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· Blue End Note: Louis Menand Sings "Chicago Blues" ·

I saw the PBS documentaries on The Blues last week. Seven independently-directed films produced by Martin Scorsese, they had me tapping my toes and singing "Sweet Home, Chicago" like a blues brother. I especially liked Clint Eastwood's series-ending "Piano Blues" — capped off by Ray Charles doing "America the Beautiful" with an orchestra. There's nothing like Ray's going low-down and high-flown at once.

But my take is not on Charles but on Louis Menand, who last week — in The End Note, The Nightmare of Citation — reviewed The Chicago Manual of Style (15th Edition) in The New Yorker. He did it with real feeling, striking a blue note. Here is Menand's lead:

It is 2:30 a.m. of a Monday, spring semester . . . Things are looking extremely good. Forty-eight hours of high-intensity stack work and some inspired typing have produced the thirty-page final paper for Modern European History . . . you are satisfied that you have turned out, in two days, the intellectual and moral equivalent of three months’ steady application . . . Only the notes and the bibliography remain. . . . Two-thirty is by no means an unreasonable hour of the night. You anticipate a decent five or six hours of sleep before class time. And you are, of course, so wrong. You are not nearing the finish line at all. There is a signpost up ahead: you are about to enter The End Matter.

Foreshortened, you can almost hear old Muddy Waters wailing, strumming, and beating out the 12-bar blues:

Baby, you've found us the right source

Do, Da Da Da, Duh

Baby, you've found us the right source

Do, Da Da Da, Duh

But, Baby, you gotta cite us that source!

Do, Da Da Da . . . Duh?

You are in "Muddy Waters" indeed. As Menand has it you're in fact sailing into trouble. Included are such odd arcana as whose citation form is it? (MLA, APA, or Chicago's?); what do you do with those punctuations and abbreviations? (,:;.[]* loc cit, ibid, et al.?); where do publishers today really do their thing? (New York, Chicago, London, Cambridge, Toronto, Sydney, Delhi, or Cambridge, MA?), and why can evil Redmond (I know it well) make your life so miserable today? ("First of all, it is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program.").

Though I can't begin to carry Louis ("The Delta Dart") Menand's bluesy tune, I can at least essentialize its point. It smiles in his last paragraph:

The "Manual" is not too long. It is not long enough. It will never be long enough. The perfect manual of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly coterminous with its subject, containing a rule for every word of every sentence. We would need an extra universe to accommodate it. It would be worth it.*

*What Robert Nozick once said of philosophy could now be said of all academic subjects: They're

beset by the temptation to say everything explicitly. Robert Nozick, 'What is Wisdom and Why Do Philosophers Love it So?' The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations, New York: Simon and Shuster (Torchstone), 1989, 268.

And what J. David Bolter noted of their latest media equally applies:

The network can never be fully explicit. J. David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, Hillsdale, N.J.: Earlbaum, 1991, 113.

Between the temptation and the reality we have, of course, "Chicago Blues."*

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Posted by Styles on October 7, 2003 04:21 PM


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