A rich trove of science and contemporary culture.


An expert popular science account of human speech.

In his latest, New Yorker staff writer Colapinto provides an intensely researched, tightly focused, lucidly written story that is long but not too long. As the author points out, to call human speech a “miraculous feat” understates the case. All other animals “use their voices to make in-the-now proclamations about immediate survival and reproductive concerns, including expressions of fear, anger, hunger and mating urges.” Evolved perhaps 200,000 years ago, human language allows us to refer to events in the past or future and to make plans that we share with others, “to build the villages, towns, cities and nations that have given us primacy over the Planet and everything on it.” Even before birth, infants listen, their brains absorbing a dazzling array of tone, phonetics, syntax, patterns, and rules. Despite what early experts taught, language is not pre-installed in the brain at birth; babies learn it, usually accumulating a “mental dictionary” of 60,000 words by age 18. They achieve this because words are not random assemblages of digits. They carry meaning, and we are a species that craves meaning. Midway through the book, Colapinto moves from the mechanism of speech to its purpose. Darwin compared the changes languages undergo to natural selection, but the author disagrees. Over time, he maintains, changes in articulation, accent, and vocabulary have not increased but hobbled their efficiency, creating a Babel of incomprehensible tongues that pushes us apart. Observers claimed that the spread of media, from radio to the internet, would homogenize American speech, but the opposite occurred. Instant communication has combined with bitter ideological, economic, and cultural clashes to accelerate the creation of new American speech patterns. In the final chapter, Colapinto discusses political oratory, which has united Americans in the past. He gives high marks to the rhetoric of presidents such as Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan; however, like the majority of Americans, he considers Trump a divisive force.

A rich trove of science and contemporary culture.  

Pub Date: Jan. 26, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982128-74-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2020

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A welcome reference, entertaining and information-packed, for any outdoors-inclined reader.


The bad news: On any given outdoor expedition, you are your own worst enemy. The good news: If you are prepared, which this book helps you achieve, you might just live through it.

As MeatEater host and experienced outdoorsman Rinella notes, there are countless dangers attendant in going into mountains, woods, or deserts; he quotes journalist Wes Siler: “People have always managed to find stupid ways to die.” Avoiding stupid mistakes is the overarching point of Rinella’s latest book, full of provocative and helpful advice. One stupid way to die is not to have the proper equipment. There’s a complication built into the question, given that when humping gear into the outdoors, weight is always an issue. The author’s answer? “Build your gear list by prioritizing safety.” That entails having some means of communication, water, food, and shelter foremost and then adding on “extra shit.” As to that, he notes gravely, “a National Park Service geologist recently estimated that as much as 215,000 pounds of feces has been tossed haphazardly into crevasses along the climbing route on Denali National Park’s Kahiltna Glacier, where climbers melt snow for drinking water.” Ingesting fecal matter is a quick route to sickness, and Rinella adds, there are plenty of outdoorspeople who have no idea of how to keep their bodily wastes from ruining the scenery or poisoning the water supply. Throughout, the author provides precise information about wilderness first aid, ranging from irrigating wounds to applying arterial pressure to keeping someone experiencing a heart attack (a common event outdoors, given that so many people overexert without previous conditioning) alive. Some takeaways: Keep your crotch dry, don’t pitch a tent under a dead tree limb, walk side-hill across mountains, and “do not enter a marsh or swamp in flip-flops, and think twice before entering in strap-on sandals such as Tevas or Chacos.”

A welcome reference, entertaining and information-packed, for any outdoors-inclined reader.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-12969-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2020

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