Thursday, May 8

We didn't do the Kama Sutra, and now I'm left with Slips of Speech

The Kama Sutra, she suggested. Oh dear, thought I. Would I find it awkward, discussing, err, um, you know what, with a young woman just half my age. What would I know, anyway? I'm married. Have been for the past 46 years. To the same woman.

We exchanged a few more emails, and she chose again. Slips of Speech.

Perhaps I'd better explain. A few months ago, a friend, Suzanne Fleming, invited me to join a book discussion group linked to the ebook publisher Globusz. Suzanne owns GlobuszOz, the Australian arm of the international group.

After chatting with the other members, we decided to download and read different books from the Globusz catalogue and post our assessments separately to our book club blog, Writer's Cafe 101 (which you're welcome to read). To my mind, that gives each of us a reviewer's responsibilities – to discuss and evaluate the book without giving away the plot.

So far I've read two books from the Globusz catalogue. I've enjoyed, with reservations, Sand Against the Wind, an action romance set in Rome during World War II, and more wholeheartedly, The Isle of Enniskerry, in which a lottery winner buys a Scottish island long abandoned by its laird and crofters, and repopulates it with an interesting mix of characters.

A few weeks ago, Suzanne asked me to partner a new member. The idea was we'd go through a book, swap ideas and put up a post together. I'd also help the new member brush up her English – she'd spent the last twenty years living in a Mediterranean country.

Now in her mid-30s, she'd returned to New Zealand and enrolled in a university course.

We exchanged a few emails, and I could see the last thing my new partner needed was an old codger teaching her how to write proper – some 70-year-old retired hack saying split infinitives are something up with which we will not put.

In truth, this young woman (mid-30s is impossibly young to me!) had a splendid grasp of what counts in writing English – a vivid turn of phrase. I loved her description of a Greek funeral ("keening, renting of clothes, leaping into graves . . . "), and also her account of celebrating Anzac Day in New Zealand with the old veterans.

As I emailed to her, "Lively people write lively prose, boring people write boring prose, pompous people write pompous prose, etc."

Let's not be modest. I was the right person as a mentor. For most of my working life, I've been a sub-editor (copy editor, for Americans) on daily newspapers, a few times in Perth but mainly in Sydney.

One of the worst things a sub can do is take a lively story, and drain its colour by rewriting it into staid English (the worst is to take a story in which the facts are correct, and rewrite it with errors). I felt I could let my new friend's prose fly high, with only the occasional tweak from me.

Alas, she has just discovered how demanding university is for the mature-age student coming back after a long break. She's decided to drop out of our book group so she can concentrate on her uni work.

She's made the right decision, and I'm glad she has, but I hope we'll be able to swap some ideas again in holiday breaks.

But after briefly considering a manual of exotic sexual couplings, we had come back to Slips of Speech, another book one can download for free from Globusz. By John Hendricks Bechtel, it's "a helpful book for everyone who aspires to correct the everyday errors of speaking and writing."

Just the thing to help my new friend polish up her English. It is, however, a little naughty of the Globusz people not to disclose it was published in the US in 1895.

I had suggested a "he said, she said" dialogue as the way to post a lively discussion of Slips of Speech, based on an old guy mentoring a lively young writer. Alas that's not to be.

Now I have to go it alone. But all is not lost. I'm trying to find out more about John Hendricks Bechtel, and what he may have contributed to the vigour of English as it is used in the New World.

How would it compare with Dr Fowler's Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, but still a book one can enjoy by slipping into the mindset of an Oxford don of the period? Or with Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, dating back to 1918 but updated with a lively narrative.

I hope to post more thoughts soon to Writer's Cafe, so check back there in a few days.

Many of my friends cannot believe I'd enjoy reading books on my computer screen, but I do. I know this sounds like a plug, but I do find I can download a book from Globusz, then read it easily on my desktop. Globusz, and some other ebook publishers, now offer their books free. I haven't tested the others, but I expect they too would have worthwhile catalogues and often free downloads.

Obviously, one could also download to a laptop and read the book on the bus to work.

One day, many of us will use special ebook readers. They're expensive, but the price will come down. To see one that's now on offer, look at the iLiad:

Leading Australian book chain Dymocks is already pushing hard into retailing ebooks:

At the same time, Macmillan Australia has become the first conventional, mainstream Australian publisher to push into ebooks, with 400 offerings from its backlist already available for downloading. From next year, Macmillan plans to offer new books in simultaneous print and digital editions:

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