The Story of English in 100 Words

I love book titles that jump out at me. It’s not easy to think up an evocative phrase or name that’ll stand out in the mass of dusty shelves of non-fiction, hardly grazed by regular readers who’d rather wallow by a willow on the wonderful world of fiction.

That’s why The Story of English in 100 Words caught my eye. Even more thought provoking was the size of the book, for I’d thought even Frankenstein-like font wouldn’t require 200 pages for a 100-word book.

Good work, David Crystal. You had my attention. 

I flipped open the book to realise that the author had used misleading phrasing as a tactic to grip his reader—a curious use of the language he was just about to embark decoding. It wasn’t the story of English in 100 words, but rather the stories of 100 English words. 

And then it made sense. In a way, in a crude and uncanny way of speaking of words and usage, the author was right: by telling the stories of 100 exemplary words, he’d hoped to explore the evolution of English itself. So in a way, that title wasn’t such a bad choice.

Curious.

I’d have preferred a more direct one, though.

That said, the book is still an engaging read. As I browsed through the words and the narrative associated with each, I saw that the author had strayed away from strict research and technicalities to take a more relatable approach.

Here and there, strewn like breadcrumbs on lasagne, were the author’s observations about a certain word. For a student referencing it hoping to find matter for an assignment, the interjecting musings may be a hindrance, but for a language enthusiast who picked up the book because of its captivating title, they were fodder for thought.

For instance, 

We have to be especially careful when it comes to the adjective’ arsy’.

In Britain, the word means ‘bad-tempered’ or ‘arrogant’, as in “We get the occasional arsy customer in here.”

In Australia, the word has developed a positive meaning, ‘lucky’: “That was an arsy goal.”

It’s wise to pay special attention to who’s speaking before deciding what to make of “You’re an arsy bastard!”

Throughout the book are little gems like this that smile at you from behind the veil of informing. Of course, the author does record origins of the word where applicable, and the background story of how it fell into regular speak.

Words like doublespeak, Twitterverse, arsy, doobry, blurb, and a multitude of exciting others make you go, “huh,” and look away from the book to stare at the trees passing you as you sit on a long bus commute, thinking, mulling over what you just read. There’re stories about words like “muggle” and how J.K. Rowling toppled its meaning from a drugger—as was the accepted meaning in the 20th century—to mean a person without magical (or special) powers.

This is a lighthearted book. Though its an intense concept—exploring the history of certain quirky words and how life has folded them into our everyday batter and banter—the author does a great job of keeping it readable and level headed, even for the casual reader in the street. 

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The other side

I was never a great fan of Jane Eyre. 

Like most people, I also read it in middle school, when I hadn’t quite developed the patience to endure or contemplate why Jane, who was so praised for being plain and relatable, was such a big deal. 

And I still don’t understand why her love for Rochester was such praiseworthy. After all, she did abandon him when she heard he’d had an unhappy marriage, only to run back to him when he almost died in the fire.

I grew up watching countless movies where the lead female character’s sole responsibility was to prance across the screen, showing off, triggering the men’s emotions, and then falling in love with them because they’re willing to die for love. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Jane Eyre, the book, was just another case of female objectification.

However, Jane Eyre, the character was something else. There were many moments in the story where I supported her decisions. I agreed when she raged at being kept in the dark about Bertha. And I believed she would’ve loved Rochester even she had known. Throughout the book, I was with Jane, but by the end of it, I wasn’t happy for her. Instead, I felt as if the story merited no merit. 

Of course, Bronte’s writing was so intense and beautiful in many aspects and I, by no means, belittle the book she produced. Regardless, for some reason, Jane Eyre remained incomprehensible to me because it lacked something. 

Then I read Wide Sargasso Sea. Written by Jene Rhys, this is a prequel to Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  

The story unravels the life of Bertha, Rochester’s wife. Written in her perspective initially, later shifting to Rochester’s, the book walks the reader through Antoinette’s (Bertha’s first name) disturbing childhood, her mother’s fate, her family’s wealth and the implications of being a Creole heiress. 

