Book Review: Babel No More by Michael Erard

In Babel No More, Michael Erard goes on a search for hyperpolyglots – people who are said to speak over six languages. But he also wants to know about the legendary hyperpolyglots who are rumored to speak more than 50, 60, or even 70 languages. You can therefore understand why I approached this book with a healthy dose of skepticism. Do I believe one person can speak 70 languages? No. Do I believe that other people believe that someone can speak 70 languages? Yes. After all, that’s where the legends of these hyperpolyglots came from. But I’ve had training in linguistics. Language is a trickier subject for me.

I was skeptical that Erard would not approach the subject of hyperpolyglots with as much skepticism as me. Fortunately, I was wrong. Erard is on point with the nature of language learners, separating the fact from fiction in the legend of the hyperpolyglot:

The hyperpolyglot embodies both of these poles: the linguistic wildness of our primordial past and the multilingualism of the looming technotopia. That’s why stories circulate about this or that person who can speak an astounding number of languages – such people are holy freaks. Touch one, you touch his power. […] Once you say you speak ten languages, you’ll soon hear the gossip that you speak twenty or forty. That’s why people who speak several languages have been mistrusted as spies; people wonder where their loyalties lie.

Jacket design by Zocalo Design

Needless to say, Erard finds many interesting characters in his journey of hyperpolyglots. It’s part of what makes the book so interesting. But he also gets into how language works. And, thankfully, he doesn’t do it from a best-seller pop-science fascinating-but-total-bullshit way. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is, but I can give you a sample quote:

Language, however, encompasses more than the communicating we sometimes do with it. If language had evolved solely for the means of communication, we’d rarely misunderstand each other. Instead, we have a system in which worlds mean more than one thing, in which one can devise many sentences to capture the same idea, in which one moment of silence means more than a thousand pictures. No animal species could survive this intensity of ambiguity. Moreover, people don’t appreciate how little of our meaning is in our words, even as we decipher hand gestures, facial movements, body postures automatically every day. What we mean is implied by us and then inferred by our listeners.

The real beauty of Babel No More, however, is the way in which Erard demystifies the process of language learning without removing the wonderment that people attribute to it. If anything, when you better understand the multifaceted nature of language learning, you will appreciate it more, while at the same time avoid being fooled into thinking someone could speak 70 languages or that someone who speaks more than three must be a spy.


Up next: The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

This is the easiest book review I’ve ever written. It goes like this: If you like Neil Gaiman, you will like Stardust.

There’s not much more to say about it than that. In typical Gaiman style, Stardust is an entertaining story, with equal parts fantasy and reality, that could be a whole lot more drawn out than it is. Whenever I read Gaiman, I wonder if I like his way of presenting the bare necessities of worlds and stories which could fill page after page. If Gaiman were to go into more detail (not uncommon for fantasy writers, we’ve all seen the 1,000-page paperback bricks in the stores that are one of a nine part series), would I like the story as much as I do?

Picture courtesy of

I don’t know and Stardust didn’t answer that question. But that’s OK because it was an enjoyable read nonetheless. The first Gaiman I read was Fragile Things, a collection of short stories which I liked. Then I read The Last Temptation, a graphic novel which I really liked. I place Stardust in between these. It would be hard to beat The Last Temptation. It’s a graphic novel with Alice Cooper as the antagonist. NeedIsaymore?

Don’t sweat it if you’ve seen the movie. I saw Stardust in the theaters and watched it again after I read the book. They are two different beasts and I’m not sure which is better. The book of course has more context and detail, but the movie has longer roles for Robet DeNiro and Ricky Gervais’s characters. So it’s a toss up. I recommend both.

One final note: Stardust was originally released in comic form with illustrations by Charles Vess. I wish I had read this instead of the pictureless paperback novel. If you’re going to get Stardust, get your hands on one of the comic editions.

Up next: The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow

Book Review: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach

I was pretty sure that The Three Christs of Ypsilanti was going to be exciting. Here is the blurb on the back cover:

On July 1, 1959, at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, the social psychologist Milton Rokeach brought together three paranoid schizophranics […] The men had one thing in common: each believed himself to be Jesus Christ.

This is the type of crazy shit that was possible in the 1950s. But don’t worry, it’s all in the name of Science.

Rokeach’s investigation was “based on three simple assumptions: (1) Not all beliefs a person holds are of equal importance to him; beliefs range from central to peripheral. (2) The more central – or, in our terminology, the more primitive – a belief, the more it will resist change. (3) If a primitive belief is somehow changed, the repercussions in the rest of the system will be wide – far wider than those produced by change in a peripheral belief.”

