39. “American Bee,” James Maguire

This book is divided into sections on the 2004 bee, the history of spelling bees, profiles of past winners, profiles of five spellers-to-watch in the 2005 bee, and a play-by-play of the 2005 bee.

I was underwhelmed by this book. It felt like each part was written separately– there were a lot of repeated anecdotes.

This part cracked me up: In the mid-1800s, spelling bees were all the rage in New England, causing a New York Times reporter to ask, “could there be a more characteristic and illustrative comment upon the narrow, colorless intellectual and moral tone of the New England life of the New England life of the rural districts, which is now passing away, than the fact that they were driven to such an arid, barren resource as spelling for amusement!” (quoted on 62).

I also learned that one of the reasons that similarly-spelled words are pronounced so differently is that the pronunciations come to us from different parts of England. “Bury,” for example, is a Kent accent, where as “busy” is a London one. When the first US dictionary was written, many people railed against it. Joseph Priestly, who discovered oxygen, said it was “unsuitable to the genius of a free nation” to tell people what words mean, or how to spell them. Hilariously, back to our Puritan roots, Noah Webster defined “freedom” as “a violation of the rules of decorum.”

Page count: 363
Page total: 18,460

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