This background into Bertha’s life, in many ways, threw light into real Jane Eyre, the book. 

The only references and perspectives we get from Bronte about Bertha, come from a Rochester who’s already fallen out of love with her. When he speaks of her and narrates his life with her, he’s so welded in self-pity and sadness. And as readers of Jane Eyre, we naturally cultivate a disliking to this unwanted character that was forcefully placed in our hero’s life. Our opinions are biased to begin with, and that leads us to justify Bertha’s death as a favourable outcome for the protagonist. 

That’s the idea Jene Rhys challenges.

The more we learn about Bertha as a person (as opposed to Bertha as the madwoman), the more we realise the realities of life. Her entire existence was a series of events for which no one could be blamed for. There were no evil witches or antagonists attempting to disrupt her life. As a child, she lived by the rules, as a woman, she married as she was told, and as a wife, she tried her best to love her husband and seek his affection in return. She was the real plain Bertha. And yet, we see her life toppling into misfortune, dragging along an innocent Rochester. 

In fact, reading Jene Rhys’s story increased my affection for Rochester. The second half of the book is entirely in his perspective and we see, despite his helplessness, a genuine desire to help the woman whose life was tangled with his. We get a fuller picture of Rochester as a character. 

For me, that was the best part of Wide Sargasso Sea. Aside from addressing plenty of social and economic matters in the Caribbean and women’s health issues, this story completes the picture that Bronte paints in Jane Eyre. 

Perhaps now, when I re-read Jane Eyre, I’ll appreciate it more than I did the first time.

Incredible how powerful perspective is.

Self, thy name’s Esther

The first time I read a few lines attributed to her, I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. Thanks to the collection board that’s Pinterest, I discovered plenty of gut-wrenching, heart-clenching verses that Plath had written. Hooked, I went on a rampage of Sylvia stalking. Before I knew it, she’d become one of my favourite writers. I’d read about her curious suicide, and I’d watched Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of her life. Her story strengthened my affection for her and somewhere between feeling respect and pity towards her, I found myself doting after her as well.

Wonderful though it all was, I’d become addicted to Plath despite reading none of her works in complete. That’s how I came upon The Bell Jar—guilt-ridden and hungry to prove to myself that I know the author I adored.

Before flipping through its pages, I didn’t know what to expect from The Bell Jar. Wanting to figure it out for myself, I read none of the reviews and asked no one I know what they thought of the story. As I began reading, I grew fascinated by the protagonist of the story, Esther Greenwood. The reason, I later realised, is that she’s in no way special. Unlike many other protagonists with their exceptional talents shining through print, Esther was simple in all sense.

The book opens with her in the middle of a writer’s scholarship—something I could appreciate as an aspirer myself. Little by little, as the story progressed, I found parts of myself relating to Esther. She reminded me of my deeper self—the unassuming, uninterested self that often prefers solitude, dabbling in self-doubt and incessant imposter syndrome.

It was later that, as the narrative turned to Esther’s psychological issues, I understood that Esther isn’t just me, but she’s every other person, too. Not only was her behaviour characteristic of me, but she was also an embodiment of the natural evolution of the teenage mind.

It’s not easy growing up, and it’s even more difficult when you’re alone and lacking guidance. That’s most of us. That’s Esther.

That’s why it became tough to separate myself from the character. I became so involved in her life that I wanted to see how each day of her life unfolded. As she cringed, so did I. As she ran away from accepting herself, as did I. I followed her every move, her every decision and instinct as if it would all affect my life in a way.

It was as if were in a vortex where Esther—who struggled to find her own way—would guide mine.

By the time I finished the book, I could do nothing but stare at the wall. I felt intense pleasure within me, a silent jubilation. Esther was recovering. She had hope in her life. Although the book didn’t affirm she found her utopia, it hinted toward it. And having gone through her life with her, relating her every moment with mine, I felt as if my own life would be fine after all. It was as if I’d ridden a roller coaster—dizzy and unsure of what I’d face next, weak in the knees with butterflies in my chest—but had come to a secure halt with my entire being intact.

