Babel: Around the World in 20 Languages by Gaston Dorren
This is a pop-linguistics book about the world's twenty most commonly-spoken languages.
So yes, obviously it's another listicle book. One chapter per language, going from the 20ᵗʰ most common language (Vietnamese, by Mr. Dorren's reckoning) on up the list. I appreciate that Babel leans *into* its listicle nature — it takes it as given that this is going to be a collection of twenty not-really-related essays, and focuses on making each essay a self-contained piece about a new and interesting aspect of language. It doesn't have broader through-lines about linguistics-in-general, and it doesn't try to, either.
The book instead has a nice, loose, "anthology" feel. Sure, each chapter begins with the same basic stats about its particular language, but then it veers off in its own direction. Vietnamese is a personal anecdote about trying to learn an impossibly difficult language. Javanese is about the social and linguistic implications of having an intricate East-Asian-style system of formal registers. Korean is about theories of sound symbolism in language. Persian is a historical epic, presented as a lengthy FAQ. And so on.
His prose is pleasant. He doesn't go into as much depth as John McWhorter, but he makes up for it in breadth: each chapter gives a thorough-feeling overview of its little fiefdom of linguistics. Mr. Dorren lets his cheery, self-effacing sense of humor peek through around the edges, and, as with the Persian-history FAQ, he's willing play with the structure of a chapter to keep us on our toes.
Generally Babel is a fun, light read. And it's one of the rare books that I can recommend both to linguistics nerds and to curious novices. There were a lot of topics like (say) sound symbolism that were brand-new to me. Yet the book does a great job of explaining linguistic concepts in very simple terms without feeling like it's talking down to you. And still these one-off essays add up to a great perspective on what linguistics *does*. You won't get a detailed and solid *foundation* in linguistics out of this book, but you'll see the kinds of things linguists think about, and get a glimpse of the dizzying range of (to paraphrase McWhorter) "ways a language can be".
Fighting Misinformation: Digital Information Literacy (audiocourse)
This is the 2020 (!) Teaching Company course about sifting out fact from fiction in your digital media.
This course feels a little like what happens if, last week, your coworkers all shared a photoshopped image of your CEO with the headline "LOCAL CEO RUNNING SECRET DOGFIGHTING RING" — and now all of you have to attend a mandatory all-hands meeting about "how to not share falsified news stories".
But to its credit, this course is short, to the point, and it's a good basic primer on how to be a better media consumer. They explain, for example, what a "deepfake" is, and there's a certain audience that genuinely needs to learn that — an audience that likely coincides a lot with the Great Courses' perhaps-older fans who are here to learn *even more* about World War II. But generally it feels like a recap of what we all more-or-less know these days, and probably aren't consciously applying enough.¹
The presentation is... fine. Sometimes it feels a bit "awkward reading from the cue cards", but generally it gets the ideas across. It's a little odd, honestly, because there are riveting stories you can tell about misinformation campaigns — the Centerville explosion hoax is straight-up terrifying — and the presenters themselves got their start dare-I-say heroically fighting Russian misinformation in Ukraine.
Yet somehow it's all just dry prose and PowerPoint slides. And they also fall into the trap you see a lot in self-help books: they burn a lot of introductory screentime convincing you that learning to fight digital misinformation is, in fact, important. Yeah, no, I'm already on board with that; that's why I'm taking this course. I haven't just wandered in here by accident.
Perhaps they're more used to "mandatory all-hands meeting" corporate work.
I'm glad The Great Courses put this out, and we all likely know someone who needs to see it. But again, it's mostly advice we all know, and just aren't applying with enough vigilance.
The Science of Gardening by Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott (audiocourse)
This is the 2018 Teaching Company course about how to garden from a scientific, evidence-based perspective.
One of the first thing this course does is debunk several common gardening myths. Hilariously, several of them happened to be folk-wisdom recommendations from the Teaching Company's How to Grow Anything course. And this is kind of the vibe of the course: it's going to sift through all the untested, dance-around-in-the-moonlight woo that blights the field and pick out actual evidence-based advice.
And the general conclusion I come to is: gardening is hard, thinky work. To do it right, you need to gather a lot of data: What are my lighting and weather conditions? What's in my soil? What pests are common in my area? Really, 90% of your work is just picking plants that have a fighting chance in your environment. It was sobering to listen to: to really *know* your garden is quite a challenge. There was definitely no "gardening is an exciting hobby that anyone can do" here — more like "this takes a lot of time, effort, and experience to do right." It also generally focused on setting up decorative trees, whereas I'm more interested in small vegetable gardens.
That said, the professor is a good presenter, and her "mythbusters for gardening" take on the material is engaging. And the arrangement of the material works well, steadily moving through different types of garden conditions, basic tree care, handling insects/blights/herbivores, and so on. It's not as specific as How to Grow Anything's laundry list of how to take care of various vegetables, but it's better foundational knowledge. You come out of the course with more general concepts that 'stick', and less hyper-specific trivia about how to grow things in Wisconsin.
Of what I've seen so far, this seems like the best overview of gardening to start with.
For next week: no backlog! What a relief. Meanwhile, I'm watching the first season of the original Star Trek and the third season of Parks and Recreation. I'm reading a book about DIY hydroponics and a quite challenging Spanish-language sci-fi book; on The Great Courses I'm listening to their massive audiocourse about the American Civil War.
¹ Lord knows I've been dinged a few times for sharing bullshit on my twitter-dump Fridays — thanks, friends, for keeping me honest.