Title: History of Illinois in Words of One Syllable
Author: Thomas W. Handford
Publisher: Belford, Clarke & Co. (1888)
ISBN: about a century too early for ISBN
Are you intrigued? So was I when I found this supposedly monosyllabic and "profusely illustrated" history of Illinois, in a book store that has quite a decent collection of fascinating old volumes.
The first thing to understand about this book is that it is very hard to understand this book. The "one syllable" thing actually means that ev-er-y sin-gle word in ev-er-y sin-gle sen-tence on ev-er-y sin-gle page is bro-ken up with hy-phens like this. How-ev-er, some-times the syl-la-bles are ques-tion-a-ble. Take a look at some of the pages below and you'll see what I mean. See how the word "Indian" is broken into two syllables (making it sound like "Injun", which may have been a more common usage of that time) while the word "uncared" is supposed to have three syllables (un-car-ed) even though it's never to my knowledge been pronounced that way.
Are you even more intrigued now that you've seen the inside of the book? I was. I couldn't quite grasp why this book was published. Why would a publishing company make money by printing a large number of difficult to read books split up into strange quasi-syllables (more accurately "word bits"). At first glance it might be a school textbook (young people can so rarely understand more than one syllable) but the language seems very adult. After I got this book I showed a number of bookish types that I know but nobody could come up with an explanation. Then when I took the book back to the store, I got an answer that kind of makes sense.
Are you ready?
Are you sure?
Apparently, it was a book for immigrants who were new to the country and still learning English. Despite a terribly verbose writing style, this explanation makes some sense. Highlighting "-ed" on a word helps an ESL learner visualize the past tense (it must have messed with their pronounciation though). Using lots of cultural terms like "deep reverence" or "it was customary" makes sense if your audience is immigrants - although it's not at all the simplified language style we might find in an ESL textbook today.
You might expect that a book like this one would not be without its unique biases. You would be right. In addition to painting an image of native Americans as uncivilized savages, it is filled with interesting messages about women. Check out the excerpt below which asserts that "the red man was the warrior, the hero, the huntsman, and his squaw was his slave". The passage seems to set Native American customs apart from "our latest American civilization". While reading this passage, I couldn't help but wonder what the author's wife was doing while he wrote this book? And who was doing his washing, or cooking? If not his wife then a female servant?
I still haven't finished this book although I am quite desperate to make it to the end to find out what happens to Lincoln. ;)
In all seriousness though, I am so happy to have a book about the history of Illinois that was written by a likely contemporary of Abraham Lincoln (if the author was 79 when he wrote this book, he would have been born in the same year as Lincoln). Since I haven't finished the book, I can't give away the ending, but perhaps something really interesting will come up and I'll have to write a part 2....
An Australian who lived in Japan with my bicultural family now living in the USA, I believe that there are more different realities than there are books to be written.