Although I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like, here are a few books I have recently read and enjoyed.
Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky of the Yiddish Book Center is a about saving Yiddish and preserving a literary culture. It’s a book rich in anecdotes, broad humor, and a lot of good will. It’s good reading at the end of an exhausting day.
Lansky tells many tales of book rescues — being called in the middle of the night to empty a dumpster full of Yiddish texts, in the rain, or finding out that a library has been closed and the books are in jeopardy of being thrown out, or hauling away cartons of books inherited by offspring who no longer read the language spoken by their parents and grandparents.
Despite their dust, their tattered bindings and yellowed pages, the books we recovered were not ancient. Most weren’t even old. That’s because Yiddish literature as we know it didn’t really begin until the second half of the nineteenth century. Before that, when the traditional Jewish world was still intact, educated men spent their days studying Hebrew and Aramaic. Although they spoke Yiddish, they considered it beneath them to read or write it.
It is that last notion — that Yiddish was held in low regard by its own speakers – that resonates the most with me. I see some elements of that throughout my language encounters with people who have strong regional English accents they are embarrassed by, with families a bit worried they’re wrong to use the family words only they know, or with the strivers who seek with such energy to emulate what they suppose to be the best possible spoken form of English that they mis-educate themselves into a peculiar and unnatural hypercorrected form of English.
Articulate While Black, by H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman, works its way through social and cultural aspects of Black Language — a term that encompasses the lexis, tone, gestures, pragmatics, etc., of the language spoken by Black Americans — using Barack Obama as a pivot. They explore the relationship White and Black Americans have through language with each other, among themselves, and with their president, illustrating the conflicts and confusion throughout with stories of recent major and minor incidents involving race and language.
The book is a fully informed text by professional linguists but the non-polemical essay-style text is written to demonstrate some of the very characteristics of Black Language about which it’s talking: Black pronunciation, prosody, and other features of Black Language are indicated in the text through spelling, word choice, and other means.
There’s much to recommend in this book — it is accessible to high schoolers and above, brief and to the point, and highly relevant to the current election cycle — but if there’s a particular part I would recommend above all others, it’s the discussion that unfolds on pages 105-108: Why is some Black Language only for Black Americans, while at the same time, young White Americans in particular borrow as much Black Language as they can comfortably get away with?
Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books is a lighthearted and personal tale about the adventures of Paul Collins and his family in a “book town” in Wales, where there are oodles of bookstores and zillions of books. While ostensibly about the town and its characters, it’s really a real estate shaggy dog travelogue, as Collins and his family try to find suitable local housing where the basement doesn’t flood and the sellers don’t ask absurd prices. The book never quite gets to a satisfying end but it’s a pleasant and quick read.
Image from Geyṭ a hindele ḳeyn Bronzṿil / גייט א הינדעלע קיין בראנזוויל by Jacob Kaminksy, via Internet Archive and the National Yiddish Book Center.