'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' dashes into spotlight

Punctuation book exalts apostrophe, and all that which gives us pause

Publishing

January 11, 2004|By Sarah Lyall | Sarah Lyall,New York Times News Service

LONDON -- Lynne Truss was on her way to deliver a lecture at the British Library recently when she was reminded yet again that a tremendous gap exists between her natural obsessions and those of other people.

"Punctuation," Truss replied, when her taxi driver asked what she planned to talk about. But the word didn't compute; he heard something less weird in his head. "Ooh, in that case," he replied, "I better get you there on time!"

So it has been a shock to the rarefied system of Truss, 48, that her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, has become a surprise No. 1 best-seller here. Among the legions of the surprised are the executives at her publishing house, Profile Books, who ordered a modest initial printing of 15,000 books, but now have 510,000 in print; and Truss' friends and family.

"When I was writing it, everybody thought it was commercial suicide to spend any time at all -- even just four or five months -- on it because obviously it wouldn't sell," Truss said in an interview.

There are many possible reasons for the tremendous success of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a spritely volume that leads the reader through the valley of the shadow of comma splice; refers to the apostrophe as "our long-suffering little friend"; makes a rousing case for the semicolon's usefulness in, among other things, "calling a bunch of brawling commas to attention"; and describes Woodrow Wilson's inexplicable visceral hatred of the hyphen, which he called -- spectacularly undermining his own argument -- "the most un-American thing in the world."

It could be that the book is this year's perfect novelty gift for the chronically hard-to-amuse. It could be that bookstore browsers have been drawn in by the book's cheerful yellow cover, with its droll illustration of a panda earnestly painting over the comma in the title, a visual reference to a panda-based joke about punctuation mishaps.

Or maybe Truss has indeed touched a nerve of latent pedantry in a world in which, as she writes, increasing numbers of people "don't know their apostrophe from their elbow."

"It's as though one's pointed out that the sky's turned a different color and everyone thinks, 'Yes, I've noticed that,' " Truss said, seeking to explain the book's success. "It's triggered a lot of people's imaginations, really. I hope they're not going to go around interfering with other people's punctuation in a horrible way. But they've become aware that punctuation is quite a good system for making yourself clear and that it's been completely neglected by so many people."

Eats, Shoots & Leaves has been sold with great fanfare to the United States, where it will be published by Gotham Books in April. Suddenly, people who once treated Truss like a nitpicking fussbudget are taking her seriously.

Truss has always been a whisperer, not a shouter. Much as she is aggrieved to the point of physical distress when she sees a sign advertising "carrot's" for sale, she is not one to cause a scene. "I think most of the people who care about these things are not confrontational people," she said.

But she has had her moments. Writing an article about apostrophe abuse for The Daily Telegraph last spring, for instance, Truss held aloft a 6-inch apostrophe on a stick in Leicester Square, strategically placing it so that the offensively titled Hugh Grant film "Two Weeks Notice" became, for a short, giddy interval, "Two Weeks' Notice." But what was most striking was how few people took her point.

"Most everyone walking past sort of shrugged and gave the usual 'get a life' kind of response, which I find so tedious," Truss said. "It's very belittling. It's obvious that one doesn't only care about apostrophes."

Truss has published three comic novels, all of which have sold, Truss says, "nothing." She has also written a number of plays, some of them set in ancient Rome, for Radio 4, the BBC radio's highbrow arts channel. Eats, Shoots & Leavescame out of a series Truss did on punctuation for Radio 4 some months ago.

The book is dedicated to "the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St. Petersburg," who, Truss writes, "in 1905 demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution." As for its title, it comes from a joke that begins, "A panda walks into a cafe..."

The panda orders a sandwich, eats it and then fires a gun into the air. On his way out, he tosses a badly punctuated wildlife manual at the confused bartender and directs him to the entry marked "Panda."

Whereupon the bartender reads: "Panda. Large black-and-white bearlike mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

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