Christmas Gifts for Readers

Over the last month I’ve been looking out for books which would make good Christmas gifts for readers. I’m covering one more item today and also listing the other four below this article.  Today’s choice is a subscription to Slightly Foxed, a quarterly journal which calls itself “The Read Reader’s Quarterly”.

I have periods of subscribing to Slightly Foxed and at other times I catch up with back-numbers on ebay.  Either way its a journal which reminds me what reading is all about.  It’s not about the rush to read the latest new release or to spot something you must have in a in book-shop, so much as a slow meander through shelves old and new, remembering gems from the past and passing on your enthusiasm to others.

Each edition contains a number of articles by book enthusiasts in which they write about a book or an author who has inspired them.  The articles are illustrated with drawings and wood-cuts and are printed on a beautiful creamy paper.  The journal is meant to be kept – this is not a magazine which you will want to pass on to someone else because with the addition of the annual index it builds up into a wonderful resource on writers old and new.

The range of books covered is as wide as the avid reader would want.  One article could cover Terry Pratchett or Lee Child, the next could go back to the delights of Laurence Sterne or John Cowper Powys.  Whatever period the books come from, you can guarantee that the writer of the article will make you want to dip into the chosen volume and my experience is that of finding many beautiful books which I would otherwise never have encountered.

Of course, this would be no use if the books mentioned in Slightly Foxed were unavailable, and indeed, many of them will be out of print – but I usually find that they can be found so easily and often cheaply online on ebay or abebooks etc.  I now have quite a few books on my shelves which I discovered by reading about them in Slightly Foxed and I am grateful to the publishers that my reading has been enriched in this way.  One article by Jonny le Falbe on Gregor Rezzori led me to aquire all this mid-20th century writer’s books and I have written a set of articles about his work on A Common Reader.  Another unlikely find was Elizabeth Von Armin, a Countess and also a friend of H G Wells who I have yet to write about but will do so next year – most of whose books can be downloaded for free in ebook format on Project Gutenburg.

The other items on my Christmas recommendations list can be seen below: Continue reading

Review: The Horologicon – Mark Forsyth

Christmas Gifts for Readers No. 4

I’m writing a set of five articles covering items which would in my view make great presents for people who love books and reading.  I have no financial or commercial interest in any of these products and I’m only writing about them because I think most readers would be pleased to receive them as a gift.

It was about a year ago that I reviewed Mark Forsyth’s book, The Etymologicon, which gave me a great deal of entertainment last Christmas as I followed him on an etymological word trail discovering how one word links to another.

This year, Mark has followed up his success by publishing The Horologicon in which he takes a different approach by producing a “Book of Hours” in which obscure words are grouped according to different hours of the day.  The Horologicon makes no pretence at being a dictionary, for these words have generally been lost from everyday speech and can only be found in some very strange and obscure places (in which Mark seems to spend quite a lot of his time!).  Its a witty and entertaining book which would be appreciated by anyone who likes to receive a book for Christmas.

Unlike other people who write about words, (such as the etymologist David Crystal), Mark professes to have no academic qualifications in this area but nevertheless, his sheer enjoyment of words and deep study of them shines through every page of this attractively produced book. Continue reading

Review: Idiomantics – Philip Gooden and Peter Lewis

IdiomanticsI occasionally review books about language and the origin of words and was drawn to Idiomantics which has the subtitle, “The Weird World of Popular Phrases”.  With a recommendation from Gyles Brandreth (host of the BBC radio show Wordaholics) I decided to read the book to see how it compared to the rest of my collection of “word” books.

The book is similar in format to The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, which I featured late last year, and the book is equally entertaining.  The phrases are arranged into 13 chapters with titles such as Corridors of Power, The Daily Grind and National Identity. Each phrase is covered by up to two or three pages describing the origin and use of the phrase phrase and the results are often surprising. A useful index is provided at the end and I found that quite most of the common phrases I could think of were covered in it.

I’ll just give one example to show the sort of thing covered.  Let’s take for example, Tall Poppy Syndrome.  We read that,

the roots of this phrase go back thousands of years to the legend of Tarquin, King of Rome, who when asked what should be done with the occupants of a neighbouring and hostile city, replied now with words by by going out to his garden and striking the heads off the tallest poppies.  His silent message was that the most prominent citizens of that city should be disposed of.

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Review: The Etymologicon – Mark Forsyth

EtymologiconLike many people I am mildly interested in where words come from and I’ve occasionally read and reviewed books like David Crystal’s By Hook or By Crook which looks at where English place-names come from. Unless books like these are skilfully written they can quickly become tedious and its usually best to get this sort of information in small chunks – for example, Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words is a great online resource for occasional browsing.

Mark Forsyth publishes the Inky Fool blog in which he looks at the derivation of words, but links one to another in a humorous ramble through the English language. Mark is one of those lucky bloggers whose blog has now become a book, The Etymologicon,  and I have to say, it makes for a very good read which I’ve been dipping into over the last week.

Its probably better to illustrate Mark’s methods with an example than to describe them so here’s an article headed A Game of Chicken:

Gambling in medieval France was a simple business. All you needed were some friends, a pot, and a chicken. In fact, you didn’t need friends – you could do this with your enemies – but the pot and the chicken were essential.


First, each person puts an equal amount of money in the pot. Nobody should on any account make a joke about a poultry sum. Shoo the chicken away to a reasonable distance. What’s a reasonable distance? About a stone’s throw.

