Thursday, September 07, 2006

American Bee, James Maguire

The dust jacket of this book is all you need to read to suck you inside in an instant. I could not not open the book and start from the beginning. It captures you like the peak, tense denoument of any thrilling movie or riveting sports event. And it's only a spelling bee!

Eagerly I dove into American Bee wanting to know...did David Tidmarsh win? Or did he hyperventilate and collapse onstage? How does this exciting moment, making up only the first chapter, constitute a book-length exploration of the spelling bee? As I read onwards, new questions sprang to mind: How did the bee become so huge? When did ESPN decide it was a worthy sporting event for their discriminating network to cover? Have the words always been so obnoxiously difficult? When did spellers start studying word etymology rather than simply memorize spellings? And so on.

Maguire not only answers all of these questions, but goes into a fascinating history of the spelling bee itself (social construct for young men and women to safely flirt with one another on wintery evenings in the 1800s), individual profiles of champions (several profiles covering the last 30+ years of spelling) and even into the history of orthography (spelling) back to the beginning throes of english. To think that our own dictionary, our modern spellings and fleshed out language, only truly became such 200 years ago is actually quite stunning in light of how many years society has existed and communicated to one another.

I love that Maguire makes all this so accessible that even a non-word geek would appreciate the fascinating bits of trivia and lingual history. I know this because I have been reading parts aloud to my spouse who does not, does not read, at all. He has been amazed at just how interesting this information is to him. Sure, we can read about the history of the english language and learn all about roots, outside language influences, the creation of the dictionary, etc. in other, lengthier, more academic tomes. But! But it would not be nearly as interesting to non-linguists, non-writers and non-orthographers. That's the spark of American Bee. What it takes to make what is seen as boring, interesting, is the skill of a talented storyteller.

Of course, the peering into the lives of kids who are so atypical and finding out what a broad cross-section of cultural and educational and class the Bee cuts into...that is the essence of a great history. The first national spelling bee near the start of the 20th century was won by a young girl who was, gasp, black. A black girl? You can imagine the tizzy into which society was thrown after that. Yet it stands as a perfect example of how the Bee progressed, culturally. Color-blind, gender-blind, the Bee only has ever focused on pure hard-work, intelligence and passion. Yes, passion. Wait until you read about these kids and the hours they put into learning about word roots, learning other languages and voraciously devouring anything they can read. It's enough to inspire someone to get out there and do the same, even "late" in life.

Who doesn't have an intense involvement with the spelling bee they lost? Who doesn't remember the word they mispelled and placed lower than first? I know I remember the word that brought me 3rd place in the school-wide bee I participated in as a 4th grader. Bacterium. I spelled it right in my head and raced through it, forgetting the "u". It ruined me for future bees. I guess I just didn't have what it takes. Did you?

1 comment:

Laura said...

Hi. I cited your article in my own book review. Thanks, and check it out: