I have decided, in my finite knowledge and wisdom, to turn fiction-non-fiction recommendations into a series. This is mostly because I realized that I have been reading some non fiction books which group nicely into categories and non-fiction is AMAZING and somewhat underappreciated, I feel, in my blogging community. So over the next few months there will be a couple of these posts, once I figure out all of the groupings. There’s going to be a post about genetics books, nature writing books, semi-funny memoirs, economics possibly…it’s a series in development (if you have suggestions, please let me know!)
Lingo is Gaston Dorren’s first book about the intricacies of language across Europe. Dorren writes a mini-cultural history of each language. It’s very funny and accessibly written. Strange the Dreamer is a big and expansive book supported by Laini Taylor’s intricate world building. Both these books are ambitious and cover a lot of ground. But they both pull off their story and their message magnificently, which is quite the accomplishment. Each section of Strange the Dreamer also opens with a word definition from another language which epitomizes the culture and story, an effort I’m sure Dorren would sympathise with as he pieces together the way that langue twines with history and culture.
Babel is a book about the languages of the world, ordered by the twenty most spoken languages. Each chapter explores one language in terms of a certain aspect—how it developed its grammar, the role of the writing system, its use as a lingua franca. It’s totally fascinating. Bel Canto is a novel about an opera singer, a lot of Spanish-speaking rebels, and various diplomats and officials trapped in a house together. They have sort of been held at ransom by the soldiers, but as the hostage situation drags on, borders start to blur. It’s an intensely psychological book and I wouldn’t say that I totally understood it.
To me, these two books really match, because, like the cast of Bel Canto, Babel is fervently international. I loved how much of the world it covered, and how the social and cultural history of languages and their distribution say a lot about history and power. One of the key aspects of Bel Canto is that Gen is the translator, and he is the only character who is able to talk to others. The way that language can be a bridge but is also a barrier bleeds into the characters emotional lives. Bebel is about the ramifications of language on many levels, and why language dictates so much of our lives.
Word by Word is an EXTREMELY fun book which is written by a sassy dictionary editor. Kory Stamper takes one key word for each chapter and talks about how its definition was written, extrapolating that word into the wider context which it represents—for example, the word ‘nude’ and how, as a colour, it solely denotes white skin tones. Dictionaries need to represent words: they are but one way to capture words in all their wildness and changeability. The Astonishing Colour of After is about the urge to capture a person, to hold them still in place when they are gone, when you are changing. It also is a narrative anchored in language, held in place by very particular words.
Of all these language books, Made in America is perhaps the lightest. It is written by Bill Bryson, a famously fun author—I have read a little of his other books and have always found them quite entertaining if somewhat overwrought. If you read Made in America, you’ll discover all sorts of salacious facts about the English language in America and it’s many lovers and enemies. Open Road Summer has a similar sort of vibe. It is profoundly a summer book, but it is also a book about realizing that you are becoming someone different than you used to be (just like English in the US) and learning to appreciate that identity for itself. It also has a similar attitude to America, willing to see the wideness and irrepressibility of the country, which pairs well with the adventures of the English language in Made in America.
have you read any of these books? do you think that books (like wine) should be paired with each other? and what other tmese would you suggest for this series?