Hippo Manchester
December 1, 2005

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Books: The Elements of Style

Illustrated, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, illustrated by Maira Kalman (Penguin Press, 2005, more than 147 glorious pages).

****

By Amy Diaz

I am born-again Strunk and White.

Just as some people come to the Bible and the whole Christian thing during college, I first read The Word during my sophomore year. (The first words, by the way: “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s.” And He saw it was good.) Like a yokel at a Dust Bowl revival who believes he has been in God’s own presence, I felt, from the first page of White’s introduction to the last page of Strunk’s explanation (which is all about preferring the standard to the offbeat — I beg of you forgiveness, Great Strunk, from the bottom of my cheesetastic heart) that I was imbued with the Power. Sure, I don’t always understand the correct use of a semicolon or the improper use of a participle, but I understand that there is a plan and that these things happen for a reason and that through study I can come to know the things that give meaning and purpose.

Of course, even converts sin. My exasperated professor, my guide on this great spiritual journey, was forever writing “S&W, pg. 45” on the margins of my essays. (I remember the page number but must still refer to the page to remember the proper use of “affect” and “effect” — my eternal gratitude to you, Jack Pitney, for lighting the way.) And for that reason, I keep several copies of the book handy, even giving them out to the unconverted with the passion of an evangelical.

Imagine then my wonderment at the slim volume which announces in white type on red cloth The Elements of Style and then, in holy-book-like gold cursive, Illustrated. The glorious minimalism of the cover really says it all.

White’s 1979 introduction to his professor’s guide to language usage is presented along with a modern artsy two-page painting of a very authorial man in a book-crowded room.

From this initial divine literary moment (indeed, from even before it — when you open the book, the left-hand page offers you a faint, pretty “hello”; in the final six pages is a most flirtatious “thank you” “and” “good-bye”), the book gives Strunk’s direction bright, loving and brilliantly deadpan illustrations.

A discussion of keeping related words together and why the sentence “he noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug” is a specific and more informative sentence than “he noticed a large stain in the rug that was right in the center” is accompanied by an elegant scene of four people in a drawing room, three of whom are enjoying cocktails, one of whom is lying face down in the center of the room in a puddle of his own blood. A woman in a bonnet and flowing pink dress gazing longingly at a multi-tiered cake while she ignores the lad wooing her illustrates why “Polly loves cake more than me” is less about who is likely to take a bigger portion of the dessert than the fact that Polly is far more interested in baked goods than in her suitor.

The book is just as useful, just as transcendent as the original text, handed down to us, I’m sure, in some sort of Ten Commandments-like lightning-to-rock moment. But now, as Cecil B. DeMille did with the story of Moses, as Mel Gibson did with the crucifixion of Christ, Maira Kalman has made all this holiness visible to us in rapturous color. It is as though we are seeing God’s own visage. Seeing God’s own visage explain adverbs.

My cup, it clearly runneth over.