Category Archives: New York

New Feature: “Dear Abbeville”

Not long ago, reader Julie Weathers suggested a new addition to the Manual of Style: a Q&A column called “Dear Abbeville.” Touched by her faith in the multifarious expertise we claim to have, we couldn’t let her down; besides, the pun on “Dear Abby” was too good to resist. As of today the column is an official feature, so we are soliciting questions from you, our readers, on the following topics:

  • Art (including painting, sculpture, architecture, and design)
  • Books and Literature (both old and new)
  • Publishing (the nuts and bolts of the business, the state of the industry, etc.)
  • Editing and Language (grammar, punctuation, diction, usage, spelling)
  • New York City (New York City)
  • Style (e.g., travel, luxury, wine—whatever this may mean to you)
  • The Universe

Please restrict questions to those that cannot be better answered via our FAQ page or a simple Web search. Blatantly self-serving questions (e.g., “In your opinion, how stylish is my personal website, www.monkeysuncle.org?”) will be summarily dismissed. Beyond that, anything is fair game, so fire away! All questions should be submitted to the email address given on our Contact page, or via the Comments form. Disclaimer: accurate, useful, or even serious answers are not guaranteed. Not all questions submitted will be answered. Not all questions answered will be published. That said, we will do our level best on all of these counts. Except for the “serious” part.

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Style Points: Public Editing

Ambling around the Upper West Side on New Year’s Day, two of our Arbiters of Style happened upon an unusual road sign. Unfortunately, we neglected to snap a photo, but perhaps some of our readers have seen it as well. Orange and mounted close to street level, it reads, “DRIVER’S IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. PROHIBITED.” It also contains, above the apostrophe in the first word, an indignantly scrawled graffito: “PLURAL NOT POSSESSIVE.”

Now, as editors in a city full of misspelled, mispunctuated, and otherwise misguided signs and advertisements, we certainly understand the impulse to draw one’s pen and unleash furious proofreading marks all over the offending words. But there’s a difference between impulse and action: once you actually whip out that pen, you’re walking a fine line between respect for the language and pedantic boobery. If you want to avoid crossing that line, you’d better at least make sure your “correction” is correct.

Needless to say, our vandal’s wasn’t. He or she assumed that the only valid reading of the abridged sentence was: “DRIVERS [WHO ARE] IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. [ARE] PROHIBITED.” In fact, an equally valid, if slightly more awkward, reading would be: “[A] DRIVER’S IDLING FOR MORE THAN 30 MIN. [IS] PROHIBITED.” Since the second reading conveys the intended meaning as well as the first, the apostrophe is entirely justifed—and smug, anonymous criticisms are not.

A sobering lesson in the dangers of vigilante editing—and perhaps, since we spotted the graffito near a stretch of popular bars (Jake’s Dilemma, etc.) on New Year’s Day, in the dangers of drunken editing as well. We’re guessing someone in his cups began fancying himself God’s chosen avenger against grammatical sins, only to discover in the cold light of morning that he was no more an editor than the gin-soaked sorority sister riding a mechanical bull is a cowgirl.

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Interview: Jen Dziura

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Jen Dziura is a comedian, writer, and co-host of the popular Williamsburg Adult Spelling Bee, among other New York City verbal, math, and trivia contests (including the Chelsea Vocabulary Tournament, in which Arbiter of Style Austin has participated on several occasions). She has lent her coruscating wit to projects as various as articles for McSweeney’s magazine, a blog called Jen Is Famous, a one-woman show about philosophy, and a stand-up comedy tour for U.S. troops in the Middle East. Occasionally malapert but never jejune, she weaves her love of language into all her material and even claims, in stronger vocabulary than we are permitted on this site, to have experienced a sensual frisson induced by grammatical perfection. Recently she agreed to answer a few questions about words, humor, and the hazards of travel in Djibouti.

AMoS: How did you get your start in comedy, and how did that lead to your gig with the Williamsburg Spelling Bee?

JD: As a teenager, I wrote a humor column for the local newspaper. This got me a good deal of hate mail from the religious right, even in my adolescent years—some people would actually send physical letters to me in care of my high school, and my homeroom teacher would drop them on my desk. I would open them during class and laugh hysterically at the suggestion that Jesus would be dismayed at my burgeoning portfolio of hilarity on topics such as Jell-O, the SAT, gym class, and the Pledge of Allegiance. I think that’s where it all began.

