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'A nice little book'

19 January 2004

Seemingly defying gravity and the usual ebb and flow of the bestseller list, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves has maintained its hold on the number one slot in the UK bestseller lists in spite of strong challenges from more traditional bestseller list habituees such as John Grisham. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the book’s reach has gone way beyond the unexpectedly enormous audience of punctuation enthusiasts. Its wit and bestsellerdom has now made it that wonderful thing, a cult seller which everyone is talking about - and everyone therefore has to read.

It really couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. Truss, well-known in publishing and journalistic circles and the author of various novels and radio plays, seemed to have come to the end of the road as a writer. She didn’t know where to turn financially and was thinking that she might have to sell her house. Her former publisher, head of the small British independent Profile Books, heard her talking on the radio about punctuation. When he met her at a party he suggested, perhaps with the Christmas market in mind, that the subject might make ‘a nice little book’.

As the numbers in print soared past half a million before Christmas and many bookshops ran out of stock, the Cinderella aspect of the story has struck a chord with many readers and writers. But the interesting question will be whether the book, which seems so quintessentially English, will have the same success in the US. And how will it work in translation? Does punctuation translate? It looks like it might well do, although many of the international sales will be in English. It’s comforting though in these illiterate days to know that a witty but manic book about correct punctuation can attract such a huge audience.