Archive for February, 2009

The Living Language

On a recent visit to Bryn Mawr Book Store, my neighborhood’s pre-owned book shop (may it never lose its lease or its charmingly fusty decor!), I came across a gently worn hardcover edition of E. B. White’s Writings from The New Yorker (1927-1976).

It only took me a few flips through its pages to land on piece called “The Living Language,” published in the February 23, 1957, issue of the magazine, which recounts the era’s heated debate over standards for usage and cites the ungrammatical Winston ad (mentioned in my last post) as evidence of Madison Avenue’s marketing ploy to butcher the language to bring home the bacon. (I doubt such a strategy would raise any eyebrows today, the standards of popular usage having fallen so far and so low.)

EBW describes the thin line he and his fellow editors must walk to keep peace between a handful of sober grammarians” and “an army of high-spirited writers” and states that he seen firsthand “the nasty chop that is kicked up when the tide of established usage runs against the winds of creation.” Toeing the editorial party line he writes,

Through the turmoil and the whirling waters we have reached a couple of opinions of our own about the language. One is that a school child should be taught grammar — for the same reason a medical student should be taught anatomy. Having learned about the exciting mysteries of an English sentence, the child can then go forth and write any damn way he pleases.

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In Defense of Standards

I had not read anything by David Foster Wallace until, following his premature death by suicide late last year, I could not open a paper or magazine without encountering another of the dozens of anguished and adulatory tributes calling him the greatest writer of his (my) generation. My curiosity piqued (the more so after learning that, like me, DFW had been a competitive tennis player), I bought his 1,000-plus-page novel Infinite Jest and a slimmer collection of essays, Consider the Lobster. (A three-pound paperback edition of the former waits patiently in my bedside stack until someone invents a contraption that will suspend and hold it open so that I can read it in bed without injuring myself. I recommend the essays to DFW novices — those who can countenance never eating lobster again and the withering criticism of Tracy Austin’s vapidness in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.”)
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Ode to a Spider

My friend Jeff recently called my attention to a segment that aired on NPR’s “All Things Considered” on August 4, 2008.

Entitled “Charlotte A. Cavatica: Bloodthirsty, Wise and True” and reported by Melissa Block, the segment discusses the character of Charlotte and includes clips of E. B. White reading from Charlotte’s Web. Like his readers, young and old, he always struggled to read the ending without crying (spoiler alert: Charlotte dies). The show also includes speculation by Martha White (EBW’s granddaughter and editor of his collected letters) that Charlotte was modeled on her grandmother, Katharine White. Lending credence to the theory, NPR’s Block notes that EBW penned an arachnid love poem when he and Katharine were newlyweds, some 25 years before the publication of Charlotte’s Web:
Continue reading ‘Ode to a Spider’


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