I just had the pleasure of reading Bill Bryson‘s book The Mother Tongue, which is a fascinating compendium on the history of the English language. I know I would have been much more attentive in my English composition classes if this had been the required textbook. Probably would be more proficient at grammar and punctuation as well.
Though written 20 years ago, it is as fresh a read as anything on the market today. Mr. Bryson has an amazing knack for taking ordinary people, places, things, or events and making them utterly fascinating and often hilarious. You desperately want to meet the people, visit the places, try the things, and attend the events. I have thoroughly enjoyed each and every book I have read, including:
Notes from a Small Island
Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe
A Walk in the Woods
Made in America
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way
I also own the Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which I intend to read very soon.
Each volume is chock-full of interesting tidbits, numerous puns, funny stories and observations, thought-provoking opinions, and cleverly worded sarcasm. In The Modern Tongue, Mr. Bryson notes the unimaginable fact that the Oxford English Dictionary takes 60,000 words to describe all the possible definitions for the word “set.” Yes, you read that correctly – 60,000 words. As he noted in the book, “the length of a short novel.”
One cannot help being impressed by the amount of research dedicated to prepare each publication, whether it be backpacking all over the United Kingdom, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or figuring out how to explain the history of the English language in less than 250 pages. His books are remarkable for being concise, yet deeply informative and very humorous. His description of subtle and funny details can be a laugh-out-loud riot. Below is a sample gem from Neither Here Nor There:
I still enjoy that sense of never knowing quite what’s going on. In my hotel in Oslo, where I spent four days after returning from Hammerfest, the chambermaid each morning left me a packet of something called Bio Tex Bla, a ‘minipakke for ferie hybel og weekend,’ according to the instructions. I spent many happy hours sniffing it and experimenting with it, uncertain whether it was for washing out clothes – it worked a treat – but for all I know for the rest of the week everywhere I went in Oslo, people were saying to each other, ‘You know, that man smelled like toilet bowl cleaner.’
Every time I read that paragraph, I find the mere thought of Norwegians making that comment to one another downright hilarious.
Now and then, a question is posed to people about who they would most like to meet. I can safely say that Bill Bryson falls into that category for me, along with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Drew Brees, Tina Fey, and several of my favorite musical groups. Who knows if I will ever meet any of them, but each time I start to read one of Bill Bryson’s marvelous books, I feel I have struck up a conversation with a friend.
Read Full Post »