Books interview: David Crystal

The author of The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works on the delights of Just William, serendipity and Victorian self-help books

June 2, 2016
Author David Crystal, Bangor University

What book or author did you love most as a child?
All – and I mean all – of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books.

Do you recall what your 100th book was, and was there a celebration when you reached a bibliographic century?
No idea. I often get asked how many books...but it’s a difficult question to answer, for what counts as a separate book? A second edition can take as much work as a first, but should that be considered as a new item? And if I edit an anthology of several authors, does that count? The 100+ figure that people cite must be based on ISBNs, I think. There’s never been a celebration. Maybe I should have one, retrospectively.

You have played key editorial and authorial roles in many reference books. How much longer do you expect such resources to remain as physical books in our digital age?
Well, all the single-volume encyclopedias I edited for Cambridge University Press and Penguin no longer exist, nor do any of the other works in this genre (Macmillan, Hutchinson) that were around in the 1990s. It’s a shame, because – over and above the general question of the aesthetic appeal of physical books – the academic quality control of content that I did my best to maintain is regrettably absent from many online sites now. Yes, updating and searching is so much easier, but a lot of people miss the browsability and serendipitous encounter that the traditional format provided.

Your latest book The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works includes tips on speaking well in various situations. Have you ever taken the advice of a self-help book of any kind?
I can’t recall ever using such a text, other than as an example for a lecture. I find old self-help books (such as those from the Victorian era) can add a hugely entertaining strand to a speech.

What is the most recent book to have irked or disappointed you?
I don’t do any academic reviewing these days, where I suppose one tries to find something irritating or disappointing. My reading is either all around the topic of the book I happen to be planning or it’s something that has been strongly recommended by someone I trust – or I know the authors and am intrigued to find out more about them through their writing. If I felt any transient disappointment while reading, I’ve long since forgotten why this was, and my memories of everything I’ve read recently are only positive. Maybe I should get out more.

Would you care to recommend a recent book by an early career scholar that you found particularly interesting?
When I visited Perugia last year, Renato Tomei from [the University for Foreigners] Perugia gave me a copy of his book Jamaican Speech Forms in Ethiopia: The Existence of a New Linguistic Scenario in Shashamane. It turned out to be a fascinating account of the way Jamaican English has influenced speech in a Rastafarian community a long way from the Caribbean, bringing together linguistics, anthropology, musicology and cultural history.

What is the most recent book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Just yesterday, on my way back from talking at the Hexham Book Festival, I called in to see an old friend and colleague from the days when we both taught at Bangor University, back in the 1960s, Richard Bailey, now retired from Newcastle University. I gave him a copy of my Unbelievable Hamlet Discovery – a book he thought didn’t exist, because it was published on 1 April this year. (See for the proof that it does.)

What books are you reading, or are on your desk waiting to be read?
Two works on the same subject, but worlds apart in terms of style: Keith Houston’s historical account of how books came to be, The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, and John Agard’s Book (“My name is Book and I’ll tell you the story of my life...”).

David Crystal is honorary professor of linguistics, Bangor University. His latest book is The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works (Yale University Press).

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