Times list of best-sellers, I had trouble imagining non-writing readers finding content that would cause them to purchase the book. I was not imagining enough. Described as, "This much-loved classic, now in its fourth edition, will forever be the go-to guide when in need of a hint to make a turn of phrase clearer or a reminder on how to enliven prose with the active voice...and (Maira) Kalman's fifty-seven exquisite illustrations give the revered work a jolt of new energy, making the learning experience more colorful and clear."

As I paged through my new copy, I cringed at all the examples of poor writing choices I make, having taken to a - I think I would call it - conversational style in my postings and other current works. Writers talk about writing and a lot of that talk concerns how we want to become better at what we do. I am interested to see how well I will be able to follow the teachings of Mr. Strunk and Mr. White without abandoning the voice I think I have found. Ego is a demon.

What Maira Kalman, a blogging artist and writer for the New York Times, has done to enhance the lessons offered in "The Elements of Style" is take a sentence or phrase from the text and use it as a caption for one of her paintings. The uniquely Kalman art gives me the feeling that a scolding for sloppy workmanship has been softened.

Salinger, whose protagonist spoke to me on a heart-to-heart level, reminded me in the first few paragraphs why I want to find words that will retain their meaning over decades and not fall into the world of dudes and rads and awesomes if I can avoid it. Maybe by not writing from the voice of a contemporary teenager, whose language is unknown to me anyway, I can preserve something timeless rather than settling for temporary.

Once I became aware that such events happen, I realized my significant teachers prefer to arrive incognito. Those new and deceptively innocent brown boxes left on the doormat may have just delivered a few of them.

4 comments:

Erin in Morro Bay said...

I was "in love" with " The Elements of Style" when first introduced to it in my freshman year of college. "The little book", as it was referred to, held so much information. When the illustrated version came out, I was enchanted - 2 favourites in one!
I completly understand the Amazon vs corner bookshop dilemma. I wrestle with it on a weekly basis. I do try to maintain a healthy balance. But must admit, it is magic to open the door and have a box of books waiting on the step.
Erin

grrl + dog said...

After buying her illustrated childrens books, I coveted this new one, and do dip in to it every now and then, however its good to keep in mind the time it was written, so cringing is OK.

And dont lose your voice or spontenaety...er...however that is spelled.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Denise, The voice, once found, is not abandoned lightly. Refining, polishing (maybe becoming marketable, a girl can dream) but nothing alarming in the way of abrupt changes. We can only be who we are. This is what I love, this is what I do and your support - along with that of other readers - is appreciated more than you know. xo Marylinn

Donna B said...

Your post reminded me of this book. I went to my bookshelf and took it out. I had read about it and had found it years ago in a second hand shop. Thanks for the reminder...