The difference between primitive and peripheral beliefs is central to the book. Primitive beliefs, to Rokeach, “are taken for granted: a person’s primitive beliefs represent the basic truths he holds about physical reality, social reality, and himself and his own nature.” These can be backed up by other people or they can be simply based on a person’s own decisions about themselves and their world. Basically, a person’s belief in a physical object, such as a table, will be endorsed by society, while their belief in their own religious faith needs no endorsement.

Rokeach goes much deeper into the literature and research on belief systems, which was interesting to me, since I am not a psychologist. Even though Three Christs was written in the 1960s, it was all news to me. I can’t say how someone in psychology today would react to Rokeach’s descriptions, but he at least bases a lot of his assertions on the ideas of the time.

The belief system is also central to Three Christs because Rokeach’s experiment was essentially to see if he could get one or more of his three patients to change a primitive belief that they held, namely, that they were Jesus Christ. Since primitive beliefs are so resistant to change and so taken for granted, Rokeach wondered what would happen when the Christs were presented with two other people claiming the exact same identity, thereby giving each of them the ultimate contradiction to their primitive belief. Rokeach placed them together in the same ward of the same mental hospital and they had daily meetings for two years.

It’s an intriguing idea and one not without its problems. First, there is the ethical question of what Rokeach was doing. It may have been done with good intentions, but Rokeach himself admits that he “really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.” Funny that a man studying three people who believe they are Christ would describe himself as God, isn’t it? No. To some people it represents what can go horribly wrong in psychology.

A related problem with Rokeach’s study is actually voiced by one of the Christs, Leon, who says Rokeach is casting out “negative psychology,” meaning he’s doing more harm than good. This is very possible and the ways that the Christs react to Rokeach interrupting their lives and beliefs can be seen as evidence of it. It’s especially poignant because of how Leon notes that Rokeach is someone who should know better.

I must point out that there are several ways to read this book. In a review of Three Christs, wrote that “Rokeach’s book reflects a remarkably humane approach for its era,” but also noted that the book can be “starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of [the three Christs] in the service of academic curiosity.”

For another set of contrasting views, Jenny Diski writes that Three Christs can explain “the terror of the human condition, and the astonishing fact that people battle for their rights and dignity in the face of that terror, in order to establish their place in the world, whatever they decide it has to be.” Thomas Szasz, on the other hand, disagrees and says “the book is about impersonation, not mental illness – patients impersonating Christ, Rokeach impersonating a scientist studying nature. The inmates at Ypsilanti were not ‘Christs’, and everyone, including the inmates, knew it.”

All of these readings are possible. Also, after reading the book, they all seem plausible. But instead of dwelling on these different readings and clicking through to the full reviews, I would suggest that you just read the thing and take away from it what you will. It’s an extreme case, for sure, so don’t make too many generalizations about schizophrenia, the mental health system, or psychologists based on Three Christs. But get a version of the book that has the afterword which Rokeach wrote twenty years after the book was first published. In a few short pages it manages to put the study into perspective.

Speaking of Christ, happy holidays everyone.

Up next: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Book Review: A Gun for Sale and Under the Black Flag

These are two books that I put down before finishing. I don’t often do that. In fact, it’s something I only became comfortable with doing last year. In other words, all the books that I stopped reading before then still have the bookmarks in them. I probably said I would pick them up again one day. And my poor lost bookmarks believed it.

Putting books down before they’re finished often makes me feel guilty. It makes me feel like a quitter somehow. Obviously, it’s such a hangup for me that I can write two paragraphs about it. But recently, I’ve decided that forcing my way through a boring read is a waste of time. I enjoy reading so much that I’m still amazed that a book can be boring. Maybe I’m too naive, but here are two reasons why boring books surprise me.

A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene

I’ve never read Graham Greene before and this misfire won’t put me off him for good, but it was a stretch. For a mystery novel, everything seems to be in place: it starts out with a murder, the stakes are high for the main characters, and there’s a sleazeball middleman who is totally going to get capped. But for some reason, this novel just couldn’t cut it for me. I was surprised that this book bored me because I don’t require much from my mysteries. But this one just had me wanting to read some Perry Mason, which I’m planning to so soon.

Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly

This book came highly recommended, even though it didn’t need to – it’s about pirates. I like pirates. I was prepared to learn that what I thought was fact is actually fiction. This book should have been right up my ally. Surprisingly, it wasn’t (Surprise!). It was boring. It was a boring book about pirates. Such a thing exists. On a positive note, this book does a very good job at pointing out that the truth is stranger than fiction and what you don’t know about the pirates is cooler than what you do know. But be prepared to wade through the high seas of boring prose.

