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Holiday Reading 2003 : Wordlovers
By David Pitt

You'd be surprised how many books there are for people (like me) who love words, languages, books, writing.

LibraryWe'll get started with a book about the place you go to find books: Library: An Unquiet History (Norton), by Matthew Battles. Did you know that the Library of Congress has 530 million miles of shelves? That Harvard University began as a library? That the British Museum opened in 1753? Battles, a rare books librarian, chronicles the history of libraries from the earliest collections of clay tablets right up to the present day. Considering its subject matter, this is a remarkably exciting and action-packed book. Who knew libraries could be so thrilling? And fascinating, to boot?

William Safire writes the 'On Language' column in the New York Times Magazine, and from time to time he publishes a collection of his columns, complete with letters from readers commenting on his linguistic prowess. No Uncertain Terms (Simon & Schuster) is the latest collection, and, as usual, it ranges from esoteric to mundane, from trivial to fundamental. Safire's scholarship is solid, his intuitive leaps impressive, and it's nice to see that he doesn't mind admitting when he's made a mistake. Fans of Safire's particular brand of wordsmithery will definitely want to add this book to their collection.

Safire talks about words and their meanings. In this expanded edition of her 1996 book Woe Is I (Riverhead), Patricia T. O'Conner tackles strings of words, otherwise known as sentences. Specifically, she discusses what is for most people the trickiest element of the English language, its grammar. Do you know when it's correct to say "that," and when you ought to use "which"? How about "it's" and "its"? What are the rules for pluralizing words, and how can you make sure you've got your tenses straight? This sounds like pretty basic stuff, and it is, but you'd be surprised how often we all get some of it wrong. An excellent, handy-dandy little guide to using our dear ol' language.

Language VisibleIn Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet From A to Z (Knopf Canada), David Sacks tackles each of the twenty-six letters, in order of appearance. He opens them up, sees what makes them tick. In many languages, the word for "mother" begins with M because "ma" is one of the first speech noises made by your average baby. The name of the letter H ("aitch") doesn't even have the sound of itself in it, which is just one of the reasons it's considered a fairly marginal letter (another is that it frequently fails to be pronounced in a word). E, on the other hand, is the single most commonly used letter, with a variety of pronunciations and a storied past (an Elizabethan grammarian with an affection for E is said to be the model for a character in a play by William Shakespeare). For all the linguists, word nuts, and language mavens on your list, it's an absolute must.

Mark Abley's Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages (Random House Canada) is, for your typical word lover, something of a downer. Listen to this, for example: there are about six thousand languages on the planet today, but only ten percent of them might make it through the next hundred years. English, to put it bluntly, is taking over the world. Abley takes us on a linguistic odyssey to introduce us to some of these dying languages before it's too late -- languages like the one in Australia that is, apparently, used by only two people. This isn't one of those books that rails against change; Abley acknowledges that language, like everything else, evolves. But just look, he's saying, look at the incredible diversity that's in danger of being wiped out. When a language dies, so do its cultural underpinnings: thoughts, ideas, beliefs. It's a scary thought, all those languages vanishing from the face of the earth, but it's something we probably ought to understand.

Of course, even as English is becoming the world's dominant language, it too is being destroyed. The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn (Knopf), by Diane Ravitch, describes, in painful detail, how special-interest groups are systematically robbing the language of its richness, its splendour, its cultural and ideological diversity. The problem can be simply stated: too many cooks are spoiling the broth. Interest groups are censoring textbooks, and dictating the content of tests, robbing students of the opportunity to learn about other cultures and other philosophies. Pressure groups dictate what words can be used, what ideas can be discussed. They wreak havoc on the language: you can't say "Founding Fathers" anymore, because that's sexist or something; you have to say "Founders," even though all of them were male. You can't use the phrase "primitive cultures" in a textbook, because (according to the pressure group-inspired textbook-writing guidelines) there are no primitive cultures, despite the fact that any idiot can see there clearly are. This is a deeply frightening book, a tale of political correctness and cultural sensitivity gone stark staring mad, and it should be read by anyone who cares about the language we speak.

OrwellOf course, it isn't a new thing to write about the butchering of the English language. Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, did it in 1946, in his classic essay "Politics and the English Language." The author of 1984, Animal Farm, and several classic pieces of reportage was deeply concerned about words, ideas, and the relationship between them (1984, in particular, has a number of things to say about the ease with which English can be perverted). Orwell: The Life (Henry Holt), by D.J. Taylor, is an excellent biography of this very important writer. The book concentrates more on his professional life than on his private life (it's called Orwell, after all, not Blair), and that's okay. Taylor does a sterling job of finding new things to say about this much-written-about fellow, and anyone who likes biographies of writers will love this one.

They'll also love Arthur Miller: His Life and Work (Da Capo), a biography of the playwright by Martin Gottfried. Based on interviews, correspondence, and unpublished material, the book traces Miller's personal and professional evolution from playwright to celebrity to icon gracefully, respectfully. Miller is responsible for some of the classics of the American theatre: The Crucible, for example, and Death of a Salesman. What kind of mind does it take to put words together in such a way as to create something as deeply satisfying as those plays? Read this excellent biography, and find out.

