Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Great Book

This school year, I have decided to require my juniors to read (and know) what I believe is a staple, perhaps even the Bible of all writing handbooks. Each week, for the first six weeks of school, we will discuss a different chapter of THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, who, although not a native, must be considered among my home state of Maine’s greatest writers.

Having often mentioned the book, and having based worksheets on its simple-yet-constructive lessons, this will be partly an experiment. I have never before required students to read it. And coupled with OEDIPUS REX and HAMLET to open the school year, it might be too much.

But the potential upside outweighs the risk of boring students. After all, most professional writers I know have the book on their desks and call upon its wisdom often. In an age where most students would rather spend an afternoon playing video games than reading, forcing them to read and study this book can’t hurt them.

I have a copy with me at all times—a paperback third edition in my bag, along with my laptop, in case I get a spare moment to write and need Mr. Strunk to explain the difference between “lay” and “lie” to me for the 13,000th time; and a hardcover at home on the shelf next to my writing chair for those times, late at night, when my paragraphs turn to strings of islands with few causeways connecting them. It is Rule 13, after all, “Make the paragraph the unit of composition,” in which Strunk and White declare, “The paragraph is a convenient unit; it serves all forms of literary work.”

Part of the book’s appeal has long been its brevity; it tops out at 85 pages. Last spring, searching for something students would embrace, I contacted publisher after publisher, asking for a grammar book that was under $20, short, and readable. I found nothing. Then it occurred to me that the answer had been there all along. In my backpack. After all, my sister, a math teacher, has a copy on her desk.

The experiment begins Monday. I hope a new generation of appreciation for the book does, too.


Rick Blechta said...

I hope your experiment yields the results you're hoping for. I was introduced to this tiny marvel by my English teacher in first-year university, and I consider it the most valuable thing he taught me -- so do two other classmates with whom I've kept in touch.

You must be an excellent teacher. Most wouldn't bother with something like this.

John Corrigan said...

Thanks, Rick. Or maybe, after 17 years, I'm just getting old and grumpy!

mohansen said...

"The Elements of Style" is still the gold standard for me (along with "The Chicago Manual of Style"), and it is terrific to see that, after 92 years, it is still required reading in some circles.

Nothing beats it for brevity (it was originally just 43 pages in length) and poignancy, and I "re-learn" something each time I open its cover.

Here's to Strunk and his pupil E.B. White [Charlotte's Web], and the longevity of "The Elements of Style"!