I started performing standup in New York about six years ago. Since then, I’ve done comedy on three continents and at colleges and clubs from Boise to Raleigh-Durham to LA. I produce Ivy League comedy shows for private clubs and recently hosted the “Geeks and Freaks” show for the Hysterical Festival, New York’s first all-women comedy festival. I once did a horrible show at a casino where every time I’d get to a punch line, some old lady would win on the slots or the bartender would make a daiquiri.

The spelling bee was founded by my co-host, bobbyblue, who was inspired by the movie “Spellbound” to create a local adult bee. I competed in the first one as a contestant, and the bar asked me to come back and co-host. We’ve since held well over a hundred spelling bees, and are in our ninth bi-annual season.

It’s due to the spelling bee that I know “chionablepsia” (snow blindness), “strephosymbolia” (transposition of letters or numbers while reading), and “amygdaline” (like an almond or tonsil).

AMoS: Along with spelling and vocabulary tournaments, you co-host a geography bee, a math bee, and a general trivia contest. Which of these subjects are you, personally, best at?

JD: Good question! I like to think I’m the Michael Phelps of vocabulary, spelling, and math. But shorter, and less likely to eat more than one chicken parm hero at a time. I don’t actually know anything about geography; my co-host Meg handles all of that. As for trivia—well, you know the word itself means “trifles, unimportant things.” I like to think I am a master of the non-negligible.

AMoS: What word do you most frequently misspell?

JD: However would I know?

AMoS: Please use the following three words in a sentence: “uberous,” “polyphagia,” “soffit.” No fair using dictionary.com (we’re on the honor system here). We’ll award up to three bonus points for style.

JD: Austin, I’ve never given you words that hard at the Vocab Tournament! No one would come to an event that daunting. I looked up “soffit.” Turns out I don’t know anything about architecture (soffit = the underside of a structural component, such as a beam, arch, staircase, or cornice). I do know, however, that the underside of a structural component is usually the most sensitive part.

[Note: “soffit” does indeed mean the underside of a beam, arch, etc.; “uberous” means “fruitful, abundant” and “polyphagia” means “excessive desire to eat” or “omnivorousness.” Sadly, we can’t award any points on definitions, but we are giving the full three style points to Ms. Dziura for her double entendre. It’s true that we picked perversely obscure words, although we’re pretty sure we once saw Philip Roth use “uberous” in an equally salacious context. But we digress. – Ed.]

AMoS: You once served as a televised expert on “how to be witty.” We try, God knows, but it is so difficult. Can you give us some quick tips?

JD: Write your witticisms ahead of time. Alphabetize them, and memorize them in that order. Nod during whatever your date says, and whenever he or she pauses, recite the next witticism on the list. Warning: this method could cause you to fail the Turing Test.

AMoS: Given that you host the Williamsburg Spelling Bee, keep a popular blog, and contribute to McSweeney’s, do you find that you’ve become a hipster icon? When you walk down Bedford Avenue, do you get mobbed by people in skinny jeans and ill-considered headgear?

JD: If only! I’m not a hipster; I am a professional nerd. Not to make everyone uncomfortable by talking about class in America, but if you grow up lower-middle-class, I can’t imagine why you’d want to shop in a thrift store when you don’t have to. I love new things. Specifically, the exact new thing the mannequin at a national retail establishment is wearing right now. I want that. And I want to look just like the mannequin—tall, smooth, hard, no nipples.

While I spend every Monday evening in Williamsburg, I actually live in Manhattan, half a block from Starbucks, where the baristas know that I want an iced trippio, and I want it expeditiously. I am totally in bed with The Man. I may be wearing a “Here’s Looking at Euclid” T-shirt, but I love capitalism like a fat kid loves cake.

AMoS: Tell us about your experience entertaining U.S. troops in the Middle East. Did your set go over well? Would you do it again?

JD: For three weeks, I toured U.S. military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Djibouti with three other comics, doing shows for crowds of usually several hundred soldiers at a time (many of them armed!). Before leaving, Armed Forces Entertainment informed me that I was not permitted to tell any jokes about sex or politics. All fine and good. As soon as I arrived on base, however, a commanding officer would say something like “You’ve got some sex jokes, right? ‘Cause that’s all these guys want to hear.”

