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Lynn Truss’s “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” turned out to be an utterly delightful discovery. It was a journey into a land I love — punctuation. The lady is endearingly nutty: she once picketed the movie Two Weeks Notice with an apostrophe on a stick, wanting to bring the apostrophe back into the title, after Weeks. But it is full of deep insights and Truss moves with unerring instinct through treacherous territory. Her comments on why we need punctuation at all; how the Internet has damaged language (“it’s not writing, or even typing; it’s just sending”) and how punctuation is actually critical not just to reading and writing but to basic communication are sharp and accurate. She takes a good, hard swipe at the modern trend of self-publishing, so easy with the Internet (bloggers, beware!) and she’s actually right. Some of the comments and customer reviews at Amazon, for instance, are truly hideous, full of typos, badly punctuated and not proofed at all.

On Book Design by Richard HendelFinally began flipping through Richard Hendel’s “On Book Design”. What a marvellous book it is, and so superbly produced! In just a few minutes of skimming, I learned so much. He seems to prefer a Garamond family font (Galliard, Bodoni, Bookman) for print, and I must say I agree entirely: it’s gentle, easy on the eye, flows smoothly and is totally unobtrusive. He uses some wonderful typography for his titles and sidebars, too, and the leading is just right for each of these. It’s sad that so few pay any attention to this.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J Adler
And then there’s that wretched, wretched book by Mortimer Adler, “How to Read a Book”. Without doubt, it’s the most absurd and over-rated book on the subject. It takes all the magic and pleasure out of reading and reduces it to an oppressive act of bureaucratic nit-picking. Adler is a pedant and an auto-didact – and has probably never enjoyed a book in his life. No place for the emotive, visceral response here, for atmosphere or mood or plot or empathy. Instead, we are exhorted to squiggle all over our books (imagine!). I can understand the odd underlying or sidemark, but Adler would have us make an index at the back, a précis in the front and use at least five types of marks throughout. This is not just a conceit — to show the person who picks it up next that you have read it with such care, that you are so much brighter than him – but it is also selfish, cruel and inconsiderate. No one wants to read a book that is marred, tortured, tormented and violated like this. Above all, books are about sharing — or the author wouldn’t have written it in the first place, would he? Nor would you have bought it. Sharing good books between friends is a sure sign of quiet amity and respect. This, of course, never occurs to Adler who evidently doesn’t give a fig about book design, white space or the sheer pleasure of turning smooth, creamy new pages, of smelling the binding and the spine. I can see him now, ‘reading a book’, thumb and two fingers tracing the lines for his eyes, making notes in the margin, notes on the endpapers, notes on the frontispiece and front papers, on the title page (which he says is wasted space), in fact just about everywhere and even on loose sheets of paper (what does he do with these notes, I wonder?), but never once smiling or feeling his pulse race or breath come short. He’s too busy, I guess, ‘reading’ the book.

Having said that, I must confess that my copy of “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” is hopelessly marred and quite useless for anyone else. I have dozens of markings and notes all over the book, but I really couldn’t help it. That book warrants a second and even a third reading. Full of insights and sharp observations, all set in an irresistibly wacky narrative that engages history, literature, technology and poetry, Truss’s book (I trust she approves of the apostrophe here) is not just amusing and entertaining. It is an eye-opener. She explains why punctuation is necessary, how it was invented (contrived might be a better word) and then gives us wonderful examples of the carnage that follows when language is badly punctuated, or not punctuated at all. I loved the one about the “pickled herring merchant”: nasty, that, casting aspersions on his drinking habits, when you really meant “pickled-herring merchant”. What she says very early on, though, is not just true but, sadly, too often overlooked — that punctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers to understand without stumbling. “It is the stitching of language.” If only the customers who post reviews at Amazon would understand that.

Reviews and more at mcavity.com; Book, music and film reviews at Books, etc.

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About Gautam Patel

Mumbai-based lawyer and weekly columnist for a local newspaper.
  • Eric Olsen

    The point is that proper – i.e., clear – punctuation shows respect and regard for the reader, and isnt’ that what published writing is all about?

  • I yield to nobody in my respect for Lynne Truss – I was a devotee of her Margins column when she was the Lit Ed for The Listener, and cling to her dictum that “exclamation marks are the canned laughter of the written word” – but since ES&L became a national best seller, everyone feels the need to weigh in on punctuation – all of a sudden, people who three months ago didn’t know a semi-colon from Sammy Cohen hijack meetings to lead a fifteen minute discussion on the placing of apostrophes in last week’s minutes. Unfortunately, the one thing that they fail to take from the book is that the point of punctuation is to make the finished article make the sense itended by the writer; it isn’t designed as some arcane opportunity for point scoring.

  • Hi Rodney,

    Here’s the odd thing: I lend books constantly (and spend hours tracking them down again). I’ve lost lots and lots of invaluable books this way, including a limited edition, signed copy of three plays by Graham Greene, believe it or not. But I seldom borrow books. They seem to the be the one thing I must have as my own. I, too, make markings but only in extreme cases — when the book is outstanding, or when it’s really bad. I’ve begun noting page numbers on the end papers and then transcribing them, much as you do, not on paper but onto the computer. I use a nifty little software called Personal Knowbase in which I can collect all this, keyword it, and then find it again if I need it. So yes, I do mark up my books, too. What I detested about Adler was his insistence that this is the only way to read a book and there is no other, or else you have not properly juiced the book. That’s utter rubbish. I re-read books constantly and I must say that I just hate going back to a book that I’ve marked up. It really puts me off. I can only imagine what it does to another.

    But I lend constantly, as I said. I love doing that and there’s no greater pleasure than seeing someone else as excited and thrilled about a book as I was. I can’t count the number of friends I’ve made through books, like this.

  • Adler sounds like a man after my own heart, as so many of my books are marked up: lots and lots of underlinings, marginal notes, and even more notes on the endpapers. If I’m reviewing a book, this is the only way to go. I don’t believe “books are about sharing”; they’re more about stealing, which is why I never share them. I recommend books all the time, but I wouldn’t dream of saying “You can borrow mine” — if only because, for reasons stated. it would be a little like giving away a diary.

    Having said that, I must add that there are a few “nice” books that are sacrosanct, usually ones that are slip-covered or precious or expensive. In those cases, I resort to steno pads, copying out quotes at length. I literally have a drawer full of those, each of them full to bursting of notes, notes, notes.

    Sometimes I underline AND use steno pads — how anal is that?