Monday, April 25, 2011


If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. 
I've always admired those lines from E.B. White--so much so that I captured them and preserved them in my collection of lines I admire, which I will one day bequeath to an auction house of fine standing. But not long after cataloging those words and arranging them in their display case, I began to see other versions, including this grotesque mash-up:
"I wake up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day a little difficult."
E.B White was a writer, after all (and one notorious for the precision of his word choices) so there should be a definitive written record of where the passage in question comes from and in what exact form it appeared. Indeed, the blogmeister at Ishbadiddle did some wiki-sourcing on this very question and determined that that first version is the real thing and it comes from a 1969 New York Times interview. Case closed.

But then yesterday, I sat at my wife's computer to enjoy some idle surfing while munching my bagel, and her home page quotation-generator spit this out:
Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it. --E.B. White
This time, I happened to know precisely the source, and I knew this was murderously off-key. I only had to step over to the bookcase and pull down my copy of A Subtreasury of American Humor, edited by White and his wife, Katherine, to find these lines in the preface:
Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.
First of all, I submit this as a rebuttal to all those Strunk and White fundamentalists who insist that the briefer, plainer composition is always better. The real quotation sings; the bastardized version is a feeble croak. Even E.B. White was not an Elements of Style purist. He understood that while there may be rules for grammar, there are only guidelines for writing, and they are mutable. What matters is choosing the right words for the right effect.

Which is what makes these misquotations so irksome. I suppose it's flattering to White, in a way, that his epigrams are passed around so enthusiastically that they become fodder for an undeclared game of Chinese Whispers. But considering the care this legendary literary craftsman put into his work, it is dispiriting to see his sentences vandalized by thoughtless thugs.