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December 7th, 2005

Holiday books

by Barbara Wallraff

Is it old-fashioned of me to think that books make good holiday gifts? Oh, well. In case you think so too, I’d like to tell you about a few recent books that caught my eye, all of which celebrate the power of words.

Talk about old-fashioned: For almost half a century, word lovers have been giving one another “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Now there’s a reason to give this classic to people who already have a copy as well as to others who’ve never heard of it: snappy full-color illustrations by Maira Kalman that appear in a new hardcover edition (Penguin, $24.95). The illustrations provide food for thought. For instance, a picture of six regular-size people, a dog and a tiny woman in a room together is captioned “None of us is perfect.” What’s that about? See the text on the facing page: “With ‘none,’ use the singular verb when the word means ‘no one’ or ‘not one.’”

“Oxymoronica,” by Dr. Mardy Grothe (Collins, $14.95), was published in 2004 -- but never mind, it’s timeless. Oxymorons are expressions that combine opposite or contradictory ideas -- like “jumbo shrimp.” “Oxymoronica” presents seemingly self-contradictory assertions that are wiser than they may seem -- for instance, “We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified” (Aesop), “The further one pursues knowledge, the less one knows” (Lao-Tzu) and “If Lincoln were alive today, he’d roll over in his grave” (Gerald Ford).

Grothe has a new book out too: “Viva la Repartee” (Collins, $14.95). To enjoy this one, readers will need a slightly longer attention span, because many of the comebacks quoted are puzzling without the accompanying anecdote. For instance, what’s funny about “I prefer fast food”? It’s the answer that San Francisco Giants coach Rocky Bridges gave in 1985 when someone asked him why he refused to eat snails.

Aphorisms, or pithy sayings, of all kinds are the subject of “The World in a Phrase,” by James Geary (Bloomsbury, $19.95). Geary, the Europe editor for Time magazine, has been collecting aphorisms since he was a teenager. W.H. Auden’s saying “Knowledge may have its purposes, but guessing is always more fun than knowing” even helped him meet the woman who would become his wife. “The World in a Phrase” recounts the history of aphorisms from ancient times (“Doubt not. You gather friends around you as a hair clasp gathers the hair” -- the I Ching) into the late 20th century (“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible” -- the Polish dissident Stanislaw Jerzy Lec).

I didn’t see any brand-new basic language-reference books this year that made me feel like replacing the ones I already have. If you know someone who wants a new dictionary, I’d suggest giving a version of the American Heritage Dictionary, even though ita few years old. A top-of-the-line present for a frequent computer user would be the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition: Print and CD-ROM Edition ($75 list price, but heavily discounted online).
A present that would be useful to high-school or college students is the American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition with CD-ROM ($26.95). CD-ROM dictionaries, which can be installed on a computer hard drive, aren’t old-fashioned, I admit. Oh, well.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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