Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Book Review: I Used To Know That by Caroline Taggart, I Before E (Except After C) by Judy Parkinson, My Grammar and I by Caroline Taggart / J.A. Wines

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For those who fondly remember their school days (as well as those who don't remember anything about them at all), Reader's Digest has produced three books with a whiff of childhood: I Used To Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School by Caroline Taggart, I Before E (Except After C): Old-School Ways To Remember Stuff by Judy Parkinson and My Grammar and I...Or Should That Be Me? by Caroline Taggart and J. A. Wines.

If, like me, you go ga-ga over anything trivia-related, I Used To Know That: Stuff You Forgot From School is a sure-fire winner. As the title suggests, the book covers basic information that we all learned in school, from the names of Greek gods to the Pythagorean theorem. Yes, the information is all readily found via a Google search, but it is the arrangement of the information and the conciseness of presentation that are at the heart of the book's usefulness.

But having said that, in the end, I Used To Know That is more about entertainment than information anyway. If you need to know who wrote Moby Dick, you probably will go to Google rather than to the chapter on literature. On the other hand, if you like seeing how much you remember from your school days (and, more likely than not, the much larger amount that you forgot!), Taggart's book fits like a glove.

Similar to I Used To Know That, I Before E (Except After C): Old-School Ways To Remember Stuff recalls information--this time in the form of memory-helping mnemonics--that you may have learned in school. The major difference, at least for me, is that this book is not a practical guide to remembering information; the acronyms, rhymes and other mnemonics given are harder to remember than the information they are supposed to recall.

However, helpful memory tips don't seem to be Parkinson's actual aim. In her foreword, she notes that she compiled a group of "quirky and amusing ways that people have devised to remember tidbits of information." Unless you are made of drastically different stuff that I am, "Sally Made Henry Eat Onions" won't ring any bells for you. (It's an mnemonic for the acronym for the five Great Lakes, incidentally.) But precisely because these mnemonics are so completely absurd--seriously, the number of letters in each word of "I sighted Thomas's rights" will help you remember the year America was founded?--I Before E (Except After C) is good geeky fun.

Now for the one slight clunker in the bunch: My Grammar and I...Or Should That Be Me? is a grammar primer and reference, much like Shrunk & White's classic The Elements of Style. Unfortunately, when your book can be compared to the paragon of English style guides, your book is also facing enormously stiff competition. Even more unfortunately, Taggart and Wines write in a very clear and economical manner; normally this would recommend the book, but in this case, it means there is little to differentiate it from The Elements of Style. To be fair, this book is a well-written grammar guide, and if you don't own anything similar, My Grammar and I...Or Should That Be Me? is a perfectly good choice. However, Taggart and Wines introduce nothing new, and there is no need to double up on books about grammar.

Last but not least, a note about the books' cover material and design: I normally don't factor the aesthetics of a book into my judgment of its quality, but these books present a special case. The subject matter is a throwback to grammar school, and so, in a brilliant move, is the books' design: the covers recall the classic composition book, and the material has that same matte gloss that laminated school library books have. These touches are like the cherry on a sundae, and the substantive material of the books is truly enhanced through them.

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