on February 2, 2011
O.K., so maybe this book isn't truly "letter perfect." It has its positive points, but it certainly also has its flaws.
There are some things in it that I found a bit annoying, including but not limited to, a lot of repetition and --- especially --- the way that the "main" text in the chapters is almost constantly interrupted by those "side" bits. Most if not all of them contain crucial information, but they can be distracting when you're trying to read the "main" text. I think they really should have been placed at the ends of the chapters.
And I wouldn't have minded if Sacks had spared us the parts that deal with pop culture, or most of them --- especially the references to war ("the S of evil," Churchill's V sign, etc.). (I think Sacks makes too much of the fact that the letters F and U, which can be so obscene when used together, are actually related.)
Also, as another reviewer pointed out, there are, in the opening chapter ("Little Letters, Big Idea"), some dubious (and yes, perhaps erroneous) claims, but the rest of the information in the book is (as far as I know) correct, or at least close enough to correct that it won't lead you far astray.
One peculiar thing about the book is that it has no table of contents.
Another odd thing that I noticed is that in the chapter on the letter K, Sacks states that in German, the letter C is used in the combinations TSCH and CHS, but he doesn't mention the far-more-common CH and SCH (he does mention them in the chapter on the letter C, though). This isn't really a big deal, but to me, as a fan (and self-taught "student") of German, it was very noticeable.
I have to agree, too, with a few other reviewers that Sacks is occasionally unclear or "hazy" on pronunciation.
It might sound like I thought this book was unimpressive, but au contraire. I found it a lot of fun to read the stories of how our 26 letters came to be (O.K., so they aren't really "our" 26 letters per se, Mr. Technical), and to see the shapes that their ancestors took (even though the "side" bits could be distracting, like I said).
I think it's very cool that the book has the tables showing the different alphabets from the different time periods (although I'm not sure exactly how you're supposed to pronounce some of the letters' names).
I learned some other letter-related things that I didn't know, as well (like why X is the "unknown letter").
I also find it fascinating that English used to use some symbols (like thorn, wyn [or wynn], yogh, and the "long" S) that it doesn't use anymore, and that it used to use some of its "current" letters in some ways that it doesn't use them now.
I appreciate that Sacks includes humor in the book; this keeps it from seeming too serious or "teachy."
Even though the book does have its share of shortcomings, I found it to be very, very educational and enjoyable overall. I read through it (or most of it; I skipped a couple of places that were about things that I don't think are very important) in just two or three days.
This book definitely does not deserve to be dismissed altogether.
[Edit: My comment above about agreeing with the other reviewers about Sacks being unclear or "hazy" on pronunciation may be misleading, as no one else says that in the other reviews that are posted for this book as I write this. It seems that the other reviews that say that are posted in the reviews for the book's previous incarnation, titled Language Visible (same book, different title); at least that's what I'm assuming, as I haven't looked at those reviews recently.]
[Another edit: Since I first posted my review and that first edit, another extremely critical review has popped up, and more negative ones will likely appear. As I said before, this book is not "letter perfect." That title is very ironic indeed. Inaccurate and questionable statements do exist in the book, and the book CAN be annoying at times. But I maintain that the book is not THAT bad, and that it merits a lot more than total dismissal.]