August 27, 2015
(++++) THOSE TO WHOM WORDS MATTER
Noah Webster: Man of Many Words. By Catherine Reef. Clarion. $18.99.
Will Write for Food, Third Edition: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Memoir, Recipes, and More. By Dianne Jacob. Da Capo. $16.99.
Like escalators and aspirin, which used to be brand names but are now generic names for specific things, Webster’s Dictionary is now the generic name for a dictionary of American English – an amazing accomplishment, certainly the crowning one in the life of Noah Webster (1758-1843). But Webster himself did not see the dictionary the way later generations came to see it, from those who read Webster’s own magnum opus in later generations to today’s users of multiple online dictionaries. What Catherine Reef does exceptionally well in Noah Webster: Man of Many Words is to show the young readers at whom the book is aimed that Webster was not only a man of many words but also a man of many beliefs and convictions, the most important of which his dictionary was intended to further. Webster was a student at Yale University during the American Revolution, and a lifelong patriot. He was also a great lover of books of all sorts – Reef at one point notes that young Webster “sought comfort from one of his best friends, a book,” and that was to be a form of solace he looked for throughout his life. “He had loved books and words since boyhood and had dreamed of making them his life’s work,” Reef writes elsewhere. And loving books as he did, loving the English language in which his favorite works were written, Webster came to believe that standardization of American English would be the key to keeping the newly formed, fractious nation together. That was his aim in creating his dictionary: nothing less than the uniting of a new land that had been notable for its many different and sometimes contradictory approaches to governance (for example, as Reef mentions, there was no standard currency during the Revolution: each of the 13 states issued its own money, and Connecticut, where Webster worked for a time as a schoolmaster, used pounds, shillings and pence – the same system the British used).
The dictionary was scarcely Webster’s first attempt to regularize language. He had earlier proposed eliminating silent or extra letters from words and changing spellings to make words much easier to learn – what we would now call phonics. He even had an economic argument for that change: he estimated that it would reduce the number of letters a writer used by one-eighteenth, thus making it one-eighteenth less costly to publish books. Everyone who takes spelling, and words themselves, for granted – and that includes pretty much everyone – barely holds a candle to Webster, who was so driven to write and to try to improve American English that he persisted in creating his own instructional and argumentative books even after promising to give up writing for the more lucrative practice of law (at which he was only moderately successful). Noah Webster: Man of Many Words is a biography not only of Webster but also of the young United States, a nation where Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and others of his central-government-favoring Federalist Party lent Webster the money to start a newspaper that would get their ideas to the American people. It is not until more than halfway through the book that Reef finally writes that Webster “dreamed of bringing together in one book the correct spelling, pronunciation, and definition of every word Americans used.” The latter part of Reef’s book focuses on the dictionary, which was far from an easy project to complete. Aside from the underlying complexity of the whole undertaking, there was the not-so-small matter of finances: “Noah believed too strongly in his dictionary to give it up and find paying work,” Reef explains, but he could not fund the costly enterprise himself, and his appeals to others generally fell on deaf ears. So, among other things, he sold his house and moved his entire family to a less costly area as a way to cut expenses. Then, given his strong patriotism, he could not remain aloof from politics when the War of 1812 broke out – a further distraction from his dictionary. In addition, his whole concept came under attack for deviating from accepted English (that is, British) usage and spelling. And his family suffered a series of heartbreaking deaths: Webster lost children and grandchildren. But he persevered with his dictionary against all odds, and finally published it in 1828, when he was 70 years old. It brought him, at long last, admiration, even adulation, as well as financial security: it was recognized at once as an astonishing and genuinely important document, one that had the intended effect of uniting a new nation through its exploration of the Americanized form of English. All that from a book that today’s young readers, not to mention their parents, take very much for granted – if they think of a dictionary as a book (rather than something to find online) at all. Sensitive readers of Noah Webster: Man of Many Words will find their consciousness as well as their knowledge of history expanded by Reef’s sensitive, well-researched work.
Webster had what we would now call a strong sense of self-esteem, which helped him persist through many personal and professional reversals. Many modern writers are far more fragile. Dianne Jacobs’ Will Write for Food is intended to be in large part about confidence-building, at least for aspiring gastronomical authors. She explains that “sometimes fearlessness is about writing, where you do it even if you’re scared that it might not be good.” Jacobs’ aim, of course, is to help it be good, or at least better. Although Jacobs says this is “not a basic book on writing,” she explores the craft at some length and from multiple angles – not only cookbooks and food blogs, for example, but also the use of food within memoirs and works of fiction. This third edition of Jacobs’ book includes one particularly useful addition: a chapter on making money from food writing (making money through writing has been an issue since Webster’s time – and before). There is considerable instructional material here, and also a good deal of information about food writers who have “made it” in one way or another, notably including details on how they got started. Jacobs offers information on better blogging, finding a good cookbook idea, impressing agents and (through them) publishers, functioning in the freelance world, determining how to write recipes, and more. The detail here is realistic but, for that very reason, intimidating: “All agents say they want new writers and new voices, but most don’t take on writers who will attract low advances. Because they get 15 percent of the advance, it’s not worth their time.” But getting published by any significant firm requires use of an agent, which in turn requires creating a book that will generate a big advance, which thus requires coming up with a topic that has not been done already and in which you are an expert and for which you already have a following (for example, through a highly popular blog you have created and managed yourself, investing in it rather than making money from it).
This is how matters interconnect here: food may be your passion, but writing about food is a business and, like writing in general, a competitive and even cutthroat one. Jacobs indicates several times that blogs are an increasingly important way to get noticed, so she devotes considerable attention to doing that: improve your content, make your photography better (“of course it isn’t easy, but having terrific photos can propel a food blog to stardom”), put your blog pictures on photo-driven sites along with links to your blog, offer subscriptions, comment on other food blogs, respond to comments on yours, and spend lots and lots and lots of time making connections on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, and whatever the social-medium-of-the-moment happens to be. And if all this does not sound like much fun, if it sounds as if your interest in food must be subsumed within a world where you spend most of your time as a salesperson and promoter and marketer – well, tough. That’s how things are, according to Jacobs. As a how-to manual, Will Write for Food is a downer, not because of Jacobs’ own writing style and not because there is anything wrong with what she says (the book is well-researched and well-organized), but because of the almost complete lack of a sense of fun, of enjoyment of writing and the process of communicating your ideas to others. Unless readers are naturally outgoing social-media enthusiasts with tons of time to spend making connections in the real and virtual worlds, what they will find out here is how little the modern requirements for successful food writing resemble the ones given by those well-known food writers in their “how they got started” snippets. It is certainly true that the landscape of writing (any writing, not just about food) has changed dramatically in recent years, but one thing that has not changed is what drives so many people to write in the first place: not fame or fortune (though those would be nice), but the desire to share ideas, to communicate what one knows or has figured out with others who are like-minded or have the potential to become so. A bit of exuberance is called for in a guidebook for writers (again, writers on any subject, not just food), and that is largely missing in Jacobs’ matter-of-fact work, which oozes practicality but generally lacks, for want of a better word, soul. That makes it a (+++) book, its practical value undoubted but its approach more off-putting than enthusiasm-generating.