Review: April Bernard on “Dreyer‘s English”

It is impossible to imagine an English-language handbook that any writer would endorse wholeheartedly. Unless the writer never worries about grammar and spelling; or until we all agree that dialogue crimes such as “‘Come over here,’ she breathed,” can actually be prosecuted in a court of law. Some writers, I have heard, are cheerful enough about the house style at their publisher’s; some writers lie down and take it from magazine editors. I have never been one of those writers; and in my years on the other side of the desk, as an editor, I never worked with a single writer who did not whine or bargain. This complex English language can, and probably should, generate irrational possessiveness and eccentricity in the hands of serious writers and readers.

I say this as preface to what might seem a slightly persnickety view of the now-in-its-seventh-printing Dreyer’s English. Its author, Benjamin Dreyer, is vice president and copy chief of Random House. In general, then: I like this book very much; it is sound and funny and useful; I have already recommended it to many students and friends and will continue to do so.

I have two reservations: Dreyer never mentions his most obvious debt, to The Elements of Style. My other reservation is kin, perhaps, to the first, and has to do with tone.

Substantively, Dreyer has loosened the stays on a number of expository rules of the past. One may, in his world, split an infinitive; end a sentence with a preposition; use “hopefully” in place of “I hope that”; and get no more than a raised eyebrow by spelling “all right” as “alright.” Dreyer is amusing in his admission of defeat at a number of usage shifts, especially with the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

The singular “they” is not the wave of the future; it’s the wave of the present. I fear I’m too old a dog to embrace it, and faced with a wannabe genderless “he” or singular “they,” I’m still apt to pull out my tried-and-true tricks to dispose of it ....

And yet: I now have a colleague whose pronoun of choice is “they,” and thus the issue is no longer culturally abstract but face-to-face personal, no longer an issue I’d persuaded myself was none of my business but one of basic human respect …

If he yields in the face of some changes, however, he stands stalwart in his rejection of such monstrosities as the use of “reference,” “onboard,” “gift,” and “impact” as verbs. He shakes his fist at “centered around,” “based off of,” “step foot in,” “try and,” and “on accident.” All of these are from the “Peeves and Crotchets” chapter. At least as helpful are his chapters on common misspellings (of “skulduggery,” “supersede,” “chaise longe,” etc.); and what he calls “the confusables,” which include “born/borne,” “cache/cachet,” “carat/karat/caret/carrot,” “loath/loathe,” “toothy/toothsome,” and many others just as entertaining and tricky.

Though long, and a little baggy, the book is well designed for browsing. The index is thorough enough to satisfy a writer looking for clarification on, say, “which vs. that,” “loan” as a verb, or apostrophes. Dreyer’s English may well supersede your copy of The Elements of Style, that old favorite by William H. Strunk and E. B. White. (For myself, I will keep them both, along with the endlessly fascinating The King’s English, written by two brothers named Fowler.) I confess that I suspect Dreyer of being entirely deliberate in his erasure of Strunk & White, not wanting to remind his readers of the old standby. E. B. White’s introduction and emendations to his former professor’s “little book” of rules and advice has won over many a student writer with its charm:

Will Strunk loved the clear, the brief, the bold, and his book is clear, brief, bold ... He felt it was worse to be irresolute than to be wrong. I remember a day in class when he leaned far forward, in his characteristic pose—the pose of a man about to impart a secret—and croaked, “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! …” This comical piece of advice struck me as sound at the time, and I still respect it. Why compound ignorance with inaudibility? Why run and hide?

Finally, on the matter of tone. While acknowledging that White’s style may seem dated—scented as it is with the old New Yorker perfume of modest self-amusement—Dreyer sometimes slides into a pomposity that is no improvement; just look at his book’s title. His English, indeed. Among many textual examples, here is Dreyer exhorting us to use diacritical marks:

In written English, they’re occasionally omitted, and the dictionary will often give you permission to skip them, but sojourning in a chateau cannot be nearly as much fun as sojourning in a château, and if you send me your resume rather than your résumé, I’m probably not going to hire you.

And what, after all, can one make of seven dense pages of acknowledgments but to conclude that the writer has seized the microphone at his own imaginary Oscars ceremony, refusing the prompt of the travelling-music designed to get him offstage? Surely a longtime copyeditor, well acquainted with authorial vanity, should have known better.

