American Bee  

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds

By James Maguire, 2006, from the library

You should know

I was a decent speller in grade school. I won a few class bees. And I’m good with English – at least, according to my still-unframed degrees, I am. Basically, I’m into it enough to enjoy a book about the history of spelling bees and profiles of some top young spellers, but not so much that I could, even today, kick much rear at a bee.

Not that I’m not tempted. Any bars around here have spelling nights?


Maguire is a journalist, and it shows. His research is thorough, his reporting is extensive, and his profiles are windows into the lives of their subjects. However, the story is episodic. As I read this book, I found myself wondering if he had actually written a series of articles and then just shoved them together with a few chapters of exposition to tie them into a neat package.

While the cast of young spellers and adult officials (who used to be young spellers – the Bee’s director and pronouncer even competed against each other) is large, and descriptive references are helpful in reminding us who is who, Maguire tends to describe the same people in the same way every time – almost as if he were introducing them for the first time. This would make sense if each chapter was an independent unit, but as a longer book, it just doesn’t work.

Maguire also has a tendency to pun about the words the students spell:
Yet for all his kidding, the boy conjures up necromancy with no difficulty. (But in the next round he gets – appropriately – irreverent and tries to replace the i with an e.

Nice enough in isolation, right? But after a few times, it gets old… and then continues.

Also, there are two words Maguire keeps referencing: boeotian and rijsttafel (both of which were flagged by my spell-check). He even mentions them in his author’s profile on the book jacket. Yes, they’re hard words -- I got that the first two times. And speller Marshall Winchester nailed them in the 2004 Nationals, so they’re relevant. Even so, the constant repetition gets old.

Still, the history of spelling, and of spelling bees, is intriguing, and by the time Maguire tells the story of the 2005 Bee, I felt like rooting for some kids over others – a mark of effective profiles. Overall, the annoying tics are forgivable in the grand scheme of an amusing, informative book.

The rest of the Internet

Maguire’s blog.
The LibraryThings page.
StarStar at Literati Illuminations posts an enthusiastic review.
A review in USA Today.
A pleasant review at Jeremy Blachman's Weblog.
The Simplified Spelling Society, mentioned in the book, weighs in.
The Online Newshour at PBS did an interview with the author and other spelling-related personalities.
Sherry at Semicolon read to book to learnmore about her daughter's new ambition - to be a top speller.
Medulla Vesuvius at Word City enjoyed the book.
The National Spelling Bee's official site and Wikipedia page.
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