The Adventure of English

The Adventure of English: The Biography of a LanguageMelvyn Bragg’s book The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language is a companion to the documentary series of the same name. It explores the twists and turns in the development and spread of English from its beginnings to the present day. I found it to be an entertaining read, and I certainly learned some interesting things about language that I will use in my American and British literature curricula next year. In many ways, it does seem astonishing that English has managed to become as important as it has given some of the close calls over the years: Alfred the Great’s defeat of the Danes (it was close) and 1066 just to name two. I did wish that Bragg had provided some footnotes and explained some of the etymologies he described. I can’t think of an example now that I’m reviewing, but I do recall as I read that at times I didn’t think his etymology agreed with what I read or learned elsewhere. It’s clearly in the camp of pop-history rather than scholarly writing, so perhaps readers should not expect a dissertation on the development of English going in, but it is highly readable. I did find myself lagging through the late middle of the book until I came to the section on Australian English, which I found much more intriguing than I thought I would.

It might just be me, but I found long lists of words difficult. For instance, when Bragg is describing a list of words from Old English that still appear in everyday conversation on p. 6, he chooses to list them separated by commas. It may be grammatically correct to do so, but I quickly became lost and would have preferred a chart or table. Another quibble: Bragg refers to Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf several times, and while I love Heaney’s translation, Bragg obscures the fact that it’s a translation or interpretation. The first word of Beowulf in Old English is Hwæt, which Heaney translates as “So.” It has been variously translated as “Lo,” “Listen,” “What,” “Now,” and “Indeed,” among others. I really can’t explain why it bothered me that Bragg said hwæt translated as “so” without providing it within the context of a Heaney translation until the following paragraph (pp. 13-14).

The book was a mostly enjoyable diversion. I think anyone interested in the development of the English language will find it interesting. I do plan to view the companion DVD series, which we have at my school.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Summer Reading

Summer is rapidly approaching. I have one more week of teaching, one more week of finals, and a couple of days of post-planning, after which my teaching responsibilities for 2009-2010 will have ended. Of course, before you tell me how lucky I am to have two months off (it’s not actually three), don’t forget I am actually not paid for that time. Most teachers are paid for ten months, but have their pay divided among twelve. Also, no teacher—let me rephrase that—no good teacher I know really takes that time off. Most of us usually spend that time planning for the next year, doing professional reading, and taking professional development courses or college courses. I’ll be doing all three. However, more time will also mean more time for reading. Here are the books on my radar (subject to change) for summer reading.

The Story of BritainThe Adventure of English: The Biography of a LanguageMedieval Lives

Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of England and Melvyn Bragg’s The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language are on tap as I plan my British Literature and Composition courses. I have also checked out the DVD companion for Bragg’s book from my school library. Both books should help me plan my courses. Terry Jones’s Medieval Lives should add some dimension to studies of Chaucer next year.

In terms of professional reading, I plan to finish some books I’ve started, specifically:

Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do  About It The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching

Even if I am not teaching 9th grade next year, which is the grade level at which our grammar instruction is focused, I still think a solid foundation in how to teach grammar in a way that will stick and will make a difference in student writing is a good idea. In addition, I would like to try to read this book:


In this day of easy cut and paste, plagiarism is much easier, and I believe, more tempting than ever before.

Finally, for pleasure reading, I plan to select from the following:

I thoroughly enjoyed Syrie James’s second novel, The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, and as a fan of Jane Austen, I look forward to The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. I originally purchased both The Forgotten Garden and The Meaning of Night for potential reading for the last R.I.P. Reading Challenge. My husband is thoroughly enjoying The Meaning of Night, and he highly recommends it.

These first two books will indulge my interest in the Romantic poets. The first book, Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, explores the story of Byron’s own contribution to the famous writing challenge that produced Frankenstein and the first vampire novel. Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets explores the lives of Byron, the Shelleys, and Keats. As a child, I was extremely interested in dinosaurs and paleontology. Of course I want to read Remarkable Creatures, the first novel I know of written about Mary Anning, who discovered the fossil of an ichthyosaur and two plesiosaurs near her home at Lyme Regis.

The Little Stranger comes highly recommended from our art teacher. Emily’s Ghost promises to be an interesting novel about Emily Brontë: most of the novels about the Brontës either focus on Charlotte or broaden the focus on the Brontës in general. The Dream of Perpetual Motion will be my first steampunk novel.