Your compliments and cutting remarks are captured here in my quotation marks

(Sorry about the lack of posts last week. It was a week with five Mondays.)

I changed jobs in 2022, which means I’m working in Oakland again for the first time since 2016. One of the first things I did when I moved into my new office was to bring in my “smart books.”

“Smart books” is a phrase I borrowed from the late Doug Hoerth, who used to talk about the reference works he kept in the studio to answer questions from listeners.

In the pre-Internet age, listeners would call Hoerth’s show on WTKN, then WTAE and finally WPTT, trying to get the answers to questions like “who was that one actor who starred in that movie?” or “what was the one-hit wonder that recorded that oldie?”

If Hoerth didn’t know the answer, he’d throw the question out to his audience (“the smartest audience in the world,” he said) or he’d look it up in one of his “smart books.”

I may not have as many listeners as Doug Hoerth, but at least I have my smart books. They include three dictionaries, three news-writing style manuals, and two New York Public Library desk references.

I guess in the Internet era, there’s no need to have a single dictionary, much less three of them, but I do. In all honesty, I only really use the blue one. It’s Webster’s New Collegiate, 11th edition, from 1963. Inside the front page it’s stamped, “Property of School District of Borough of West Mifflin, North High School.” I hope they don’t want it back, because I consult it regularly.

The dictionary was first issued to a student less than three weeks before John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

I probably grab that blue dictionary at least once a week. For a while, I worked at a place that had the word “Initiative” in its name, and even though it was on my business cards, I still had to occasionally look up the spelling of “Initiative” just to make sure I was right. (It’s a funny-looking word. How many other English words have four “i’s” in them?)

You probably think it would be quicker to simply Google words I can’t remember how to spell — especially since Google will auto-correct the spelling of words you type, and suggest the correct spelling — but I’m convinced that I can usually find it in my blue Webster’s almost as quickly as I can search for it online.

The newer Webster’s, in red, I generally consult for those words that entered the language after 1963. (For example, Webster’s 11th doesn’t include entries for “email” or “Internet,” and of a “computer” it says it’s a person “who determines by calculation.” That’s not what a 21st century person thinks of when someone says “computer.”)

As for the Funk & Wagnalls … OK, I only keep that one because the name makes me laugh. I guess you have to be old enough to remember the running gag on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” where the secret answers to Carnac’s questions were said to have been “hermetically sealed in a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnalls’ back porch since noon today.”

“May a diseased yak squat in your hot tub.”

Of course, Funk & Wagnalls was also a running punchline on “Laugh-In”:

“Ver-r-r-r-r-y interesting. Also, stupid.”

Go look it up in your Funk & Wagnalls. You bet your bippy!

I have an Associated Press Stylebook, and I frequently consult it, because practically every news organization follows Associated Press style. Practically every news organization except The New York Times, that is, so I have one of theirs, too.

And although United Press International is a shadow of its former self, I keep a UPI Stylebook on the shelf. The UPI Stylebook hasn’t been updated in years, and for that reason, it’s becoming helpful for looking up historical names and terms that have been dropped from newer editions of the AP book.

The UPI Stylebook also contains this important bit of advice not offered by the AP or The New York Times:

burro/burrow: A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground.
As a journalist, you are expected to know the difference.

The New York Public Library Desk Reference is a great help when I need to figure out how to start a formal business letter or to answer other etiquette questions. I used the Science Desk Reference a lot more often when I worked in a computer science department, but not so much any more. (I also had a couple of freshman computer science textbooks, too, but I’ve given those away now.)

Also on my shelf of “smart books” are three short works which aren’t exactly reference books. The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White — more commonly called “Strunk and White” — is designed to teach writers to eliminate needless words, cliches and overly cute literary constructions. At one time, it was considered a standard text in college English courses — in fact, mine still bears a price tag from the CMU bookstore, where I bought it for a sophomore year composition class.

But over the years, some writing teachers have begun to dismiss “Strunk and White” as hopelessly out-of-date and, in some cases, sexist. In an article titled “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” for The Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor at the University of Edinburgh labeled The Elements of Style “toxic” and called Strunk and White “grammatical incompetents.”

“The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar,” wrote linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum. “It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules.”

Strunk and White condemn the use of the “passive voice.” Pullum called that advice “grammatically misguided or disingenuous.”

I think Pullum is just a sorehead because he likes to write in passive voice. In my personal experience, academics love writing in passive voice. And they hate it when mere journalists (like me, or E.B. White) complain about the use of passive voice.

Oh, sorry. I mean to say, “Passive voice is something in which academics love to write. The use of the passive voice by academics, when such is condemned by the likes of journalistic practitioners, is something which is abhorred.”

Anyway. Moving onto the other non-reference books, there’s another on how to write with clarity and grace by Joseph M. Williams. Conveniently, it’s called Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. It’s another book which I was assigned to read in college, and like Strunk and White, it encourages writers not to lean on literary crutches and passive voice. It’s served me well as a journalist.

(I have no idea what Geoffrey K. Pullum thinks of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Probably, not very much.)

And finally, there’s How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell K. Huff. It’s a little tiny paperback, full of cartoons, that came out in the mid-1950s, and it illustrates ways in which journalists and politicians distort data to serve their own ends. The examples — taken from long-dead publications like Colliers Magazine — are laughably out-of-date. Unfortunately, the techniques (for instance, cutting off a chart to make a trend seem worse than it is) are still in common use. They’re as close as Fox News, local TV stations or any given political campaign’s website.

Whenever I see a chart or table that seems just a little too good to be true, I reach for Darrell Huff’s book and check if the numbers are being presented honestly.

So those are my “smart books,” and that’s why I made sure they were one of the first things I moved into my new office last year.

And what about the photo at the left? I’ve had that for at least 20 years, maybe longer. That’s Edward R. Murrow, legendary CBS news anchor and reporter. I can’t begin to say that anything I’ve ever done in my entire career would even come close to Murrow, but I do keep him there, staring at me, to make sure I’m honest. When I think about cutting some corners or fudging some facts, I swear I can feel Ed’s eyes boring a hole into me.

Years ago, I had that very picture hanging next to my desk at one of my newspaper jobs when one of my bosses came over.

“Who’s that?” my boss said.

“It’s Edward R. Murrow,” I said.

“Who?” my boss said. “Is he like, your grandfather, or something?”

That particular newspaper is now out of business.

I have no idea what happened to that editor, but I suspect he probably has a nice, cushy job either lying with statistics or being lied to with statistics — because he clearly didn’t know an ass from a hole in the ground.

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