20 April 2009

What Ingredient List?

Margulies, 20 Apr 09 (resized)It's Monday. I haven't had enough caffeine (and this is a surprise?). Thus, no guarantees on what went into the sausage grinder, let alone what came out. Maybe some of it was spoo.

  • RIP J.G. Ballard.
  • The price of not having a First Amendment is that to a repressive government, reporters are intelligence operatives. Most of Europe is only a purchased election away from that result, and Asia is even worse off. But to do a cover-up right, you have to get to the employers, too.
  • Calling an entire nation "racist" at a summit on racism is virtually guaranteed to get the nations you need to join with to walk out. Of course, that's not surprising, is it? That speech was intended not for the conference, but for the clerics at home.
  • So, how is Google going to pay for the Google Book Search settlement? How about a £100 million tax avoidance scheme? Meanwhile, the Strange Bedfellows Department is recruiting a number of potential and actual objectors to the proposed settlement, including the Internet Archive, Professor Pamela Samuelson, and Cory Doctorow. Stay tuned as this gets even messier! I'll certainly be throwing a few mud pies of my own, in particular at the Authors' Guild's suitability as class representatives.
  • Invoking amusing echoes of the auteur movement's egostism, Sarah Weinman deconstructs a minirevolt in British thrillerdom.
  • On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of its commercial publication (it's one of the few sort-of-true self-publishing success stories... and only sort-of-true because it was vastly changed when it went commercial), there's a mini-tempest brewing over whether Strunk & White's The Elements of Style is a good book. Some critics accurately criticize some of the grammatical analysis. Everyone is missing two salient points, though: That this little book (at least in the second edition; the third and later editions are a mess) is only a starting point, and that the alternatives that have been available have been much worse in most respects. One good example is the overpraised Zinsser book; the grammatical advice is, on the whole, not much (if any) better, and the examples are constrained by the author's (perceived, and incorrect) 300-word limit on fair use.

    The Strunk & White Elements of Style — for all its faults — represented a change in pedagogical models as much as anything else. Writing instructors were no longer tied to an exhausting, and exhaustive, set of polemically chosen readings as source materials for their students. Instead, instructors could choose support readings appropriate to the needs and interests of their students — articles from Science for the biologists, from PMLA for the English majors, and from Orwell for everyone.

    Then there's the price point. The primary problem with most "writing guides" is that they're too long, too ill-organized, and mostly too expensive. There's a lot less incentive to resell a $2.95 mass-market paperback at the end of the semester. Strunk & White isn't a perfect reference work; but the perfect is often the enemy of the good enough... as the Third and Fourth Editions of Strunk & White itself demonstrate by their very existence.

    In the end, Strunk & White is a tool. Like any tool, it has its limitations. Unlike most of its competitors, however, it doesn't pretend to be any more than a starting point... and I, for one, would be reluctant to saddle a beginning woodworker with professional-grade chisels at the same time I expect him or her to make do with a hammer from the nearest discount hardware store and work with home-improvement-store lumber using a battered old carpenter's square as the only available measuring tool.