An always clever—but rarely too clever—educational and entertaining history of the alphabet.
Canadian journalist Sacks became fascinated with the history and use of written language while researching The Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World. Although he educated himself by delving into scholarly research on alphabets, he decided to build this work around an approachable gimmick for a lay audience. After a sweeping 40-page introduction to the origins and evolution of written language, Sacks devotes a chapter to each of the 26 letters used in the English language, which is based on the Roman alphabet. He characterizes each of the letters as extremely important or less important in daily usage, surmises how that degree of importance arose, explains whether the connotations of each letter are mostly positive or mostly negative, and sprinkles in various tidbits, ranging from surprising to downright edifying. The letter A, which, of course, comes first, frequently carries the connotation of “best,” as in a school grade of A or a Grade-A food product, but sometimes the connotation is negative, as with the scarlet letter A. The Roman alphabet is not alone in starting with A; most alphabets open with it or with its near equivalent. (Sacks explains writing systems that are not alphabetical, such as Chinese and Japanese, but does not dwell on them.) A, though, is not the most frequently written letter; E and T carry that distinction, in large part because they both appear in the oft-used word “the.” Skipping to the last letter, Sacks calls Z a consonant that “can seem racy or elusive or just plain disadvantaged.” The potential indignity of being the alphabet's caboose is compounded by one real weakness—Z is, on average, the least-used letter in printed English.” But it sure can increase a Scrabble score when used skillfully.
A refreshing combination of erudition and breeziness.