A former director of the Univ. of Pennsylvania Press muses on words, culture, and their interconnection in 11 sometimes curmudgeonly, previously published pieces (from American Scholar, Public Policy, etc.) In the title essay, Erwin traces the modern era's assault on language to Marx, who saw language as a weapon of oppression, to Baudelaire, who raised ""anxiety to a spiritual principal,"" and to others. Yet now, in the era of ""disposable"" language, the author sees evidence that ""some of the brighter critics"" are ""teasing affirmative views of language out of early modern texts."" He dwells on ""heresy"" and ""reform"" as cases of the ""misalignment"" of meaning and common usage. Using the word ""feudalism"" to imply backwardness, he says, shows an ignorance of a medieval system whose economic and legal arrangements were advanced, even modern. As for American culture, Erwin questions its obsession with solitude and individualism. Among our celebrated writers, Thoreau ""dressed up walks around the rural block as moral feats."" Success and a ""skill at improvising"" made Cooper ""our aboriginal famous writer"" and set the standard for writers in ""a commodity culture."" Readers may be put off by Erwin's combativeness, and awkward phrases like ""the combination of selective discovery and craving for relief for reasons the opposite of his."" ""The Case of the Missing T-Shirt"" calls for a scholarly reconsideration of Edna St. Vincent Millay, then belittles its point by veering off to criticize humorless feminists who have ignored the ""lippy redhead"" because she won't help their careers. A collection of idiosyncratic views--""Greece and Rome are supplementary reading. The West begins in Mesopotamia""--addressed primarily to the ""minority to whom conscientious speech matters.