Tuesday, June 22, 2004
choose your style: neoclassical | blue | modern | nouveau

Oops, she wrote

Louis Menand takes on Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: hold on to your hats!

....About half the semicolons in the rest of the book are either unnecessary or ungrammatical, and the comma is deployed as the mood strikes. Sometimes, phrases such as “of course” are set off by commas; sometimes, they are not. Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases (“Naturally we become timid about making our insights known, in such inhospitable conditions”), before correlative conjunctions (“Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t”), and in prepositional phrases (“including biblical names, and any foreign name with an unpronounced final ‘s’”). Where you most expect punctuation, it may not show up at all: “You have to give initial capitals to the words Biro and Hoover otherwise you automatically get tedious letters from solicitors.”

Menand takes advantage of the occasion to explore just what it is about the details of writing that make some writing such fun -- that makes us want to read, for example, James Agee's reviews of inconsequential 1940's movies.

There are writers loved for their humor who are not funny people, and writers admired for their eloquence who swallow their words, never look you in the eye, and can’t seem to finish a sentence. Wisdom on the page correlates with wisdom in the writer about as frequently as a high batting average correlates with a high I.Q.: they just seem to have very little to do with one another. Witty and charming people can produce prose of sneering sententiousness, and fretful neurotics can, to their readers, seem as though they must be delightful to live with.

When you come right down to it, the whole thing is worthwhile just for Menand's image of the slow, careful writer, composing "at the pace of a snail after a night on the town."