July 28, 2006

Eaten, Shot and Left.

Filed under: analog — mhoye @ 10:35 am

I am struggling through my third attempt at reading “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”, and I’m not going to make it. I’ve slogged my way through the foreword, the prologue and the introduction, but I’ve only been able to convince myself to skim the rest. It’s terrible. It says on the cover that it’s a #1 British bestseller, but I can’t shake the impression that this means that British literature is in the same sad state as British cooking.

In theory I should be right in the middle of this book’s target audience; I am white, for example, a reasonably affluent anglophone and something of a dick, and first two sections of the book are aimed at that demographic like a dowser’s rod in the hands of Gandalf the Grey.

Alas, however, it is not to be; it gets clear fairly quickly that the author is not talking about good punctuation for clarity’s sake, despite strained nods in that general direction. She is talking instead about punctuation for the sake of justifying her smug self-satisfaction and self-centered eccentricities. Over and over again you can see missed opportunities and contradictory arguments rolling lazily about like tumbleweeds while the author frets about missing apostrophes; an observation that English has evolved dramatically over time flows smoothly into a series of hard prescriptive rules for one glyph and back out again to a few pages of completely aimless, disjoint generalities for another, lubricated by an oily condescension that’s been smeared throughout.

The only common thread in the whole thing seems to the recurring impression given that if you do not follow this poor old Englishwoman’s strict sense of good grammar, she’ll come down with a bad case of whatever it was that poor old Englishwomen came down with bad cases of in ninteenth-century period fiction. The vapors, the swounds, a horrific case of the mollycoddles or something.

But you don’t need to get so far into Eats, Shoots and Leaves that you come across the oblique jabs at minorities and foreigners to fully form an opinion about it, oh no. That crystallizes very early on. Have you ever been introduced to somebody who, after five minutes of conversation, you felt a visceral desire to punch in the head for reasons you couldn’t clearly articulate? That’s your author, right there. By the third page of the introduction I started to feel a little sympathetic towards those people who shake crying babies until they’ve got brain damage; I’m sitting quietly, reading these words that are grinding away at my eyes over and over again and wishing they’d let up just for a moment.

It’s possible that the phrase “One must”, or “One does”, in the hands of someone actually taking themselves seriously, might just be the most annoying construction in the entire English language; nothing else combines the passive voice with the act of looking down your nose at the underclasses quite so concisely.

And the entire book is like that; snotty, superior and cripplingly useless, in that peculiarly effete way that dowager aristocrats are always portrayed, and serving the dual purpose of making the reviews on the first page suddenly wierd and creepy and making the entire rest of the book completely unreadable. This book, we are told, “makes the history of punctuation […] urgent, sexy, and hilarious”, claims somebody who is clearly using a dusty old hardbound copy of “The Erotic Adventures Of The Widower Ganglesworth” as his sole reference point. “Lovers of good english have thought of themselves as isolated outposts… Lynne Truss has emerged as our champion”, claims another, failing to follow through with the observation that this fight they’re ostensibly waging is doomed, and that perhaps if we were at street level talking to people who actually use the language, rather than sitting around with our heads lodged firmly up our isolated outposts, we’d have a better feel for what was going on among those who actually use the language we’re supposedly standing up for.

I’m going to stop here before I get into specifics, because that could take days of work and this book deserves far less of my life than it’s already taken. If this book is a bestseller I can only assume that it’s being bought as a gag gift to cleverly, so very cleverly, imply that the recipient can’t spell. It’s either that or there are an astonising number of reviewers out there who have some basic human needs that have gone long unmet, like breathing fresh air and living among others.


  1. “Have you ever been introduced to somebody who, after five minutes of conversation, you felt a visceral desire to punch in the head for reasons you couldn’t clearly articulate?”. You mean Ben Affleck?

    Comment by Alex Rootham — July 28, 2006 @ 10:56 am

  2. I’d totally talk to him for five minutes if it meant I could punch him afterwards.

    Comment by Mike Hoye — July 28, 2006 @ 12:42 pm

  3. There’s a David Foster Wallace essay you need to read. It’s available online somewhere, but I’m posting from my phone so finding it would be cumbersome. I’ll try to remember to come back later with a link.

    Comment by Mike Bruce — July 29, 2006 @ 7:43 pm

  4. Okay, the essay is “Tense Present”, and it’s available here. The first block of text isn’t really the start of the essay, and might be off-putting. Skip down to “Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy…”.

    It’s also in the collection “Consider the Lobster”, which all right-thinking people should own a copy of.

    Comment by Mike Bruce — July 29, 2006 @ 11:27 pm

  5. AND the crazy lady has a children’s book of the same name!!!!! it’s no less annoying. unless we’re talking of the same book. in which case you should post a warning in the next issue of “Parent” magazine – and don’t change the language you just used – hilarious.

    Comment by Shamim — July 31, 2006 @ 1:17 am

  6. If you haven’t got a copy already, you might like Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words. Not so much about punctuation, but in a similar vein. I rather like it.

    P.S. You spelled “weird” incorrectly.

    Comment by Mike Richters — August 2, 2006 @ 4:47 pm

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