Garvey calls this book “slightly obsessive” and no question he is the nerdiest of Strunk and White nerds. Lots of lovely little tidbits here, including the fact that White earned a D in English in his second semester at Cornell (I imagine in the same way Einstein failed high school math, they were both probably bored to tears). Cornell is of course where White met Professor Strunk and
first encountered The Elements of Style. Strunk had published the forty-three-page booklet himself in 1918, and it was available for purchase in the Cornell bookstore, at twenty-five cents a copy. Strunk had at least two goals in mind with the publication of The Elements of Style: to offer students a clear, concise blueprint revealing the main supports of what he called “plain” English style (“a few essentials,” in his words) and to save himself, and other instructors, time in grading papers.
Enshrined therein is
…Strunk’s Sermon on the Mount, the nugget that cradles the book’s DNA and that might be sufficient to reconstitute The Elements of Style in its entirety should the rest of it, like heaven and earth pass away: Omit needless words.
This bears repeating, and Garvey does so a little later
…continues to ring like a Lao Tzu aphorism at the book’s center, the Strunkian equivalent of the Golden Rule: “Omit needless words.”
In 1957 White wrote a reminiscence of Strunk that appeared in the New Yorker magazine. That same week editor Jack Case of Macmillan contacted White and said if White would edit it they wanted to republish the little book. It was published in 1959 and as of 2009 there were over 10 million copies in print, at which time a 50th anniversary edition was published in hardcover (I have one). In 2005 an edition was published with illustrations by Maira Kalman (and I have one of those, too).
My favorite chapter is “The Fewest Obstacles,” when Garvey traces White to Walden and Thoreau (and Aristotle, for that matter).
The quest for simplicity in writing is a reflection of the longing for it in one’s life as well…Among E.B. White’s confirming contributions in 1959 was the idea that plainness itself could constitute one of the most important “secrets of style.” As he put it in Chapter V, “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”…The effort to see clearly, think logically, and express oneself with precision leads the careful artist toward concision and simplicity, and necessarily, to a great concentration of force.
The correspondence between Case and White during the editorial process is delightful, as are the many letters White writes in response to readers. Exercising heroic self-restraint, I will quote only one
Dear Mr. White,
I’m omitting needless words!
Dear Ms. ——
Thanks. So am I.
but they are sprinkled throughout and every time I came upon one I felt like a gold nugget had dropped out of the sluice box right into my hand.
Less successful are the suspiciously padded contributions from authors like Frank McCourt and Dave Barry and Ian Frazier and Adam Gopnik, who are allowed to go on and on (and on) about the art and craft of writing in a way White would have ruthlessly edited. Omit needless words!
Note: I also heartily recommend Letters of E.B. White, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth. My mother gave it to me on my birthday in 1977, and every now and then I’ll pick it up and let it fall open to whatever page it wants. I am never dissatisfied.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.