Time for another roundup of the review books that have been accumulating:
1) Ben Yagoda’s How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them is a writing guide that gets off on the right foot by taking as its goal not “writing well”—as he says, for most of his students “that goal is simply too ambitious,” and that’s probably true of most people—but simply avoiding the most common problems. I also like his “one-word version” of the answer to “how to not write bad” (don’t worry, he’s using the adjective-for-adverb ironically): read. He applies this in two senses: you should read as much as you can all your life, so as to absorb the style of all kinds of English prose, and (for a more short-term solution) you should read what you write out loud. He has the usual undue reverence for Strunknwhite and is not infallible (in this Lingua Franca mea culpa he is charmingly forthright about having given bad advice on p. 85, where he recommends the past tense “swang”), but it looks on the whole like a good thing to give a college student. Just don’t accompany it with Strunknwhite.
2) Benjamin A. Bergen’s Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning is, George Lakoff says in his foreword, “the first book to survey the compelling range of ingenious experimental evidence that shows definitively that the body characterizes the concepts used by what we call the mind”—or, as the author himself puts it, “in understanding language, we use our perceptual and motor systems to run embodied simulations.” It took a long time for the western world to get over its idea that the mind is some kind of abstract entity that just hangs its abstract hat in the body while thinking its abstract, rational, disembodied thoughts; now all sorts of fascinating things are being discovered about how we actually work, how we use and misuse the input of our senses and how memory is really imaginative reconstruction, and it’s good to have someone apply this approach to how we use language. I got nervous on page 188 when he quoted Whorf’s notorious passage beginning “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language,” but he goes on to mention the same kinds of effects discussed by Guy Deutscher in Part II of the book I reviewed here. And I like what he has to say about learning a second language well: “the farther the learner walks down into the garden of a second language, the more the world itself appears to take on different forms, not because its pieces are called by different names, but because the same tableau is seen to be composed of a different set of pieces… Part of what makes learning a second language so difficult is precisely this: the commitment one made early on in life to a particular cutting up of the world at its joints is hard to see as merely one possible commitment among many, and just as it is hard to see, it is hard to let go of.”
3) Marjorie Garber’s Loaded Words is a collection of essays unified by Garber’s sense that “writing today… should be fully loaded—highly charged, explosive, weighty, intoxicating, fruitful, o’erbrimming.” Garber is a literary and cultural critic who shows up frequently in episodes of the BBC’s excellent Shakespeare Uncovered series; if you like essays that bounce cheerfully between Foucault and Mad magazine, you may well like this book.
4) The New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary: does what it says on the tin. It’s got “rhymes for over 45,000 words, including proper names, place names, and foreign terms used in English,” and it’s arranged by sound rather than spelling (there is of course a complete alphabetical index).