Friday, March 4, 2011

Globish, by Robert McCrum

To the editors and publishers at W.W. Norton:

In my academic career, both as a student and as a personally-driven scholar, I've come to respect the Norton name as a pillar of intellectual credibility, scholarly integrity, and overall professionalism.

Then I read Globish.

I do not intend to be overly harsh. Globish as a book is based on a solid concept and its topic--the growth of English as a useful, adaptable, and already-established basis for world communication--is imminently relevant, perhaps even more so than its author could have anticipated. (I think here of the protests in the Middle East up to this point in 2011, in which the sentiments of placard-holders have been so often expressed in English. Some widely-distributed pictures from Egypt even depicted solidarity with union protesters in Wisconsin--a sentiment expressed, of course, in English.) As a lingua franca, English (or, as Robert Crum might argue it has become, Globish) rears up in relevance in the international news every day. The phenomenon of language in the third millennium develops even more quickly, it might seem, than our technology.

Unfortunately, I feel McCrum fails to discuss just exactly "How the English Language Became the World's Language" until page 275. In a 287-page book. Those thirteen pages are the Epilogue. (Yes, he touches on the subject plenty of times before the Epilogue. But not in the concentrated, analytical matter I expect from a book with the word "how" in the tag line.)

Personally, I love studying the evolution of a language, both culturally and linguistically. And for the most part, I appreciate what McCrum does for the first 274 pages of the book: He establishes the historical settings of the world's English, its initial travels to and transformations in England, its ocean voyages, its contact with foreign words and cultures and ideas, its use in many of the great metamorphoses of the second millennium. But in my interpretation, all those facets (helpful though they may be to a truly full understanding of the English language) amount to nothing more than the very foundation of Globish. Reading Globish felt like reading a book about how Babe Ruth became the greatest hitter in his generation, but which spends ninety percent of its pages discussing his childhood baseball days and his first breakthrough with the Boston Red Sox.

The history of the English language, having had plenty written about it for those interested in such a history, ought to have been the springboard from which McCrum launched his involved discussion of Globish as Globish (rather than as simply English). I'm thinking about a chapter would have sufficed.

I have done editing work, so I understand what it is to approach with criticism an author who has put a great deal of time into a piece. I also know that any time a good editor announces to an author that the majority of a book needs to be scrapped and the remaining portion expanded and developed, the book will be stronger for it. I feel that one of the editors of this book needed to say something similar to McCrum.

Perhaps I could have gotten past my expectations of the book (only enhanced by the title and the tag line) had the book been effectively edited on a technical level. It was not. I will not pull out examples here of where the editing or the typesetting had gone awry, or where it seems that chunks of text had been dragged away from their homes and airlifted into foreign sentences. But they exist. I will not point out in this letter instances of unlinked ideas and random transitions in the text. But they exist. If you would like me to provide any such examples before this book reaches another printing (if indeed it does), I would be happy to do so. (Perhaps you would even be willing to contract the work out to me, as the current editors working with this title did such a poor job the first time through.)

I cannot say that my experience with Globish will prevent me from picking up other titles published by Norton. The track record is too strong. But in this case, I feel that a great pitch for a fascinating topic was made, and beyond that point Norton washed its hands of any responsibility. Please do let me know if another book is ever scheduled for publication that will go into the depth of Globish that I desire. My taste was whetted, even if my mental red pencil was dulled to a nub.

Yours sincerely,

Z.N. Hively

P.S. I see now that Globish has reached its paperback run. I have the book in hardcover. While I'm sure that no substantive changes along the lines I discuss were made, I do hope that the paperback version has been cleaned up in further proofings.

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