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Ella Minnow Pea
Wednesday, January 9, 2008   1:25 PM

Even prescriptivists get it right sometimes. On the recommendation of a grammar peeveblogger — one who, to voice my own peeve, doesn't link to similar error-spotting sites like Mighty Red Pen and GrammarBlog — I read and enjoyed Ella Minnow Pea, "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable."

If you can parse that description, bravo: that's prettymuch the gist of the book.

The story takes place on a hyper-literate island (stuffy cacozelia abounds!) where the fictional Nevin Nollop is revered for having invented the pangram the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

(As I had to remind one confused client, that pangram is now used to test fonts; it's not a substitute for Lorem ipsum, no matter how many times you cut and paste.)

The sentence is immortalized on a monument to Nollop, but when one of the letter tiles (z) falls off, the Island Council decrees that the corresponding letter should be banished from all writing and speech, a ruling they enforce with harsh penalties. Unfortunately, it turns out that z wasn't the only loose tile...

(Incidentally, the letter Z has met this cruel fate before: it was officially banished from Icelandic first in 1918, then again, decisively, in 1974.)

The story that unfolds is told entirely through the letters characters send each other, letters that become progressively more constrained as more of the letter-letters are taken away. I think that the author cops out a little at the end, but the effort is nevertheless impressive.

However, that's prettymuch all there is to this book: it's a nice little nothing with an amusing conceit, equivalent to one of those books where the author lives in a weird way for a year. Still, was it worth a couple hours of reading time? Definitely.

(I'm a sucker for the almost non-existent "hyper-literate alternate universe" subgenre. The Eyre Affair is a must-read for any English major, although you should stay away from the other Thursday Next novels.)

With its strange, diminishing alphabet, Ella Minnow Pea reminded me of a sci-fi short story I'd just recently read, Kim Newman's "Tomorrow Town." In the Tomorrow Town alphabet:

Q and X are replaced by KW and KS; the vestigial C exists only in CH and is otherwise replaced by K or S. E.g.: "The kwik brown foks jumped over the layzee dog."

So forget z; apparently it's the letter C that doesn't get any respect. Benjamin Franklin wanted to get rid of it too (along with j, q, w, x, and y) and a quick Google search turns up some present-day haters.

None of that for me. If it does anything, Ella Minnow Pea will make you appreciate the awesomeness of every single one of our letters.

(And book title puns involving eye dialect, if I'm indeed using the term correctly. In any case: that looks hard.)

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I mourn for the letters we've lost - ash and thorn spring to mind. Man, they even had cool names.

On the plus side, we might gain some additional letters in the future. It's more of a symbol, but just look at the way '@' has come on in recent years...

Glad you liked the book!

I haven't read it since college -- maybe it's time for another read! And I'll take your linking advice to heart.

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