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A travel book for those who love words
on 16 July 2007
David Crystal has written an entertaining travelogue of selected part of (mostly) England and Wales. The reader accompanies Crystal as he meanders around various small towns (Haye on Wye, Stratford on Avon etc), finding many interesting places along the way and recounting many tales and anecdotes about place names and other linguistic curiosities. Crystal makes an amusing travel companion, perhaps with similarities to Michael Palin or Richard Bryson, and one gets the impression of a man with a fund of stories who would be a useful talking guide-book on any possible journey around Britain.
Although I enjoyed reading this book, it is difficult to see what happened to the Sebald inspiration claimed by the author. Sebald writes meditative, reflective books which lead the reader into contemplating the big issues of life and death - the actual locations and histories he recounts being almost incidental to the inner state of mind aroused along the way. This book on the other hand is an energetic tour through linguistic highways and byways, with fact after fact piled on in an almost random fashion, making it difficult to see the whole picture. By Hook or By Crook is definitely an entertaining read, but as with so many books about the origins of the English (or any other) language, unless one has a formidable memory for random facts, little of it will remain when the final page has been read. While the derivation of "Lichfield" for example is undoubtedly of passing interest, a week after reading the book I can recall little of it, nor can I quite see why I needed to know in the first place.
I read this book on holiday and it was perfect for picking up and putting down again a few minutes later. It does not demand too much in the way of concentration and would make an excellent gift for anyone with an interest in words and their meanings.