The Sense of Style
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style is the best style manual I’ve ever read. This is because Pinker, cognitive scientist and author of The Stuff of Thought, The Language Instinct, and Words and Rules, understands the most vital aspect of grammar—namely, that it is utterly arbitrary. Consequently, Pinker does not merely itemize a bunch of dictums and creeds, a la William Safire, but instead describes the numerous inconsistencies and oddities of English in order to make sense (to use the pun of the title) of why certain phrasings and techniques are more effective than others (and sometimes why it’s nothing more than personal preference). Pinker is a brilliant thinker (as is his wife, the philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein), and The Sense of Style ought to be on the desk of every journalist, critic, and writer on the planet. It’s that wise and witty and fun and, most importantly, useful. But I even think that non-writers will get a kick out of Pinker’s book, because he’s a gifted stylist himself (as one would hope from an author of such a manual), which makesThe Sense of Style an absolute joy to read.
Most books on literary history focus on the writers and social forces that engendered what we call literature, the abstract totality of creative and intellectual authorship. But over the course of human civilization, there is another story demanding to be heard, and that is the numerous narratives that lead to the book as an object, a literal thing you can hold in your hand. Although it may seem like the more stale story, the history of the book and its myriad parts is as deeply rich and as populated by fascinating figures as any text on a specific writer or movement.
To prove this, I present 7 books on different aspects of, well, the book, beginning with Keith Houston’s The Book, as it is not only a wonderfully engaging and lucid work moving through various details and geographies and centuries, but it’s the perfection foundational text for this list. The Book covers every aspect of our venerated codex, while the rest focus on specific subjects or developments. The book is mankind’s greatest achievement, so it’s only right that we should celebrate all the people and all the circumstances that helped usher it into existence.
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