There’s nothing more to say. Just needed to get the guilt off my chest.

Up next: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach

Book Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter

John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is one of the most interesting books about the English language that I have read. That’s saying a lot since books about the English language is all I seem to read. I don’t review them enough since they’re usually textbooks (fun!), but Tongue definitely deserves a review, even if it’s just me telling you to go out and buy it.

Go out and buy Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.


Tongue attempts to answer a few questions about English that have either been overlooked or brushed aside by linguists. One of them is the mysterious nature of our meaningless do in phrases such as Do you realize…?. R.L.G. at the Economist’s blog Johnson has described Mr. McWhorter’s stance much better than I could, so I’ll link to that post (Hint: the existence of meaningless do in Welsh and Cornish, as well as English, is not a coincidence).

McWhorter also takes on the Viking impact on English and the pesky notion that our words channel our thought, but what I liked best about his book is when he points out that there is a problem when linguists focus solely on one aspect of one language. He says,

The specialization endemic to modern academia means that few of these scholars do their work with grammar sketches of all the Germanic languages and their histories in their heads, much less of languages around the world. They write mostly about English alone and, as often as not, just single features of its grammar.

It’s an unfortunate reality. Specialists in any field can’t be expected to know everything about their field (which is why they’re called “specialists”). So I enjoyed how McWhorter refrained from going on a witch hunt and faulting the linguists who overlooked the topics of Tongue.

As I said before, you should read Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. It is well written and well researched. Moreover, it’s a great book for people who can’t be bothered to read linguistics textbooks and journals – or for those of us who wish to read something in between the textbooks and journals.

Up next: A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene and Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly

Kurt Vonnegut Twofer – Hocus Pocus and Look at the Birdie

I’m going to assume that you, dear reader, have not read any Vonnegut. Because if you have, all I need to say about these two books is that if you enjoyed the other Vonnegut works you read, you’ll enjoy these too.

Maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe you need to have enjoyed a certain aspect of Vonnegut’s writing style.

Sometimes Vonnegut will start the story by telling how it ends. Sometimes he will tell the reader exactly which character is going to die and when. His characters are never perfect – more often than not they are miserable and despicable. Vonnegut lays their hopes, dreams, and sins on the table. A Kurt Vonnegut main character is a shining light set on dim. I sometimes forget how refreshing it is to read Kurt Vonnegut.

There is an honesty and frankness in Vonnegut’s storytelling that is irresistible. To enjoy a Vonnegut book is to appreciate the imperfection of life – and to get on living it.

If you have read Vonnegut, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you liked his dark wit, the clever ways he implies “Hey, life sucks, but it could be worse” on every page, than you will enjoy Hocus Pocus.

Hocus Pocus is about a Vietnam Veteran that has gone to teach at a liberal college for the idiot children of rich people. He is writing the story from a prison tower because he has been charged with helping the prisoners from across the lake escape and reek havoc on the town. As usual, the book is both a great story and a biting satirical comment on the world we live in. And Vonnegut is on point with this one.

For those that have not read Vonnegut, don’t look for a protagonist to root for or a tale of triumphs and tribulations. If you’re reading Vonnegut for the first time, be prepared to question your beliefs. The light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train.


Look at the Birdie is a collection of short stories. The stories are excellent, but like the last book of Vonnegut’s short stories I read (Armageddon in Retrospect – review forthcoming, I promise), I was left wanting more. As I said, the stories are excellent, but I wouldn’t take Look at the Birdie over Hocus Pocus. It’s probably not fair to compare a collection of short stories to a novel, but this is a two-for review, so I have to do a bit of comparison.

Basically, if you haven’t read any Vonnegut and had to choose one over the other, ask yourself which you would rather – easing your way into Vonnegut (Look at the Birdie) or jumping in with both feet (Hocus Pocus). But don’t think about that for too long. I can pretty much guarantee that you will enjoy both.

Up next: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter

The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall

I’m trying to think of something good to write about Joshua Kendall’s biography of Peter Mark Roget, but I just can’t, even though the story of Roget’s life includes madness, depression, a death-defying race to get out of Napoleon’s France, and lexicography. Those are things that would make a book interesting to me.

I think my biggest beef with The Man Who Made Lists is that it’s too scant on the creation of Roget’s Thesaurus. What was I supposed to think though, when the book’s sub-heading is “Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus?” Sure, Roget made lists of synonyms throughout his life, but he was everything but a lexicographer until he was in his seventies. When Roget finally did get serious with changing the world of thesauri, he did so in a matter of months. The creation of Roget’s Thesaurus was not the odyssey that was the Oxford English Dictionary.

