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Alena Graedon Headshot

8 Must-Reads for Language Lovers

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A few weeks ago, some friends and I went to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants: a raucous, convivial Portuguese joint where very little English is spoken, people eat at long communal tables, and the dorade is to die for.

It's the kind of place where it's hard to spot a smartphone. You're much more likely to see flushed cheeks, bear hugs, and style-conscious ladies in stilettos and leather pants teetering behind their hard-charging toddlers. But at some point in our meal, I found myself transfixed by my little glowing oracle, I don't know for how long. When I looked up, I saw that all my friends were similarly engrossed.

There's nothing unusual about this. But it is a little disheartening, that even people very happy in each other's company can't gather for even a couple hours without inviting the outside in through devices that make the flame of their friendship flicker a little.

Let me be clear: I love the Internet. I don't know what I'd do without my iPhone. But they've changed me, and in some ways that I don't like. Most notably, I have a harder time paying attention now, to the people in my life, but also to my own thoughts, not to mention to things I watch, listen to, and read.

I set my first novel, The Word Exchange, in a near-future world in which people's engagement with devices has progressed just a few steps past where it is today. Gadgets have started anticipating wants and needs, storing memories, and fusing with users physiologically. People rely on them so heavily that devices even help them remember the meanings of words, which they've started forgetting.

Naturally, something goes wrong, and a language-corrupting virus starts spreading, not only among machines, but also from devices to people, infecting them with a virulent, life-threatening "word flu."

In life, the best cure for social estrangement is connection. Setting aside our beautiful devices in favor of intimacy, even when that includes moments of silence or boredom. And a good cure for word flu -- or any malaise stirred by too much time on screens -- is to read. Books.

There are, in fact, many excellent books about books and words. Here are just a few:

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) Lots of us read this dystopian classic in middle school. It's really worth revisiting, as much for the startlingly inventive writing as for the story. It imagines a future in which books have been outlawed, and it's the job of firemen to burn them. But one fireman, Ray Montag, steals a few volumes and decides to read them, which gets him in a whole mess of trouble.
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (1944) I'm an incorrigible Borges fangirl, so I recommend everything he's written. But this collection contains some especially bibliophilic stories, including "The Library of Babel," about a universe that contains every book, "The Garden of Forking Paths," about a novel that's a kind of labyrinth, and several stories that take the form of literary criticisms of books that don't exist. It sounds insane, and is, slightly. But in the most miraculous way.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) This novel is set in an oppressive parallel reality in which women have been stripped of nearly all rights and are no longer allowed to read. They're kept around more or less only to make babies. I wish this premise were more fantastical, but far too many women and girls in all parts of the world are deprived of education and autonomy. This lyrical, bleak, and often funny book is a chilling reminder of what happens to a society that deprives many of its members of books and self-sovereignty.
"Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville (1853) Language is at the heart of this wonderful novella -- an early-American masterpiece, and one of my favorites. A mysterious figure, Bartleby, is hired as a would-be scribe in a law office, but he soon seems unwilling to do anything his boss asks, and the way he stands his ground is with words, by repeating the oddly compelling phrase, "I would prefer not to."
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865) This hallucinatory story is about so many things, and has become so embedded in our collective consciousness, that it's possible to forget the essential role that language plays in it. One of the best ways for word lovers to appreciate its prose is to read it aloud, preferably to a receptive kid.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998) Told in dozens of points of view, this fragmented, virtuosic novel follows the elusive paths of two itinerant poet friends who are at the center of a (fictional) literary movement called visceral realism. Many of Bolaño's other novels and stories also deal with peripatetic poets and the literary and political movements they belong to. The first of his novels that I fell in love with was Distant Star (1996), which I also really recommend.
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (2012) Marcus is one of our most brilliant living writers. Much of his fiction examines language -- its power and its limits. In this remarkable novel, children's speech infects their parents with a lethal sickness.
Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary by Henry Hitchings (2005) I thought I'd sneak just one work of nonfiction onto this list. This is, in fact, an extraordinary book, about the history of the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language and its eccentric compiler. Thoughtful, engaging, and masterfully written, it's part biography, part intellectual history, and entirely fascinating.

Alena Graedon is the author of The Word Exchange [Doubleday, $26.95].