Book report #35 (2020)

I have wanted to read something by Robert MacFarlane, and when I saw that I needed a language book to complete my list for 2020, he was a good choice. I opted for this book because I already owned it (otherwise, I would likely have chosen The Lost Words). This book is bit of a memoir of inspiring and influential writers for MacFarlane but primarily a study of the language of place, including several glossaries for landscape language in the various environments looked at. The chapters are variable in quality and interest, so some were real slogs to get through while others were lyrically lovely and enjoyable. For example, the chapters on moorlands and Sierra Mountains were slow and difficult to finish (the latter because it was made mostly of excerpts on John Muir‘s writings rather than much original writing from MacFarlane). However, the chapters on the Uplands (Nan Shepherd), Waterlands (Roger Deakin), Edgelands (Richard Jeffries) and the Northlands (Barry Lopez)* were exquisite, making me seek out those writers for future reading. The glossaries are interesting but a bit like reading a dictionary, so more browsed than read.
MacFarlane’s first chapter is the best of all, explaining his passion for words and places, and noting his motive for writing this book – the loss of words of nature from the vernacular. When nature words were removed from the children’s OED (as he says, instead of blackberry, see BlackBerry), he wanted to capture and document these disappearing words and celebrate those who inspired him to love and care for such language. Like cultures wanting to preserve their ancient languages, so too should modern English seek to preserve ways of referring to the natural world. As Muir said, “most people are on the world, rather than in it”, and without the language to name the places, things, sights, and sounds, we will also lack the ability to see and understand.
I liked this book. I wanted to love it, but the boring bits made it too tedious to love. I will be seeking out more from the recommended authors, and likely another MacFarlane at some point.
4 – a book about language
9 – a book of essays
19 – a book with a one-word title
22 – a memoir (kind of)
24 – a book by an author I’ve never read
And with that I complete the list for 2020 – a first for me to complete the list in the year!
* Barry Lopez died the day that I finished this book. I take it as a sign to include one of his books in 2021.

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