Ah; but here Dreyer is a writer, not an editor; and folly is endemic to the writer’s state. On a final note, and in praise of Dreyer’s mission, I urge readers to return to George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.That still-urgent message about clarity, and about the political consequences of obfuscation, jargon, and dog-whistle slogans, is in keeping with the lessons Dreyer offers. Especially today, when there is also such a dangerous generational gulf in political speech, we need all the help we can get to speak plainly, precisely, and—if at all possible—kindly to one another.


April Bernard’s most recent books are Miss Fuller (a novel) and Brawl & Jag (a book of poems).

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Thank you for your subscription! As a subscriber you can read our full archive at bookpostusa.com. Please help us spread the word about Book Post: your subscriptions keep us going, supporting writers and books and reading across America.

Coming soon: Sarah Kerr on Carlos Bulosan, Edward Mendelson on the history of typography.

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Diary: Cynthia Zarin, A Fin Passing Far Out (Part II)

The last shark attack on Cape Cod, in which a man was swimming far out, occurred at the beach half a mile south of here, in 2012. When I was a girl, it was unusual to see a seal on these beaches. Now the beaches are full of seals. It’s global warming, ran the bright ribbon of rumor, like an advertisement pulled by a plane in the sky along the beach. It’s global warming, I thought to myself, the shark bite. The seals are moving northward, the sharks come in for them. Like many things that seem like answers, the truth is elsewhere.

It turns out I am right, that when I was a child there were few seals in these waters. “They were five dollars a head,” recalls a friend. The fisherman detested the sharks, who wound up in their nets and ate the fish. The lovely seals, so wide-eyed, in the blood-stained snow—“Save the Seals,” we read on the posters on the walls of my high school. But since the Atlantic seals became an endangered species, in 1975, their numbers have grown exponentially. There are approximately fifty thousand seals off Cape Cod, and the shark population has grown with them. The week I knew I was pregnant with my youngest child, the girl who ran to the edge of the water and then helped carry the gored swimmer up the dune, we saw two seals cross the bright path the dawn painted on the water as we watched the sun rise. A good omen, we thought.

In the days and weeks that followed the attack, we continued to go back into the ocean. From the top of the dune I would look to see if anyone was in the water. If there was, I usually knew them by name. We brought binoculars, and trained them twenty or thirty feet out. I got up early in the morning, and went down to the beach, but I did not go swimming in the fog, or in the early morning haze, when the fog cleared. It was no longer a gift, to be alone on the beach. We went in pairs, or in groups, and we did not swim far out—although the man who was attacked was not swimming far out. We followed his progress in the hospital, hearing news through friends, and on the news. We saw a video of his slow walk, with a bandaged leg, across a hospital floor. When my children were small and played in the waves I put them all in identical bright bathing suits so I could see them, and I spent hours standing in a wet suit, watching lest they be hit too hard by a wave and go under, emerging sputtering, with a mouth full of sand, but I never looked for a fin in the water. When they were older they were surfers, for them one of life’s great pleasures, and I am glad that they do not surf often, now.

The afternoon of the second shark attack, at a beach a few miles down the road from our house, where my father, who is eighty-six, still swims beyond the breakers, as he taught me to do, I was in New York, in the kitchen. My eldest daughter took the call from my youngest. She listened for a moment and her face went still. Give me the phone, I said, sensing danger. My youngest daughter said, “I didn’t want you to hear it on the news. There was another attack, at Newcomb Hollow, and he’s dead.” Her voice was shaking a little. I was standing by the sink and I leaned against it. Then I burst into tears. I called my father. I said, “I didn’t want you to hear about it on the news.”

As she finished her novel To The Lighthouse, drawn on her own summers spent as a child by the sea at St. Ives, and began to catch at the thought that would later become The Waves, Virginia Woolf wrote, in 1926,

It is not oneself but something in the universe that one’s left with. It is this that is frightening and exciting in the midst of my profound gloom, depression, boredom, whatever it is. One sees a fin passing far out. What image can I reach to convey what I mean?

A few days later I drive back to the Cape. The road to the beach is splattered with autumn leaves. The early morning beach is deserted. I am standing in my bathing suit and a sweater, with my feet in the water. The water is freezing. What image can I reach to convey what I mean? Like so many things one thinks, what I had imagined isn’t true. The seals are not here because the water is warming, they are here because we made room for them. Now I want them dead. The ocean is not your friend, my father taught me when I was a child. What can I say to convey, standing looking out, at what was a place of safety, and is still a place of beauty, that I do not want change, that I know at once the ocean is not mine but that I want it to be mine? That the place closest to my heart, this square of sand at the bottom of the cliff, has become in an instant in which something that was bound to happen, happened, alien, violent and brutish. Gone.

