During our weekly Books & Such staff meeting last Friday, I mentioned that there are two books that should be considered a must-read for all of our clients. I confessed that for thirteen or fourteen years I reread these books every single year. Because it’s been a while since I read them, I just pulled them out and put them on my to-be-read pile once again.
So what are these must-read books, you ask?
The first book I’m assigning is one I encountered as a seventeen-year-old in English 1A at San Jose State many, many years ago. My professor, Dr. Scott Rice, (who also created the infamous Bulwer-Lytton Prize for the worst opening sentence in a book) referred to it as “Strunk and White.” The real title is Elements of Style, only I still call it “Strunk and White.” It’s only 3/8″ thick— a treasure of succinct writing wisdom.
It was first written by William Strunk, Jr., a professor at Cornell University as a textbook for his students. E. B. White was one of those students in 1919. Little did they guess that, thirty-eight years after they met, White would take that little textbook and turn it into this classic. Most of you probably don’t remember E. B. White as the editor of the “Notes and Comments” page of The New Yorker, but I’m guessing we all know him for Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.
So what do others say about this first must-read? The New York Times said, “Buy it, study it, enjoy it. It’s as timeless as a book can be in our age of volubility.” Charles Osgood wrote, “. . .still a little book, small enough and important enough to carry in your pocket, as I do mine.” The New Yorker said, “The work remains a nonpareil; direct, correct, and delightful.
The second book that is a must-read is On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. Library Journal wrote, “Not since The Elements of Style has there been a guide to writing as well presented and readable as this one. A love and respect for the language is evident on every page.” I agree. I’ve given away so many copies I keep getting later and later editions. This one is the thirtieth anniversary edition, revised in 2006 with more than a million books sold.
Zinsser, who died in 2015 at the age of 92, wrote seventeen books, taught at Yale, New York’s New School and at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Quite a Curriculum Vitae, right?
So that’s it. That’s our assignment. Read these two books every year, no matter how long you’ve been writing. And if you’ve read them, give us a testimonial in the comments below.