An informative and often pleasantly surprising cultural history.




The creation of an American dictionary incited fierce rivalries.

Martin (Samuel Johnson: A Biography, 2008, etc.) turns his attention to Americans who strived to compile a new dictionary to reflect the spirit of a new nation. In vivid detail, drawing on prodigious archival sources, the author follows the efforts of two strong-willed men who devoted their lives to the task: Noah Webster (1758-1843) and Joseph Emerson Worcester (1784-1865). Reviling Samuel Johnson for the “exclusive, pompous, artificial, and formal regularity of style” of his Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, many Americans called for “democratic expression more in keeping with the surging American romantic spirit of freedom, simplicity, and individuality.” Webster, a man of prickly nature and strong opinions, aimed to bring “linguistic unity and independence” to his dictionary. This meant that British words and definitions needed to be reassessed, as well as spelling: “k” dropped from words such as “musick” and “frolick”; “re” replaced by “er,” making the British “theatre” the American “theater.” Moreover, Webster believed that “grammar and lexicography should be moral agents, shielding the public by omitting language that was morally repugnant and offensive and providing definitions that were morally instructive.” Johnson had defined “whore,” but Webster would not. His American Dictionary of the English Language appeared in 1828, with numerous editions and abridgments quickly following. Hoping to dominate the dictionary market, he had formidable competition from Worcester, shy, gentle, and more scholarly than Webster, who had already published several respected works of geography and history when he decided “that lexicography was his great calling.” Martin chronicles the many editions, revisions, and innovations as the competition intensified. The dictionary wars were hotly debated in newspapers and magazines, a drama that “captivated the American public.” After Webster died in 1843, family members vied for control of his copyright and profits, finally bringing an upstart publisher—the Merriam Brothers—into the project. Their new American Dictionary, published in 1847 and continuously revised, carried the Webster name into the future.

An informative and often pleasantly surprising cultural history.

Pub Date: May 28, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-691-18891-1

Page Count: 328

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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


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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Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.


An engaging, casual history of librarians and libraries and a famous one that burned down.

In her latest, New Yorker staff writer Orlean (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011, etc.) seeks to “tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine.” It’s the story of the Los Angeles Public Library, poet Charles Bukowski’s “wondrous place,” and what happened to it on April 29, 1986: It burned down. The fire raged “for more than seven hours and reached temperatures of 2000 degrees…more than one million books were burned or damaged.” Though nobody was killed, 22 people were injured, and it took more than 3 million gallons of water to put it out. One of the firefighters on the scene said, “We thought we were looking at the bowels of hell….It was surreal.” Besides telling the story of the historic library and its destruction, the author recounts the intense arson investigation and provides an in-depth biography of the troubled young man who was arrested for starting it, actor Harry Peak. Orlean reminds us that library fires have been around since the Library of Alexandria; during World War II, “the Nazis alone destroyed an estimated hundred million books.” She continues, “destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never happened.” The author also examines the library’s important role in the city since 1872 and the construction of the historic Goodhue Building in 1926. Orlean visited the current library and talked to many of the librarians, learning about their jobs and responsibilities, how libraries were a “solace in the Depression,” and the ongoing problems librarians face dealing with the homeless. The author speculates about Peak’s guilt but remains “confounded.” Maybe it was just an accident after all.

Bibliophiles will love this fact-filled, bookish journey.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4018-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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