A willing subject

If you are an editor, a grammarian, or just someone who enjoys the quirks of the English language, you’re sure to like Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. I was happily surprised by the great good humour and the tidy fusion of editing memoir and language instruction. Kudos, Ms Norris!

There is no way a single sentence could sum up the many delights of this book, yet one lovely clause keeps ringing through my memory:

Parentheses often act like giant commas, and commas like tiny parentheses. (p. 103)

Graceful, yes? A nice use of rhetorical schemes, without being ostentatious, and a fine, compact observation. The book is full of such gems. Such a pleasure!

Source: Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2015).

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Real readers will understand

This excerpt comes from an urban fantasy series about libriomancers, people who are able to use books to produce magic. It expresses, in a tidy rhetorical figure, a feeling I’ve always had about books and reading but never been able to articulate.

I had said before that all stories were magic. It had never occurred to me that all magic was stories.

Jim C. Hines, Unbound (New York: Daw Books, 2014), p. 229

Who knew, Hugo?

I was astonished to learn the following about Victor Hugo (1802–1885), author of Les misérables (1862) and many other texts.

[Hugo’s] love affair with Juliette, though discreet, was another of the worst kept secrets in Paris. By the time the item went public, Victor and Adèle had agreed upon a discreet open marriage, exactly as his own parents had, a thoroughly contemporary arrangement. She slipped off through the escalier dérobé to see Sainte-Beuve and Victor left the front door to meet Juliette — and others.

The Hugo myth has it that whereas he naturally betrayed Adèle, his wife, while of course still loving her for eternity, he was faithful to Juliette, his muse and true love for fifty years. The day Juliette died, the story goes, he retired his quills, pining for the rest of his days. The reality is more interesting and inspiring to Parisians in its dark convolutions: half of Victor’s soul went to his wife, the other half plus his heart and loins to his mistress. Why just one mistress? What could be better than multiple mistresses, multiple lives, and secret staircases everywhere?

Hugo’s astonishingly Technicolor existence is never shown in the movies because it is too racy. His was a life of glory, uxorious devotion and serial adultery, fame, treachery, admirable heroism, enduring priapism, towering talent, altruism, narcissism and conspicuous consumption alternated with hair-raising escapes, exile, discomfort, and genuine danger. If you were allowed only one romantic French hero, the outside bearded sphinx Hugo would be a fine choice.

Hugo might indeed be my romantic French hero!

Source: David Downie, A Passion for Paris (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015).

Scarcity and abundance re book marketing

Last year I heard Richard Nash speak about publishing and learning to manage abundance. Several times in my teaching this year, I have quoted his memorable comment “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.” The excerpt below, from Giles Clark and Angus Phillips,  amplifies Nash’s idea and sets it into the specific relationships among publishers, authors, and readers.

However, scarcity is still present and comes in different guises, especially in respect of the resources needed to publish. Readers and institutional buyers have limits on their purchasing power. There are also and importantly individual limits on the amount of time available to read, be it a novel or a scientific paper, versus competing media and activities: time is a scarce commodity. Good authors who people want to read are scarce, whether their writings are paid for by readers or available for free. From a publisher’s standpoint, it costs money to find, select and buy such authors. It takes resources to develop the author’s work for market needs, and to produce the book in whatever formats the content is published. The marginal cost of a digital file may be close to zero, yet there is still a cost to the publisher to create a book and then distribute it through channels to market that are controlled and charged for by others. The sales and marketing costs to capture readers’ attention, to help them discover books, do not disappear in the transition from print to digital publishing.

In a world of abundance, the publishers offer a vital service in selecting authors and developing their content to meet readers’ needs. They manage the authors’ brands and focus readers on the books they have selected. That service is worth paying for when time is scarce. (20–21)

This is a key point for me when I’m teaching book editing: until students have worked in the business as publishing professionals, it’s difficult for them to understand how abundance works against consumers and how scarcity works in consumers’ favour. And Clark and Phillips add an important additional consideration: the scarcity of time. Very well observed!

Source: Giles Clark and Angus Phillips, Inside Book Publishing (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).

Regarding editorial efficiency

The Eleventh Time-Saving Tip:

… make all trivial decisions as soon as possible and keep all vital decisions as late as possible. The magazine, on paper and on digital, is now ‘plastic’ until it is fixed. (124)

This advice certainly applies to magazine editing, but also to editing in general. Editors need to think carefully about how to use our limited resource of time, particularly today, when digital workflows and leaner staffing mean that we have to work smarter than we did in the past.

Source: David Stam and Andrew Scott, Inside Magazine Publishing (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).

Introducing Reading with a Pencil

Welcome to Reading with a Pencil, a blog about books and text. I am an academic, a professional editor, and a reviewer; my entire life is reading and writing. This blog will function like a commonplace book, a repository of text that strikes me; from time to time, it will also (I hope) present reflections on textual matters, from the professional to the aesthetic.

As an inaugural post, here are a few lines from the song “When I Go” by Over the Rhine. I am consistently knocked over by the delivery of the italicized lines.

It makes a difference
That I’m feeling this way
With plenty to think about
And so little to say

Except for this confession
That is poised on my lips
I’m not letting go of God
I’m just losing my grip

Wow. To have written that. Beautiful.

Here’s to new beginnings. Once again, welcome!