A couple of weeks ago I made two felicitous finds at the Seguin Goodwill. One is a hardbacked hymnal printed in 1961, and priced at ninety-nine cents. Oh, joy! I have hoped for years to find a hymnal of at least 1960’s vintage. I frankly dislike modern hymnals, whose editors, in their zeal to make venerable hymns “accessible” to modern churchgoers, have presumed to change the words. The updating of grammar—changing “thine” to “your” and so forth—is not so bad, I suppose, though as an author I regret so unnecessary an intrusion. Far worse is the sort of editing which actually changes the meaning of the lyrics. Though there may be more egregious examples, the most painful to my eyes and ears is the maiming of the Ebenezer line from “Come Thou Fount,” to the ruination of sense, rhyme, and authorial intent. Accessibility, my eye! If the congregation doesn’t know what an Ebenezer is, tell them! Don’t compound their ignorance by despoiling them of their biblical heritage!
The second felicitous find, priced at a dollar ninety-nine, is The Writer’s Art, by James J. Kilpatrick. In the foreword, William F. Buckley calls the book “an engrossing and majestic treatise on the English language.” Now that I have read this wonderful book, it seems strange that I never heard of it before. In the words of a reviewer from the Richmond News Leader, “It belongs on the shelf with Follett, Fowler, Strunk/White, and a bare handful of other reference books.” I read it cover to cover like a novel.
The book was published in 1984, which means that Mr. Kilpatrick’s examples of good or bad writing are all more than two decades old. I found frequent references to Carter, Kissinger, and Kennedy (John F.), and even an ominous sentence or two about Fannie May and Freddy Mac.