'Elements of Style' Goes Beyond Words The Elements of Style, E.B. White and William Strunk's classic manual on writing and usage, can now be seen and heard. A new edition features illustrations by Maira Kalman, while composer Nico Muhly offers a musical adaptation.
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'Elements of Style' Goes Beyond Words

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'Elements of Style' Goes Beyond Words

'Elements of Style' Goes Beyond Words

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"The Elements of Style," by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, has long been considered the book of rules for English grammar and composition. Several generations of writers, journalists, teachers and students have looked to this simple, elegantly written guide for answers to such urgent questions as the proper use of the semicolon or how to spell `deceive.' It's unlikely anyone ever thought of it as a book that would lend itself to illustration, that is, until now, as NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

Jack Hart, journalist, teacher and author of an upcoming book called "The Writer's Coach," knows exactly where to find his copy of "The Elements of Style." It sits on a shelf in his office at The Portland Oregonian.

Mr. JACK HART (The Portland Oregonian): It's a cheap little paperback. I bet I paid $1.99 for it in about 1965. I think the cover is tan, and this is a very small book.

NEARY: It is a small book because the authors heeded their own advice. Strunk and White believed in simple, straightforward prose. Use the active voice, they command. Omit needless words. White, an essayist for The New Yorker and author of "Charlotte's Web," studied with Strunk at Cornell University in 1919, when his professor first published "The Elements of Style." White revised and updated the book in 1959. Since then, millions of copies have been sold. Jack Hart says Strunk and White changed the way people wrote in the latter half of the 20th century.

Mr. HART: English evolved into a much more simple way of expressing ideas and "The Elements of Style" was the vehicle that carried that notion in simple, direct terms into the way, whether they know it or not, virtually everybody who writes in American English today writes.

NEARY: But where writers see "The Elements of Style" as a rule book, Maira Kalman saw something quite different. Kalman, known for her illustrations of children's books and New Yorker magazine covers, found an old copy of "The Elements of Style" at a yard sale.

Ms. MAIRA KALMAN (Illustrator): I think by the second page, I knew I was going to illustrate the book. It was pretty clear to me. It was as obvious and vivid as any project that I've ever come across, probably more so.

NEARY: How did Kalman see what so many others apparently overlooked, that is, the visual potential of "The Elements of Style"? She focused not on the rules set down by Strunk and White, but on the examples they gave to show how the rules work. Kalman drew her inspiration from sentences like this: `Polly loves cake more than she loves me.'

Ms. KALMAN: When I was reading the sentences, two things were very clear, one, that they had tremendous humor and eccentricity, and two, that they were really trying to attempt a kind of honesty. It was a parallel situation where this beauty and truth was combined with eccentricity and humor.

NEARY: Kalman's illustrations are vivid, colorful and funny. A woman dressed in yellow walks past a blue wall as a pink umbrella floats down from an open window. That image illustrates the phrase, `Somebody else's umbrella.' The picture that depicts the sentence, `He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug' looks like something out of an Agatha Christie novel.

Ms. KALMAN: When I read that sentence, the image that came to me was a fancy drawing room in an English manor, with people having cocktails, being very nonchalant and blase, and there happens to be a stain in the middle of the room on the rug, but there happens to be a body on top of the stain, and it's blood oozing out of the--but it looks, you know, very elegant.

NEARY: True believers in "The Elements of Style" may be skeptical about an illustrated version. Will Layman, an English teacher at the Fields School(ph) in Washington, DC, wasn't sure what to think before he was shown a copy of the book.

Mr. WILL LAYMAN (Fields School): And I'm only 44 years old, so I don't think of myself as being particularly old-fashioned, but there is sort of a kind of a white-haired old man in me that feels like this is something that shouldn't change too much. So I'm nervous about it.

NEARY: All right. Here, I've got it. Here it is. Just go through a little bit, and you can just give me a sense of what you think.

(Soundbite of turning pages)

NEARY: Layman flips through the pages and pauses at a picture of a tall, red-haired teen-ager in striped blue pajamas standing next to a bed.

Mr. LAYMAN: (Reading) `His first thought, on getting out of bed, if he had any thought at all, was to get back in again.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAYMAN: And what I love about this particular illustration is that could be one of my students, it seems, standing there contemplating the possibility of coming to class...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAYMAN: ...with a question mark on his wall and the word `what.'

NEARY: For Maira Kalman, illustrating the rules set down by Strunk and White was just the beginning.

Ms. KALMAN: The obvious next step is to create an opera.

NEARY: And that's exactly what she did. Kalman commissioned the young composer Nico Muhly to create operatic songs with lyrics from "The Elements of Style."

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man and Woman: (Singing) Be obscure clearly. Be wild of song in the way we turn on the strong.

NEARY: She enlisted Paul Holdengraber, the director of public events at the New York Public Library, to present a concert of the songs.

Mr. PAUL HOLDENGRABER (Director of Public Events, New York Public Library): I would tell people, `And in two weeks' time, we have Maira Kalman, who has just done an opera version of "The Elements of Style,"' and there would be a collective roar. I mean, people would be--they wouldn't believe that this was happening. They thought I had invented it.

NEARY: But Holdengraber says hundreds of people came to the reading room of the New York Public Library to hear "The Elements of Style" set to music.

(Soundbite of music from "The Elements of Style")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible)

Mr. HOLDENGRABER: So there are all these grammar books and lexicons and dictionaries and encyclopedias, and there is this artist coming in and doing something quite new, quite novel, that is striking, and I still can't believe it happened. You see, I can't believe it happened and yet, what has happened is that the reading room has forever been transformed.

(Soundbite of music from "The Elements of Style")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible)

NEARY: Maira Kalman is not surprised by positive responses to her creative use of "The Elements of Style." After all, she says, rules are made to be broken. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear more of "The Elements of Style" sung and played, plus see an image from the illustrated edition at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP (Host): And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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