I couldn’t talk about the experience for days after I’d read the book. I didn’t know how I felt, and finding the right words seemed herculean. But as time went by, my feelings also evolved. From seeing myself in Esther, without a conscious effort, I began relating everything I knew of the author’s personal characteristics with that of Esther Greenwood. Then it hit me that the author herself battled with depression and psychological issues. I began to revere Esther as much as I did Sylvia. And my respect for the writer increased when I understood that she had manifested herself in Esther, giving readers a hint of what she herself was going through during her lifetime.

What a wonderful way to express oneself. Also, a little sad.

Zorba: The unlikeable yet likeable

Zorba

You don’t often come across a book that inspires, confuses, and offends you at the same time. Zorba the Greek did all of that and more to me. Though I’d heard of the title before, I only pursued it because my brother recommended it. He’s not an avid reader, and so since he cherishes it, I guessed I would too.

Through the first few pages, I started to get bored. It seemed like any other fiction — a writer and his friend travelling abroad. It wasn’t clear where they headed or what they intended to do there. My only impetus to keep reading was the hope that a flash of interest would hit me as I turned some page. That page didn’t come for a long time, and I slacked in the mean time. Other priorities came up, and some days I just fell asleep even before opening the book.

It didn’t help that I was reading a misaligned PDF on a digital device. After eight hours at work, the idea of staring at the screen didn’t excite me. Regardless, I snuck in at least an hour on most days. Needless to say, it took me longer to read this than any other book. But that’s not because of these petty situations.

The real reason — I realised later — Zorba took me longer than I’d expected is because Zorba is an idiot. I couldn’t get my head round to like his weird personality that a world of avid readers adore. I hated him. Everything he says seemed to trivialise women, casting them as the weaker sex. He insisted on protecting and respecting a woman, and how when a man does all that, she’d offer herself to him like a slave. As if to prove his point, he takes advantage of a lone woman pining for love. He showers her with praises, gifts, and sweet talk until she falls in love with him and croons for marriage. I felt disgusted. And I couldn’t help but wonder why literature celebrates such an egomaniacal character.

As I read on, however, I realised that he wasn’t bad. Although his speech is fake, his intentions aren’t. As a reader at that point, Zorba’s character evolved so much, displaying an uncanny ability to express love toward the woman he’d seemed to have used. It was only as the story progressed to more aggressive scenes that I understood Zorba reveals his characteristics bit by bit, and it’s almost impossible to assess him midway through the book.

Not only does he express his care for the woman he’d seduced, but he also shows empathy as he fights for and defends another woman who the townsfolk mauled. To me, Zorba then rose from manipulative to compassionate.

While it’s the underlying characteristic I gauged from the narrative, throughout the book Zorba does other little things that hard to hate. Where we speak our mind, Zorba’s unique attraction is that he dances, instead. His playing the santuri, living as if he’d die at any moment, working like a dog, his extensive philosophy of existence—everything of his everyday habits is aspirational to say the least.

“Luckless man has raised what he thinks is an impassable barrier round his poor little existence. He takes refuge there and tries to bring a little order and security into his life. A little happiness. Everything must follow the beaten track, the sacrosanct routine, and comply with safe and simple rules. Inside this enclosure, fortified against the fierce attacks of the unknown, his petty certainties, crawling about like centipedes, go unchallenged. There is only one formidable enemy, mortally feared and hated; the Great Certainty.”

As page after digital page I flipped, I admired Zorba. I still hate that he patronises women and is shameless in thrusting his opinions on others. Regardless, I saw that while Zorba is everything that’s wrong with humankind, he’s also everything that humankind should persevere to become. Not only is Zorba’s character flawed, but it’s also philosophical—a realistic portrayal of human qualities. As I shut the book, I felt as if I’d spent my time in the company of an ordinary human—one who’s good and flawed. In the end I’ve acquired the ability to see through both qualities in Zorba, and still respect him for himself. It’s as if I now can discern the difference between an opinion and the person who holds that opinion. After all, opinions change, people often don’t.

