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The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue
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The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue

3.55 of 5 stars 3.55  ·  rating details  ·  80 ratings  ·  13 reviews
Fifteen outstanding writers answered editor Wendy Lesser’s call for original essays on the subject of language–the one they grew up with, and the English in which they write.Despite American assumptions about polite Chinese discourse, Amy Tan believes that there was nothing discreet about the Chinese language with which she grew up. Leonard Michaels spoke only Yiddish unti ...more
Paperback, 241 pages
Published July 12th 2005 by Anchor (first published 2004)
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Jon Stout
Nov 14, 2012 Jon Stout rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: polyglots and polymaths
Shelves: linguistics
Wendy Lesser has put together fifteen essays about ESL, that is, about authors who have come to write in English after originally having grown up with different mother tongues. Though these writers have found English liberating (or useful), they inevitably are formed by their first language, and bring something new to their acquired language, in a kind of struggle. As someone who learned Spanish as a teenager. I am fascinated by the creative struggle of two different languages in one speaker.

Mirvan  Ereon
As a polyglot and lover of languages, I found this book very useful, insightful and wonderful. This book featured different writers and I discovered a lot of new writers which I will be willing to read and explore. Some of the writers who contributed to this book are Amy Tan and Ngugi wo Thiong O, both my favorites. This book is best read when one wants to have some time reading a good informative book because it will give you a lot to learn and discover about languages in general, as well as gl ...more
A hit-or-miss collection, the brilliant premise of which is only occasionally adhered to by its fifteen contributors. Amy Tan and Ariel Dorfman both knock it out of the park, but many of the other essays are simply ruminations on the childhoods or difficult family lives of the writer, which could be interesting, but aren't exactly to the point. Several of the authors start off well before sliding into digressions which they then forcibly drag back on track in the final paragraphs, as if realizin ...more
Trudged slowly through some of these essays and blew delightfully through others. Mostly I loved the concept of the collection and the recurring ideas that linked them all together.
This books is my dream book. I love good writing and I love the topic of language. So here was the perfect blend. I especially loved the essay on Spanish. Maybe it's because I'm currently trying to learn Spanish. But it was the author's personification of his two languages that I loved the most. And he also wrote it in a very unorthodox style, using footnotes that often took up more of the page than the actual text. Amy Tan's essay was engaging as well. It had similarities with her "Mother Tongu ...more
An important collection of essays gathered by Wendy Lesser that relate to the experience of writing in English when it is not one's mother tongue. This brings out fascinating perspectives on writing in general and a a fresh objectivity to the extent to which English informs what we read. Amy Tan and Gary Shteyngart contribute heartfelt pieces as the best known of the bunch but every single one is revealing. The essays are personal as the subject, dealt with honestly as they all are here, gets to ...more
I love reading about how writers feel about writing, and I love learning about the structure and culture of different languages. However, the essays in this book were rather boring; very few of them made me really excited about language or words. Standouts were the essays "Circus Biped" by the Dutch writer Bert Keizer and "The Mother Tongue Between Two Slices of Rye" by Gary Shteyngart. Other than these, the essays were in this collection were rather bland and disappointing.
Ultimately lacking specific information on bilingualism or universal truth on multi-cultural identities, the collection seems to be for entertainment's sake. Some were rather entertaining - Papandrou, Tan, and Shteyngart's musings flowed. Other authors struck me as too discordant, trying unsuccessfully to merge the cerebral with the sentimental. The book was thus less entertaining than I had hoped.
Loved reading about the authors' very diverse journeys in, around, and through their various languages into (and sometimes back out of) English. I would recommend this to anyone who loves language and identity or is at all bilingual. Wish I could make all my past students read it. The essays read more like stories, so even though it's non-fiction they pull you in.
This is a mixed bag of stories, some more interesting than others. I had higher expectations of the discussion of this subject; and I realized as soon as I read the editor's introduction that she probably did as well. I just think some of the writers missed the mark.
Dana Portnoy
A nice mix of perspectives on language and what it really means.
Jan 20, 2008 Tracey marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
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Wendy Lesser a critic, novelist, and editor based in Berkeley, California.

She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

More about Wendy Lesser...
Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering The Amateur: An Independent Life of Letters Pictures At An Execution

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