Four Books to Celebrate 50th Anniversary of 'The Elements of Style'

Today is the golden anniversary of William Strunk and E.B. White's "The Elements of Style." With 10 million copies in print, it's (its?) far and away (cliche!) the most popular book on writing ever published. ("Do not overstate.")

To commemorate the occasion, Pearson Longman has released a special leather-bound edition of the little book, complete with blurbs from Dorothy Parker, David Remnick and, naturally, Ben Affleck. ("I owe my success to Strunk and White," he claims, ignoring for the moment that hair, those Ken-doll good looks.)

Just to get the conversation rolling, here are four more favorite books about writing. Would love to hear your additions to this list.

"Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life," by Anne Lamott.
Probably her best book, this is full or wise and witty advice. When I was teaching at a tony prep school in St. Louis, I regularly risked censure by reading aloud her marvelous chapter called "Shitty Rough Drafts."

"On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft," by Stephen King.
I realized late -- while reading this -- just what a fine writer King could be. He started "On Writing" before the car accident that almost killed him, and eventually he used that ordeal as a major segment for the book.

"On Moral Fiction," by John Gardner.
I reread this over the summer and was struck, again, by what a powerful, brave work of criticism it is. He would be only more appalled today by the celebration of the bizarre, the disturbing, the amoral.

"American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English."
Everybody has his (their?) (there?) (they're?) favorite guide, but this is mine. It's clear, well organized and not excessively esoteric.

-- Ron Charles | Twitter roncharles

By Ron Charles |  April 16, 2009; 12:01 PM ET Nonfiction , Ron Charles
Previous: Free Books, but No Takers | Next: Arts Writing Winners Named


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I read no King until On Writing -- after that I proceeded to read all his nonfiction I could get my hands on, and only then did I begin to read his fiction. I think of his definition of good writing as telepathy is probably the most wise (and the most succinct!) out there.

I feel a deep and abiding envy of those who can say Stephen King taught them English, or John Gardner taught them writing -- but I am glad we who were not so lucky have their books.

Posted by: thelittlefluffycat | April 16, 2009 9:26 AM

I couldn't agree more with all of your suggestions. I'd add Theodore M. Bernstein's The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, to which I turn again and again because of its clarity, its accessibility (alphabetical entries), and its good humor and good sense.

Posted by: greenink11 | April 16, 2009 10:00 AM

Stephen King--one of the world's great storytellers of this or any age--writes near the end of "On Writing": "Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well."

My favorite anecdote from the book occurred when Stephen was once driving alone from Florida to Maine and stopped for gas off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. He went around back to use the men's room. There was a "brawling stream full of snowmelt" just behind the station. Trying to get a better look, he slipped on the ice and would have slid into the torrent had he not been able to grab onto an old engine block.

Stephen realized he would have disappeared without a trace--his car waiting in front with no signs of a driver. Back on the turnpike, Stephen suddenly realized he had two things: a wet @#$ and a good idea for a story.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | April 16, 2009 10:37 AM

I belong to the club that did not read Stephen King until On Writing, went on to read the hilarious Mid-Life Confidential and right now am reading his book of short stories, Just After Sunset. His introduction and afterward ("Sunset Notes") to the stories continue his dialogue with those wish to learn from him.

Posted by: cebeling | April 16, 2009 3:05 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company