A Jewel Amid The Floatsam of Mothballed Books
My bookshelf is lined with the remnants of a pursuit of a Masters in history. Literally hundreds of books read only once, marked for reference, and citations culled for a long forgotten assignment, now wait to receive a weekly dusting. My wife used to inquire after each semester. “Aren’t you going to sell them back, what good are they to you now?” I would reply I needed to keep them for reference for my final dissertation and them I would get rid of them.
Today, two years after graduating they still line the bookshelf and now have overflowed to boxes in my college bound son’s unused bedroom. My excuse now is that I need them for reference for the history classes I teach and if they don’t actually cover the current subject I am teaching, they are in mothballs for a pending to be named, history course.
One of the books amid this slowing decaying binding of dead trees is a book that has retained it’s value as a treasure of historical lore.
Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler, is a jewel of a read. Professor Ostler is descibed by his publisher as a scholar with a working knowledge of twenty-six languages, degrees from Oxford, in Greek, Latin, philosophy, and economics. and a Ph.D in Linguistics from MIT.
His book when published in 2005 was the first attempt to compile a history of all the great languages of the world into one book. Since it publication it has drawn praise from countless sources. My introduction came by way of a reading seminar in Medieval history where the professor included it as part of 22 books we were assigned to read that semester. I fell in love with this book because it added a new source to trace our shared global history and gave credence to the importance of language to the growth of civilization.
Ostler’s depth of scholarship is amply evident but he never lets the reader sink into academic dogma. Each chapter and there are many, are supported with maps and snippets of the written tongue to illustrate the course of it’s history.
If providing a history is not challenging enough, Ostler attempts to look into the future by discussing the current top twenty languages and then looking ahead at what languages will flourish and which will die.
Over the past two year I have returned occaisonly to cop a citation from it’s now frayed pages. The invitation to this blog stimulated me to take it down and begin to reread it and savor Ostler’s insightful take on how history developed through the spread of language.