Biographies of William Shakespeare are a dime a dozen, but Shakespeare (Basic Books), by Michael Wood, is a little different. For starters it is, to use that venerable book reviewer's cliché, lavishly illustrated, with photographs, beautiful paintings and drawings, maps and suchlike. (See? This one really is lavishly illustrated.) It's also the companion piece to a television series, In Search of Shakespeare, produced for the BBC by Wood. This means the story is presented dramatically, with lively and enticing prose. ('But when did Shakespeare leave Stratford? How did he join the theatre, and when and how did he get to London?') Unlike some biogs of the bard, this one is about as far away from stodgy as you can get. It's lot of fun, not to mention educational.

Also a lot of fun is The Singular Mark Twain (Doubleday), by Fred Kaplan. Like Kaplan's other literary lives -- he's also written about Charles Dickens and Gore Vidal and Thomas Carlyle, the latter book snagging him a Pulitzer Prize nomination -- this one mixes biography and history in perfect proportions. Twain was brilliant, funny, serious, eccentric, and completely original, and this fine book is an excellent introduction to the man, his writing, and the time in which he lived.

HemingwayHemingway in Africa: The Last Safari (HarperCollins) is Christopher Ondaatje's exploration of an aspect of the American writer's life that's been, if not ignored, then put to one side a little too frequently. Hemingway, in case you didn't know, was quite passionate about Africa: the country, its people, its history. Although he wrote about Africa from time to time, and with great gusto, few biographers have paid much attention to this part of Hemingway's life. Here, Ondaatje presents Africa as Hemingway's obsession, a place the great novelist drew on for inspiration and passion. The book is a useful addition to the voluminous literature about Hemingway.

If you're like most people, you know L. Frank Baum's name because he's the guy who wrote The Wizard of Oz, which was actually called The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but you might not know that. In fact you might not know most of what's in L. Frank Baum: Creator of Oz (Da Capo), by Katharine M. Rogers. You might not know Baum's first name was Lyman. You might not know Baum was, before he became famous, an actor, a playwright, a newspaper editor, and a shopkeeper. You might not know he wrote a slew of sequels to the first Oz book, as well as lots of other stories for children, and stories for adults, too. You might not know he tried to become a theatrical impresario, but that idea didn't pan out, and he nearly went bankrupt -- several times. Oh, let's face it, there are piles of things we don't know about the guy who created Oz, and that's a shame. This book'll remedy that, though.

If the name Richard Lederer doesn't ring a bell, I have two words for you: Anguished English. If you're still bell-less, then that means you've never read one of the funniest books about the English language ever written. Lederer, a self-proclaimed verbivore (lovely word, that), has written a handful of books about our mother tongue; in his latest, A Man of My Words (St. Martin’s Press), he writes about dialects, faddish phrases, pronunciation, the writer's life, puns, and just a whole lot more. It's hugely entertaining, if you're into this sort of thing. I am, and I loved it.

Well of Lost PlotsIf you know someone who's into novels on the subject of writing, or books, then you simply must get them The Well of Lost Plots (Hodder & Stoughton), the latest Thursday Next mystery by Jasper Fforde. Well, to be fair, you should get them the first two Next novels, too, The Eyre Affair and Lost in a Good Book, because the series really ought to be read in order. I'm not even going to attempt to describe the plots of these books, because they just wouldn't make any sense at all (you have to experience them). Let's just say that, in Thursday's world, an alternate reality to our own, the border between the 'real world' and the 'book world' is, shall we say, indistinct, and, if you know how, you can actually pass into any book you like -- actually become a part of it, interact with its characters, influence its plot. It's all very odd, very funny, and very, very addictive. The next Next novel isn't due out until July 2004, and I'm already way too giddy with anticipation.

Love Me (Viking), by Garrison Keillor, is the story of a guy whose first novel is a big hit, so he leaves his wife, moves to the big city, takes a job at the New Yorker, and works away at his second novel -- which, immediately upon publication, positively blasts its way to the bottom. It's a disaster. After which our hero is set upon by the world's worst case of writer's block, and it looks like the end, until he gets offered a job writing an advice column for a newspaper, and it looks like salvation may be at hand. Keillor, who's best known for his stories about the fictional Lake Wobegon, writes a little more boisterously than he usually does, and it really works here.

Fahrenheit 451 (Simon & Schuster), Ray Bradbury's brilliant novel about a society in which books are banned (and burned), has been reissued in a fiftieth-anniversary hardcover edition. Has it really been half a century since Bradbury first floated the idea of a culture so dedicated to uniformity and ignorance that it considers books a controlled substance? It has, and do you know what? The story hasn't aged a day in all that time. If you've never read it, you really should, and this attractive hardcover makes an ideal gift, too.

Steven King is a novelist who lives in Maine. But don't get the star of Arthur Reid's The Storyteller (Doubleday) confused with that other King, the guy who writes all those bestsellers. Our Steven's not particularly successful, until he has a bit of good luck -- perverse luck, but good all the same -- and is catapulted into superstardom. But his dark secret threatens to ruin him. This is a good, solid thriller with a sympathetic, if slightly unethical, hero who finds himself trapped by his own good fortune.

Bite (Downtown Press), by C.J. Tosh, finds two friends, a magazine journalist and editor, combining forces to start their own magazine called, naturally, Bite. It's a fairly typical story, but told with abundant wit and an insider's eye for detail (Tosh is a pseudonym for a man and a woman; she's a magazine journalist and he's an editor), and it's got that 'hey, let's put on a show!' air of frantic confusion and overflowing adrenaline. I quite liked it.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series on for holiday gifts and holiday reading. Find more suggestions in our Holiday Columns.

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