Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The other little book

David Lambuth et al. The Golden Book on Writing. Foreword by Budd Schulberg. New York. Viking Press. 1964. xiv + 81 pages.

I first encountered The Golden Book on Writing by way of a sentence quoted in Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage:

The habit of beginning statements with the impersonal and usually vague there is or there are shoves the really significant verb into subordinate place instead of letting it stand vigorously on its own feet.
A title that begins with “The Golden Book” suggests something written for children. But that sentence isn’t kid stuff. The writing is lively and nicely colloquial, suggesting the voice of a teacher who can convey ideas with plainspoken energy: “shoves”! I had to find out more about David Lambuth and his book.

It dates not from 1964 but from 1923. The original title: On Writing. David Lambuth (1879–1948), a professor (and, in 1923, chair) of English at Dartmouth, wrote the book with unspecified contributions from four Dartmouth colleagues: Hewette E. Joyce, Benfield Pressey, Anton A. Raven, and Kenneth Allen Robinson (Lambuth’s son-in-law). The five were writing for their students; their book (or pamphlet, 50 pages, never copyrighted) was distributed in-house for six years before disappearing. (It was preceded by joint efforts in 1920 and 1921, each titled A Handbook of Composition. The 1921 version ran 44 pages.) In 1963, S. Heagan Bayles, a Dartmouth alumnus and Lambuth student, reprinted On Writing for use in his advertising agency, adding a chapter on business communication by the writer (and one-time ad man) Walter O’Meara. In 1964 Viking Press released a trade edition, titled The Golden Book on Writing, with a foreword by Budd Schulberg, another Lambuth student. The book was well received: Time praised it; in a New York Times review, J. Donald Adams called it “the best brief handbook on writing I have seen.” Take that, Elements of Style. Penguin reprinted The Golden Book in 1976 and 1996. It is now out of print.

[The “little book,” 1959 edition, and William Strunk Jr. Click for a larger book.]

[The Golden Book, 1964 edition, and David Lambuth, as he appeared in a 1934 film of Darmouth personalities. Click for a larger book.]

This story of publication and rediscovery recalls, of course, the story of The Elements of Style, another in-house effort rediscovered by a former student, revised and reissued with additional material decades after its first publication. Viking’s book design seems to invite comparison to The Elements; a 1964 advertisement for The Golden Book refers to it twice as “little,” recalling the well-known characterization of The Elements as “the little book.” Like William Strunk Jr., Lambuth appears to have been something of a character. Strunk though was a dapper pedagogue (“Omit needless words!”). Lambuth was a more glamorous figure: white suit and shoes, black cape and beret, pince-nez, beard, cigar. He was friends with Robert Frost. Lambuth’s scholarly productivity appears modest: a Master's thesis on pre-Raphaelite poetry (1901), several letters and essays in newspapers and magazines, editorial work with the Far East Review and Missionary Review, an introduction to an edition of a George Meredith novel (1925), a foreword to a Frost bibliography (1937). And imagine: a department chair working with colleagues on a handbook for their students. It was a more spacious time.

Lambuth and his colleagues (hereafter I will let the name Lambuth stand for all five writers) created a brilliant short guide to writing everyday prose. Like any book of writing instruction, it’s a mixed bag: cursory discussions of organization, paragraphs, punctuation, letter writing, and style, and extended discussions of sentences and words. (O’Meara’s chapter on business writing emphasizes planning, revision, and the avoidance of businessese.) Lambuth is a refreshingly direct and unpretentious writer, suspicious of rules and impatient with taxonomy (the very stuff of a twenty-first-century handbook). Consider these excerpts:
Nobody can lay down rules for anybody else’s writing.

Nobody has ever yet learned how to write well by memorizing rules or trying consciously to write by them.

There is nothing hard and fast about paragraph structure — and never was.

It would be only pedantry to list here the varieties of subordinate clauses and their shifting shades of meaning. The proper handling of clauses doesn’t depend on a knowledge of their names.

