Friday, July 1, 2016

Birthday Book of the Day: William Strunk and his little book


Today is the 147th birthday of William Strunk, Jr., a professor of English and writing at Cornell University for 46 years.

The Writer’s Almanac reminds us that Strunk

is best known for a book that he self-published in 1918 for the benefit of his students at Cornell. He called it The Elements of Style, and its purpose, he wrote, was “to lighten the task of instructor and student by concentrating attention [...] on a few essentials, the rules of usage and principles of composition most commonly violated.” Students called it “the little book,” and it was little: it numbered just 43 pages. In it, Strunk laid down several principles for effective written communication, including: “Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, non-committal language” and “Use the active voice.” He also suggests: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”

One of his students at Cornell was a young man named Elwyn Brooks White, more familiar to readers as E.B. White, the essayist and author of beloved children’s books like Charlotte’s Web (1952). While working as an editor at The New Yorker in 1957, White dusted off Strunk’s little book — which he described as a “forty-three-page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English” — and wrote a feature story about it. He revised the style guide, expanded it, and updated it. MacMillan and Company published it to wider audiences in 1959; White’s contribution to The Elements of Style was so extensive that he is considered a co-author, and the book is commonly known simply as “Strunk and White.” In 2011, Time named it one of the best and most influential books written in English since 1923.

While immortalized as the author of the short instruction booklet- as revised by White, it has sold over ten million copies- Strunk was a respected scholar whose work included critical editions of Dryden, Fennimore Cooper, and Shakespeare, as well as a 1922 study of poetic style, English Metres.

In 1936, MGM flew him to Hollywood to serve as an advisor to director Frank Capra in the filming of Romeo and Juliet. The big-budget spectacle- the last helmed by Irving Thalberg, who died the day of the premiere, had a classy but superannuated cast, included Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer as the lovers, John Barrymore as Mercutio, Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, and Edna May Oliver as the nurse.

The film won four Academy Award nominations and  marked the studio's entry into the high art side of moviemaking.

Strunk retired from teaching in 1937 and died in 1946.

elements of style.jpg

Henry Bemis Books celebrates Strunk’s birthday with a first edition of “the little book”:

William Struk, Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style (Macmillan, 1st ed., stated 1st printing, 1959). LOC 59-9950. Fine hardcover, very good unclipped dust jacket. Blue cloth boards, 71 pp. Some foxing of the endpapers. Scarce and highly collectible. HBB price: $395 obo.


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