There’s a connection between woodworking and writing. One of them is the attention to craft. I am presently making a long-overdue desk for my son Eric, who has been using a table meant for the outdoors for a couple of years now—not exactly loaded with drawers or finished off with a smooth top. When you’re making cabinetry you have to rout out a million mortises and fit in their matching tenons. The drawers are done within 1/32nd of an inch. The whole thing has to be matched up precisely, including some attention to grain, figure, and color. No one notices all of this except other woodworkers and, of course, God, who always checks out the insides of the mortises. It’s the overall look and the smoothness of the drawers that people look for. And, of course, they want it to be useful, with the drawers the right size and a top that can accommodate whatever electronic paraphernalia will occupy it over the years.
Well, it’s the same for writing. I’m doing prose right now. It’s hard for me to switch back and forth, just as I find it hard to switch between woodturning and cabinetry. But in either case there are demands of the appropriate craft—the unseen manipulations that lie behind the piece and make it work or appeal to the eye. The point is that in both kinds of work there is an underlying craft that constantly challenges us toward precision, elegance, and simplicity—a simplicity both in movement and in construction. So it’s not surprising that from time to time I am caught by a book about the craft of these endeavors—in this case, the charming volume by Mary Norris entitled Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Norris has been a copy editor at The New Yorker for more than thirty years, preserving its legendary attention to the grammar, syntax, spelling and factual exactitude that has characterized its pages from the beginning.
The title grabs the attention of all of us who squirm when friends and famous speakers alike turn the required accusative after “between” into a nominative “I” just because… Well, why? Just because it’s a compound accusative? Because they want to maintain their nominative (and nominal) agency in the fact of a preposition? While the psychology is unclear, the rigor of craft is clear: “between you and me.”
And then, there is poor “who” and “whom.”Like “me,” “whom” has practically bitten the dust. And, of course, if you have been rigorous about the accusative in “between you and me,” why do you accept “It is me?” Well, it’s because of usage. With that arabesque you enter the warfare between the “descriptivists,” who argue that we accept usage that comes to predominate (who decides that?), and the “prescriptivists,” who argue for an elite of referees (The New Yorker, especially, but Mr. Webster’s shadows as well) who tell us what is right. With irrepressible humor and balance she at least illuminates the controversies, even if she can’t resolve them.
After dealing with these Sisyphean problems, she turns her eye and pen (or is it key?) to the many other pitfalls and pratfalls of the English language. Writers in English have to deal with the horrendous problem of spelling “correctly” the multitude of words from many languages that have come to populate our discourse. Good luck with that, in spite of the labors of Mr. Webster and his heirs.
And, of course, there is the ubiquitous apostrophe, whose misuse goes beyond the hand-made signs on the roadside. Whether used correctly or not, its very existence is now threatened by the US Postal service and the internet. There is also the vexed question of when to use a hyphen in a compound adjective. Or when to use a dash, a hyphen, a semi-colon, or, you guessed it, a comma. For that we need a comma queen to decide for us. She doesn’t have to be someone out of Alice in Wonderland. She can be someone as charming and funny as Mary Norris.
So, it’s not only woodworkers who face the question of whether to plane or sand, drill or carve, rout or gouge. And speaking of tools, she rounds out her scintillating discourse with a discussion of pencils—real pencils made of wood and graphite. What hardness is preferable, not to mention available? How should you sharpen them? How many do you need? She even has a delightful report on an actual pencil sharpener museum in Ohio. Someone who loves her craft can’t help but treasure her tools as well.
In all of this craftwork, you have the competition between the rationality and logic of our minds and the demands of the wood (or language) itself—its myriad qualities, its structural properties, and the use for which it is intended. Language, like woodworking, has to produce an object that is both useful and beautiful. But this beauty and usefulness must also be embedded in a mathematics, geometry, and logic if it is to be enduring. Our language has to bear the burden of rational thought as well as aesthetic exuberance. Like any good cabinetry, it has to connect its elements in a way that communicates to other people well beyond our voice, touch, laughter, and tears.
And this is what craft is about: the activity of transforming objects, whether words or wood, in a way that can form a world, a common ground through which people can be related to one another over time. In a time that is devoted to consuming and “revolutionizing” that common world as fast as possible, leaving us alienated and lonely, we need to devote ourselves to the craft that builds them.
That concern leads me to the next book I’m reading: The World Beyond Your Head, by Matthew Crawford, the same motorcycle repairman who wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft. I talked about his work in Sawdust and Soul. I’ll write about his latest reflections, with as much craft as I can muster, next time around. Meanwhile, I think I’ll send this to Queen Norris. I’m sure I didn’t get the commas and hyphens quite right in this piece. But after all, it’s just a blog, right?