Last Friday, over supper, David said, “Let’s go moop in a bookstore. You like that, and we haven’t done it for a while.”
We used to spend a lot of time in bookstores, but that was when we lived in Toronto, where there are dozens and dozens of them, not only chain stores but also independents and used bookstores. I had favourites; Abelard (now, alas, closed), and the Can-Do Bookstore on Queen West, which specialized in how-to books, new and used, on just about anything. I loved Edwards Books and Art, where I once found a copy of the facsimile of the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux. I’d been looking for it for years.
Now I’ve got Coles, and a used-book store that runs heavily to romance and chick lit, and the Friends of the Library Bookstore in the basement of the Sault Public Library. (There are treasures to be had there, and it’s probably my favourite place to look for used books.)
So out we went to Coles, where I found – as I can usually be relied upon to do – several interesting books. In the section on writing craft, which is tiny in the Sault bookstores, there was a book called “Painless Grammar” by Rebecca Elliott, Ph.D. (I don’t care about the Ph.D., but obviously someone thought it was important.)
I had a quick look through it and thought, “Here’s an easy reference book for me!” It’s funny and smart, both smart-clever and smart-ass, and lays everything out clearly. It’s written for teenagers, which means it’s readable and well-organized and not boring. In fact, I’ve never read anything better for Grammar 101.
Although I edit professionally, and I have the kind of nit radar that will spot a misused word or a run-on sentence at fifty paces, I’m not perfect. Far from it, in fact. I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing and speech; I figure about the time I get it perfect, I will be able to say, “I am about to – or I am going to – die: either expression is correct.” and then kick off. (The lore says that these were, in fact, the last words of French grammarian Dominique Bouhours, just before he died in 1702.)
No matter how good you are at your chosen craft, there’s always something more to learn, some way you can do it a bit better. My grade thirteen English teacher told us once that when Dylan Thomas was found dead in his room, pinned up on the walls were thirty-some different versions of one poem. The differences were minute – a change in comma placement and so on.
Mr Hay-Ellis clearly found this admirable. “Obsessive” is the word that comes to my mind. I prefer Leonardo da Vinci’s words: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” The longer I work on my novel, the more I agree with Leonardo. Perhaps Dylan Thomas also felt that way, and just wasn’t ready to abandon his poem yet. I do appreciate the fact that he clearly understood that comma placement was important to meaning.
“Painless Grammar” is going out on loan to a friend as soon as I’ve finished reading it, but when it comes back it’ll be shelved handily next to the Oxford, my rhyming dictionary and “Eats, Shoots and Leaves“.