The man who writes with one eye on the textbook of rhetoric, or one half of his brain trying to remember rules, is like the man who can’t tell whether to take off his hat or to use his fork or his spoon until he has remembered what was said on page 74 or 135 of some so-called “Book of Etiquette.”¹

[T]rying to imitate another’s style is much the same thing as trying to disguise one’s identity behind a papier-mâché mask that looks like Bernard Shaw or G. K. Chesterton. It might be amusing for a fancy dress ball, but only a lunatic would attempt to go about that way in ordinary life.
The breezy wit is engaging, but It’s what Lambuth says about sentences and words that gives The Golden Book its real value. He presents a strikingly modern conception of the sentence: “A sentence is only a sort of moving picture of thought.” To make the picture move, make an agent its subject, keep subject and verb close together, place elements in a logical order (arranged by time, cause and effect, or order of importance), and bear in mind that a sentence’s points of greatest emphasis are its beginning and end. But again, no rule is absolute. Lambuth trusts the undergraduate reader to catch the wit in these sentences:
The well-known advice against ending a sentence with a preposition is valid only against unimportant prepositions. In certain cases a preposition is the most emphatic word to end a sentence with.
In his discussion of words, Lambuth advocates plainness, knowing that students often think otherwise:
As far as possible a writer should write in the very words in which he does his thinking. These are usually simple, homely words. To translate such words into what is too often considered “literary” language results in sacrificing directness, lessening individuality — the greatest of all literary virtues — smudging out the color, and often obscuring even the sense.

The best rule for writing — as well as for speaking — is to always use the simplest words that will accurately convey your thought.
If a sentence is a moving picture, it’s nouns and verbs that make it move:
Nouns and verbs are the bones and sinews of speech. Nouns build up the bony structure of the sentence, verbs produce motion.
And Lambuth recognizes the inanity of elegant variation, which leads, he says, to “inelegant results.”² He goes so far as to suggest that the student writer emulate Flaubert: “There is rarely more than one right word to express an idea exactly. See that you get that one right word.” Or more colloquially: “If you have a nail to hit, hit it on the head.” The only way to develop good aim is by reading:
The adequate vocabulary and the feeling for this good usage and idiom which are so essential to good writing can be acquired only by wide and intelligent reading. And in no other way whatsoever.

Use your eyes and ears. Think. Read . . . read . . . and still read.
Lambuth’s discussion of misused words and phrases is less persnickety than Strunk and White’s, focusing more on undebatable error (it’s for its) and too-colloquial phrasing (anywheres for anywhere). Lambuth is more flexible than Strunk and White, recognizing, for instance, that none is sometimes plural, something that White didn’t concede until the 1972 edition of The Elements of Style. Other bits of Lambuth guidance — to write, for instance, “He stayed at home,” not “He stayed home” — are better left in 1923. The Golden Book goes off the rails just once, in a five-and-a-half-page discussion of will and shall, would and should, ending in an admission that judging which word is right is “often difficult.” Whoever was riding that hobbyhorse should have been thrown off.

The great strength of The Golden Book is its presentation of the sentence as the key element in teaching writing. Lambuth’s exposition of his idea of the sentence makes Strunk and White’s assortment of dos and don’ts look unwieldy by comparison. But The Elements still rules: it’s Amazon’s best-selling book in three categories (Grammar, Reference, and Writing Skills), and it’s the most often assigned book listed at The Open Syllabus Project. As for The Golden Book on Writing: it’s exceedingly scarce. AbeBooks and Alibris list only 44 and 38 copies of The Golden Book for sale, at least some of which must be the same copies. The WorldCat shows copies at fewer than 500 libraries. The Open Syllabus Project shows the book on a single syllabus.

E. B. White described Strunk’s 1918 Elements as containing “rich deposits of gold.” To my mind, David Lambuth’s book has more substantial deposits (as befits its title) and deserves to be better known. Get the little book — I mean, the other little book, while there are still copies to be had.

¹ Here and elsewhere, Lambuth’s androcentric diction grates. But he was writing for Dartmouth students. The school began admitting women as students in 1972.

² The term “elegant variation” suggests that Lambuth had read the Fowler brothers’ The King’s English (1908).

Details of Lambuth’s life come from Schulberg’s foreword, a New York Times obituary (August 24, 1948), and time spent poking around the WorldCat.

[David Lambuth, from the jacket of the 1964 hardcover. Photographer unidentified. No date. Click for a larger view.]

Related posts
A David Lambuth sampler
The Elements of Style, one more time
A review of Ben Yagoda’s Hot to Not Write Bad
A review of Christopher Lasch’s Plain Style
A review of Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence

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