Read Part I of this post here


Cynthia Zarin is the author of An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History, a book of essays, and five books of poetry, as well as five books for children, most recently Saints Among the Animals.

Book Post is a by-subscription book-review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to subscribers’ in-boxes, and other tasty items celebrating book life, like this one, to those who have signed up for our free posts and visitors to our sitePlease consider a subscription! Or give a gift subscription to a friend! Recent reviews include Adam Hochschild on unsung heroes of the Nazi Resistance and Madison Smartt Bell on Rumer Godden. Coming up we have Emily Bernard on Lorraine Hansberry and Jeff Madrick on the future of work.

Book Post is a medium for ideas designed to spread the pleasures and benefits of the reading life across a fractured media landscape. Our paid subscription model allows us to pay the writers who write for you. Our goal is to help grow a healthy, sustainable, common environment for writers and readers and to support independent bookselling by linking directly to bookshops across the land and sharing in the reading life of their communities. Book Post’s spring partner bookstore is The Raven in Lawrence, Kansas. Spend a hundred dollars there in person or virtually, send us the evidence, and we’ll give you a free one-month subscription to Book Post. And/or

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Image: View from the coastal path at Godrevy Point, visible from Virginia Woolf’s childhood seaside home at St. Ives, Wikimedia Commons, asands, London
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Diary: Cynthia Zarin, A Fin Passing Far Out (Part I)

The morning before the first attack, a Tuesday in August, I woke up early, as I do in summers. I did the usual things. I shut off the outside lights and turned on the kitchen fan. I made coffee. I took yesterday’s beach towels out of the dryer where I’d put them the night before, because it looked like it would rain during the night and there is nothing worse than wet towels on the line, and I folded them and put them in the basket by the door. Upstairs, children—my own, a school friend, a cousin—were asleep. At the kitchen table I slipped into the vortex of the news, and read for an hour. Our house is mile from the oceanside beach, down a road stitched by lichens and lined with blackberries; in the other direction, a few hundred yards, a farm stand sells tomatoes and zinnias. The route to the beach takes you to a parking lot at the top of a sheer dune cliff; from the edge you can see straight into the water, forty yards down, which can look green as the Mediterranean or gun-metal grey. Most mornings I put on a bathing suit and a big shirt and walk to the beach and go for a swim. The beach is deserted then, except for a few dog walkers. Sometimes there is no one. The water is freezing. On the beach, I take off my bathing suit in the open air and change into the shirt. On the top of the dune path I pick up my shoes where I’ve left them and walk home.

The morning after the first attack, Wednesday morning, after I read the news, I did none of these things. I went back to bed and slept for two more hours, and then got up and made breakfast. After breakfast, I piled the kids in the car and we drove to the beach. At the edge of the parking lot was a police car with its lights flashing. A sign on a traffic cone said “Beach Closed” with a picture of a grinning shark. The town hires local kids to work at the town beaches. At the beach permit kiosk, a girl handed us an informational brochure, through the car window, about how to avoid shark attacks. Do not swim near seals. Do not swim at dawn or dusk. Do not swim in isolation. Do not swim far out. Do not wear flashy jewelry. There was silence in the back of the car. Then someone said, “Who wears flashy jewelry swimming?”

The small parking lot, which is usually packed with cars on a sunny day, was almost empty. At the top of the dune there were two more signs, “Beach Closed to Swimming” and “Swim at Your Own Risk.” No one was in the water. I wanted to swim, so we drove across to the bay side and went to the beach there. It was early enough in the morning that we could fit the car into one of the eight parking spaces, and when we walked down to the water the sand was already hot.

It was mid-tide. The water was cold, but not too cold. Another family came and sat down beside us—friends from the ocean beach, my friend Debbie, and her children, who are also not children, but emergency room physicians. The day before, in the late afternoon, at the ocean beach, they had dropped their books and sunglasses and towels in an instant and ran one hundred yards down the sand to the water. Now, twenty hours later, on the bayside, we managed to take our eyes from their small children, who were knee deep in the water, for a split second. The day before, on our ocean beach, it had been impossible to look away.

