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Holinger: In love with American English

Published: Friday, June 15, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

OK, I confess. I’ve been cheating on my wife.

No, not with another woman; nothing so pedestrian – or far-fetched.

Rather, I’m having a love affair with American English – or AE. Sure, in graduate school I played around with British English – or BE – but she played the coy mistress, too formal and uptight.

I can’t get enough of AE. Every morning around 4, 4:30, we warm up to each other by reading short fiction, poetry or an essay, while a Melitta filter drips mostly decaf coffee into a white carafe. After getting reacquainted, we travel down rivers of ferrous sulfate winding over rectangular white deserts. She rows; I steer – every odyssey Homeric as the one before, no matter how brief.

I’m not the only writer who obsesses over her. Mystery writer John D. MacDonald insists only students who have been compulsive and omnivorous readers all their lives should take college creative writing classes.

Author and editor Sven Birkerts – after his life-changing encounter as a student working at Border’s, where he happened onto Julio Cortazar’s novel “Hopscotch” – argues: “Just as we mark big turnings in our outer life ... so we ought to mark these other shifts, the ones that happen as the tip of the finger is wetted and the page is turned.”

Then there’s recently deceased children’s author Maurice Sendak. Out driving around doing errands one day, I heard him on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” describing his delight when getting a passage in his new book “Bumble-ardy” exactly right: “When I thought of it, I was so happy I thought of it. It came to me, which is what the creative act is all about.”

Later, weeping, Sendak said, “I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. ... There are so many beautiful things in the world, which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

Oh, do you hear the simple elegance of his words, the rolling cadence of his phrases, the emphatic refrain of his convictions?

Listening, entranced, in Batavia’s Trader Joe’s parking lot, I heard a woman say, “That’s a great interview, isn’t it?” Obviously, she heard the interview previously and wanted to offer her commiseration with Sendak – and me – and everyone else thinking about their eventual mortality. Close to tears, I could only give her a thumbs-up and smile.

Not long ago, on Geneva Public Library’s new books shelf, I discovered critic and professor Stanley Fish’s torrid romance, “How to Write a Sentence.” A veritable joy of sentences, this explicit how-to manual instructs the reader in composing memorable prose passages by folding out literature’s most memorable sound and sense couplings, euphonious syntactical embraces Fish analyzes with his signature clever and witty style.

Thank goodness my wife, Tia, understands my passion. In fact, she recently began falling hard for a memoir she’s writing.

Who knows? Maybe we can double date sometime.

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