And yet, Roget did have an interesting life. While tutoring two pupils, he took them to France to broaden their horizons (think of your interrailing trip, but imagine your teacher had come along). That’s when Napoleon declared war on England and Roget had to sneak his way into Germany or be locked up in prison. Later in life, Roget made a name for himself in science and medicine – not an easy feat ever – at a time when these fields were exploding. And, in what has got to be my favorite part of the book, homeboy liked to move it move it:

At seven, the dancing began […] Roget remained on the dance floor until eleven, when he took a half-hour break to drink a bowl of soup. But then he was back at it. He danced away the rest of the century and continued until four-thirty in the morning. (107-108)

So even though he was a huge nerd, Peter Mark Roget knew how to party like it was 1999 almost two hundred years before it actually was 1999.

I still would not recommend reading The Man Who Made Lists. If you go in expecting a book about Roget’s life and not a book about Roget’s Thesaurus, then it might be fine. But I felt like I wasted my time. I’m sure there is a good book out there about thesauri and Roget’s hand in setting the gold standard. If not, there should be.

Up next: Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut.

Bonus! The Hocus Pocus review also contains a review of Look at the Birdie by Vonnegut. It’s a twofer!

Under the Dome by Stephen King

This review will probably make more sense to those who have already read Under the Dome. There are no spoilers below, but the main focus of the article is general enough that anyone who has read any fiction can relate to it. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed Under the Dome very much. What follows is a thought I had while reading it.

One of the better parts of Under the Dome is how well Stephen King juggles its many characters. The main antagonist, Big Jim Rennie, has been described as “The power-obsessed second selectman of Chester’s Mill, owner of a used car dealership and […] the de facto leader of the Mill.” He’s basically a big bad fish in a small gullible pond. He’s also (arguably) a stereotype, since people like him exist somewhere between our collective conscious and the real world. There are people like him in every small town and his character is imbibed with all the bad stereotypical traits that people assume people like him have.

But while reading Under the Dome, I started to wonder if people like Big Jim really exist in the world*. But I mean just like him. I wondered what they would think of Big Jim Rennie (even though they are the type of person that would never read a Stephen King novel). Would they recognize themselves in his character? We all like to think of ourselves as the hero, but someone has to be the bad guy.
But is this knocking too hard on the door of fiction? In the quest to create believable characters, what happens when many actual humans could be a terrible, terrible antagonist like Jim Rennie? I guess the answer to this would be that I’m placing too much faith and hope in morally bankrupt people. Everyone identifies with the hero of stories because no one believes they are the antagonist in real life. They may admit to acting wrong from time to time, but like every blameless character in fiction, their heart is in the right place.

Before this post devolves (elevates?) into a psychological realm that I’m not smart enough to properly address, I’ll cut these random musings off here. Under the Dome is certainly not the only book to include believable characters like Big Jim Rennie, but it was the first book to make me think about how characters are perceived by other readers, especially those who are the real life versions of the book’s antagonist. I have a feeling this is a mental game I’ll be playing with every piece of fiction I read in the future.

In all my years of literary analysis (ha!), I can’t remember a term or criticism that described the practice of critiquing the ways characters are viewed by the people who embody their traits. Should there be? Readers?

Up next: The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall

*Big jim Rennie was based off of Dick Cheney. Follow this to see an explanation from King. While there are no spoilers in the explanation, the Wikipedia page does have many, many spoilers. That’s why I put it down here with an asterisk.

Patriot’s vs People’s Part IV – This is the End

Patriot’s vs People’s is an analytical review of two books about American history that most would assume are politically opposed – Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s A Patriot’s Guide to the History of the United States and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It started as an idea after I bought Zinn’s book and was given Schweikart and Allen’s by an uncle who so rightly explained his gift as a way for me to read “the other side of the story.” I decided to read them side by side, chapter by chapter, in order to compare and contrast the two works to each other. It didn’t go so well. This is Part IV, here are Part I, Part II and Part III.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fishy Facts

This post has been a long time coming. The first three posts of Patriot’s vs. People’s can be found here. I’m sorry to all my readers* to have to cut it off like this.

After reading fighting my way through Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, I decided that I would never again waste time reading a book that wasn’t enjoyable or beneficial to me. That is why I have put down A Patriot’s History of the United States forever.

The first problem with Patriot’s is that it’s not well written. I know that alone is no reason to give up on a book. I don’t expect Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen – or any historian for that matter – to write like Shakespeare. But poor writing is merely the tip of the iceberg and I won’t focus on it more here. Pick up Patriot’s in the store and find out for yourself.

