David Foster Wallace on Bryan Garner

Some of you (well, my mom) may know about my obsessions with David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner. Wallace is an essayist (A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster) and fiction writer (e.g., Infinite Jest); Garner is the author of the definitive and comprehensive Garner’s Modern American Usage. The two men are very different writers, but both of their work is so good that it often gives me shivers when I read it.
Thus, I looked much like a Warner Bros. cartoon character (head spinning, steam coming out of ears, eyes popping) when I found this article from Harper’s Magazine–an extensive essay by Wallace about Garner and his Modern American Usage. It goes far in explaining Garner’s particular genius, putting his MAU in the context of a greater tradition of writing on the English language, and showing why he is such a masterful rhetorician.
An excerpt:

It’s now possible to see that all the autobiographical stuff in ADMAU’s Preface does more than just humanize Mr. Bryan A. Garner. It also serves to detail the early and enduring passion that helps make someone a credible technocrat: we tend to like and trust experts whose expertise is born of a real love for their specialty instead of just a desire to be expert at something. In fact, it turns out that ADMAU’s Preface quietly and steadily invests Garner with every single qualification of modern technocratic Authority: passionate devotion, reason, and accountability (recall “in the interests of full disclosure, here are the ten critical points …”), experience (“that, after years of working on usage problems, I’ve settled on”), exhaustive and tech-savvy research (“For contemporary usage, the files of our greatest dictionary makers pale in comparison with the fulltext search capabilities now provided by NEXIS and WESTLAW”), an even and judicious temperament (see e.g. this from HYPERCORRECTION: “Sometimes people strive to abide by the strictest etiquette, but in the process behave inappropriately”), and the sort of humble integrity (for instance, including in one of the entries a past published usage-error of his own) that not only renders Garner likable but transmits the same kind of reverence for English that good jurists have for the law, both of which are bigger and more important than any one person.

What can I say? Reading the essay was (one of) this girl’s dreams come true.


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