It was 120 degrees in the Middle East in August. I’ve never felt anything like it. The troops liked to say it was like “putting your head in an oven and throwing a bag of sand in your face.” I could feel the premature aging. I moisturized like a madwoman.

Every mode of transportation involved in the tour was extremely uncomfortable and extremely awesome. We were flown out to the middle of the Persian Gulf in a tiny plane, landed on the top of an aircraft carrier, did a show in the hangar, were flown in a helicopter to another ship where we did a show in the mess hall, were flown back by helicopter, then took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier in another tiny plane, in which you get strapped in the way you are strapped in to a roller coaster, and then the plane is shot off the end of the aircraft carrier with superheated steam. We also rode in a Learjet from Kuwait to Qatar, and were strapped in to the back of a (bathroomless) cargo plane from Qatar to Djibouti.

In Djibouti, even on base, you brush your teeth with bottled water to try to avoid malaria.

I didn’t tell my grammar jokes. I told a lot of new jokes about sand.

AMoS: According to your website, you are famous. Apart from this interview, how do you plan to become more famous in the future?

JD: Damn, do you mean that this interview isn’t going to do the trick?

Alas, interviews with The Abbeville Manual of Style won’t make you famous among the masses—just envied among the cognoscenti. Uberous thanks to Jen Dziura for her time, and remember to check out the 2009 Williamsburg Spelling Bee (starting Feb. 2 at Pete’s Candy Store), New York City Spelling Bee (starting Jan. 31), and Chelsea Mind Games tournaments (starting Jan. 7 with Team Trivia at Chelsea Market). Click the links for full details on each. See you there!

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New Year, Fresh Links

2009

Happy 2009 to all! Now that the champagne has flattened and the headaches (including the headache that was last year) have begun to subside, we thought we’d pour a sparkling libation of links culled from our blissful hours of vacation reading:

We have some choice articles (and images) of our own planned for the coming months, starting with a very fun interview on Monday, so join us next week for the resumption of regular updates—and with it, the dawning of a new annus mirabilis of style.

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2008 Highlights

2008

2008: a year of sweeping political change, jarring economic upheaval, and amidst it all, the official launch of a plucky little weblog called The Abbeville Manual of Style. Most people won’t be sorry to see this year end, but for us it’ll always hold a touch of nostalgic appeal, so we thought we’d take a moment to look back at, and link back to, our favorite 2008 posts. As we noted recently, we couldn’t have picked a wilder year in which to start writing about art, publishing, and New York City, since all are currently undergoing volatile transformations. Perhaps, in hindsight, the Exploding Motorcycle Incident from this summer—which we’ve listed under “Miscellaneous” below—wasn’t so random after all; perhaps it was just a sign of the times.

Art

Travels in Italy, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Gustave Courbet: The Origin of Style

Culture Wars and Trophy Art

Whitney Museum Hijinx and Those Interstitial Spaces

Books/Publishing

The Great Debate: E-Readers

Literacy Declines; The Semicolon Trembles

Paul Simon, Author

Nobel Savages

Interviews

“Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty

Bob Duggan of Art Blog By Bob

Raymond Hammond, Editor of The New York Quarterly

Charles Pfahl, Artist

Miscellaneous

Abbeville vs. Chicago Battles

“Abbeville Gallery” Photography

Exploding Motorcycle!

The Universe

And that was the year that was.

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Art, Publishing, and Crisis

We picked an interesting year in which to start writing about publishing and art, since as even a casual observer knows by now, the clouds are darkening above both industries. From the daily death march of publishing headlines on Gawker and GalleyCat—layoffs! breakups! breakdowns!—to the recent New York article asking “Who Will Bail Out the Publishers?”, signs of crisis are everywhere, prompting tough, even existential questions about the future of books. Meanwhile, this month’s issue of Prospect magazine warns that the bottom is about to fall out of the contemporary art market in what they call a repeat of the 17th-century Holland tulip craze. Needless to say, both of these crises have potentially severe implications for another of this site’s main subjects: New York City, which is already reeling from its recent financial meltdown (the wellspring of all this trouble, naturally) and which now finds its cherished primacy as an art and literary mecca under threat. And how is the Universe doing these days?