From where I was sitting, the day before, near the volleyball net at the foot of the dune, in a welter of towels and umbrellas and beach chairs, the beach convulsed. Everybody began to run. Some ran all the way to the water and others stopped in the sand, not wanting to add to the chaos or unable, struck still, to go forward. Facts flew. It was a man. It was a woman. I saw my friend Sara racing across the beach and my heart stopped. He was far out. She was close in. He was dead. She had lost her leg. The water was azure and green, with barely a wave. Someone was running up the dune, and the ice cream truck, which arrives every day for ten minutes, shot off down the road. There is no phone signal here, the ice cream man was on his way to the place at the bend in the road where the signal starts. Down on the beach, doctors materialized. The swimmer had been pulled from the water by some Australian kids. The swimmer had made it to shore by himself. He was bleeding to death. No, the doctors, in their bathing suits, who had raced across the sand, had stopped the bleeding. He was bitten on his torso. He was bitten on his leg. He had defensive wounds on his arms. He was conscious. He was unconscious.

Within minutes a convoy was set up. One beach towel, or two, or three, were knotted together into a makeshift stretcher, and a group of beachgoers began carrying the man—it was a man—along the long steep path up the dune to the parking lot. Breughel’s “Procession to Calvary” flew into my head; the intent hive of people, intent on one thing. Or “The Fall of Icarus,” a painting in which something that was bound to happen, happens. It was a friend of our friends, visiting for the day. His children were rounded up; their mother would go with him in the ambulance. No, she would go with him in the helicopter, he would be airlifted to Boston, but the helicopter could not land in the parking lot, the ambulance would take him to the baseball field, to the police station, to another parking lot, where the helicopter could land. The ambulance shot away. The National Seashore rangers arrived. The attack had occurred beyond the few hundred yards that constitute the town beach: they should have been called first. No one had thought of whom to call first. The beach was closed. A sign went up: “No Swimming, Recent Shark Attack,” beside the sign that is put up every summer: “Swim at Your Own Risk.” (Within a day, the sign disappeared. A second one also vanished. For a few days, the town resorted to a handwritten sign, less interesting to poachers.) For the next hour, we sat on the beach, where I have sat since I was a small child, watching the water. There was no end of expertise. One acquaintance digressed on the predatory habits of bears versus sharks, about which he, a city-dweller, seemed to know a great deal.

That evening we went back to our house and made supper and drank a little more than usual, and then in the morning, as I’ve said, I went back to bed. That afternoon, after our swim in the bay, we came home for lunch, and then we went back down to the ocean beach, with our towels. We were handed the flyer again. The parking lot was almost deserted. We recognized every car. From the top of the dune we could see small clusters of swimmers with their feet in the water. Because I was taught to get back on the bicycle, to look fear in the face, because the connection to this place, this beach, this ocean, is so deep in me, because it is the only place I feel truly at home, we went back in. We stayed close in, watchful, our heads out of the surf, in three feet of water. When we came home in the late afternoon I went back to bed and slept for three hours. A friend who is a doctor, and was on the beach, diagnosed shock … [to be continued]


Cynthia Zarin is the author of An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History, a book of essays, and five books of poetry, as well as five books for children, most recently Saints Among the Animals.

Book Post is a by-subscription book-review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to subscribers’ in-boxes, and other tasty items celebrating book life, like this one, to those who have signed up for our free posts and visitors to our sitePlease consider a subscription! Or give a gift subscription to a friend! Recent reviews include Adam Hochschild on unsung heroes of the Nazi Resistance and Madison Smartt Bell on Rumer Godden. Coming up we have Emily Bernard on Lorraine Hansberry and Jeff Madrick on the future of work.

Book Post is a medium for ideas designed to spread the pleasures and benefits of the reading life across a fractured media landscape. Our paid subscription model allows us to pay the writers who write for you. Our goal is to help grow a healthy, sustainable, common environment for writers and readers and to support independent bookselling by linking directly to bookshops across the land and sharing in the reading life of their communities. Book Post’s spring partner bookstore is The Raven in Lawrence, Kansas. Spend a hundred dollars there in person or virtually, send us the evidence, and we’ll give you a free one-month subscription to Book Post. And/or

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Notebook: On the Road with Bookmobiles, Part II

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Mobile book van in Iran, 1970. From Eduscapes: History of Libraries

Mobile libraries are used around the world to access remote populations. India launched its first bookmobile in 1931; Tasmania in 1941; bookmobiles were popular in South Africa in the fifties and sixties. Iran had mobile libraries in 1,200 villages by 1975. Thailand has a long history, that continues to this day, of supplying books by elephant, and by boat in Bangkok. Llamas transport libraries in the Andes, and mules in Columbia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. A Camel Library Service was launched by the Kenyan government in 1996. The Kuda Pustaka (“horse library”) of Ridwan Sururi delivers books in an area of Java with high rates of illiteracy on Sururi’s horse Luna. Teacher Luis Soriano and his two donkeys, “Biblioburros” Alfa and Beto, bring books to children in rural Colombian villages. (See more mobile libraries around the world here.)

