‘Challenging Words for Smart People’ - By Richard Lederer
162 pages – Marion Street Press
Reviewed by: Jeb Ladouceur
When famed wordsmith, columnist, and presidential speechwriter, William Safire, died in 2009, I had just completed my second reading of his wonderful book on the English language. The title of the work that had mesmerized me so is ‘What’s the Good Word?’ and I remember wondering whether any Wizard of Idiom would ever be able to replace him. That seemed an unlikely prospect at the time. Safire was not merely a punster and a wordaholic, he was a linguist of the first order … and anyone who was serious about writing looked to him for guidance.
In my own case, I had embarked on what seemed a near-impossible task when, at the urging of my literary agent, Alfred Hart, I wrote the first of three word-oriented novels. That initial tale was driven by Palindromes, and thanks to William Safire’s influence, ‘The Palindrome Plot’ was eminently successful.
“Why not publish a wordplay sequel?” said Al, the agent. “How about using Anagrams?”
I re-visited my Safire source for inspiration, and with the master’s help, was able to crank out a story whose plot depended on the shifting of letters within a given word (or word’s) and the resulting novel was ‘Calamity Hook,’ set in Oklahoma. Even the title of book number two is an Anagram … for Oklahoma City.
At the urging of my ever-confident Publicist, Debbie Lange Fifer (all good promoters are thus staunchly sure of their clients) we rounded out the trilogy with ‘Frisco,’ a thriller dependent on a sophisticated form of Anagram known as the Charade. Imagine the term amiable together breaking into six words without changing the sequence of letters … am I able to get her … heady stuff, for which I am indebted largely to Safire.
But my question as to whether anyone would ultimately match, or replace the great linguist was answered over this past weekend when I was presented with a slender volume that is the subject of this critique. I immediately thought of a quote from the Washington Post: “Columnist and punster, Richard Lederer, may be William Safire’s only living peer at writing about grammar, word usage, and derivations.”
How very true.
Just as was the case with the inimitable Safire, Lederer’s books are acknowledged on a cover note as being, ‘not for everyone’ … though with nearly fifty titles to his credit, one would think that any reader should find some book or other in Lederer’s oeuvre to his liking. For the purposes of this review, however, we will stick to the considerable qualities to be found in the pages of ‘Challenging Words…’
Here you will be treated to a primer on spelling, linguistic curiosities, wordplay … and included are even a number of delightful erudite quizzes on all those categories and more. As author John Vorhaus has observed, “When I picture Richard Lederer’s mind, I see leprechauns with lexicons. Man, there’s a lot going on in there!”
I would question one aspect of this little jewel of a book, however. The title of the work is ‘Challenging Words for Smart People,’ but in actuality that banner is a bit pretentious. After all, what criteria are used to determine who is a ‘smart person’? And exactly what degree of intelligence makes one a ‘smart person’? A better way of defining Lederer’s book as it relates to intellect (it seems to me) would be to state that one is quite likely to become a smarter person (at least in terms of understanding our English language) for having read it.
Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of a dozen novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His newest book, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Ladouceur’s recently completed thriller, THE SOUTHWICK INCIDENT, is due next month. It involves a radicalized Yale student and his CIA pursuers. Mr. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com