Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Practical Stylist

[Sheridan Baker, The Practical Stylist (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973). Click for a larger view.]

I like this cover. The assemblage, as the back cover calls it, is by Murray Tinkelman, an artist who works in a great many styles. (Here he appears to have assembled not pictures of type but type itself.) If you browse Leif Peng’s The Art of Murray Tinkelman, you may realize that you’ve seen this artist’s work many times before.

I like The Practical Stylist too. It is — or in earlier incarnations, was — an elegant book. It is a distinguished example of the “handbook,” the kind of book typically assigned in first-year college English. Sheridan Baker (1918–2000) recognized that brevity in a handbook can be a virtue, that brevity makes such a book engaging and useful. The first edition, in print from 1962 to 1967, weighs in at a modest xvi + 144 pages. The third (1973) edition: x + 182 pages. Longman’s most recent ghost edition (2005): 288 pages, still far smaller than the average handbook, which now often runs close to a thousand pages. A thousand pages! Such a book is like a black hole: it holds everything and gives no light. While it may be browsable, it is not readable. From Baker’s Preface:

I mean the book to be practical also in its brevity. Most handbooks on writing seems too big, too wordy, too involved. They seem to get mired in their own diligence and to stay stuck on the student’s shelf. This book aims to travel light, to cover the ground without inordinate deliberation. I have included only what seems useful and essential.
“This book aims to travel light”: what a lovely way to say it. And what a wonderful example for students: a teacher of writing who uses I. Here and elsewhere in The Practical Stylist, Baker writes with uncondescending intelligence. About words:
“What we need is a mixed diction,” said Aristotle, and his point remains true twenty-three centuries and several languages later. The aim of style, he says, is to be clear but distinguished. For clarity, we need common, current words; but used alone, these are commonplace, and as ephemeral as everyday talk. For distinction, we need words not heard every minute, unusual words, large words, foreign words, metaphors; but used alone, these become gibberish. What we need is a diction that marries the popular with the dignified, the clear current with the sedgy margins of language and thought.
About sentences:
Your style will emerge once you can manage some length of sentence, some intricacy of subordination, some vigor of parallel, and some play of short against long, of amplitude against brevity. Try the very long sentence, and the very short. The best short sentences are meatiest. . . . Experiment, too, with the fragment. The fragment is close to conversation. It is the laconic reply, the pointed afterthought, the quiet exclamation, the telling question.Try to cut and place it clearly (usually at the beginnings and ends of paragraphs) so as not to lead your reader to expect a full sentence, or to suspect a poor writer.
And about paragraphs:
You build the bulk of your essay with standard paragraphs, with blocks of concrete ideas, and they must fit smoothly. But they must also remain as perceptible parts, to rest your reader’s eye and mind. Indeed, the paragraph originated, among the Greeks, as a resting place and place finder, being first a mere mark (graphos) in the margin alongside (para) an unbroken sheet of handwriting — the proofreader’s familiar ¶. You have heard that a paragraph is a single idea, and this is true. But so is a word, usually; and so is a sentence, sometimes. It seems best, after all, to think of a paragraph as something you use for your reader’s convenience, rather than as some granitic form laid down by molten logic.
Sedgy margins, the laconic reply, molten logic: it kills me, as Holden Caulfield would say, that, not so long ago, a textbook writer could write with such verve — and could trust that he would be understood by college freshmen. The voice that speaks in The Practical Stylist is not that of a textbook: it’s that of an older writer addressing a younger writer, without condescension, offering insight and advice from long experience. Looking at the chapters about words and sentences and paragraphs in a recent 926-page handbook, I find a brief history of English; guidance on dictionary use; lists of commonly confused words; explanations of slang, regionalisms, and jargon; examples of coördination and subordination and parallelism; instruction in the importance of unity, organization, and coherence; and much, much more. But I find nothing comparable to the writerly intelligence in these passages from Baker. Nor do I find the word diction , or the suggestion that the student writer will achieve an individual style, or an explanation of how the paragraph began.

The cover, the prose, the absence of cheesy graphics and stock photos: The Practical Stylist, third edition, seems to me an artifact of a less colorful but far more sophisticated time.

Richard Marius’s A Writer’s Companion (1985, out of print), Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing (2012), and Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing (2013) are three recent books that share The Practical Stylist ’s virtues of brevity and a writerly voice. I’ve written briefly about Marius and Klinkenborg (whose Several Short Sentences wouldn’t be considered a “handbook”) and have recommended Harvey’s book in its first and second editions many times in passing.The alternatives to the book-as-brick are fewer than they should be.

A related post
Guy Fleming frontispiece, The Practical Stylist (first edition)

[The first course I taught as a grad student: Practical Stylistics, an ungainly name for “comp.” We grad students were given not Baker’s book to use but Frederick Crews’s The Random House Handbook, a dreadful book whose illustrative sentences ran to thickheaded athletes and cheerleaders and faculty complaints about parking. Brilliant, eh? About black holes: I don’t know how they work, or if they even exist. I’m just making a metaphor.]

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