Next, pick up a stone. Now, you all take turns hurling stones at that poor bird, which will squawk and flap and run about. The first person to hit the chicken wins all the money in the pot. You then agree never to mention any of this to an animal rights campaigner.

That’s how the French played a game of chicken. The French, though, being French, called it a game of poule, which is French for chicken. And the chap who had won all the money had therefore won the jeu de poule.

The term got transferred to other things. At card games, the pot of money in the middle of the table came to be known as the poule. English gamblers picked the term up and brought it back with them in the seventeenth century. They changed the spelling to pool, but they still had a pool of money in the middle  of the table.

We read on to learn the forward connections to the game of pool and then to pooling money, and resources and then onto typing pools and car pools and ends with pointing gout that we have all become part of the gene pool “which, etymologically, means that we are all little bits of chicken”.

I was surprised how in order to get his connections Mark has to link words from all the European languages.  I’d heard before that most of our languages spring from a root called Proto Indo European but it never struck me how much of the English language is derived from this source.

This is a nicely produced book which would be a perfect Christmas gift for anyone who might be interested in where our words come from.

Incidentally, Mark is appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends programme tomorrow (Saturday 3 December 2011)

Review: The Possessed – Elif Batuman

The e PossessedElif Batuman’s book of essays, The Possessed, loosely based on the joys of reading classic Russian literature, turns out to be a bit of a hodge-podge of travel-writing, literary criticism and a personal reading history, enlivened by a butterfly mind that flutters from one subject to another without really landing for too long on any particular theme.

This gives the book a distinct lack of unity – sure, some of it is clever, but at other times, this reader at least thought, yes, but this isn’t really why I came here.  The book is subtitled “Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them”, and in a loose way, I suppose that’s fair enough, but I expected more unity of purpose, with more material written specifically for this book rather than a a collection of previously published lectures and articles (although occasionally enhanced for this volume).

I’ve no problem with bringing together collections of previously published material, but I do think the publishers should make this clear on the cover because in this case, I could find quite a bit of the book online and find out whether it was something I wanted to read.  As it is, the book is very selective in its appraisal of Russian books and the people who read them and hardly serves the purpose of its subtitle at all.

I wanted more of what it says on the tin – a book about reading Russian literature, something more comprehensive, with a bit of planning behind it. I got instead large chunks about Batuman’s intellectual and academic development including tortuous stories of how she ended up learning the Uzbek language, or how she moved from one course to another while at college – or even tales about her various boyfriends (an uninspiring bunch to say the least!).  Dare I say, that some of it seemed remarkably self-congratulatory – a sort of “look how clever I am”, but maybe that’s my English perceptions getting in the way – American reviewers seem not to have picked up on this at all.

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Review: The Prodigal Tongue – Mark Abley

In The Prodigal Tongue, Mark Abley has provided us with a tour of the state of the English language in Britain and around the world.  His main conclusion seems to be that although “English” is the new Esperanto, a world language spoken by people on every continent, its not so much standard English that predominates so much as “Englishes”.  These are widely varying tongues, with a core of what we know as English, but much adapted to local circumstances, infiltrated by words from many other languages, and not even retaining the original meanings of a large number of words.  Speakers of Western English may be very surprised to find how little they understand when they converse with an “English speaker” in say Japan, Malaya or the Philippines.

Abley points out that English is immensely adaptable.  It continually absorbs new words, transmutes the meaning of existing words and moreover, other countries use it to fill the gaps in their own languages.  The Finnish do not have a word for “please” but now use ours, and have dropped their own word (anteeksi) in favour of “sorry”.  Slovakian teenager boys address their girl-friends as beib (babe) or hany (honey).  The Austrian magazine “News” headlines “Das Grosse Interview” and Austrian cellphones offer “Downloaden”.  Numerous similar examples are quoted and it is difficult to see how any language purist of another tongue can suggest any way in which this “Englishisation” can be stopped.  We are going to find English all over the world, particularly in the worlds of business, entertainment or technology.

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Review: By Hook or by Crook – David Crystal

With By Hook or By Crook David Crystal has provided us with an entertaining travelogue of selected part of (mostly) England and Wales. The reader accompanies Crystal as he meanders around various small towns (Haye on Wye, Stratford on Avon etc), finding many interesting places along the way and recounting many tales and anecdotes about place names and other linguistic curiosities. Crystal makes an amusing travel companion, perhaps with similarities to Michael Palin or Richard Bryson, and one gets the impression of a man with a fund of stories who would be a useful talking guide-book on any possible journey around Britain.

Although I enjoyed reading this book, it is difficult to see what happened to the Sebald inspiration claimed by the author. Sebald writes meditative, reflective books which lead the reader into contemplating the big issues of life and death – the actual locations and histories he recounts being almost incidental to the inner state of mind aroused along the way. This book on the other hand is an energetic tour through linguistic highways and byways, with fact after fact piled on in an almost random fashion, making it difficult to see the whole picture. By Hook or By Crook is definitely an entertaining read, but as with so many books about the origins of the English (or any other) language, unless one has a formidable memory for random facts, little of it will remain when the final page has been read. While the derivation of “Lichfield” for example is undoubtedly of passing interest, a week after reading the book I can recall little of it, nor can I quite see why I needed to know in the first place.

I read this book on holiday and it was perfect for picking up and putting down again a few minutes later. It does not demand too much in the way of concentration and would make an excellent gift for anyone with an interest in words and their meanings.