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December 10th, 2008

Word books of the year

by Barbara Wallraff

Need a gift for a book-lover? Here are some possibilities I like, all new this year.

Each of these first four is fun to browse. “Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof: Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory,” by Roy Blount Jr. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25). As I know well from having edited articles of his for The Atlantic Monthly, Roy Blount is a funny, funny man and also a fine craftsman of language. Both talents are on display in his lively new book -- heck, even in its subtitle.

“As They Say in Zanzibar: Proverbial Wisdom From Around the World,” by David Crystal (Oxford, $35). This collection of proverbs is a banquet for thought. Not only are the sayings themselves intriguing, but it’s fun to ponder the cultural differences that underlie them. For instance, consider these three proverbs about books: “A book holds a house of gold,” from China; “There is no worse robber than a bad book,” from Italy; and “It is not healthy to swallow books without chewing,” from Germany.

“I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like: A Comprehensive Compilation of History’s Greatest Analogies, Metaphors, and Similes,” by Mardy Grothe (Collins, $14.95). Another banquet for thought, this one consisting of figures of speech from hundreds of writers. For instance, from the chapter on “the literary life”: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,” Ernest Hemingway. And "Fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water,” Mark Twain.

“Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages,” by Ammon Shea (Perigee, $21.95). Entertaining and often thought-provoking autobiographical essays are interspersed with discoveries Shea made in the course of reading the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. For instance, “Accismus (n.) An insincere refusal of a thing that is desired” and “Well-woulder (n.) A conditional well-wisher.”

Biography. “The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus,” by Joshua Kendall (Putman, $25.95). The thesaurus was essentially Peter Mark Roget’s retirement project. Before he got around to publishing it, in 1852, he developed a new laboratory test for arsenic poisoning; invented the log-log scale, “the centerpiece of the modern slide rule”; made a discovery about human sight that laid the theoretical groundwork for movies; and published a 250,000-word treatise on animal and vegetable physiology. This biography might be just the thing for someone who’s a little bit geeky and who also enjoys biographies and words.

Word history. “The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English,” by Henry Hitchings (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27). This prize-winning volume explores the diversity of sources and the cultural preoccupations that gave rise to English as we know it today.

Reference. “Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, Second Edition” (Oxford, $40). OK, this fat tome costs more than little books that promise to help readers improve their vocabulary. And why someone might need a printed thesaurus may not be immediately obvious, now that nearly all of us who write on computers have electronic thesauri at hand. Well, the “Writer’s Thesaurus” has a lot more to offer, including notes by well-known authors, “toolkits” that differentiate between close synonyms, and “word spectrums” that “show shades of meaning between two polar opposites, such as ‘success’ and ‘failure.’” Writers and other word-lovers will have a field day.

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

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