A rich cultural and linguistic history.

A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING

THE CURIOUS HISTORY OF ALPHABETICAL ORDER

The centurieslong history of the evolution of the alphabet as we know it.

In her latest, social historian and novelist Flanders tackles the curious history of alphabetical order. The author creates a fitting structure for the book, proceeding from “A Is for Antiquity” to “Y Is for Y2K” (not every letter gets its own chapter). Flanders moves from a discussion of language in the classical world all the way to the 21st century, with hypertext and other breakthroughs in language acquisition and absorption. It might seem like a relatively dull subject, but the author’s prose is consistently engaging. “Writing is powerful because it transcends time,” she writes, “and because it creates an artificial memory, or store of knowledge, a memory that can be located physically, be it on clay tablets, on walls, on stone, on bronze, papyrus, parchment or paper.” Flanders introduces the Benedictine monks and their influential work in their monasteries, and after spending several chapters on the Middle Ages, she introduces the birth of printing as well as movable type and the first card catalogs. Flanders admits that while many history buffs think that alphabetization “followed hard on the heels of printing…the reality was less tidy, as reality usually is.” Fascinating character sketches further the story, among them vibrant portraits of Samuel Pepys, John Locke, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but we should all hail librarians (“the institutional memory of their libraries”) as the unsung heroes of this history. Flanders often points out that many of the advances in the organizing principles of the alphabet have been the result of constant experimentation rather than lightning-strike breakthroughs. For readers who love language or armchair historians interested in the evolution of linguistics, this is catnip. For the mildly curious, it’s accessible, narratively adventurous, and surprisingly insightful about how the alphabet marks us all in some way.

A rich cultural and linguistic history.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5416-7507-0

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2020

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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Certain to be controversial, but all the more important for that.

PIRATE ENLIGHTENMENT, OR THE REAL LIBERTALIA

The final book from the longtime activist anthropologist.

In a lively display of up-to-date anthropology, Graeber (1961-2020) offers a behind-the-scenes view of how a skilled researcher extracts knowledge from the slimmest evidence about a long-ago multiethnic society composed of pirates and settled members of existing communities. In this posthumous book, the author turns to 17th- and 18th-century Madagascar and examines hard-to-credit sources to tease out some plausible facts about the creation and early life of a distinctive Indian Ocean society, some of whose Malagasy descendants (“the Zana-Malata”) are alive today. Exhibiting his characteristic politically tinged sympathies, Graeber describes the pirates who plied the seas and settled on Madagascar as an ethno-racially integrated proletariat “spearheading the development of new forms of democratic governance.” He also argues that many of the pirates and others displayed European Enlightenment ideas even though they inhabited “a very unlikely home for Enlightenment political experiments.” Malagasies were “Madagascar’s most stubbornly egalitarian peoples,” and, as the author shows, women played significant roles in the society, which reflected Jewish, Muslin, Ismaili, and Gnostic origins as well as native Malagasy and Christian ones. All of this information gives Graeber the chance to wonder, in his most provocative conjecture, whether Enlightenment ideals might have emerged as much beyond Western lands as within them. His argument that pirates, women traders, and community leaders in early 18th-century Madagascar were “global political actors in the fullest sense of the term” is overstated, but even with such excesses taken into account, the text is a tour de force of anthropological scholarship and an important addition to Malagasy history. It’s also a work written with a pleasingly light touch. The principal audience will be anthropologists, but those who love pirate lore or who seek evidence that mixed populations were long capable of establishing proto-democratic societies will also find enlightenment in these pages.

Certain to be controversial, but all the more important for that.

Pub Date: Jan. 24, 2023

ISBN: 978-0-374-61019-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2022

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