There are a few people with whom I long to be trapped next to on a long (and comfortable) airplane journey, or maybe a leisurely canal boat; Gaston Dorren is pretty close to the top of the list. I bought three copies of his previous book, Lingo, which is a tour d'horizon of the languages (and therefore the cultures) of Europe; three copies because two were given away to people who'd picked it up and didn't want to let it go. This book does the same for the world's top 20 languages; reading it makes me think of my large ginger cat Horace, who looked utterly blissed-out when he had his tummy tickled.
Enough of the abstract insights and hermit's sensual ecstasies; down to basic. Each chapter begins with some basic facts about the language: who uses it, what does its alphabet or characters look like, how are its words formed, characteristics of its grammar, etc. Several pages then follow, describing the history of the language and the people who speak it, its significance, its neighbours, etc. In the case of Vietnamese, the author also describes his struggles to learn it (ie read, speak, and listen to); bravo. Also, each individual language prompts a discussion on aspects of language in general - how alphabets evolve, how academies strive to preserve inherited purity, how different grammars come about, with classifications that appear completely novel and totally understandable (eg splitting nouns into those referencing rational concepts and those that don't, or different languages for men and women). There's half a dozen 'Gosh, I never thought of that!' moments on every page.
He's a wonderful collector of examples - posters, stories, fables ... Of course, he speaks several languages, reads many others, curates a website; he writes like an angel, as you'd expect.
At the moment, I'm reading two chapters a day, because the ratio of fresh insights to space on the page is so high, and to give myself any more would feel like eating a huge Christmas pudding; small and thoughtful bites are called for. But Babel has already established itself as Essential Gift for Esteemed Friends, and I can see myself reading and re-reading. Thank you, M Dorren.