Thursday, March 31, 2011


Wordstruck: A MemoirWordstruck: A Memoir by Robert MacNeil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wordstruck by Robert MacNeil shows how a proper memoir should be done, versus a full-blown autobiography.  MacNeil draws from his life experience to cast light on his love for literature and the English language.  The book hews close to the title: MacNeil is, as he describes himself, truly wordstruck.

MacNeil is no academic, but he's well qualified to write on the subject.  A well-respected veteran broadcaster, MacNeil has worked in radio and television and covered everything from the Kennedy assassination to 9/11.   His trade is in words, and he revels in the rhythm and precision, though he's by no means a pedant.

In Wordstruck, MacNeil relates how he came to love language, beginning with his boyhood experiences of his mother's bedside storytelling. MacNeil credits his parents with the pivotal role of planting the seeds.  The love affair develops further in his involvement in theater, in radio, in a delayed college education, and finally, in a career in TV.

MacNeil goes in tangents to talk about Stevenson, Milne, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Hemingway -- writers who have made the deep and lasting impression in him.  He also tackles the development of the English language -- its Germanic, Old English, Latin, and French roots, as well as the idioms from old traditions.  Reading through the analyses gave me new perspectives in approaching the writers.

However, this interweaving of personal life with literary and linguistic discourse also forms the major weakness of the book.   It's an ambitious attempt to marry the two, but the shifts in topic can be somewhat distracting.  Just when I'm getting engrossed in some part of his life, the tone changes as he takes on a language or literature.

It's a bit of a shame, really, as his family life is especially engaging: MacNeil really and truly does love his mother and father, and the book is as much an homage to them as it is to the English language.  This shows in the vignettes he chooses and the manner in which he chooses to present them.  On my first reading, it's this aspect of the book which draws me in as the reader.

Despite this weakness, the two subjects -- family and language -- have enough power to draw the reader in separately and alone.  While I found the family stories more engrossing in this first pass, I'll probably return now and then for his explanations and analyses of the English language.

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