Some Words I Read Tonight

Teachers of prose in America are often at a loss when asked to recommend studies of style. Such studies almost invariably talk about it in terms of texts the student has never heard of. One English theorist recommends, as a useful means for testing conciseness in English prose, quick translation into Latin or Greek. Americans, students or not, live in another world. They are trying to learn something about prose style without the whole context that has rendered prose style comprehensible and has given it meaning. They are trying to learn in a vacuum. And we may, of course, add as a footnote to the contemporary scene, the much-heralded demise of the book. American used to read only current fiction. Now they read nothing at all. For written utterance, they have as context only journalism. How accurate such prophecies of doom really are, I suppose few would want to say. But the teacher of composition, at whatever level, will speedily be reminded that he is trying to teach prose to people who, at least voluntarily, seldom read anything.

These words are older than I am, from Richard A. Lanham’s 1974 treatise, Style: An Anti-Textbook. Academics perennially love an illiteracy complaint.