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Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story Hardcover – 7 Nov 2013
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[Michael Rosen's] beguiling journey through the alphabet will entrance anyone interested in the quirks of language and its history . . . Rosen has written a charming and thought-provoking book about what written language represents, how we use it, and the joys and mysteries therein. His humor and obvious love for his subject are winning elements (Publishers Weekly)
This is a fascinating read and great gift for Christmas (Bookseller)
Enjoyable history of the alphabet (The Times)
Substantial and engaging (Guardian)
Forget party crackers - when you settle down to the turkey and trimmings this year simply make sure you have this book to hand. There's even a chapter devoted to family friendly alphabet games: perfect for playing after the Queen's been on. That letters can and should be fun, not just functional, is one of the main messages of this book (Sunday Telegraph)
The perfect book for anyone who relishes the intricacies of language and letters . . . [Rosen] reveals a gift for seamlessly meshing hard information, personal anecdote, jokes and puzzles with educational, cultural and linguistic questions and wry, pointed, observations . . . There are delights in this book for all ages (Australian)
[Michael Rosen] gives each letter a neat CV . . . enjoyable (The Times)
From Alphabets to Zipcodes, the surprising story of our 26 letters from million-selling author and Radio 4 language expert, Michael Rosen.See all Product description
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Along the way Rosen brings in so many stories. A lot of this is done by a cunning wheeze in the structure. The book is arranged alphabetically (how else?) and for each letter starts with a short section on the letter itself, its origins and its uses in English, then follows with a longer section that has a theme. So, for instance, D is for disappeared letters and V is for Vikings. We then get a meandering exploration of that theme - sometimes with many little deviations along the way, but always tying back to the alphabet and writing.
It ought to work brilliantly, and in many ways it does, but I was slightly put off by the chunkiness of the book - over 400 pages - and combined with the alphabetic approach, it is difficult not to occasionally have that sense of 'I must plough on to the end' rather than 'I'm enjoying it'. It's that same sense I might get when someone has kindly bought me, say, an encyclopaedia of science fiction and I feel I must my work my way through it whatever. On the whole it does work, but I couldn't help but feel it might have been better if Rosen had let go of the rather obvious strictures of the alphabet for the book's structure. I think there's an interesting comparison with a couple of books I reviewed once about the periodic table. The one that worked best wove the subject matter into a series of stories with no particular table-related structure. The other, more plodding one worked through, period by period.
However, there is lots to enjoy, from Rosen's rant against the obsessive use of the systematic synthetic phonics approach in teaching reading these days to his really interesting observations on the importance of Pitman's shorthand and even his affection for the A to Z (or his knowledge of the absence of the London E19 district). It's a bit like being trapped in a lift with Stephen Fry when he's playing QI host. This is the QI of letters and words.
If you are interested in writing and words - or struggling for a present idea for someone who is - this could be an ideal buy.
Each chapter begins with an brief history of each letter’s original form, and how it came to be the way it is today, followed by a lengthy guide to pronunciation and usage. Then comes a longer section explaining some aspect of literacy connected (sometimes tenuously) with that particular letter, e.g. “P is for Pitman” details the history of shorthand.
By O, I confess, my interest was waning. This wasn’t because Rosen’s descriptions were any less informative, but because I was tiring of the presentation. The morphology of each letter would have been so much better presented with illustrations, rather than descriptions, and the word lists just got boring. Some sections are fascinating (“Q is for QWERTY” and “D is for Disappeared Letters”), others much less so (“J is for Jokes” was too nerdy, even for me), but the book is structured and illuminating, and there should be something to pique most people’s interest.
I’m glad I read this book, and I’ve kept it on my shelves; but I suspect it will be one of the first to go when I need more space, and I doubt I’ll read it again.
4* because it is packed with information.
As a teacher myself I found his many prejudices and almost willful ignorance about come subjects (phonics, for example) beyond irritating and made me shake my head in disagreement more times than I can count.
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