For our second column of gift recommendations, we first have a brand-new fifth edition of the splendid American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, which its publishers and others proudly abbreviate as The AHD. I have long thought that this is the best of the specifically American dictionaries (honestly now, do you want your kiddies to learn to spell labour, programme, aeroplane, etc?) and it is now even better: better graphics with thousands of marginal color illustrations and maps, and updated entries by a useful tool which so far as I know is unique to this dictionary, the Usage Panel notes.
If you want to see why every literate household, and surely every university student, needs a good dictionary, all you need to do is compare the entries in the AHD with the stuff you get searching for definitions on a computer. The difference between good, even elegant, writing and the normal careless sludge you read is nuance, what the ever-precise French call in the phrase coined by Gustave Flaubert, le mot juste, ‘exactly the right word.‘ The AHD is particularly good on giving a definition including examples of usage, and I like the Usage Panel notes for some special words. For example, one of my pet peeves is the misuse of the word ‘decimate’ as a fancy synonym for ‘totally destroy’ or ‘devastate.’ “Decimate’ means ‘reduce by a tenth’ and comes from the old Roman Legions, who would punish cowardly or mutinous units by executing every tenth soldier, chosen by lot. I just checked the new AHD and found that the Usage Panel thinks I’m halfway old fashioned: a majority will accept ‘decimate’ if used to express killing, but will not if used simply to express large-scale destruction. Again, ‘parameter’ is a term from mathematics; the panel accepts using it to express ‘a set limit or boundary’ but not as a fancy synonym for ‘characteristic.’ (Using it as a synonym for ‘perimeter’ is too illiterate to hit their radar, it appears).
This eight-pound treasure-trove of good English usage would be a swell gift for anyone who cares about the language we speak, especially for that smart college kid on your list. As a bonus, when you buy the AHD you get for free (a $25 value, they say) a passkey to download the whole AHD onto your electronic doodad.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, even for the irreligious, a great cultural monument in our language. Its sonorous prose and turns of phrase have influenced statesmen and preachers for centuries, most spectacularly Abraham Lincoln and more recently Dr Martin Luther King Jr. To mark this anniversary, a living cultural monument, Professor Harold Bloom at Yale, has written The Shadow of a Great Rock, which he subtitled A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible. It is important to appreciate that Bloom does not attempt to discuss questions of faith; rather, his viewpoint is that “the two central masterworks … the sublime summit of literature in English is still shared by Shakespeare and the King James Bible” – remarkably both the Bible and the seven plays of Shakespeare’s greatest phase, including King Lear and The Tempest, appeared almost simultaneously.
Those who might be offended that Bloom finds the Old Testament vastly superior in literary quality to the New, which was “mostly composed by people thinking in Aramaic or Hebrew but writing in demotic Greek,” should remember that this is a literary, rather than a theological, appreciation. But for anyone who venerates a great English work, and would enjoy seeing how it developed from earlier compositions by Tyndale and others, this would be an enjoyable and flattering gift.
Finally, for history buffs on your list, a final suggestion: there is a lot of good history being written these days, but I very much enjoyed a fine story of a perhaps unfamiliar hero of World War II. Joe Rochefort’s War, subtitled The Odyssey of the Codebreaker who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway. It is the biography of one of those splendid people who make a historic difference. Rochefort was the youngest of seven children born to Irish-American (actually, Irish-Canadian) parents in modest circumstances. He enlisted in the US Navy, was commissioned, and rose through the ranks as a ‘mustang,’ an officer who did not attend the Academy at Annapolis (a handicap in his day). He was bright and industrious, learned cryptanalysis from some old hands from the First War, and specialized in Japanese.
You may recall that our early days in the Pacific – Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea, defeat in The Philippines – were not happy. The brilliant Admiral Yamamoto had plans to grab the air base at Midway, a tiny atoll 3,200 miles west of San Francisco and 2,200 miles east of Tokyo. Rochefort figured out by a clever stratagem what he was up to, and our carriers under Admiral Nimitz were waiting. The Battle of Midway changed the whole course of the Pacific War. Rochefort’s brilliance and life of service, and his shabby backstabbing at the hands of lesser minds, makes a great story, and something new for the history fan on your list. Add a star if he or she especially likes sea stories.
Upcoming literary events:
* AuthorsLive@GreenwichLibrary will feature journalist Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s morning news program Morning Joe, and author of the bestselling memoir All Things at Once, who will be interviewed by her co-host Joe Scarborough, in ’s Cole Auditorium on Tuesday, December 6 at 7 p.m. about her newest book, Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth. Books will be available for sale and signing through Diane’s Books. The program is free and open to all though seating may be limited. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. For information, call Marianne Weill at (203) 622-7933.
* The Mystery Lovers Book Club is meeting again at the at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 10. The book is The Analyst by John Katzenbach.