BMCR 2003.11.04

Response: Sacks on Dickey on Sacks

Response to 2003.10.15

Response by

I found Eleanor Dickey’s review of my book Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet to be laughably snooty. The reviewer seemed deliberately to resist my book’s good points and its goal of reaching and teaching a wide readership. She skirted the book’s virtues and amplified its shortcomings. Hers was a badly lopsided critique, unduly negative.

Language Visible tries to explain, for general readers, the history and workings of the alphabet — the “alphabet” in this case being our 26 modern Roman letters and their prior stages among the Phoenicians, Greeks, etc. The book traces the story of alphabetic writing from the earliest extant inscriptions of about 1800 B.C. (discovered in Egypt in 1994) to Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary (one of the first to recognize 26 letters, including the debated J and V). The book’s core consists of 26 chapters, each devoted to a single letter, explaining such topics as pronunciation, the evolution of the letter-shape, and the letter’s featured uses (if any) in literature, iconography, modern name branding, advertising, etc. For example: B movie, iMac, The Story of O, V for Victory, Xbox. Language Visible is not meant to be a classroom textbook, much less a scholarly work.

Ms. Dickey opened her review by stating reasonably that the book “must be judged on the extent to which it is likely to inform and entertain [a general] readership.” Yet she then did much the opposite: She applied academic standards, for stronger criticism. Most egregious was her judgment on the book’s prose: “The relentless perkiness of the writing and the constant bouncing from one topic to another rapidly induce acute frustration in those accustomed to reading sustained discussions.”

Excuse me, but what happened to our general readers? Most of the dozen newspaper and magazine reviews I’ve received so far have not reported “acute frustration” over the prose. To the contrary, many reviewers seem grateful for clear presentation of topics too long shielded in specialist armor.

I cannot believe that a few sentences’ worth of necessary repetition per chapter becomes “little short of unbearable if one tries to read the book from cover to cover.” That overstatement typified your reviewer’s intolerance. She seemed eager to dismiss the book, even as a popular introduction to the subject.

This book boils down four thousand years of cultural history into an accessible form that a motivated 16 year old could understand and enjoy. Where is Ms. Dickey’s nod to that? In her condescending phrase that “the book is not entirely without value”? You would never guess, from her review, that Library Journal has deemed the book “recommended for most libraries.” Your reviewer treated it as some kind of vulgar trespass.

Still, the piece did offer two or three factual corrections (gleefully applied). And I am genuinely grateful to have been included in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.