A Week in Books: The search for an autumnal bestseller

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The Independent Culture

The book business not only finds and markets other people's stories; pretty often, it spins them out of its own activities as well.

The book business not only finds and markets other people's stories; pretty often, it spins them out of its own activities as well. And the most appealing yarns about writing and publishing fit the same timeless moulds that lurk behind the bulk of bestsellers: David and Goliath; rags to riches; triumph over tragedy, and so forth. Last autumn, the British book world bred a choice pair of archetypal tales. In fiction, Peter "DBC Pierre" Finlay bounced back from a shadow life of scandal and shame to snatch the Man Booker prize: a variant on the Prodigal Son motif. In non-fiction, Lynne Truss emerged, Cinderella-fashion, from long years of sweeping the literary hearth to sparkle at the Christmas book-buyers' ball. Eats, Shoots & Leaves, her million-selling punctuation polemic, even secured a mythical role for its publisher, Andrew Franklin of Profile Books. His small but fearless firm (playing David to the corporate Goliaths) came to look like publishing's answer to Jimmy Stewart's golden-hearted loan company from It's a Wonderful Life.

Over the next couple of months, booksellers and publishers will be sniffing the autumnal air for this season's equivalent to pundit-stunning Kelly Holmes. On the factual side of the shelves, Profile itself has made an early run for that vital stocking-filler slot with another foray into popular linguistics: Vivian Cook's celebration of English spelling and misspelling, Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary (£9.99). As Cook, and Profile, must realise, subeditors working on autopilot all over the English-speaking world will now correct that title's three deliberate mistakes.

ABC (as we may call it to preserve the errors) is no orthographical follow-up to Truss's tome, which fizzed and flamed like some comma-nist manifesto. Rather, Cook serves up a pleasantly diverting mish-mash of word-lists, puzzles, historical digressions and Private Eye-style howlers. Interspersed with the fun are mini-lessons in the oddities of English spelling, and the reasons why so many people get it so wrong.

In style, ABC feels like a linguistic counterpart to one of Ben Schott's Bloomsbury miscellanies - another winning Christmas formula. It does tell you, painlessly enough, how to avoid the common blunders, but somehow never quite shows why - especially as much of the book assembles comic or charming evidence of creative misspelling, from hip-hop lyrics and cab-firm names to Menu English and txt msg shortenings. Cook believes, along with the great Noam Chomsky, that our spelling is "far more systematic than most people suspect" once you treat its eccentricities as clues to meaning, not to sound. Even so, much of ABC will confirm every learner's, and many native speakers', view of English orthography as a crazy 1,000-year pile-up of accidents and anomalies.

Although I'll be happy to scoff humble pie, I doubt that ABC will give Profile a second gabby goose that lays the golden eggs - not least because the book, in its Schott-derived package and presentation, tries too hard to mimic a recent sensation. As a browsable treat for self or others, it will fit that stocking-shaped gap in the gift market very neatly. As a reference manual, it falls into the crevasse between soft description and firm prescription. The section on dialect song titles should certainly not have misspelled the name of Brixton's "Tap Natch Poet", Linton Kwesi Johnson. On the other hand, some of the curious lists alone justify the price of admission - such as the computer spell-checked roster of celebrities that includes Henry Fondue, Michael Canine, Gwyneth Poltroon and that solemn star of The Deer Hunter and Sophie's Choice, Merely Stern. Which ABC, at least, is definitely not.

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