Classic Book of the Month

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, August 7th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

It’s time now for our Classic Book of the Month feature with Emily Whitten. Thanks for joining us today, Emily.

EMILY WHITTEN, BOOK REVIEWER: Happy to be here, Mary.

REICHARD: It’s August—already!—and many folks will be headed back to school this month. You have a book recommendation today that might give listeners a jump on their new school year?

WHITTEN: I do! This book traces back to 1918—a hundred years ago if this English major has done her math correctly. That year, on the campus of Cornell University in New York, an English professor named William Strunk, Jr. put together “the little book” as his students called it. It started out just as a brief style guide for budding writers.

REICHARD: It’s on my bookshelf! A helpful and interesting tool.

WHITTEN: Even more interesting—the book may have gone the way of most teachers’ guides if not for one student: Elwyn Brooks White—better known as E.B. White. White would later become a preeminent contributor to The New Yorker. He wrote several beloved children’s classics including Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. He eventually won a Pulitzer for his body of work. Long before all that, while still an undergraduate at Cornell, White came across Strunk’s style guide. Here’s a brief snippet of an interview with White about those years:

WHITE: Cornell made a terrific impression on me. The principal influence it had was it made a journalist out of me…

So, after his studies in journalism at Cornell, White seemed to forget Strunk’s guide until 1957. Apparently he then rediscovered the little book and wrote a piece in The New Yorker about it. At that point, a book publisher asked White to update and enhance Strunk’s original offering. And in 1959, the new “Strunk and White” version became the classic we know today. It’s still in print, and in 2011, TIME listed it as one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.

REICHARD: Quite a story. And am I right that the official title of “the little book” we’re talking about is The Elements of Style?

WHITTEN: That’s right. Although some people do just call it Strunk and White. To help us think about how the book impacts us today, I decided to tap our editor in chief, Marvin Olasky. I know Marvin finds The Elements of Style extremely helpful in editing and writing WORLD as well as in training young writers. He’s whacked my knuckles with these principles more times than I’d like to admit. So, with that in mind, listen for a moment as he reads a few of his favorite selections:

OLASKY: Use the active voice. It is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. Ex. ‘I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.’ is much better than ‘My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.’

Use definite, specific, concrete language. ‘It rained every day’ is much better than ‘A period of unfavorable weather set in.’”

WHITTEN: You can hear the flavor of the book there—simple, direct instructions for writers, with examples that flesh out each principle. Most of them are pretty basic, but they do summarize some of what makes great writing.

REICHARD: You mentioned that students and teachers headed back to school might find this book helpful. Does it have a particular use for students this fall?

WHITTEN: Well, Mary, I signed my daughter up for a “Creative Writing” class this year. But that’s kind of a misnomer. If she’s going to thrive as a writer, she’ll need more than just creativity. She’ll need clarity of thought. She’ll need a knowledge of basic grammar rules. The Elements of Style equips inexperienced writers with these tools.

For instance, one section of the book lists commonly misused words. Here’s Marvin reading again:

OLASKY: Unique means without like or equal. There can be no degrees of uniqueness. Ex of wrong usage: It was the most unique coffee maker. Or, the balancing act was very unique.

WHITTEN: So, Mary, no more complimenting me on my very unique reviews.

REICHARD: [laugh] I’ll do my best with that, Emily, I really appreciate this reading suggestion. It reminds me of the week I spent at the Olaskys’ home as part of the World Journalism Institute mid-career class. Marvin had to erase my tendency to write in legalese. And that made me a better communicator. So, I can say the tips in this book really do work!

WHITTEN: True. Whether you want to write professionally or just want to write a better college application or job application, The Elements of Style can help you hone your writing skills. It’ll give you a leg up on the competition. And maybe best of all, keep you from saying stupid things…some of the time.

REICHARD: Well, nobody’s perfect!

WHITTEN: One final point, Mary. I recently found a 2017 video tribute to The Elements of Style. As best I can tell, it portrays a high school English teacher and his students rapping about the book. This isn’t high art, but I love that this teacher took the time to pass on the timeless truths of Strunk and White in a way his kids could appreciate. So I thought maybe we could close with that video today.

REICHARD: Sounds good. Thanks for the recommendation today, Emily.

WHITTEN: You’re so welcome, Mary.

REICHARD: Our classic book for August is The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. We also mentioned World’s Journalism Institute today, and if you’d like to find out more about it, just go to The application deadline for the January mid-career course is coming up on September 1st.

Just for fun, let’s close out with part of that rap song.

AUDIO: He loved that little book of strunk’s and thought it was so fine. He edited it, put his name on it in 1959. These are the Elements of Style, you better use them while you’re writing, yeah they’re basic but you’re basic, too, Kyle. You need a little help with words, that jersey is absurd, an Oxford shirt and some grammar hurt not a bit, I hope you heard.

(Photo/Corey D. Truax) Elements of Style

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Classic Book of the Month

  1. Ricardo Davis says:

    Please post a link to the song.

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