Thursday, 13 October 2011

On buying an unwanted book

When I was forced to play team sports as a boy, I would wait in diminishing hope while all the other boys were chosen one by one. In the end there would be two of us left, me and the kid with coke-bottle glasses who couldn't tie his own shoelaces and who was known to burst into tears if he was knocked down or if he lost the ball. For long agonising seconds the two hairy-legged captains would size us up, before, finally, one of them would turn to the other and pronounce the cruel verdict: "You can have them." (I cannot lie: this happened even when my own best friend was one of the team captains.)

Yes, my friends, I know what it is to be unwanted. I suppose that's why Calvinism has always appealed to me, and why I was forever bringing home stray kittens as a boy. It is also why I sympathise with the unwanted book, the book nobody else will buy or read, the book that might have languished in embarrassed silence until the end of the world, and still remained unchosen. It is part of Christian belief in the resurrection to assert that nothing is ultimately unwanted, nothing finally lost or forgotten. When the last trump sounds and the sea gives up its dead, whatever was forgotten will be raised up and kept forever in the presence of him in whom Memory and Love are one.

So sometimes when I'm rummaging in the back corners of a used bookstore, I will choose a book just because it looks lonely, neglected, and forgotten. I find myself treating the book with special respect, handling it gently, patiently studying the printing and binding, admiring the typeface, before finally taking it to a special place – my favourite cafe, or the shade of a big tree – where I can read it slowly and in secret. Like one of those orphaned kittens, I love the book even more on account of its rejection by the world. By reading the unwanted book, I give my silent witness to the coming day when all the books are opened and everything is remembered and whatever was last becomes first.

On Monday I acquired a book in this way and for this purpose, while I was poking around in one of my favourite Sydney bookstores. It is a grubby little pamphlet called Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English, by Sir Ernest Gowers. It was published in 1948 in London by the charmingly named publisher, His Majesty's Stationery Office. It is set in a sober yet energetic Roman typeface. It cost me $3.50, though in 1948 it could be purchased directly from H. M. Stationery Office for 2s. 0d. net. The first sentence is so plain and workmanlike as to be almost beautiful: "This book was written at the invitation of the Treasury." It was written to advise civil servants and other government bureaucrats on the use of English in their official documents and correspondence. 

Admittedly, when I Googled the book I soon discovered that it is neither unwanted nor forgotten: in fact it was a huge success, and a greatly expanded version is still in print today. In fact, the whole thing is freely available online. There is even a recent biography of this unassuming civil servant. But you'll appreciate that none of this mitigates my own special reasons for acquiring and reading the lonely little 1948 pamphlet. 

And even if Sir Ernest addresses himself to His Majesty's civil servants, I found his advice very relevant to contemporary scholarly writing. So in the next week or so I'll try to do a series of posts on writing tips, based on Gowers' advice about how to choose the right words and avoid the wrong ones. As someone has said: comrades, if we cannot all be artists and geniuses, let us at least strive to be literate!

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