Dreyer’s English

Dryer's EnglishDreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
Benjamin Dreyer
Random House (January 29, 2019), 284 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $15.00

Being the word nerd that I am, I found this book delightful.

Benjamin Dreyer is a seasoned copy editor, and this book is based on his experience in that role. His guidance and recommendations are based on the errors in grammar, punctuation, and style that he has seen over his decades.

He writes about rules that make sense and arbitrary rules that exist for no reason. He discusses the proper use of numbers and traps in grammar to avoid. His writing style is engaging and entertaining. His footnotes are not used to cite his sources, but rather to provide additional anecdotal, amusing, or entertaining information or commentary. Do not overlook them; savor and enjoy them.

The second part of the book is made up for the most part of lists: his own pet peeves, words that are often misused, and people and places whose names are often gotten wrong. Not as entertaining as the first part, but full of useful information.

If you love to write or appreciate good writing Dryer’s English is well worth your time.


Figuring coverFiguring
Maria Popova
Pantheon (February 5, 2019), 554 pages
Kindle edition, $14.99, Amazon hardcover $19.49

I’m not sure what this book is trying to be and the lack of a subtitle doesn’t help.

The book opens with the story of the young Maria Mitchell on Nantucket in the nineteenth century, with her passion for astronomy supported by her Quaker father. In a world where such opportunities are mostly closed to woman she makes a name for herself in the field and goes on to teach astronomy at the newly-founded Vassar College.

We then see a glimpse of Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron and frequently credited as co-inventor of the computer. We see a lot of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and then back in the United States there is a discussion of the Transcendental movement with Ralph Waldo Emerson and the bunch. In particular we learn a lot about the innovative, progressive Margaret Fuller.

From Fuller we are introduced to the early history of photography, and then the poet Emily Dickinson, after which we abruptly are presented with a discussion of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan regarding their work on the plaque and sound recording placed on the Voyager spacecraft. From there we are treated to a long discussion of Rachael Carson.

I’m leaving a lot out here.

Popova is trying to tell us something, but I’m not sure quite what.


Creation coverCreation
Gore Vidal
Vintage, 587 pages, August 22, 2018 (2002 reprint)
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon paperback $17.95

Back in the 1980’s I tried to get going with Gore Vidal’s then-new book Creation. It is a novel narrated by a fictional grandson of Zoroaster, and is presented as a rebuttal to the Histories of Herodotus from a Persian perspective. I remember having a hardcover copy and trying to read it. I just couldn’t get excited about it.

Recently, however, I had been reading some nonfiction and I wanted a change. I downloaded the Kindle sample of Creation and found the book quite book quite interesting. It turns out that this is an expanded version published in 2002. It seems that an overzealous editor underestimated the interest of the average Vidal reader (or perhaps the average fiction reader) in the details of life, ritual, and philosophy in the ancient world and cut a good deal of what he considered to be minutia. That’s all restored in the 2002 edition.

The narrator is Cyrus Spitima, the fictional grandson of the Persian prophet Zoroaster. He is portrayed as being part of the royal family and a close friend to and the same age as the eventual emperor Xerxes. He is sent to India by Xerxes’s father Darius and to China by Xerxes. In the course of his travels he meets the Buddha, Lao Tze, and Confucius. Now of course it’s not entirely clear that the three actually lived at the same time, or in fact, that the first two existed at all. But this Vidal’s way of incorporating Eastern religion and philosophy into an entertaining novel.

In the end the book was probably over-long and in fact I ended up skimming the last quarter of it. Ultimately, though, I believe it was worth my time.