The American Fight over the English Language
Nationalism and patriotism are not unfamiliar substances in America’s bloodstream. As Peter Martin’s The Dictionary Wars illustrates, such fervor extended into heated debates over English language usage.
In its infancy, the United States sought to establish its own identity separate from that of Great Britain, not only politically and philosophically but also philologically. Enter Noah Webster, a fiercely patriotic lexicographer determined to rid his fledgling nation’s language of all British influence. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary had been the standard for years, but Webster, perhaps egotistically, assumed the mantle of America’s lexicographical savior.
This mission proved to be difficult, and to Webster’s dismay, there was much resistance to the radical changes he wanted to institute. Rival American dictionaries and schoolroom spellers still leaned upon British orthography and pronunciation. American and British authors and scholars were particularly partial to Joseph E. Worcester—a quiet, Harvard-educated lexicographer who found himself embroiled in mudslinging he did not want. The entry of Charles and George Merriam into the fray only increased the newspaper-and-pamphlet-driven vitriol until, well after Webster’s death, the shrewd brothers finally emerged victorious, never mind the literary and academic carcasses in their wake.
The book’s potentially dry material is vivified by engaging, sometimes dramatic prose, and the complex tangle of rivalries and relationships is fascinating. Discussions on lexicography are technical without being abstruse, and they balance well with the biographical details. Historically informative, the book is also an opportunity for American self-reflection. Substitute “internet” or “social media” for “newspapers” or “pamphlets,” and several passages of The Dictionary Wars could have been pulled from some modern-day editorial or blog lamenting the destruction of public discourse. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun.
With an impressive breadth of research, The Dictionary Wars invites contemplation of the ways in which language itself can affect the soul of a nation.
MEAGAN LOGSDON (April 27, 2019)
Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way
We see them around us every day: crows gathering, bees buzzing, cats prowling. Animals, including humans, are always on the move. And whether their moving takes them on a global journey or just around the corner, finding their way there and back again can be a life-or-death issue.
David Barrie’s Supernavigators is filled with marvels of animal navigation: bacteria with their own magnetic “compass needles”; shoals of fish that change direction in unison due to pressure-sensitive pores on their sides; bumble bees that detect sonic electrical fields around nectar-rich flowers; amazing feats of memory that allow the Clark’s nutcracker to locate seeds it has stored over a hundred square miles of countryside; songs and dances that let other creatures of their kind locate food and suitable “housing”; astounding nonstop long-distance flights over open ocean; and even examples of democracy in action as bees share information, send out scouts, and then, by consensus, swarm to their new location.
Given all this, it seems impossible for humans, the only species capable of holding all others in contempt, to continue to do so. Supernavigators makes it clear that the more we learn about the animal kingdom, the less evidence we find to support our belief that humans are distinct, separate, and superior. What does set us apart from all other species is that we are able to influence the fate of every other creature on the planet. Understanding the wonders of animal navigation may help us appreciate the small and large miracles that surround us and the value of all that we are putting at risk, lest we create a “biological holocaust” of epic proportions—one that, in the end, is likely to take us out as well.
KRISTINE MORRIS (April 27, 2019)
Shifting Baselines and the Future of Global Fisheries
Daniel Pauly’s Vanishing Fish is an important collection of essays that evaluates the far-reaching effects of global fisheries.
Assembling into one volume the numerous pieces he wrote over a twenty-plus year period, Pauly—a researcher and professor who directs the Sea Around Us initiative––provides a historical reference of essential research and commentary. When viewed together, the essays showcase the alarming crisis of over-fishing the ocean that has not improved in decades.
A 2009 essay cites a remarkable statistic: “In the past fifty years, we have reduced the populations of large commercial fish, such as bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, and other favorites, by a staggering 90 percent.” An essay published in 2016 traces the negative impact of fisheries on ocean life from the 1970s to the present and discusses the founding of the Sea Around Us. Pauly offers some potential solutions, but he states that any viable fisheries management solution “must involve local communities living in real places and exploiting fish populations that have places as well.”
The book ends on an effective, dramatic note, declaring that “with no change, there might be no ‘we.’” Though highlighting what might occur if substantive changes are not made, the book still presents the effects of out-of-control fisheries as “reversible,” but admits it would take a few decades to make the needed changes. Its insights are global as it argues that protecting marine biodiversity is only one necessary piece of changing the way that we relate to nature. Substantial research backs all assertions, and there are hundreds of reference points to studies that include additional information.
Vanishing Fish is an eloquent call to do a better job of caring for and protecting the Earth’s resources.
BARRY SILVERSTEIN (May 23, 2019)
Thomas G. Alexander’s Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith is a complex, reflective portrait of Brigham Young, the nineteenth-century Mormon leader who brought his flock to Utah, where they found a permanent and prosperous home.
The biography follows Young from his early life in upstate New York, which was a “precarious balance between deprivation and starvation,” to the death of his first wife from tuberculosis. Originally a Methodist, Young joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after reading Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon and meeting the charismatic Smith in person.
Young became a member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1835, and was part of the Mormons’ westward trek to Missouri. Following Smith’s 1844 murder by an anti-Mormon mob, Young assumed leadership of the Church and organized the Mormon exodus to Utah’s Salt Lake Valley.
Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith details the persecution Mormons faced as their presence increased, including an order by the governor of Missouri that the group be “exterminated or driven from the state.” Though Young initially opposed the practice of polygamy, by the time of his death he had over fifty wives. Young was also a strong advocate for music and the theater, making sure that these arts were an integral part of Mormon life.
While Young presided over the Mormons’ ultimate success, there were times of hardship and internal strife. Other darker chapters, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and dealings with African and Native Americans, occurred during Young’s watch.
Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith is an engrossing survey of the Mormon Church through the 1800s, and of the man called upon to lead them into the seemingly promised land.
MEG NOLA (May 23, 2019)
Crossing Three Borders / Cruzando tres fronteras
A boy and his father trek from El Salvador to the United States in the bilingual tale of Mis zapatos y yo. René is excited to begin the long walk with new shoes sent all the way from the US where his mother waits. Textured illustrations focus on the footwear from clever perspectives as they become ragged and worn, but the excitement remains as the family is reunited, their shoes tied together and carried in hand.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (April 27, 2019)