I haven’t recommended a book in a while, so this month I’m recommending two, both of them new, both of them about language. (And each one blurbed by the author of the other one, which must be a coincidence, right?)
“Controversial terms, from ‘abortion’ to ‘Zionism,’ tend to shut down dialog because they mean different things to different people.” The AllSides Red Blue Dictionary defines these hot-button terms across the political spectrum: “Until we fully understand what a term means to someone else, we don't know the issue and can't effectively communicate.”
I’m enjoying (and learning from) the short essays Susan Orlean publishes on Medium, especially her stories about the writing craft. Here she is on beginnings and on endings.
Most naming advice in the popular media makes me clutch my head in despair, but this Inc. article by Minda Zetlin is different. Zetlin interviewed experienced name developers Anthony Shore and David Placek—both of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with—and their real-world examples are smart and helpful. “Avoid names that describe your product” and “Don’t fall in love with one name” are the first tips, and yes, you’ve heard them from me, too. (h/t trademark lawyer Ed Timberlake)
Will we ever look back nostalgically at 2020, the year of COVID and wildfires, loss and loneliness? That’s the question I ask, and answer, in a new essay for Medium, where I explore ideas that don’t quite fit elsewhere, and where I stand a tiny chance of making those ideas pay. If you’re a Medium member ($5 a month or $50 a year), you can let me know you liked this piece—and the 29 others I’ve published there—by awarding me up to 50 “claps.” Medium magically converts those claps into dollars that magically show up in my account.
It’s Word of the Year season, and two British dictionaries are leading the pack. Collins picked lockdown – a word we threw around here in the US but never experienced the way they did in the UK and elsewhere. (A friend of mine is literally confined to her London apartment after spending a month in France: she can’t go outdoors at all.) And Oxford Languages, publisher of the Oxford dictionaries, chose a phenomenon instead of a single word: the impact of the COVID-19 on language. “What struck the team as most distinctive in 2020 was the sheer scale and scope of change,” Katherine Connor Martin, the company’s head of product, told the New York Times’s Jennifer Schuessler. “This event was experienced globally and by its nature changed the way we express every other thing that happened this year.”
“Social distance”: sign in an Oakland produce-store window, May 2020.
For my November Visual Thesaurus column I look at our language of nostalgia and retrospect: at the words, old and new, we use when we talk about the past. Words like Before Times[s], retro, oldie, newstalgia, fauxstalgia, and reboot.
Full access to “Into the Past” is restricted to subscribers. Here’s a preview:
This month’s book recommendation is The End of October, by Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker staff writer best known for his deeply researched nonfiction (The Looming Tower, about Al-Qaeda and 9/11; Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief). This new book, however, is a novel, although you’ll be forgiven for mistaking it for journalism.
It’s set in a time very much like the present (the US president is “self-conscious about his girth” and keeps a tanning bed in the White House Cosmetology Room—an actual room in the actual White House), in which a viral pandemic spreads from Indonesia to the hajj in Mecca to a submarine under the Atlantic to North America and beyond. Our hero, epidemiologist Henry Parsons, scrambles to decode the virus and prevent its spread while civilization’s institutions crumble on every continent. If the plot is a little overstuffed and the dialogue speech-y, you’re unlikely to care, because the story is so eerily prescient and timely. (Wright began writing the book in 2015 and turned in the manuscript in 2017, long before COVID-19 broke out.) Wright’s journalistic background serves him well: you’ll learn a lot—painlessly—about viral reproduction, cytokine storms, and the workings of submarines. I listened to the audiobook, which is well narrated by Mark Bramhall: it’s the audio equivalent of a page-turner.
This month’s book recommendation is The Plague and I, published by Betty MacDonald in 1948. The book is a lightly fictionalized account of MacDonald’s nine-month stay in a Seattle tuberculosis sanatorium in the late 1930s, when TB was known as “the white plague”; there were no effective vaccines; and treatment entailed rigorous bedrest, hearty meals, and an occasional session of artificial pneumothorax, in which gas was injected into the pleural cavity. Survival was far from certain and recovery times were long: many of MacDonald’s fellow inpatients remained at the sanatorium for years.
Sounds grim, right? Here’s the thing: it’s a hoot. MacDonald is sadly overlooked now—she died in 1958—but she was one of the foremost comic writers of her era, and The Plague and I is sharply observed, un-self-pitying, and downright chipper. (One of the chapters is titled “I’m Cold and So Is the Attitude of the Staff.”) I guarantee it will make you feel much more upbeat about our own current predicament.
I’ll get to the regularly scheduled links in a bit, but I wanted to lead off with some recommendations from my 2019 media diet (a term I’ve borrowed from Jason Kottke, whose blog always makes for tasty consumption).