What an obstacle is before me! For once I shall endeavor to stay true to the limitations of the meme, and bestow my award of literary importance on but a singular collection of pages. However, I should hope you would not demand that I keep from the dropping of book titles which it pains me to omit. For a meme topic such as this amounts to a very high recommendation, and how can I neglect to recommend the philosophic beauty of C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves or the exquisite depth of his Space Trilogy? Likewise, can I not enlighten the many people who have not encountered the warmth with which tenderness and high adventure may be combined by the pen of Rosemary Sutcliff in her masterpieces The Eagle of the Ninth and The Lantern Bearers? Oh, and more! Should I, in the full knowledge that my blog is perused by lovers of medieval culture and history, neglect to recommend the most crucial of all medieval studies, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, without which a scholar cannot be said to truly understand the culture of late thirteenth and early fourteenth century Western Europe? Must I, when pressed by those whose literary experience is lacking in wonder and that numinous Joy that comes, whether they know it or not, from closeness with the Lord of Heaven, be silent rather than exclaim “O poor and hungry soul who yearneth for True Heaven and seeketh it in the written word, get thee hence to George MacDonald so that ye may read his Phantastes and be changéd evermore!” Must I? Must I?
Why yes, David, you must.
In lieu of such a lamentable limitation, I nonetheless must recommend, to every speaker and writer of the language of English, one book.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr., edited by E.B. White (yes, who wrote Charlotte’s Web).
If for no other reason, the existence of the Internet may be justified by the fact that the entirety of Strunk’s invaluable book is available, for free, courtesy of Bartleby.
Strunk teaches you how to express your thoughts clearly and accurately through clear and accurate words. This allows you to be sure that your thoughts themselves are clear and accurate.
I am unsure if it is possible to overstate the value of this book. It may be possible, but I am unsure. You see, this is a book that teaches you how to write. It is not a grammar book, exactly, although you may learn much grammar without being quite aware of it. Rather, its subject is, well, the style of the English language. Not your personal writing voice, of course – no one can teach you that. But what Strunk does is go through the most important and most abused laws that govern how our language puts words and thoughts together, and he explains them, not in confusing grammatical terms, but in plain English that all may understand, comprehend, and improve on.
His best virtue is his brevity. For instance, allow me to present the entirety of the Sixth Rule of Usage:
6. Do not break sentences in two.
In other words, do not use periods for commas.
–I met them on a Cunard liner several years ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York.–
–He was an interesting talker. A man who had traveled all over the world, and lived in half a dozen countries.–
In both these examples, the first period should be replaced by a comma, and the following word begun with a small letter.
It is permissible to make an emphatic word or expression serve the purpose of a sentence and to punctuate it accordingly:
–Again and again he called out. No reply.–
The writer must, however, be certain that the emphasis is warranted, and that he will not be suspected of a mere blunder in punctuation.
Notice how he begins by stating the rule, but follows it with an explanation of how you are allowed to break the rule in the service of aesthetic expression.
Strunk continues with his Elementary Principles of Composition, the application of which has greatly focused and intensified my writing simply by making the thoughts and images I seek to convey that much clearer to my readers. He follows that with A Few Matters of Form, which are quite useful, and then lists of words commonly misspelled and misused.
The book is quite short and to the point, saying everything it needs to say and no more. Get a hard copy if you can, for you will want it always at hand. You may even wish to make notes in it, something I think Strunk would encourage. But if you cannot, no matter – we have the Internet to thank for its free availability.
Strunk and E.B. White both admit that no writer adheres to all these rules all the time – sometimes we let our writing style slip, and sometimes we find ways to enhance our style by breaking some of the rules. The application of this book’s principles is a continual struggle for me, but one that has benefited me greatly. I sincerely believe that every writer of the English language would benefit from a frequent study of this book. Shakespeare himself could improve with it, I am sure, had he the Elizabethan equivalent.
The words we use reflect our thinking, whether they be clear or muddled, high or low, eloquent or common, confused or certain. The Elements of Style endeavors to improve both. It is gold.