Keys Homes
Sunday, July 21, 2013
Books speak volumes, influence many

By LESLIE LINSLEY Citizen Columnist

For some people a home is not a home without books. They are as important as the other elements in your home. Books add character to a room and speak volumes about the homeowners.

I have a book shelf that runs along one wall of a small room. It holds my favorite books, unlike the reference books in my office. They are arranged by author and subject matter and represent a chronological history of things that influenced me over the years. I keep them in the order of their arrival into my life. These are my "keepers." Now and then I read the titles from end to end as a reminder.

At the Key West Library book sale, I stumbled on a little book called "Stylized," a slightly obsessive history of Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style." The revised edition of that book with an introduction by E.B. White has to be one of my all time favorites, only second to "Letters by E.B. White," probably the one author who consistently, during my lifetime has influenced my writing style. I don't think there is an English major alive, let alone any writer, who hasn't at some time owned a copy of "The Elements of Style." Written by William Strunk, an English professor at Cornell University in 1918, it covered the basics of clear and clean writing in just 43 pages. The "Stylized" title by Mark Garvey sent me back to the original to see if it was still "cult-worthy."

What was your favorite book of all time, the one that influenced you the most? They always ask writers. Last week in the N.Y. Times magazine section, novelist Anna Quindlin was quoted as saying "sometimes a favorite book, like "The Catcher in the Rye", for example, that influenced you as a 15 year old might not have the same effect today and should remain a memory."

I feel the same way about "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand. And that is why my bookshelf stays inert. I want to look at the titles and be reminded of how I felt and where I was when I first discovered them. It's an eclectic mix that includes, "The Women's Room," next to Erica Jong's "Fear of Flying," next to a bunch of paperbacks by Virginia Wolf, next to "On Walden Pond". There's another phase of self-discovery with books by Ram Das and Richard Brautigan, "The Paris and New York Diaries" by Ned Rorem (inscribed to me), a slim book of silly poems, "Flavors" by Mason Williams and moving toward the present with books by modern female writers alongside biographies of people I've admired.

Michael Mulligan and I trade book titles. We are not book snobs. Our interests run the gamut and usually intersect. As an inveterate reader, he admits that the library in his Indiana hometown was like his second home. Being banned from the library was the worst punishment he could imagine as a young boy. I have many friends who share this passion and while their houses are almost sagging with the weight of books, they would not part with any of them. A novelist friend says about her books, "They are like friends, I am comforted by knowing they are here."

The "Stylized" book has been sitting on a table since I returned from Key West. It was time to check it out. I read the first paragraph and immediately went to the book shelf to find "The Elements of Style."

I read the first page with trepidation not wanting to find I had been carrying an undeserved torch all these years. Approaching it from the vantage point of a seasoned writer, I read the introduction. How many books can withstand accolades for almost 100 years?

In 1918, as a student in Strunk's English Usage and Style class, White bought a copy of the paperback book for twenty-five cents in the campus bookstore. After graduation in 1921, he and Strunk remained friends, but White's memory of "The Elements of Style" eventually faded. White began his long career that started at The New Yorker. Thirty eight years later, long after Strunk's death, White received a copy in the mail by an old college friend who thought he might find it amusing.

What happened is well-known to Elements fans, as the story is told in the introduction of every edition. In a New Yorker "letters" column, White wrote about the "rich deposits of gold" he had rediscovered in the little book and about its author. The letter caught the eye of an editor working in the college book department of the the Macmillan Company who was interested in re-issuing "The Elements of Style" and using White's essay as the introduction.

Over the next year, White overhauled and updated the original text and added a final chapter, "An Approach to Style." First published in 1958, it has never gone out of print. The current edition, the fourth, was published in 1999.

"Most books about writing," says Stephen King, "are filled with bullshit, with one notable exception, the Elements of Style." It has to date sold over 10 million copies. If you don't own one it should be part of your bookshelf.

Leslie Linsley has written more than 50 books on crafts, decorating and home style. She resides on Nantucket with her husband, photographer Jon Aron, and has a store on the island that specializes in her one-of-a-kind creations. Her latest book is "Key West, a Tropical Lifestyle" (Monacelli Press), with photos by Terry Pommett.

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