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On the whole, not too bad, actually.

It’s time to take a step back—way back. (Abbeville occupies a small and specialized niche, so we don’t have the industry-wide perspective that GalleyCat and Gawker provide; and of course our relationship to the art industry is only tangential. As always on this site, we speak purely as book lovers, art lovers, and would-be opinionators.) The times are indeed grim, and our sympathy for those who are losing their jobs or struggling to sell their creative work—particularly during the holiday season—is heartfelt. Everybody is feeling the pinch and it’s no fun at all. At the same time, we resist hysterical prophecies of doom as instinctively as we do the kind of reckless optimism that inflates bubbles, causes industries to overexpand, and creates these messes in the first place. The cure for both syndromes, sententious as it may sound, is a renewed focus on things of permanent value.

In the case of the contemporary art market, the danger of a crash—which is very real—should have been obvious to anyone paying attention for the past several years. Reputations and prices were absurdly overinflated; financial shell games were played; quality was often disregarded altogether. It’s hard not to shrug and repeat the old saying about a fool and his money, but of course the problem isn’t just cunning auction houses or gullible collectors. Too many artists for too many years have been playing variations on Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista, or, if you like, on the pranks of the Dadaists (though these at least were original)—trafficking in grade-school ironies and an utter contempt for their audience…

Meanwhile, of course, there’s Art.

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It can’t be mass-produced, it isn’t fashionable, it’s hard to make a killing on because it’s mostly owned by big institutions already, but it does have a way of reducing contemporary, big-business art and all its troubles to a small, far-off noise. And it’s there to study for anyone who would rather try to discover—or create—its equivalent, and profit from it years from now if at all, than make a quick buck on trashy substitutes.

As for our own industry, we would modestly propose that publishers attempt a similar investment in lasting quality instead of chasing down the newest ghostwritten celebrity tome or the latest popular “literary” craze. Some have claimed that it’s necessary to sell loads of chaff in order to be able to carry the wheat at all, but this is an old and fallacious argument (not least because half the time, the chaff doesn’t sell either). In books as on the Internet, “content is king,” and the world will never lack for terrific content languishing in obscurity. Recognizing it is difficult; supporting it is risky; but making a concerted effort to do both offers publishers the best chance for survival in the end. As GalleyCat put it recently:

“Even though independent publishers are themselves not immune to the economic pressures, many are prepared to press on and carve out a unique space for themselves because they don’t want to live in a world where the books they love aren’t available for others to read. They may press on cautiously, and slowly, and they may not gain huge ground most years, but they will persevere, as will their equally passionate counterparts at the larger houses, because they must.”

Bravissimo. Compare to this Oscar Wilde’s lament that “in the old days books were written by authors and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” Over a century later, this comic exaggeration threatens to become literal as books compete for attention with innumerable other media outlets. Only a return to books and artworks that their creators and vendors love will ensure an audience that continues to love them, and buy them, as well.

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Abbeville Gallery: NYC

It’s been a while since our last Abbeville Gallery post, but we thought we’d grace this mellow Friday with a few mellow photographs of New York in November, courtesy of Arbiter of Style Lauren. The chess figures in the second image, formerly so jolly, look feebly huddled against the darkening weather, while the third image will resonate with anyone who has ever jammed their hands into their anorak pockets and stared broodingly down into a Central Park pond. But what will happen when the water freezes over? Where will all the ducks go?

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We can’t speak for the ducks, but we’ll be back next week with some Abbeville-style holiday gift recommendations, another skirmish with the Chicago Manual, and a review of “Stacks” and “Bracko,” the poetry/dance/”immersive sculpture” performance art piece that one of our Arbiters caught at NYU last night. (With a description like that, you can be sure it was either appalling or amazing.) Have a great weekend and happy Repeal Day!

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Wine and Song on Varick St.

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When we moved to our current offices about five years ago, the immediate neighborhood was pretty sedate: a kind of netherland sandwiched between SoHo and the Holland Tunnel. The traffic could be noisy, and the Halloween parade started around here each year, but otherwise things were uneventful. Then for a while, things got too interesting: Trump SoHo shot up across the street and protesters flocked to protest it and, for no apparent reason, a motorcycle exploded outside our building…but relative calm had returned until recently, when a different kind of excitement descended upon Varick Street. First a new venture called City Winery moved in next door; then a mysterious, eco-themed nightclub sprang up down the block; and now a major performing arts space is slated to open a few doors down from the nightclub in 2009. Maybe the exploding motorcycle was a kind of baptism by fire, because our little neighborhood has officially arrived. Abbeville has always been at the metaphorical epicenter of style, but we now find ourselves literally surrounded by it.

