It meant sitting between Tarkovsky and Miller, and life offers few choices more dismal than that.

Now, one naturally assumes people who work in bookstores to have a natural love of learning and language, much the same as one expects this of librarians or professors. While there were numerous counterexamples littering the store (gum-popping Sherry or chain-clad Günther, for instance), Tarkovsky and Miller fit the assumption to a tee. Both were intelligent and articulate and made no secret of how delighted they were to inflict both on an unsuspecting world.

How, then, was the word ‘dismal’ to be associated with them?

Tarkovsky (not his real name, but nevertheless what everybody called him) was a pedantic formalist, delighting in the rules, structure, and grammar that suffuse written and spoken communications. He savored pointing out and bitterly mocking any perceived infractions, from split infinitives to dangling participles to unnecessary vowels (a passionate follower of Noah Webster, he disdained foreign spellings). Miller, for his part, was a linguistic freethinker, fascinated by finding convoluted and unusual ways to express himself. He verbed nouns, dangled participles, and engaged in Spoonerism as a parlor game. If a sentence couldn’t be twisted into an avant-garde puzzle for a listener to riddle out, he wasn’t interested in it.

So, needless to say, fierce battle would soon be joined.