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When Words Lose Their Meaning
James Boyd White
Constitutions of Language, Character, and Community
Published by University of Chicago Press in 1984
Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


This book might easily be titled "How to Read a Book, Part II" as the information within is a logical extension of Mortimer Adler's classic book on reading. This book is about the reading process itself. Professor James Body White addresses the changes that occur in the reader during the reading process. He brings to bear a wealth of experience in the fields of Law/Rhetoric/Literary Criticism/Philosophy as the back cover subject matter attests.

The following quotes illuminate the theme of the book:

[page 270] . . . reading involves a dialectic between the ideal version of oneself that a particular text seeks to call into being and the rest of who one is.

[page 279] Our concern has thus been with the ways in which words and languages acquire and hold and lose their meanings, with the methods by which culture is maintained, criticized, and transformed.

[page 277] The language marks the mind, and one will normally see that one's language is contingent, not necessary, only if one experiences a basic cultural dislocation: the sense that words have lost their meaning.

The author draws us skillfully into readings of Homer, Thucydides, Swift, Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, Edmund Burke, and John Marshall (Chief Justice) by analyzing one of their texts in light of his theme, which theme deals with the establishment of new meanings that come into being because the old meanings are lost, discarded by the writers.

Jane Austen establishes new meanings in Emma Woodstock and in us in the course of Emma. Burke creates new meanings in his penpal and us during the course of his "Reflections on the French Revolution." Burke's work becomes a discourse on the beauty of the British Constitution, a right-brain, territory-to-map, bottom-up design, and on the evils of the French Constitution, a left-brain, map-to-territory, top-down design.

This is an intriguing book and sent me scurrying for copies of Austen's Emma and the books of the other authors he discusses. My review of Emma indicates the value I found for myself in it.

Whites's volume is 285 pages of text followed by 90 pages of footnotes, so be prepared for lots of page turning back and forth if you wish to come to terms with this author and lose some of your old meanings as you create new meanings for your words.

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