What a joy it was to read a book with so many different positive aspects. Arika Okrent’s book on artificial languages possesses many qualities that make it both informative and entertaining.
First, the informative parts. Okrent has organized the book according to a timeline, explaining each major boom in language creation. She also has broken the subject into sections, within which are chapters. She typically starts with an explanation of the times and what about those times spurred people to create an artificial language. Some chapters are biographical in nature, talking about the lives of the language inventors. Others discuss the languages themselves, providing context, examples, and a discussion of what the goals were of the language. These inevitably talk about why they failed to capture a wider audience. It was fascinating to me to learn that the irregularities and ambiguities of naturally-developing languages are something that sets them above those created to be regular and precise.
Okrent also shows great humor in her writing. She discusses meetings of Klingon speakers and her work to get her first Klingon pin, meetings of Esperanto speakers that are filled with idealists, a symbolic language developer who spent time alternately flattering and insulting those who adapted his work to assist disabled children communicate with others, and the arguments between discussion group members that get quite heated. She does an excellent job of providing balance to the more educational parts by interspersing these entertaining stories.
Overall, Okrent has produced a book of utmost interest to those who love languages and linguistics. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
I am a novice reader for this book in a couple of senses: I do not read many translations, and I also do not read many books older than I am. I believe this might be a major reason why I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this book, which was generously provided free of charge as an eBook by the translator.
One of the big issues I had with the book is that I don’t know a lot about how Germany was around the turn of the century. A lot of the geography, politics, and culture are foreign to me, and the book flows as if the reader is intimately familiar with the setting already. I think this might be why the author is not well-known today; what separates truly great works from those that have their set place is the ability of the author to create something that rises above the mundane and everyday to find at least one universal truth to stand upon in order to be understood outside its time and location.
The story itself has an interesting pace, at times moving quickly from event to event, at other times slowing to allow some suspense to build. It’s an odd plot, to say the least — feeding both a fear of science and a fear of folk magic, I think — that mostly works. The one fault, I feel, is that there really isn’t someone to identify with. The title character is mainly to be alternately feared, loathed, or pitied, but so are the people who become her victims, for the most part. If they aren’t one of those three, they’re too-small a character to participate in the action.
The translation, I thought, was fairly good. I have a feeling that most of the issues I have with the written word was the fault of Ewers’ word choice in the original German, and not with Bandel’s interpretation of his words. Overall, I feel that, if I were better educated or more experienced, I would have pulled something more out of this book.
Before I start, let me declare my vegetarianism. Despite my inclination to be sympathetic toward animals, I found Joy’s book to be naive in the extreme.
I was expecting a book on the cultural reasons for why Americans have differing attitudes toward consuming different animals, and, while she has included some of that, there is also content I was not expecting — perhaps it is my own fault for thinking a book with an attractively cute title and describes itself as an introduction to “the belief system that enables us to eat some animals and not others” would be a bit more about that topic.
The one salient point of the book, in my opinion, is her discussion of the slaughtering process. Better oversight and more transparency is needed to ensure the safety of food that is consumed and to give food animals humane treatment at all steps of their lives.
The call to activism throughout the book is rather strident and unpleasant to get through. People can decide on their own whether to get involved, and providing some contact information at the end would be appropriate, but the oppressive nature of her encouragement is uncomfortable to get through.
Toward the end of the book, she encourages the reader to “view ourselves as strands in the web of life, rather than as standing at the apex of the so-called food chain.” From where I sit, the food web includes animals eating other animals. Humans are omnivorous creatures, and simply because eating animals is not strictly necessary for a complete diet does not mean that people are required to, or should, suppress the urge to consume animals.