Shadows of the past

I’ve never cared much for translated novels. They never quite work for me, because I don’t know whom to credit when I want to quote from the novel. Should I appreciate the original author of the thought or the translator who managed to convey a foreign concept in a language I understood, and in a way I appreciated? Well, that’s why I often conclude it’s better to avoid translated pieces altogether. Although I know by doing so I’d let go of a vast pool of literature, I’d still choose an English novel over the English version of an unknown original. And I held fast to these beliefs until a few weeks ago.

A few weeks ago, I borrowed a hefty book from my friend. Slapped across the cover in bold words was the title of the book: The Shadow of the Wind.

Interesting, I thought as I flipped through the pages without reading any of it. I hadn’t read much in a while, and was desperate to take home the first book I saw. And this book, in fact, seemed like a promising one, too. It wasn’t until after I had got home and gulped down half of my coffee did I realise the book was a translation.

I groaned a little, but read on. The plot unravelled fast enough, and so I want to give up midway.

I’m thankful for that over-caffeinated decision.

Soon after I realised that the story was a translation, my keenness had dropped a few notches. Although the first few pages retained my attention, once I entered the seventh chapter or so, things slowed down a little. In hindsight, this change of pace isn’t out of the ordinary. Many books linger on a slower pace, and the slowest part of this book was still much faster compared to most others. As a reader, I soon left the lag behind and the story picked up its momentum. And from that point forward, until I turned to the last page, I remained hooked—for the lack of a better word.

Not only did the book turn out exciting, but the narrative flowed with such ease that I didn’t even feel like closing the book. It was the first time in a long time that I had wanted to keep on reading, inspite of my initial aversion.

Set in Barcelona, this is the story of a young boy, who finds a book, and finds that its author had a mysterious past. He sets out to solve the mystery, and along the way, discovers how his life entwines with the unknown author’s by total coincidence.

From the book—

“Julian had once told me that a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.”

That was the most captivating part of this story. Halfway through the book, I could see the young boy walking the same steps as the person he’s trying to uncover. As a reader, I experienced history repeating itself, and watched in wonderment as two people unrelated and unknown to each other in every imaginable way converged in the same place for the same cause.

To make an otherwise serious narrative light-hearted, the author instigates humour through a vital character. In the way he’s portrayed, the character of Férmin breathes life into our dull protagonist. Every now and then, he amuses the reader with quirky love advice, strewing his speech with abundant wit and nerve. The pair undergoes many adventures, scanning the streets for clues, encountering blows from an evil policeman, and sometimes strolling through alleyways in disguise.

You can’t help but fall in love with the author’s attention to detail. Whether it’s Daniel’s (the hero) father saving up to buy a pen for his son, or a publisher’s employee spending her fortune on the same pen for the man she adored, every character is well-formed and deserving of awe. Each scene is meticulous, and each dialogue reveals the inner most emotions of the character.

In five-hundred pages, the author takes us round and round similar incidents and similar people, but each time, there’s something different and magnetic enough to pull the reader. That’s why I enjoyed every moment of this book, and so would you.

From the book —

“What the flower vendor interpreted as ‘pretty nasty’ was only the intensity that comes to those who, better late than never, have found a purpose in life and are pursuing it to make up for lost time.”

Having said all of that, though, I still don’t know if I like Carlos Ruiz Zofón’s writing or Lucia Graves’s translating. That’s an internal turmoil I’d never disentangle.

Even if you’re not a history buff, a fan of fantasy, or a thrill seeker, you’d still amaze with this book. The Shadow of the Wind is a tale of an avid reader, but it’s also a tale of a novelist, a tale of a book seller, and a tale of a publisher all mingled in one. If you’re a book lover in any form, this one should be on your list next.


Afterthought: This book has so much to talk about that it deserves a part two, too. Coming soon.