5 From the Bookshelf: On Language, Writing and Lifelong Learning

June 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment


That's me, in Iceland. I swear this has a connection to the story.

Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad student at Tulane, the English major was divided into two separate tracks: “Literature” and “Language, Writing and Rhetoric,” or LWR.

Those of us in the LWR track were fighting a losing battle against its gradual and eventual phasing out, which meant during registration each semester you could always spot a few LWR majors frantically pacing from table to table, looking for something – anything – to sign up for that would count towards our requirements.

There was some upside. I may have missed the opportunity to take Medieval English as a foreign language my senior year, but I ended up instead in a Medieval Literature seminar focused on early Icelandic sagas. A surprisingly entertaining class taught by a professor with a passion for all things Icelandic, it’s something I never would have considered taking if it hadn’t been essentially the last English class left with an open slot. And had I not taken it, I probably wouldn’t have been so motivated to take a trip to Iceland a few years ago.

But all those “history of the language” classes? I never did get them. That’s probably why I find myself picking up all kinds of language and writing books now – some easy-to-read and fun, others a little technical and dense (and I’m not even going to mention the various squads of The Atlantic’s Word Police Academy I’ve been inducted into).

More than just a hobby, though, these kinds of books can come in handy when you’re faced with a blank page or trying to decide if it should be “toward” or “towards,” so I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you. Whether you’re a recovering LWR major, want some context to make it easier to understand the quirky rules of English grammar and usage, or just have an unhealthy obsession with the language like I do, here’s my summer reading list for the classes I never took.

Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged, by Richard Lederer & Richard Dowis – The feel-good guide to all those peculiarities of grammar you can never remember or always get wrong, it’s also great support to have on your side when someone who was brainwashed by the rules they learned in 9th grade English says you can’t split an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition.

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, by John McWhorter – A readable history of the development of languages, dialects and words, it’s been described as “linguistics for laypeople,” and I really can’t top that.

Made in America, an Informal History of the English Language in the United States, by Bill Bryson – It’s the history of American English as only a travel writer could present it. Chock full of trivia (ever wonder how the dish Chicken a la King got its name? Hint: It didn’t involve kings.), it’s as much about American history and society as it is about language.

The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, by Richard Hugo – Hugo adapted his own university lectures into this terrific collection about how he writes, in the hopes he’ll teach you how to teach yourself to write. His book, “The Real West Marginal Way” gives you additional perspective and insight into the man – a former Boeing employee who came to teaching and the writing profession later in life – and how his experiences fueled his creative process.

Njal’s Saga, by Anonymous, edited and translated by Robert Cook (that Tulane professor I mentioned earlier) – To be fair, I did read this one in college, but I just couldn’t leave it off the list. No present-day soap opera, Real Housewife or trashy novel can compete with the drama of the early Vikings. Revenge! Bloodshed! Feuds! Tragedy! It’s all here in this 13th century classic.

Have your own favorites? I’m always looking to add to the collection, so let me know!


Entry filed under: Inspiration, Travel, Writing.

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