STYLE.

The latest New Yorker has a review by Louis Menand of the new fifteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. Well, I call it a review, but it doesn’t get around to the actual book until halfway through the essay; first Menand goes on an extended riff about pre-computer all-nighters trying to get the end matter right on a term paper, then riffs for a while on the evils of Microsoft Word: “Strike the wrong keys in Word and you are suddenly writing in Norwegian Bokmal (Bokmal?).” All of this is amusing enough, but I tapped my fingers impatiently. What about the book?
Here, I regret to say, Menand, a writer I admire, lets us down. He doesn’t take the job seriously, and I don’t see the point of reviewing a massive reference book if you’re not going to take it seriously. Here’s how he begins:

It is important to note at the outset that the new edition has nine hundred and fifty-six pages and retails for fifty-five dollars. The only reasons to buy it are (1) that you want to start up a press and (2) that you want it to be exactly like the University of Chicago Press.

Well, that would seem to be that; no point saying anything further, and the book will sell, what, six copies? But of course he doesn’t mean it, he’s just riffing. And he continues in the same vein: “It explains things like half titles; CIP (Cataloguing-in-Publication) data; bound-in errata pages; and the distinctions between perfect, notch, and burst bindings—matters of no relevance to the average term-paper writer.” Nobody said anything about term-paper writers except for Menand himself. He picks out a few obvious statements to make fun of (“Hardcover books are often protected by a coated paper jacket (or dust jacket)”), ignoring the fact that a serious reference work has to start with the obvious. He mentions some idiosyncrasies (all style guides have idiosyncrasies) and changes they’ve undergone for this edition. Then he gets to his real subject, the one that actually seems to engage his passions, the need for laying down the law.

In all departments, in fact, the authors allow themselves plenty of wiggle room, quoting a passage from the 1906 edition: “Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.” This is modest and becoming, but it is beside the point. The problem isn’t that there are cases that fall outside the rules. The problem is that there is a rule for every case, and no style manual can hope to list them all. But we want the rules anyway. What we don’t want to be told is “Be flexible,” or “You have choices.” “Choice” is another of modern life’s false friends. Too many choices is precisely what makes Word such a nightmare to use, and what makes a hell of, for example, shopping for orange juice: Original, Grovestand, Home Style, Low Acid, Orange Banana, Extra Calcium, PulpFree, Lotsa Pulp, and so on.

He spends most of the rest of his essay pointing to further instances of excessive choice, ending with this peroration:

Some people will complain that the new “Chicago Manual” is too long. These people do not understand the nature of style. There is, if not a right way, a best way to do every single thing, down to the proverbial dotting of the “i.” Relativism is fine for the big moral questions, where we can never know for sure; but in arbitrary realms like form and usage even small doses of relativism are lethal. The “Manual” is not too long. It is not long enough. It will never be long enough. The perfect manual of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly coterminous with its subject, containing a rule for every word of every sentence. We would need an extra universe to accommodate it. It would be worth it.

Good rhetoric, bad reviewing. If Menand had a blog, it would be a fine and amusing entry; as a New Yorker review, it’s a sad letdown, telling us far too much about the reviewer’s orange juice shopping and far too little about the work under discussion. Furthermore, Menand doesn’t even bother to get the details right: when he writes “it calls both for superb fine-motor skills and for adherence to the most exiguous formal demands,” he means exigent, not exiguous, and he demonstrates a fatal lack of understanding of grammar when he (following the bleating crowd) says “The College Board would still not have avoided the mistake it made on a recent P.S.A.T. exam, where it replaced the phrase ‘Toni Morrison’s genius’ with ‘her,’ if it had consulted the Chicago discussion of pronouns and antecedents.” No, Louis Menand has not done right by the book or his readers. And of course neither has the New Yorker, which in earlier days would have edited this excessively long, self-indulgent, careless essay to within an inch of its life.
(Via Maud Newton.)
Addendum. The redoubtable Geoff Pullum has a similar take, with detailed discussion of the PSAT “mistake,” over at Language Log, which still, irritatingly, does not allow comments.

Comments

  1. I too enjoy Menand’s writing — that I know who he is does not, oddly, keep me from thinking whenever I see his byline, “Menand… isn’t that the guy who wrote the Don Quixote?”

  2. I popped off to read the article before reading your post, and I came to pretty much the same conclusions as you. I really wish he had treated some of the more substantial revisions in depth.
    Incidentally, thanks to the link to the Kilpatrick article on the PSAT thing. I hadn’t heard about that.

  3. I thought much of the article was amusing, particularly the writer’s comments about New Yorker house style, but I admit his article is more concerned with his own prejudices than with the Manual itself.

  4. Hey Steve, I’m back! I will answer your email soon. really. I swear. I promise. (guilt guilt guilt)
    I also wasn’t that big a fan of the article. The New Yorker’s nonfiction is steadily declining, it seems to me (except Anthony Lane’s movie reviews, which sadly are usually too short — is even he being cut?). The last three sentences of his “review” are rather nice, but the whole thing seems like an excuse for him to bitch about MS Word (admittedly, the things he says are right on, especially the bits about too many menus, features and choices). But The sections that people who are not operating a printing press will consult most often…. the hell? He seems to see either two markets for the book, 1) college students 2) people running printing presses. For one thing, most people I knew in college and grad school were still required to use the MLA (does that date me terribly?). He doesn’t seem much inclined to tell you what is actually in the book, unlike the fair if dour Slate review. That in and of itself is always terribly aggravating in a reviewer. At least Pauline Kael, high-wire stylist and paragraph-spinner though she was, would give you some of the substance of the movie, even if you felt after seeing it that she’d been to a completely different movie and mixed up the title.

  5. I will answer your email. i swear. really.

  6. Moi, it’s OK. Really. You have a lifetime pass. Write whenever you feel like it; your words are always welcome, whether here or in my Inbox. Amicus fidelis medicamentum vitae.

  7. You have a lifetime pass.
    Jeez. ((blushes)) That’s wonderful. You know the same goes for you, too.
    moi

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