16 January 2007

I Like to Read (and I Would Like to be the Heather Havrilevsky of Books When I Grow Up)

Yesterday afternoon, somewhere under Harlem, I finished my history of the alphabet book. Although I'm starting to realize that maybe nothing will ever surpass the nonfiction bliss of A History of the World in Six Glasses (which, nonfiction or not, is one of the best, most interesting and enjoyable books I've ever read), Letter Perfect was a rather good read. The subject matter - the history of our alphabet - was interesting and engaging. Ever wonder why we have C, K, and Q? Because the Etruscans (whose alphabet we inherited via the Romans, and which they had gotten, via the Phoenicians, from some Semitic journeymen in Egypt) had three variations of the "k" sound, and gave them each a letter, and the Romans were too lazy or otherwise disinclined to consolidate. Why don't we have a letter for "th"? Because the French didn't, and when the Normans invaded England, they discouraged (probably pretty firmly) use of the indigenous letter for the sound, called thorn, which looked sort of like a p.

That was a lot of dorking out all at once there. (Don't get me started on the histories of beer and coffee. Or the Turk. God I love the Turk.) And if that dorking out turned you off, this probably isn't the book for you. But if you're excited to learn this crap, Letter Perfect is the place. Sadly, David Sacks isn't as fluent a writer as, say, Tom Standage or Steven Johnson. It might be the book's origin as 26 newspaper columns - the introduction is more interesting and reads cleaner than most of the letter-specific chapters - but that's not an excuse or cause except for where I'm looking for one. The content is great, and it's well-researched and well-presented, but it's almost too accessible, too casual. I don't like stodgy or stiff, but this felt a little too dumbed down. Which isn't to say I wouldn't recommend it. It's not a bad book, even just looking at the writing. It's just not amazing. (Although the alphabet, apparently, is.)

And now that I've learned everything I ever wanted to know about the alphabet (except, I realized as I was signing my name to some rejection letters, the history of wacked out script letters like G), I need something new to read. Considerations: I just got (stole) from my mother a beautiful, huge bag that can hold several small children or one very large novel; my upcoming flights to and from Chicago. I'm in the mood for Black Swan Green, or some lighter A.S. Byatt. Middlesex comes to mind, but maybe just because Kate's reading it, and I'm remembering how great it is. James has Emperor's Children, but for some reason, knowing almost nothing about it other than it's some kids who went to Brown, I'm wary. (I think I'm still suffering from Special Topics in Calamity Physics ambivalence - I'm not sure how I think the two connect, but they seem to. Or maybe I'm worried about taking personally the unfavorable portrayal of people who went to my school and otherwise are nothing like me.) Maybe it's time to take another crack and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? And, if so, can I really lug around James' hardcover, even with the new superbag, or should I buy my own copy in paperback, just so's to avoid scoliosis?

Any suggestions? Definitely fiction, possibly British, literary and maybe dense, but not a downer. (Also, if anyone knows a good book about the Great Vowel Shift, lemme know?)

[Every book or author linked to above gets, in varying degrees of enthusiasm, a recommendation from me that you read them. Them, and Super Flat Times.]


parabasis said...

Okay, here we go:
-First, if you haven't read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, you should give it a shot before Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
- Have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? I'm not sure they let you graduate from elite private liberal arts colleges without some friend or hook up demanding you read it so you can understand them better.
- In the British category, Julian Barnes' History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Jeanette Winterson's The Passion, I'd recommend Graham Swift's Waterland which is exactly what you want, but it is a downer.
-- I would also recommend (on the American tip) Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude if you haven't yet read it. It really is worth it.
-- Finally, my out-of-left-field recommendation is Oakley Hall's Warlock, a beautiful, dense literate dickensian western recently reissued by NY Review of Books. Best book I've read in a long time.

malachy walsh said...

I second the Julian Barnes' reco. Fantastic book (all Isaac's suggestions look great).

If you're from Chicago (am I interpreting your flight schedule right?) and love books and reading, you might try THE SEVEN STAIRS by Stuart Brent. It's the story of his bookstore that he started on Rush Street in the late 40's and then moved to Michigan Avenue (680 Michigan Ave - now the Starbucks next to the popcorn shop) where it stayed for nearly 50 years. He writes passionately and includes a list of "The 100 Greatest Book" that you must read complete with sub-categories like "Books to read in the bath."