Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Always room for improvement

Writing is to an historian like math is to a physicist, and no matter how good you think you are as a writer, I tell my students, you can always do better. On this point, the New York Times offers Verlyn Klinkenborg's testimony this morning in his "appreciation" of Miss Gould, the New Yorker's "venerable arbiter of style" who died the other day:
I never met Miss Gould [he writes]. But deep in a box at home are the proofs of articles I once wrote for The New Yorker, and in the margins is the handwriting of Eleanor Gould Packard . . . . I thought I knew a lot about the English language at the time. I had a Ph.D. in English literature from Princeton, an old-fashioned kind of doctorate with an emphasis on literary history and textual editing. So it came as a surprise to see those proofs. . . .

I reacted the way I suppose many writers did when they first saw a Gould proof--with disbelief and dismissal. But a writer soon learns to welcome anyone who can offer real insight into the nature of prose, and that Miss Gould could certainly do. I learned from her neatly inscribed comments that even though I was writing correctly--no syntactical flat tires, no grammatical fender-benders--I was often not really listening to what I was saying. That may seem impossible to a reader who isn't a writer. But Miss Gould's great gift wasn't taking writers seriously. It was taking their words seriously. No writer, at first, is quite prepared for that.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, "The Point of Miss Gould's Pencil," New York Times, natl. ed., 2/16/05, A26.

Shall I admit it? I love Verlyn Klinkenborg's writing in the same way that I love Marc Bloch, discoveries in archives, a good mystery, and estate-saling.

No comments: