There are some fantastic writing books out there. When you turn your attention away from the dry and often boring English and Composition textbooks, there are plenty of books that inspire and instruct in a less systematic way. Stephen King’s On Writing and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well are two of my favorites. I’ve recently learned about another that deals specifically with writing style.
Style: an Anti-Textbook by Richard A. Lanham will get you thinking more deeply about what you read and what you write. People seem to be split on this book. Reviews populate either end of the spectrum. But I am disposed to like it. Not in a “pull off the shelf when I need to look something up” kind of way that we might use a reference book, but in a “read when I need inspiration” kind of way. As the title says, it is an anti-textbook of sorts. It doesn’t teach you how to write. It discusses different ways of writing, but not in an instructional way. It’s as if you’re sitting down with the author and discussing the topic of writing, rather than how to write, exactly.
Lanham’s writing is fairly dense and meaty. This is a “sipping” book rather than one you’ll get through quickly. He brings up ideas that you’ll want to savor, to roll around on your brain’s tongue, and to contemplate your own feelings on.
Styles of writing are just as important as content. You can convey one bit of content in any number of styles. It all depends on context. Who is your audience? What is your purpose for writing (information, persuasion, entertainment, etc.)? Lanham goes through many examples of how style can achieve different ends.
Reading through Style: an Anti-Textbook, I felt that Lanham was taking us on a tour of writing and style, on a Disney dark ride-type adventure. “And in this room, you will find Shakespeare…” Each chapter and portion of a chapter shows us example after example of getting to know writing styles. It opens readers’ eyes to ways of interpreting what we’re reading, seeing another layer of meaning and purpose behind the curtain.
The current version of this book is the second edition, and Lanham has added quite a lot of content at the end of each chapter, going over his new thoughts about what he wrote the first time. He made only small changes in the main parts of the book since the first edition, but has added these extra ideas in, as he calls them, his “Afterthoughts.”
Style: an Anti-Textbook would be a fun and informative read for any English or Liberal Arts major, or for modern writers who want to further hone their craft. It takes a proud place in the ever-growing Writing section of our home library.
Note: I received a copy of the book for review purposes.