Friday, May 1, 2009

Alphabet Juice

Any Good Books, via e-mail
May, 2009

Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof: Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
Roy Blount Jr. (2008, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The big dilemma about reading Roy Blount’s Alphabet Juice is whether to start at A and march all the way through to ‘Zyzzyva,’ or to succumb to the distraction of the cross-references. Blount commends the latter course: “If you read this book the way I would read it and the way I’ve written it, you will wear it out, thumbing back and forth, without ever being sure you’ve read it all.” And the very first entry, ‘a’, contains a pointer to an irresistible story about, among other things, Wilt Chamberlain and the drinking habits of the editorial staff of Sports Illustrated. On the other hand, it would be a pity to miss a drop.
Whichever course you take, you’ll soon meet some of Blount’s linguistic enthusiasms. The alphabet itself, for starters: “I don’t remember what I was like before I learned my ABC’s, but for as long as I can remember I have made them with my fingers and felt them in my bones. Where are we, at the moment? We’re in a the midst of a bunch of letters, and if you’re like me, you feel like a pig in mud.” Why yes, I am, and I do.
He likes the feel of words in his mouth, and finds meaning in it. One of the most passionate arguments in the book is this, against the academic linguists’ claim that the connection between sounds and meaning is ‘arbitrary’: “ a principle of English-language appreciation, at least, separation of sound from sense is audibly, utterly wrong....Even when words aren’t coined with sound and sense conjunctively in mind, the words that sound most like what they mean have a survival advantage.”
As you see, he knows his way around a sentence as well. “I hope this book will be useful to anyone who wants to write better, including me. I have written some of the clumsiest, most clogged-yet-vagrant, hobbledehoyish, hitch-slipping sentences ever conceived by the human mind.” But isn’t that one a beaut!
Speaking of beauts, how’s that for a subtitle?! It looks a trifle excessive, at first, but it’s actually spot-on. Here’s the entry for ‘spot-on’: “This word for ‘perfect,’ as in ‘His imitation of Huckleberry Hound if he were a pirate is spot-on,’ is widely used as I compose this book, but it does not appear in any of my print dictionaries. Books can’t keep up with the language. But where would the language be without them?”
Sweet, don’t you think, the way Blount can turn on a dime from a prodigiously silly example to a profound, and incidentally self-observant, remark. As a professional wordsmith, of course, Blount is pro-book: “Actually holding a double handful of a substance made from handy. It gets your whole hands involved. Reading from a monitor, instead of a book, is like playing videogame football instead of tossing a football around.” (I’m well aware that most of you are reading this on a monitor of some sort, and Blount is no stranger to the wired world of words. Some of the most interesting entries spring from “the invaluable if sometimes only barely literate”)
Don McConnell and Karen Mugler did a superb job of copy-editing and proofreading Alphabet Juice. I can hardly think of a bigger challenge along those lines. It’s also hard to imagine how an audio book version will work, but it would indeed be marvelous to hear Blount reading it. In any case--Enjoy!

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