Although library bookmobiles now number less than a thousand, from a midcentury peak of two thousand, they are still actively supported by the ALA as a way to reach isolated readers—both in rural areas and, for example, in senior homes. Each April the ALA sponsors a Bookmobile Day, and the organization provides detailed instructions on its website on the care and maintenance of one’s bookmobile. An Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services supports bookmobiles with an annual conference and a newsletter (this month: circulating Mac the robo cat to Alzheimer’s patients in Detroit). Remote and rural libraries remain a cherished resource in the library system. In an article in this month’s School Library Journal, Wayne d’Orio writes

In Trinidad, Colorado, one librarian spends most of her time securing food and services for her town’s homeless population. In Show Low, Arizona, another librarian runs “adulting” classes to teach teenagers “the skills they don’t get in high school anymore.” And in Stanley, Idaho, the library’s Wi-Fi is such a draw that the librarian installed a router outside and added benches and power outlets so people can get online even when the library is closed. In many of these communities, “the library is the living room of the town,” says Clancy Pool, the branch manager of the St. John (Washington) Library.

The article reports that more than 6,000 of the country’s 17,000 individual libraries serve areas with populations of fewer than 2,500. They average roughly 2,600 square feet, slightly larger than the typical American house, and 1.9 full-time staff members. About 60 percent are not connected to a broader library system. Says Chelsea Price of her Meservey, Iowa, library (population 48), the nearest movie theater is about thirty miles away, the closest school is twenty miles outside town, here “there’s nothing else. There’s no community center, no bank, no gas station. There’s just a post office, a church, a bar, and the library.”

The Pew Charitable Trust reports that Kentucky has still seventy-five bookmobiles, the most of any state. Some of these conditions seem not too far from what drove librarians on horseback into Appalachia in the thirties and sorority sisters into segregated North Carolina in the fifties. A Pew study shows that about 32 percent of rural Americans said they hadn’t read a book in the past year, and nearly 1 in 5 people who live in non-metro areas live more than six miles from a public library.

It’s interesting to think about what the mobile library/bookstore idea has to offer in the age of the internet. In one sense technology has arisen to fill the immediate need that the nineteenth-century bookmobiles responded to: disseminating knowledge among those who were too poor and isolated to be within reach of cultural institutions. But what we see in the vitality of physical libraries and bookstores and their mobile outposts is the still-urgent need for hubs of live human interaction—at the heart of what we now call “curatorship”—to delimit and advocate and personalize within world’s vast troves of information. Plus—the reach of the internet, and the wherewithal to make constructive use of it, are still far from universal.

The convenience of obtaining information has perhaps drained some of the urgency and effort from the pioneers who carried books to lighthouses and farms and ranches and work camps and neighborhoods marginalized by Jim Crow. But plainly such places still welcome the arrival of a person bearing a book. Maybe the spread of learning doesn’t happen by itself and we need to pick up again some of the old human energy behind it. SLJ reports that in 2007 97 percent of rural librarians expressed satisfaction in their jobs. Said Lisa Lewis, president of the Association for Rural & Small Libraries, of working in her library: “There’s no place I’d rather be. We can make a whole lot of difference. You’re not just another library card member—we know who you are and we’re concerned about you.”

Read Part I of this post here


Book Post is a by-subscription book-review service, bringing book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to subscribers’ in-boxes, and other tasty items celebrating book life, like this one, to those who have signed up for our free posts and visitors to our sitePlease consider a subscription! Or give a gift subscription to a friend! Recent reviews include Adam Hochschild on unsung heroes of the Nazi Resistance and Madison Smartt Bell on Rumer Godden. Coming up we have Sarah Kerr on Carlos Bulosan and Jeff Madrick on the future of work.

Book Post is a medium for ideas designed to spread the pleasures and benefits of the reading life across a fractured media landscape. Our paid subscription model allows us to pay the writers who write for you. Our goal is to help grow a healthy, sustainable, common environment for writers and readers and to support independent bookselling by linking directly to bookshops across the land and sharing in the reading life of their communities. Book Post’s spring partner bookstore is The Raven in Lawrence, Kansas. Spend a hundred dollars there in person or virtually, send us the evidence, and we’ll give you a free one-month subscription to Book Post. And/or

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