LANGUAGE UNLIMITED (2019) – PICASSO (2018) – HANFF (1970)

Short write-ups of three very different books: a new linguistics book intended for a general audience, a splendid book on Picasso’s drawings & an epistolary classic of some sorts…

There’s even one I can recommend 100%!


Language Unlimited David AdgerLANGUAGE UNLIMITED  – David Adger (2019)

All and all a strong defence of an innate Universal Grammar & the recursive Merge rule. Still, there will not be that much new for people with an academic background in linguistics.

The book is an introduction a general audience with a firm theoretical interest, and the Merge rule Noam Chomsky described first is not the focal point: general observations about the importance of syntax for the uniqueness of human language are. This is first and foremost a syntax book.

Adger starts from scratch, and gives a nice enough run through the nature of symbols, emoij, Kanzi the bonobo, AI languages, machine translation, and the likes. He uses numerous examples from lots of different languages.

In two or three cases I didn’t think Adger was fully convincing – I don’t think you need Merge to get to an endless possessive structure (like My sister’s cat’s food’s bacteria’s DNA’s proteins’ ect.), why wouldn’t “Chunking” do, coupled with the power to extrapolate that is? – but overall I think the evidence points to Chomsky being right. Especially home signers – deaf children from hearing parents that grow up with other deaf children and invent their own sign language from scratch – are a powerful indication.

What was most interesting to me was the final chapter, on language and culture. It focussed on the distinction between grammar that operates with distinct changes between things (words, word order, inflection, etc.) and generates meaning as such, and other ways of generating (social) meaning, relying on aspects of language that rely on continuous changes, like the way a vowel is expressed by certain subcultures, or the slightly different way the s-sound is formed – overal – by gay men & how that even relates to their particular social context.

The book is clear and self-contained. I would have liked 100 pages more though, with more detail about the various arguments in the linguistic field, and more of the final chapter – but that’s because I did linguistic 20 years ago and it would have been nice to have had a bit more of a thorough update of the state of the field today.

One final remark: at times there’s something wrong with Adger’s prose. I can’t put my finger on it, but the writing feels a bit clunky, a bit wooden, and overtly repetitive at times. He writes in a kind of popular science mode, but doesn’t seem to pull it off neatly.


Picasso and the Art of DrawingPICASSO AND THE ART OF DRAWING – Christopher Lloyd (2018)

This might just be the go to Picasso book in this price category. Good overviews of Picasso are hard to find, as his output is so huge, so curating a comprehensive overview isn’t easy. By focusing on drawing, Lloyd manages to not get lost.

Still, this book is not only about drawing: to explain Picasso’s drawings, Lloyd includes references to – and pictures of – paintings and a bit of sculpture too, both of Picasso and of art that has influenced him. Lloyd writes with great authority, with a detailed knowledge of Picasso’s life and work. It is structured chronologically, and investigates how events (and people, most notably Picasso’s lovers) influenced his artistic practice. Loyd shows the genius of Picasso, but also his embeddedness, so to say.

This book also doubles as a biography. It is well researched – a few times even a bit too detailed for my taste. One might even say the title is misleading: this is much more than just a book on Picasso’s drawings.

I have to say my respect & admiration for Picasso has only increased by reading this. 143 splendid colour illustrations, and excellent print quality. 232 pages in total.

Here is a list of my favorite art books.


84, Charing Cross Road84, CHARING CROSS ROAD – Helene Hanff (1970)

While it’s fairly interesting as a document of its time (pre-internet, pre-cheap flights, post-WW2), or as a chronicle of a loud-mouth American chipping away at the reserved politeness of a Brit, the novelty quickly wears off in this repetitive book of correspondence between the NY based Hanff and a London second hand bookstore. There seems to develop a friendship between Hanff and the people of the bookstore, but it’s unsure how much of it depends on Hanff’s charity & dollars.

This short book apparently is a classic, and is loved by lots of people: readers seem delighted by the developing friendship, and it’s marketed as a treat for book lovers. To me Hanff comes across as self-indulgent, unhappy maybe, at times inebriated. If you’re put off by her style & personality the first 20 pages, trust me, there’s no use of reading on. If it clicks, I’m sure you’ll like the rest.

I’ve read a Dutch translation by Barbara van Kooten while I had to spend some time in a place deprived of any reading material, except for this. I’m sure it’s better in English, but the simple parlando made it easy enough to imagine how it sounds in English, so I’m also sure that I would not have upgraded my rating if I’d read the original. All and all an insubstantial Hanff ego document.

13 responses to “LANGUAGE UNLIMITED (2019) – PICASSO (2018) – HANFF (1970)

  1. A defense of Chomsky’s universal grammar structure sounds very interesting! The constant interaction of idiolects and sociolects was nicely analyzed by Bernstein, if I remember correctly, and of course by Bourdieu, though his perspective was definitely not linguistic 😉.
    The Picasso book sounds great, too! I must admit I prefer his early works, but I would be delighted to read his solid biography, especially illustrated. Solid reviews, as always, Bart!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have not come across Bernstein, will try to read up a bit about that, thanks.
      As for a biography, this Picasso book is only introductionary level, there’s only 230 pages, half of which are illustrations. I’ve set my eye on ‘Life With Picasso’ by Francoise Gilot, who lived with him for 10 years. That book supposedly offers great insights in his artistic thinking, but also shows him to be a terrible human in the way he treats his loved ones, etc.
      It has taken me years to warm up to Picasso, I visited the Picasso museum in Paris in my late teens and didn’t think much of it back then. Only the last decade I have come to realize how big his impact was on art, and throughout the years I have seen some fantastic paintings all over Europe, a second trip to the Picasso museum has blown me away and sold me forever. But I agree his rose & blue periods have a special attraction, there’s an almost romantic melancholy in much of those early works.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. You unfeeling, heartless brute! Not falling in love with 84 Charing Cross Rd?!? What kind of monster are you?

    I read it back in ’07 and ended up giving it 4 stars. It wouldn’t surprise me if I were to re-read it that I’d knock the rating up. I’m a sucker for stories told in letters though…

    Liked by 1 person

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