Books Galore: Language & the Written Word

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone, Courtesy of the British Museum

Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-Francois Champollion, Andrew Robinson.(Oxford University)  272 pp. $29.95. A fervent early 19th-century Frenchman, a competitive expeditionary personality, and Egyptologist (a field he helped create with the Rosetta Stone), Champollion was one of the world’s great code-breakers, whose decipherment of hieroglyphs opened up a world of knowledge carved on the walls of the Valley of the Kings, Abu Simbel and elsewhere. A two-year expedition along the Nile (1828-1830) brought history and religion to life before his eyes, but also helped destroy his health and spurred his untimely death at age 41. Book is well illustrated, a welcome asset to any tome of this sort. Review

Archimedes Palimpsest, Courtesy of the Walters Art Gallery

Archimedes Palimpsest, Courtesy of the Walters Art Gallery

The Archimedes Codex: Few would believe the many twists and turns of discovering, restoring and sharing the Archimedes Palimpsest [from the Latin, meaning “scraped clean and used again”] which became a massive restoration project, an exhibition, a book, and a website that is a permanent record of this exceptional document. Along the way were monks (who scraped the vellum and wrote over the 10th century copy of Archimedes’s 3rd century writings), Nazi perils, a forger and an anonymous billionaire who finally bought the Palimpsest for $2 million at auction and then proceeded to fund its multi-million-dollar restoration/documentation for over a decade.  (Just taking the document apart took several years of painstaking work.) The Archimedes Codex (“How a medieval prayer book is revealing the true genius of antiquity’s greatest scientist”) a book published by Cambridge University Press (313 pp illus), provides the definitive account of the project, co-written by Reviel Netz at Stanford University and William Noel, curator of manuscripts at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum. It was Noel who tracked down the buyer and won the day by convincing “Mr. B” (the billionaire) to allow the Walters to undertake the restoration. Review

Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel, Courtesy of Google Art Project

Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel, Courtesy of Google Art Project

Babel No More:  The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, Michael Erard. (Free Press)  $18. With the demise of most foreign-language instruction in American high schools, it’s understandably amazing to encounter polyglots – those who can pick up and master new languages with ease. Who are polyglots (they average about 11 languages!)  and how do they do it ? Erard created an epic book, says the New York Times “…part travelogue, part science lesson, part intellectual investigation, it is an entertaining, informative survey of some of the most fascinating polyglots of our time.” Babel web site

Book review and excerpt

The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, David Skinner. (Harper) 349 pp.  $26.99. Is “ain’t” a word, a colloquialism, substandard English, or junk ? This is the dissection of the issues around Webster ‘s Third New International Dictionary introduced in 1961 –“jam-packed with fighting-words” that proved to set on fire the world of linguistics that still rages today.  If you are a writer, editor, language freak, or just an overactive Scrabble player, this book’s for you. Be prepared for long, discursive text, and perhaps many cups of cocoa to get you through. Review

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle. 360 pp (Basic Books) $28.95. We have all seen teens walking three abreast on the street, each on her own cellphone texting someone else, oblivious to anything or anyone next to her. MIT professor and clinical psychologist Turkle investigates the psychological impact of being “wired” (wirelessly) all day long. She describes kids who text up to 8,000 times a month and cannot be untethered from their iPhones even for a short time (the first thing they do upon waking and even sleep with their device). Turkle conducted hundreds of interviews with teens and adults to explore intimacy, human-technological interaction, constructed identities that exist only online, and the price we may pay for our e-addiction. Turkle’s web site with excerpt:

New York Times review and interview on Fresh Air (35 mins)