All three of our new neighbors intrigue us, but we are particularly looking forward to the opening of City Winery, which bills itself as a “custom crush facility” tailored to “urban wine enthusiasts who desire the experience of making their own wine, but who are not going to leave their comfortable Manhattan lifestyle to decamp to a vineyard.” Amen to that. Oenology has been a frequent subject of Abbeville books, from our German Wine Guide to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, and our philosophy is, why go to wine when wine can come to you? Not only will City Winery offer the opportunity to crush the grapes and bottle the vintage, it also promises a top-flight restaurant and wine bar, wine tastings and winemaking classes, an ongoing slate of music and performance events, and much more. It promises to be, in short, precisely the sort of place where Arbiters of Style might congregate after work to sip Cabernet and listen to jazz fusion while discussing the subtleties of Dürer’s Melencolia. And luckily for us, we don’t even have to decamp to the other side of the street.

City Winery officially opens on New Year’s Eve, so we will probably stop by sometime next month for a taste of Provençal summer during the New York winter. We will report faithfully back on our wining experience then (and will also, in future posts, report further on that new Greenhouse nightclub and the performance center), but already we expect great things. The winery is a bold concept that shows every indication—on its website, and through the windows we’ve peeked in—of being superbly executed. In fact, if the finished establishment is half as fun as the ad pictured above, we will be very happy neighbors.

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Halloween Style

This past Friday we at Abbeville took a break from editing, producing, and marketing our books in order to dress as them. Yes, it was time for our annual inter-office Abbeville Book Costume Contest, and the winner, as the photo above demonstrates, was Halloween itself. (Click here for last year’s photo.)

Up front are Briana as the star of our new children’s release Everett, the Incredibly Helpful Helper and Erin as The Green Bubble, our investor’s guide to the possibilities and pitfalls of the green energy revolution (nota bene: bubble wand!). In the back row, left to right, are Austin as A Year in Sports (looks like the year he chose was circa 1927), Megan as a tea drinker availing herself of our new Tea Drinker’s Handbook, and Louise and Michaelann as two proud Daughters of India.

After work we joined the cavalcade of madness in the West Village, where New York’s artsiest congregate each October 31 to display the fruits of their drunken creativity. There we found plenty of other costumes to judge and plenty of time in which to judge them, since neighborhood population density shot up to twenty-eight people per square foot and just crossing Christopher Street took fifteen minutes. Our two main observations this year? Far fewer Sarah Palins than everyone predicted (we spotted only one; it was such a popular choice that nobody chose it), and way too many variations on the “I’m a website!” theme (a Facebook page, Gchat window, etc.), an innovation that was welcome four or five years ago but must now be considered officially passé. Unless, of course, you choose to dress up as The Abbeville Manual of Style, in which case you will be the toast of any Halloween and any holiday, period.

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Abbeville vs. Chicago: Cartoons

 

Ordinarily our battles against the Chicago Manual of Style are waged on the killing fields of English grammar, usage, and style, but occasionally we like to hit our opponent from a completely unexpected direction. This week no less an eminence than “Grammar Girl,” a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty, host of the wildly popular podcast on all things grammatical, provided us with an opportunity to do just that. Inspired, as she told us, by our poking fun at the Chicago Manual and the reverence accorded it by copyeditors, Ms. Fogarty has drawn the following cartoon for her blog:

Sorry, we’ve forgotten: how many satirical cartoons about Abbeville—drawn by Grammar Girl herself—has Chicago inspired? Here, give us a second to crunch the numbers and ah yes ZERO. This is a heady moral victory for the Abbeville Manual and our more enlightened, more stylish creed, one that we have every intention of lording over our orange archnemesis far into the future. Meanwhile, we are sitting at our desks in full Halloween regalia, looking forward to the debaucherous phantasmagoria of tonight’s parade, which we will be joining as soon as it sweeps by our office door. See you there!

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