In late October 1939, Robert Graves wrote to Alan Hodge: “I have begun a new book, about English.” Graves and Hodge had recently completed a social history of the between-wars period called The Long Week-End. Now they embarked on this new project, “a handbook for writers of English Prose,” to be called The Reader Over Your Shoulder.
The world was in total upheaval. Graves had already fled Majorca three years earlier at the start of the Spanish Civil War. As they labored over their new writing project, Graves and Hodge witnessed the fall of France and the evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk. In early September 1940 began the bombing of London by the German Luftwaffe, a concentrated effort to destroy the resolve of the English people. Graves’s and Hodge’s idea was simple enough: at a time when their whole world was falling apart, the survival of English prose sentences, of writing that was clear, concise, intelligible, had become paramount if hope were going to survive the onslaught. They came up with forty-one principles for writing, the majority devoted to clarity, the remainder to grace of expression. They studied the prose of a wide range of noted authors and leaders, finding much room for improvement. Quoting grammarian and bestselling author Patricia T. O’Conner from her new introduction, “With a new war to be won, the kingdom couldn’t afford careless, sloppy English. Good communication was critical.”
The book they would write would turn out to be one of the most erudite, and at the same time one of the most spontaneous and inspired, ever to take on the challenge of writing well. O’Conner in her introduction describes The Reader Over Your Shoulder as nothing less than “the best book on writing ever published.” The present edition restores, for the first time in three-quarters of a century, the original, 1943, text, which in subsequent printings and editions had been shortened by over 150 pages, including much of the heart of the book.
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One of the English language’s greatest defenders, Robert Graves (1895–1985) was a preeminent English poet, novelist, memoirist, critic, translator, children’s book author, and scholar of classical mythology. He served and was injured as an infantry officer in France during World War I—an experience recounted in his 1929 autobiography, Goodbye to All That—and later became the first professor of English literature at the University of Cairo. Graves is best remembered today for his acclaimed historical novels, his books of mythology, and the present volume on English. His many acclaimed works include I, Claudius, Goodbye to All That, The White Goddess, Collected Poems, Milton’s Wife, They Hanged My Saintly Billy, and The Golden Fleece; with Alan Hodge: The Long Week-End and The Reader Over Your Shoulder; and for children: Ann at Highwood Hall, The Hebrew Myths, and The Siege and Fall of Troy.
Alan Hodge (1915–1979) was a historian and editor. In addition to The Reader Over Your Shoulder, he collaborated with Graves on The Long Week-End, a social history of Britain during the First and Second World War and, together with Graves and Norman Cameron, on Work in Hand, a poetry collection. Like Graves, Hodge was in Spain when the Spanish Civil War erupted, and in Warsaw when the Germans invaded Poland.
Patricia T. O'Conner, a former staff editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of five books on language, most recently Origins of the Specious, written with her husband, Stewart Kellerman. Her first book, Woe Is I, has half a million copies in print and will soon appear in a fourth edition. She and Mr. Kellerman blog about the English language at http://www.grammarphobia.com.
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