Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Roundup

The Lexicographer's Dilemma, by Jack Lynch

Lynch uses the Great Man trope -- John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, and even George Carlin, all figure prominently -- to sketch a narrative of the codification of "proper English" and show where the language has landed today. Yet it's ultimately a Hayekian story of emergent order, despite his insistence on the importance of a handful of individuals on the shaping of the language. I found the chapters on the battle between prescriptive versus descriptive dictionaries the most interesting, though a later chapter on "bad words" (from curses to slurs) was better than I expected. The book loses steam a bit when Lynch tries to explain where the language may be going. Still, a must for language mavens, but good even for a general audience.

The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

A literary love story told by means of a clich├ęd sci-fi device. Niffenegger's airtight plotting of the twisty temporal shifts is brilliant. It's a warm, and heartbreaking, celebration of true love and its momentary and permanent loss. Unfortunately, the novel sags a bit in the middle, and only the time-traveling Henry is fully fleshed out. What keeps you going is Niffenegger's craft as a storyteller. And the ending is just brutal, and yet still immensely satisfying.

Eating the Dinosaur
, by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman is my favorite cultural critic, and the writer I hope to be when I grow up. This is not his best essay collection -- that would be either Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs or IV -- but here Klosterman makes things I hate, like football, seem interesting, even IMPORTANT. The best essays, one that juxtaposes David Koresh and Nirvana (not as ridiculous as it sounds), and another on the genius of ABBA (which I wholeheartedly agree with), are as good cultural criticism gets. Reading Klosterman just makes me intensely yearn for him to write a regular column for a magazine, or at least start a blog (which, sadly, he vehemently opposes).

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

I've just started this one. Its monochromatic bleakness is suffocating. Thus far, its aesthetic merit, and my interest, begins and ends with McCarthy's prose, so spare and stylized, with his run-to-the-dictionary obscurities and his disdain for any punctuation apart from the period. It seems like a book I'll admire more than enjoy.