S&W in cultural context

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Yesterday in the New York Times, Dwight Garner took on two revisions of classic books of advice (by Dale Carnegie and Emily Post) — updated for the digital age. "Classic Advice: Please, Leave Well Enough Alone" starts by placing the Carnegie book in its cultural context:

Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People," which turns 75 this year, has sold more than 30 million copies and continues to be a best seller. The book, a paean to integrity, good humor and warmth in the name of amicable capitalism, is as wholesome as a Norman Rockwell painting. It exists alongside Dr. Spock's child-rearing guide, Strunk and White's volume on literary style and Fannie Farmer's cookbook as a classic expression of the American impulse toward self-improvement and reinvention.

Yes, Strunk & White, which comes up here with some regularity, and not in a good way.

Some dates. The first edition of Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cook Book was 1896. (For comparison, the enormously influential Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer was first published, privately in 1931, commercially in 1936. Both books were revised repeatedly.) Next up was Norman Rockwell, whose Saturday Evening Post covers began in 1916 and continued for 47 years after that. Then Emily Post's Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, which appeared first in 1922; Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936; Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care in 1946; and Strunk & White's The Elements of Style in 1959 (building on Strunk's little handook of 1918).

[If I had to pick one important self-improvement book on language from the period — roughly, the first half of the 20th century — I'd opt not for Strunk & White (whose influence came later) but for The Sherwin Cody 100% Self-Correcting Course in English Language [in 25 parts], first published in 1918; the material, aimed at an audience seeking to improve themselves in business and marketing, sold through magazine ads for some 40 years after that. For discussion of Cody in his cultural context, see Edward Battistella's Do You Make These Mistakes in English? The Story of Sherwin Cody's Famous Language School (2009).]

As a bonus, here's Garner savaging the new revision of Dale Carnegie:

The book's essential admonitions — be a good listener, admit faults quickly and emphatically, and smile more often, among them — are timeless. They need updating about as much as Hank Williams's songs do.

Yet now comes Dale Carnegie and Associates Inc., which offers leadership and public speaking classes, with the news that it has rewritten and reissued Carnegie's book for the laptop generation under the title "How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age," written with Brent Cole. It's not the only advice classic that's been updated this fall for the era of Facebook and Google Plus. There's a new edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette" as well, which bears the forward-looking subtitle "Manners for a New World."

… The problem with "How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age" is that its verbal DNA has been not merely tweaked but scrambled. Carnegie's great virtue, beyond the simplicity of his core ideas, was his unadorned prose. "Try leaving a friendly trail of little sparks of gratitude on your daily trips," he advised in a typical passage. "You will be surprised how they will set flames of friendship that will be rose beacons on your next visit."

That homespun virtue has been obliterated here. This new adaptation seems to have been composed using refrigerator magnets stamped with corporate lingo: "transactional proficiency," "tangible interface," "relational longevity," "continuum of opportunities," "interpersonal futility," and "our faith persuasion." The devastation, in terms of Carnegie's original charm, is nearly complete. Were Carnegie alive to read this grievous book, he would clutch his chest like Redd Foxx in "Sanford and Son," smile wanly for a few minutes (he didn't like to make others feel bad), then keel over into his cornflakes.

The following sentence, which appears on Page 80, is so inept that it may actually be an ancient curse and to read it more than three times aloud is to summon the cannibal undead: "Today's biggest enemy of lasting influence is the sector of both personal and corporate musing that concerns itself with the art of creating impressions without consulting the science of need ascertainment."

Dale Carnegie, that master of graceful temperament, would not approve of kicking a book when it was down. So let me conclude with the good news. His original book, unmolested, can still be found on bookstore shelves. Life can go on as if this new one simply did not exist.

Maybe the digital Carnegie book could serve as a source text for a study of bad writing in the digital age.



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