2008/01/11

Five Best Books

The five best books I read for the first time last year (so just to be clear, not all were published last year):
  • Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language by Steven Pinker.
    Just a great book about how language is formed. The overall point is that all languages are made up of two things: lexemes, which are words (or phrases if the meaning cannot be parsed out of the the individual words, e.g. "mother-in-law") that must be memorized; and grammatical rules that are applied to those so that variant forms do not have to be memorized (e.g. adding "s" to nouns to pluralize or adding "ed" to make a verb past tense). So the past tense of "run" must be memorized, but the past tense of "toss" doesn't.

    The thing that I'll always remember after reading this: The book explains that the default Arabic plural suffix is "aat" (ات), so if an Arabic speaker is given a word that he doesn't know the plural to, he will just at "aat" at the end to pluralize it. When I was talking to one of my Emirati colleagues about this, she didn't believe me, so I thought perhaps the book had been wrong. Then five minutes later I heard two other Emiratis speaking in Arabic and one of them said "posteraat". I asked if she was saying "posters" and she said yes. The original doubter then checked with a teacher of Arabic who confirmed that yes, "aat" is the default.

  • A Short History of Almost Everything by Bill Bryson.

    A fascinating history and general overview of science. Full of interesting anecdotes about the scientists who made the discoveries.

  • Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures : A True Story from Hell on Earth by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postelwait, and Andrew Thomson.

    A personal history of three UN humanitarian workers (two Americans and a New Zealander) who served in Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Liberia in the 1990s.


    The thing I'll always remember: Thomson (a Kiwi doctor) in Serbia
    [The massacre at Srebrenica] should never have happened. Srebrenica was a Muslim town that the UN declared a safe haven and promised to protect. But the Serbs emboldened by years of American and European appeasement attacked... UN peacekeepers ... offered no resistence ... They then had a front-row seat as Serb soldiers rounded up the men and boys, herded them onto buses, and drove them away to their execution...

    One day someone at UNHQ will commission an official report about this disaster... But for me there's only one lesson: ... If blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run. Or else get weapons. Your lives are worth so much less then theirs.

  • Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox.
    Fox, an English anthropologist, uses the tools of Anthropology to study and try to explain English behavior. It amazed me to see how "English" is the behavior of my family, especially my father's side (the first Hall from that side of the family left Somerset in 1848).

  • Mustn't Grumble: In Search of England and the English by Joe Bennett.

    Bennett, an English teacher and writer who has been in New Zealand for 18 years, returns to England, follows in the path of H.V. Morton's In Search of England.


    Full of very funny (well, in a British way) observations, such as:

    • Its lengthy headline demonstrates the [Daily] Mail's customary respect for the rules of reasoning: 'Crime is falling, says Blair, as a young mother in the safest part of England lies stabbed and paralysed.'

    • Outside the Pump Room a man with no obvious disability is playing a xylophone. He is either incompetent or playing jazz. The distinction is a fine one.

1 comment:

Chris Saul said...

I loved watching the English. It matched me to a 't'.