February 21, 2008

Review: Letter Perfect, by David Sacks


Title: Letter Perfect
Author: David Sacks
ISBN: 0676974880
First published: 2003
This edition: 2004

I am reading this most wonderful book.

Letter Perfect ("The A-to-Z History of Our Alphabet") was written by David Sacks and previously published under the name Language Visible, and even more previously published as a series of columns for the Ottawa Citizen. The book begins with a broad introduction to the history of the alphabet, and then profiles each letter on its own. The history of each letter is traced from the time it was first written to present usage with explanations of significant uses (like "A-okay" or "B-list").

I haven't finished this book yet -- I'm only up to H -- but I can say with confidence that it's one of the best, and most fascinating, books I've read in the past year. Sacks' scholarship is obviously quite thorough, but he manages to pack the information in without becoming repetitive or pedantic. He draws in sources from all over the world and all throughout history: everything from text on ancient ruins to modern grammatical debates. There are some beautiful illustrations, as well, including those giant manuscript letters one might not otherwise get to see. And it's all so interesting! I feel like I've learned something with each sentence that I've read.

My only quibble with Letter Perfect is a small issue of layout. There are many magazine-style digressions: that is, supplementary bits of information in their own boxes, alongside the more regular text. This is not a problem in itself; indeed, it's quite useful, and definitely helps to keep the narrative focussed. The problem is that these digressions are sometimes very strangely spaced in relation to the narrative proper.

One example of this: the text from page 28 is continued on page 41. In between that there's a long digression which runs from page 29 to page 40 -- except not really, because it in turn is interrupted by another digression which takes over pages 38 & 39. It's not a hugely horrific situation, but it could stand being fixed in future editions.

That being said, I would highly and heartily recommend this text for anyone who loves letters and language--and even for those who don't, because they just might after coming in contact with Sacks's work.

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