Summary and book reviews of Letter Perfect by David Sacks

Letter Perfect

The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z

by David Sacks

Letter Perfect
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2003, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2004, 416 pages

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About this Book

Book Summary

A fun, lively, and learned excursion into the alphabet, and into cultural history with twenty-six fact-filled "biographies" of letters A through Z.

In Letter Perfect, David Sacks has embarked on a fun, lively, and learned excursion into the alphabet, and into cultural history. Clearly explaining the letters as symbols of precise sounds of speech, the book begins with the earliest known alphabetic inscriptions (circa 1800 b.c.), recently discovered by archaeologists in Egypt, and traces the history of our alphabet through the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans and up through medieval Europe to the present day. However, the heart of the book is the twenty-six fact-filled "biographies" of letters A through Z, each one identifying the letter's particular significance for modern readers, tracing its development from ancient forms, and discussing its noteworthy role in literature and other media. We learn, for example, why letter X may have a sinister and sexual aura, how B came to signify second best, why the word mother in many languages starts with M. Combining facts both odd and essential, Letter Perfect is cultural history at its most accessible and enjoyable.


BookBrowse note: Letter Perfect was originally published in hardcover under the title Language Visible.

Preface

This book attempts a voyage of discovery among the letters of the alphabet. Like islands of an archipelago, the 26 letters will be visited and explored, one at a time. Each island's geography and local lore will be examined briefly, also its relationship to other islands in the navigational stream. Some islands may prove more lush or lofty than others. But any one will yield substantial mental nourishment to visitors, along with glorious vistas onto language, literature, and history of the past 4,000 years.

Where do our letters come from? How did they get their shapes, their assigned sounds, their sequence, immortalized in our "Alphabet Song"? Why do we use "Roman" letters for English–also for Spanish, Czech, Turkish, Swahili, Vietnamese, and many others–while some languages (Russian, Greek, Arabic, Hindi, etc.) use different types of letters? What is a letter, exactly? What's an alphabet? These are among questions to be answered with authority and zest....

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The history of our alphabet is, to a greater or lesser extent, also the history of our own culture; in Letter Perfect you'll discover much about both. Sacks starts with a fascinating overview of the history of the various world alphabets (which is perhaps the most compelling part of the book) before breaking off to explore, with much wit and wisdom, the personal histories of each letter in turn. Whether you're reading about 'The Lure of L', 'Primordial M' or 'The Story of O' - you'll find fascinating facts and anecdotes in every chapter; plus many entertaining asides, such as why J arrived late to the alphabet party, why K is the poor relation to C and what Q is doing in there at all; not to mention the sinister reputation of T.  

Media Reviews

The New York Times - Julie Walton Shaver

Sacks's quirky style makes the book as fun to read as it is enlightening … Sacks's obsession with language is contagious, and I can imagine few readers whose lives would not be enriched by what he calls his 'voyage of discovery.'

The Baltimore Sun

[A] delightful journey into the history of our alphabet…With a breezy tone and a passion for letters, Sacks tells the life story of all 26 of them — from A, the 'first and best,' to Z, the least-used letter in printed English. Each of these 26 'biographies' is filled with entertaining and fascinating facts…In this rich history, Sacks offers answers to all of the mysteries of the alphabet, and a long-overdue examination of the origins of our ABCs.

The New York Times Book Review - Julie Walton Shaver

As fun to read as it is enlightening...Sacks's obsession with language is contagious, and I can imagine few readers whose lives would not be enriched by what he calls his 'voyage of discovery.'

Publishers Weekly

....anecdotes, and the care evinced throughout, make this a demanding gem of popular linguistic history, and any book that includes a chapter called The Birth of `V'ness certainly avoids taking itself too seriously.

Kirkus Reviews

An always clever -- but rarely too clever -- educational and entertaining history of the alphabet. A refreshing combination of erudition and breeziness.

Library Journal 

[Letter Perfect] is distinguished by its remarkably long and broad view of the topic and its omnivorous sense of fun. …From discussions of the letter A's role in meat grading, bond rating, student ranking, and punishment for adultery to Z's exotic associations with Zorro, Sacks makes the history of the alphabet a joy to read. Recommended for most libraries.

Booklist

Sacks unfolds the romance and magic of the English alphabet. Although Sacks writes for non-specialists, he distills an impressive range of scholarship into his examination of the alphabet's complex cultural history. This is a delightfully entertaining and engrossing tale of how the score of roman letters that arrived in England in the seventh century eventually gave us everything from the poetry of William Shakespeare to the official grades used by meat inspectors to evaluate chicken.

Booklist - Bryce Christensen

This is a delightfully entertaining and engrossing tale of how the score of Roman letters that arrived in England in the seventh century eventually gave us everything from the poetry of William Shakespeare to the official grades used by meat inspectors to evaluate chicken. 

The Globe and Mail

Sacks is at his best when he opens a world, and the worlds within worlds that shape-shift as written language moves...Letter Perfect is a valuable addition (edition?) for anyone who wants to know how Anglophones got from there to here.

Author Blurb Alberto Manguel, author of A History of Reading
At a time when it has become more important than ever to read clearly and intelligently in order to dismantle the daily traps of propaganda, this delightful book lays bare for us, with wit and wisdom, the very building-blocks of our culture the mysterious letters of the alphabet that rule our language and thought.

Author Blurb Mark Dunn, author of Ella Minnow Pea
Reading David Sacks's wonderful Letter Perfect is like sitting rapt before the coolest teacher in school. Sacks's excursion through the alphabet is witty and smart. I was reluctant to finally leave the classroom.

Reader Reviews

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