Monday, August 22, 2005

First Day of Fall

The calendar may not agree, but when your kids have their first full day back in school and the weather suddenly turns seasonably cool, I figure that qualifies as the functional equivalent of fall, easily my favorite season. I've been quiet for three weeks because August has been full of wandering--wandering around a couple of big projects, one just completed (more about which soon) and wandering around the country. That wandering included the annual summer vacation in Maine, complete with an overnight stop in New York City, plus some college visits along the way for the high school junior. The latter prospect is all the reminder one needs to pick up the pace on earning and saving, so as to narrow the gap between college tuition price tags and one's college savings from the range of incomprehensible to merely impossible. And before that, there was an evocative evening spent with spouse and old friends in a quiet Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, a creekside home just a few miles down the way (also more about which soon). All in all, one of the truly great Augusts ever, at least for me. It leaves me ready to attack work, in what remains of the year, with a special gusto, and a renewed fervor.

And in all the mounds of reading I did this month, amid the stacks of magazines, newspapers and books I plowed through at the beach, in the hammock and while propped up in bed seconds before dozing off, I would be hardpressed to identify anything that gave me a bigger kick than this, a small passage in an otherwise hum drum article about Google's recent decision to go back for another public offering, this time raising $4 billion:

In Google's whimsical fashion, the number of shares offered is the same as the first eight digits after the decimal point in pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, which starts with 3.14159265.

Now, if only I could get my two teenage boys to enjoy math that much, our savings challenge would be mostly solved...

One last impossibly cool thing happened in August. My friend and mentor Bill Zinsser sent along by mail (he still doesn't do email, and casually ignores anyone who suggests he should start) a draft of a new piece of writing. But it also had an altogether familiar feel to it. In January, it will be the 30th anniversary of the publication of his now-iconic book, On Writing Well. It began as a modest attempt to put between hard covers some lessons from his years as a writing teacher at Yale. His students have gone on to their own glittering careers, a couple having founded Vermont Magazine, another (Mark Singer) becoming a staff writer for the New Yorker. There are too many superstars to name. And yet, my favorite story from his Yale years involves a fellow who didn't become a writer at all: instead, he went into business, but was so touched by Bill's lifelong lessons about the power of language that he recently gave Yale a large gift, with the explicit instructions to "find a Bill Zinsser of the 21st century." What a giant, perhaps impossible, task that will be.

Anyway, in the years since it was first published, OWW has grown into what can only be called a publishing phenomenon, one of the great word-of-mouth book titles ever. OWW has long since passed one million copies in print--an astounding number for a serious book on writing--and has appeared in more than 20 languages, including Chinese. And Bill's place in the writing world has become that of the all-but-acknowledged writer's writer, replacing the late stylist extraordinaire, E.B. White, a portrait of whom has hung in Bill's Manhattan office for years. Knowing of the tremendous following that OWW prompted from writers of every type, some years ago I encouraged Bill to save all of his files related to OWW (in the self-interested hope, I must admit, of one day writing a book about this amazing book). Anyway, that led him to explore donating his files to a university, and now New York University library is the proud owner of thousands of files related to the life and work of Bill Zinsser. And to my delight, I have since learned that there were not merely hundreds of letters from his devoted readers amid those piles, as I had expected, but actually thousands of them. This book touched a special chord in average writers. But even more impressively, it has spoken to people who didn't remotely think of themselves as writers and who never would, but who were nevertheless inspired and touched by Bill's unique way of making the importance of writing a good love letter or some other non-professional piece of writing come alive and speak to the reader.

Bill, who's now 80, and who still wears his signature white shirt with tie and New Balance running shoes to work every day, is not a man for looking back. He insists on keeping this book fresh, updating it every few years so as to reflect new usages, trends in writing and culture, and to just plain try to make it ever more useful for current writers. And so, to mark the 30th anniversary, his publisher is bringing out another edition soon, the 7th edition of OWW. And apparently just hours after he was finished with what I'm sure was the eighth or tenth or twelfth draft of the newly refreshed intro, he made a copy and sent it along in the mail (no doubt to many others as well). To me, it has the feel of a small piece of history, and I'll cherish it for years to come, just as I'll look forward to seeing the many nips and tucks he'll be making in the rest of the book (there will be an entire new chapter in this edition, about writing about one's life, the subject of his most recent book). We're still hoping to host Bill in Cleveland this fall. Stay tuned for that.


At 12:46 AM, Blogger Teena said...

What a wonderful tribute to William Zinsser. And it's all true! I, too, was a "word of mouth" reader. I'm a university professor who was struggling to help my students write; William Zinsser has given me inspiration. OWW should be (and perhaps now is?) an English composition textbook at every college.
Thanks for the above tribute to Zinsser's profound scholarship.


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