A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

December 1, 2008 | 7 books mentioned 2 4 min read

Stephen Dodson is a freelance editor in Hadley, Mass.; he is coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, a collection of international curses and insults, and sole proprietor of the blog languagehat.com.

As usual, my reading this year has focused on language and Russian history and culture, and I have books to recommend in each area.

coverThe best language book I read during the year is Mikael Parkvall’s brand-new Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages. Parkvall is a Swedish linguist, so this is not one of the usual pop language books full of “fun facts” that aren’t actually facts. He says in the foreword, “I hope that Limits of Language can show the uninitiated some of the incredible aspects that linguistics and human languages have to offer, teach beginners some of the basics of linguistics, but also to serve as a reference book for experienced linguists – here, the linguist can identify the extremes, and thereby judge to what extent his or her own language is ‘normal’.” Opening it at random, I find a section on using linguistics to catch the Unabomber, one on odd phrase-book examples (“I was stabbed with a spear”; “At what time were these branches eaten by the rhinoceros?”), and one on linguistics in films (“Ball of Fire, Howard Hawks, 1941: A lexicographer [Gary Cooper], realizing that the slang section of his dictionary is outdated, visits a nightclub in order to update it…”); there are also, of course, basics like “Language change,” “Consonants,” and “Language myths.” It’s the best combination of fun and education I’ve seen in a long time.

Other language books I can recommend are Nicholas Ostler’s “biography of Latin,” Ad Infinitum (I’m now reading his earlier history of language, Empires of the Word, and enjoying it greatly), and George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land, a classic history of American place names recently reprinted by New York Review Books (if the author’s name sounds familiar to you, it may be because he also wrote the science fiction novel Earth Abides, for which he won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951).

coverOn the Russian front, I loved Julie A. Buckler’s Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape. In her introduction, she says: “this study poses two central questions: What kinds of writing correspond to specific places in Petersburg or to particular aspects of imperial-era Petersburg life? How does writing constitute imperial Petersburg, both before and after the imperial period? … My project aims at an archeological reconstruction of a complex discursive formation – the full textual articulation of imperial St. Petersburg as a cultural object.” Yes, I know, that sounds off-puttingly academical, but she mostly confines the jargon to the introduction, and the book is full of fascinating tidbits about the city and the writers who have tried to describe and interpret it, and not only the famous ones; she seems to have worked her way through every memoir, travel guide, and long-forgotten novella that ever described the imperial capital. To give an example of the kind of thing you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, in Chapter Four she investigates “a story about dancing chairs that circulated in Petersburg during the 1830s,” quoting Pushkin’s diary (“In one of the buildings belonging to the chancellery of the court equerry, the furniture was so bold as to move and jump about”) and a letter from Petr Viazemskii (“in one of the clerk’s rooms, the chairs and tables danced and turned somersaults; glasses filled with wine hurled themselves at the ceiling…”), ending with the casual mention in Gogol’s famous story “The Nose”: “And the story of the dancing chairs on Koniushennaia (Stables) Street was still fresh.” Who knew that wasn’t just another wild invention of Gogol’s? If that kind of thing interests you, you’ll enjoy the book.

I was also bowled over by Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life 1779-1917, edited by James Von Geldern and Louise McReynolds. Sure, it’s important to read the Great Works, but you can’t really understand a country and its culture unless you’ve spent some time with the less exalted material most people devour. There’s an eighteenth-century knightly tale that begins: “Prince Zilagon, ruler of the Princedom of Florida, was a great and glorious man who who greatly expanded his territory and struck fear into the hearts of neighboring peoples.” (Zilagon conquers Canada and marries the daughter of the king of Mexico.) There are (among many other things) half-admiring accounts of famous criminals, bedroom farces, examples of war correspondence, prison songs, and a bizarre “novel of the occult” by V. I. Kryzhanovskaia (“The following excerpt picks up in the year 2284, with characters introduced in the first books: Supramati, who began life as British Dr. Ralph Morgan but was enticed by the original Prince Supramati, born in Egypt around 300 B.C., to exchange drops of blood so that the doctor would now live for eternity…”) that displays, as the editors point out, good old-fashioned Russian nationalism projected into the far future (“As for Tsargrad [i.e., Constantinople], it’s now the capital of the Russian Empire, one of the most powerful states in the world, standing at the head of the great All-Slavic Union”). This stuff entertained tsarist Russia and it will entertain you!

Finally, for bragging rights I must mention that I finally finished Proust this year (in English, I’m afraid), and am now reading War and Peace in Russian. Let me tell you, this guy Tolstoy is a good writer!

More from A Year in Reading 2008

is a retired freelance editor in Hadley, Mass.; he is coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, a collection of international curses and insults, and sole proprietor of the blog languagehat.com.