The other problem(s) depend on which type of person you are. You either know American history or you do not. I’m choosing these two extremes because Patriot’s is a waste of time for both of them, and therefore a waste of time for anyone in between. Let’s start from the viewpoint of someone who does not know American history. This is the only type of reader for whom Patriot’s can be of any value, but certain restrictions apply.

If you know nothing of American history and do not intend to read any American history books besides Patriot’s, you will not feel like you have wasted your time. Because the information in Patriot’s is factual. Patriot’s has a conservative bend to it, but the authors admit that (or at least they admit to being anti-liberal and they start the book with a transcript of a congratulatory interview with Rush Limbaugh). But that’s where the fun stops. Learn from anywhere but Patriot’s and you’re going to be disappointed, dear reader, because Patriot’s chooses its facts wisely.

And that’s where the problems start for readers who know any American history. The amount of holes in Patriot’s depends on how much you know about American history. The more you know, the sooner you will realize you are wasting your time. This is why I recommend Patriot’s only for those who both know nothing of American history and do not intend to learn any more from any other sources. Because the more you learn, the more you will realize you wasted your time reading Patriot’s.

The other problem you will have (and I sure did), no matter what type of reader you are, is personal. A Patriot’s History of the United States is insulting. When you think about it, it’s infuriating that Schweikart and Allen would write Patriot’s the way they did because their style assumes that you are an idiot. Why else would they pick and choose facts to support their biased opinion, lie and say it’s “an honest evaluation of the history of the United States,” and then not expect anyone to call their bluff? Because they are either shitty historians or they think you’re dumb.

I have nothing else to say about this. If I came off as irritated, it’s because I am. I’m upset that I wasted my time, but I’m slowing learning to move on. I will finish People’s, because even though it was as admittedly biased as Patriot’s, it was at least full of facts I don’t already know (and the writing is better – less condescending). But I doubt I’ll go back to it soon. I’m off American history for a while.

Up next: Under the Dome by Stephen King

*This post is especially dedicated to one Anonymous commenter, who was kind enough to not only read my other posts, but encourage me to keep writing. I just can’t do it, my friend. I’m too jaded. If you end up reading Patriot’s, feel free to let me know how it went – if you think it’s worth it.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo OR How to Get Laid and Solve Crimes In Scandinavia

Just like the Nobel Prize, Dolph Lundgren and a certain variety of delicious red fish, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the latest Swedish phenomenon to capture the hearts of Americans. Flying off book shelves at a rapid pace and quickly surpassing the degenerates from “The Jersey Shore” as the primary topic of water cooler conversation, Stiegg Larsson’s debut novel is a captivating tale loaded with financial intrigue and family drama with a healthy dose of European sexuality peppered in for good measure.

Larsson’s story centers around the decades old disappearance of a member of the powerful but fading Vanger family. The patriarch of the Vanger clan, Henrik, enlists the help of disgraced financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, to solve the mystery of his missing niece, Harriet Vanger. Henrik uses the carrot on the stick approach to lure Mikael with the promise of clearing his sullied name.

As the plot thickens, Mikael realizes that he will not be able to solve the mystery by himself. He then enlists the help of the unusual albeit brilliant Lisbeth Salander. Together the pair dig deeper into the mysterious disappearance of Harriet Vanger and unravel the deep dark secrets of the Vanger clan.

This book easily surpasses The Da Vinci Code as the best thriller of the 21st century with its fast pacing, sharp writing and interesting characters. Larsson does a great job here keeping the reader glued to the pages until the final act. While there are obvious suspects, the writer keeps you guessing up until the very end as far as who the culprits are and what is the ultimate outcome.

One of my gripes with the book is that the characters are a bit flat. This could be because the intent was to draw out the development over a string of ten books, but the characters remain pretty stoic throughout this volume. Mikael remains righteous, moral and extra resoursceful; Lisbeth is always strange, cold and jaded; and Henry is always rich and old. None of the characters really grow or change in any way.

Spoiler Alert

The only other problem I had with the book is the huge amount of sexual ambiguity in the story. While sex, sexuality and rape are a huge part of the plot, I feel like there was plenty of intercourse that was just plain unnecessary – particularly that of the two main characters. I sort of felt their sexual relationship was misplaced and illadvised, especially considering Mikael has an ex-wife, a best friend/lover AND a concubine on the grounds of the Vanger compound by the quarter point of the story. I expected the two to have more of a mentor/mentee, father/daughter type relationship rather than one that gets convoluted with intimacy.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a great book for anyone looking for a fast entertaining read. Don’t expect James Joyce, but then again, don’t expect James Joyce.

Happy Reading!