I finished The Story of English and The Book of Lost Books, neither of which merit a recommendation. The first was a quick read more anecdotal than comprehensive, and its status as a companion to a PBS show is apparent through the book’s episodic nature, which has the some of television’s defects.
As a description of the English language’s development the book does well enough, but it leaves unanswered the better question of why English developed as it did. The fundamental story of English is inexplicable: we can see, sort of, how it happened in retrospect, but English’s modern domination of the linguistic world wasn’t even apparent until the fall of the Soviet Union. Which language will dominate the future is equally uncertain. English, Chinese, and Spanish seem the most probable candidates, in that order, with Arabic running a distant fourth. The only lesson one can draw from the past is apparently that the future is inscrutable, but The Story of English doesn’t even fully establish the links between past and present that could’ve elevated it beyond a collection of miscellaneous facts.
The Story of English was most interesting on the level of meta-commentary: the book reinforced the domination of English merely by being written in that language, just as this post reinforces the power of language it’s written in. It makes you think about the power of your actions in day-to-day life, and what practices or ideas you’re tacitly endorsing through individual choice. It’s too bad that such insights were bound in an unappealing package.
The Book of Lost Books should have been left as cocktail trivia and academic banter. The hard core bibliophile might like it, much as the basketball fanatic might know the names of the men on every NBA roster for 1974, but I didn’t care for its ceaseless speculations about what might have been, anymore than I want to hear myself recalling the lovers who slipped away. The world might be a better place if The Book of Lost Books were a lost book.