Monday, September 18, 2017

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper

I loved this book about how dictionaries are created. Author Kory Stamper has worked at Merriam-Webster since 1998 and she has written a tell-all about the challenges and controversies involved in creating a modern, up-to-date dictionary. Written in clear and lively prose, this book takes both a serious and humorous look at how dictionaries are made. This is also a personal story about Ms. Stamper and her love of language. I should say languages, though, because to be a lexicographer, you have to have a good sense of the other languages that are the building blocks of English, like French and Latin.

Whether dictionaries should be descriptive or prescriptive is one of the questions that Stamper addresses. While that might have been decided already, there are still many who believe they should be prescriptive, that is, telling readers how to use words, rather than descriptive, telling them how words are used. I can understand the viewpoint of the Prescriptivists, as I have my own pet peeve that I wish the dictionary could validate (reticent vs. reluctant), but in the end the Descriptivists win out. Language is always changing, and as use changes, what's acceptable eventually follows. Sometimes, as in the case of "irregardless," the dictionary notes its common usage but relies upon usage notes and the use of "nonstandard" to indicate its lack of correctness.

This book will be a fun, entertaining, and enlightening read for anyone who loves words, language, and grammar. It includes an index and a bibliography including several books that I'd like to read:
  • Simon Winchester. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Herbert Charles Morton. The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove’s controversial dictionary and its critics.
  • David Skinner. The Story of Ain't: America, its Language and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.

Kory Stamper. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. New York: Pantheon Books, 2017. 296 pages. ISBN 9781101870946.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Logical Family: a Memoir, by Armistead Maupin

Fans of Armistead Maupin will love this memoir. In it the author talks about his childhood in North Carolina with a very conservative father. He describes his grandmother who encouraged his artistic tendencies, including acting and writing. He writes about his navy service in Vietnam and Cambodia, his time working with Jesse Helms, and how he met President Nixon. Mr. Maupin describes his move to San Francisco where he worked as a reporter for the Associated Press for a time before he began his weekly fiction column that eventually became Tales of the City.

Mr. Maupin is unflinchingly honest, and the book is touching and funny throughout. He has a way of dropping names and hints which make the later revelations all the funnier. He talks candidly about his friendship with Rock Hudson, and acquaintances like Harvey Milk. He believes that people have a responsibility to be honest about their sexuality, and he doesn't regret "outing" Rock Hudson when it became known that Hudson was ill with AIDS. He writes about losing his virginity, coming out, and his relationships with his parents.

I really enjoyed this book. It was the August selection for my book club and it was a hit with all of us. Although the book doesn't come out until October, I was fortunate to receive several copies of the advance reading copy at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago. Anyone who likes Armistead Maupin or enjoys a good memoir would like it.

Armistead Maupin. Logical Family: a Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. 294 pages. ISBN 9780062391223.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency

The Gatekeepers is a fascinating look inside every White House from Nixon's administration through Obama's. Author Chris Whipple devotes a chapter to each president and his respective chiefs of staff. It's clear that the success of each administration hinged at least partly on how the Oval Office was managed, and much of that comes down to the organizational skills of, and authority granted to, the chiefs of staff. Presidents who tried to micromanage the Office's activities, with everyone reporting directly to him, had much more difficult times that those who had stronger chiefs. Chiefs who were able to stand up to the President when necessary were better able to steer him to sound decision making.

Filled with intriguing anecdotes, quotes, and interviews with key players, The Gatekeepers is a riveting look at recent history. The author touches on many of the most important events of the last 50 years, including the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Cold War, the Iran-Contra Scandal, the first Gulf War, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, 9/11 and its aftermath, Obamacare, and much, much more. I found it particularly gripping given our current political climate. I wonder what today's events will look like when we look back in 20 or 30 years, and I wonder if it will be as distressing to recall as it is to live through it every day, with the horror show we see perpetually on television and in the papers.

I found The Gatekeepers hard to put down. It's well supported with robust bibliography and notes sections. Mr. Whipple's style is clear and his writing flows like a novel; I hope he continues to write popular history.

I received this book from Blogging for Books.

Chris Whipple. The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. New York: Crown, 2017. 365 pages. ISBN 9780804138246.