Have you ever wondered how many words you know? Or the record number of languages on person has mastered? A LITTLE BOOK OF LANGUAGE (Yale Univ., $17), by linguist and author David Crystal, is an excellent introduction to linguistics. Crystal’s discussion is clear and comprehensive, presenting each discrete concept in a concise chapter. He begins in the womb with a baby’s first exposure to the rhythms of its native tongue, progresses to language acquisition, and by the end has covered sociolinguistics, etymology and grammar, and has explained the capricious spelling rules of the English language. Crystal even brings linguistics into the 21st century with discussions on Internet etiquette, texting language, and slang. A Little Book of Language offers a more complete understanding of one of the quintessentially human characteristics. (The answers, by the way, are about 40,000 and 58.)
Summer is a good time for light reading; maybe a good mystery? But before you delve into your next whodunit, take a short detour with P.D. James’s TALKING ABOUT DETECTIVE FICTION (Vintage, $14), and you will gain a whole new appreciation for the form. James is enthusiastic and lively, asking what makes the mystery or, as she prefers, the “detective story” such an enduring genre? Why are we fascinated with the most horrific of all crimes, murder? She takes you on a tour of the detective story from its earliest incarnations to the present, examining the “Golden Age” of British mysteries and comparing them with the hard-boiled stories from America. As in her fiction, James’s writing is precise and thoughtful. Reading this will make you want to revisit some of your old favorites: Sayers, Christie, Conan Doyle, Chandler—you’ll see them in a new light.