If my review title makes you want to howl and scream with the unparalleled, uncompromising rage of a true English-language pedant, then you are going to love this book. Hard.
The full title is Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling, but reading it is a breeze. It is a book for the layperson, so even if you haven’t quite nailed that dissertation defense, you’ll be fine. I first became familiar with David Crystal several years ago when I read his A Little Book of Language. I’ll go ahead and credit that one with my ongoing (and increasingly professional) love affair with linguistics. This book is similarly charming, and far more loaded. If you tend toward descriptivism, Dr. Crystal is going to do his damnedest to shut you down. This is an old man, and he often sounds it, but the depths of his enthusiasm and knowledge are infectious and he turns what would be trivia in the hands of a less invested writer into an engrossing, millennium-spanning saga of the character and personality of our favorite linguistic streetwalker: English.
Crystal’s central thesis seems to be two-fold: that there is a method to the madness of English orthography and that we can and should do a far better job equipping ourselves and our children to manage it. And manageable it is! But madness with a method is still madness and tracing that winding road from Anglo-Saxon to Shakespeare to spelling bees to tweets is fascinating from beginning to end.
It is a beautiful history, told by a man bewildered with love, and appended with two concerned, pragmatic chapters on how to help other people love it better. “The story of the English writing system is so intriguing, and the histories behind individual words so fascinating, that anyone who dares to treat spelling as an adventure will find the journey rewarding,” he says. And he’s right. So go on an adventure; I dare you.