Book Review: Bridge of Words, by Esther Schor
Bridge of Words, by Esther Schor
Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language
By Esther Schor
Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I’ve long had a fascination for Esperanto, the “global second language” that got invented in the late Victorian Age, flourished among the far-left political parties of Early Modernism’s Communist era, and had its last big hurrah among the hippies of the countercultural age. (For those who don’t know, Esperanto was deliberately designed to be the easiest language to learn in the entire history of the subject, with the goal being that everyone on the planet would eventually know it as a second language to their local primary first language, as a way of bringing about true global communication without everyone on the planet having to learn every 25 years the latest “language du jour” of whatever hegemony just happened to be dominating the rest of the world during any particular generation.)

And so I had an immediate interest when recently coming across Esther Schor’s new examination of the subject, Bridge of Words, which is an engaging hybrid of a book — every odd-numbered chapter examines a piece of Esperanto’s fascinatingly checkered history, while every even-numbered chapter looks at Esperanto as it exists as a still popular and functioning language in the 21st century, taking on everything from the people who choose to learn it and why, to a detailed analysis of the language itself and how exactly it works.

And indeed, this book is chock-full of interesting stuff I never knew before about Esperanto, not least of which was that it was invented in the first place by an Eastern European pre-Nazi Jew who had briefly been a part of the “Zionist” movement that eventually led to the formation of modern Israel; and that the language itself has complicated ties to the 20th-century struggles of Jewish identity, reforming the Yiddish language, and the Utopian Socialism dreams that went so hand-in-hand with such people back in those years. And this is not to mention the life that the language took on for itself away from these subjects as well, including its embrace by the ’60s counterculture mentioned before, as well as it being seen as a way in the ’50s to counter the xenophobia of Eugene McCarthy’s “red scare” Communist witch hunts.

So it’s a shame, then, that Schor’s own writing style often gets in the way of this book being more enjoyable than it currently is; an Ivy League academe and full-time poet, she often gets too high-falutin’ in her examination of Esperanto in all its myriad forms, having the tendency in a lot of places of writing in a nearly incomprehensibly academic way that will go over the heads of most general readers (yours truly included). Still very much worth your time, Bridge of Words is nonetheless unfortunately not as good as it could’ve been, which is why it’s getting a score today that doesn’t quite reflect the interest that just the subject itself naturally generates on its own.

Out of 10: 8.5

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Jason Pettus is the owner of CCLaP, and a former novelist, slam poet and travel writer. During the day he is a front-end software developer within the Chicago tech startup community. Goodreads | LibraryThing | Twitter | Instagram | Letterboxd