Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Book Review: "Spellbound"

Histories of writing/spelling/dictionaries &c. are a particular interest of mine, so I was delighted to see James Essinger's Spellbound: The Surprising Origins and Astonishing Secrets of English Spelling (Delta, 2007) come across the transom. Essinger's enthusiasm for spelling and its idiosyncracies is abundantly evident from the get-go, and this book is a reasonably interesting general introduction to the history of English and some of the language's oddities. However, Essinger's desire to target this book at a 'general audience' got in its way, I think - his enthusiasm has a tendency to run toward the goofy (it's very hard to take seriously someone who uses a quote from "Gladiator" as an epigram, and who repeatedly refers to the "magic" of spelling as if it were somehow conjured up by some benevolent - or malevolent, depending on your inclinations - wizard somewhere).

Essinger's account of the development of English as a language - both spoken and written - is basic but fairly informative. He throws in some "fun facts" about why certain words are spelled as they are, as well as some trivia about a few of the best-known English dictionaries. I was struck, though, but how many of his 'conclusions' were preceded by "my guess is" or one of its equivalents ... again, not exactly the sort of thing to inspire confidence.

Readable and breezy this book may be - but it's difficult to take it with more than a grain of salt. References would have helped, as would a more complete bibliography. Sometimes more than an author's affinity for a subject is required to make a good book.