Words, Words, Words

I have been reading and enjoying Jonathan Yardley's reviews for years and often feel left in the dust by his erudition. That said, I have a few quibbles with his review of Henry Hitchings's Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary (Book World, Nov. 13): first, in what I'm sure is a simple typographical error, the slang term "pricklouse" is rendered as "prickhouse" (though that might make sense for a tailor's shop!). Yardley also describes Dr. Johnson as "a resident of a place called 'grubstreet.' " In fact, John Wain says, in the biography of Dr. Johnson to which Yardley himself refers, that Dr. Johnson never actually resided there. Likewise, it wasn't a place called "grubstreet," it was Grub Street; a map of 1761 shows it, a brief street running north-south, near Moorfields. Today the Barbican Gallery stands almost exactly on its old location.


Herndon Va.

I have long been a devotee of Dr. Johnson's works and never tire of revisiting his writings. I make it a habit to reread Rasselas once a year (as I do Don Quixote periodically) to readjust my state of mind in these turbulent times. In additon to John Wain's biography, I recommend that of W. Jackson Bate, which is superb. Johnson's The Major Works is available in a single paperback doorstopper that is a constant source of delight, to be dipped into at random or with specific intent.

I keep Samuel Johnson's Dictionary: A Modern Selection close at hand in my personal collection and often take it up when in need of some etymological elegance. Boswell's Life of Johnson, when read in conjunction with his sometimes steamy journals, is a telling vignette of those times. I have often mused about the company Johnson kept and wondered if there has been anything comparable in more recent times. The mind staggers at the intellectual power generated in some of those coffee-house gatherings of the Club: Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon. Johnson met on occasion with Benjamin Franklin while both served on the same committee in England. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall. . .


Laurel, Md.

Shoot Out in the House

Regarding Ted Widmer's review of American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman (Boook World, Nov. 13), this native Washingtonian (74 years old) remembers that attempt at Blair House. Though it is not an immediate part of the Blair House story, I'm a little surprised that the reviewer or the author didn't mention also the shooting inside the House Chamber on Capitol Hill four years later -- also by Puerto Rican nationalists. This was pretty sensational at the time.


Middletown, Md.

On the Amazon

Tahir Shah's review of Candice Millard's The River of Doubt (Book World, Nov. 6) was so interesting that I have put the book on my list to read. However, his sketch of history in the first couple of paragraphs seems hazy. While Roosevelt did in fact serve two terms as president before his unsuccessful bid in 1912 as a third-party candidate, William Howard Taft was in fact the sitting president that November. The dynamic of having both Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican and independent vote was the key to Woodrow Wilson's electoral victory. Shah's description of the 1912 race could give readers the impression that Roosevelt was seeking a third straight term and was defeated one on one in a straightforward two horse race. The 1912 election was anything but usual.

Roosevelt ran for president as much because he viewed Taft as having betrayed the policies and programs that TR had championed while in office as because of his dislike for Wilson.


Bethesda, Md.

Tahir Shah replies:

The history is extremely well known and well chronicled. My apologies if as a reviewer I gave a misleading impression. But Unfortunately the limiitations of reviewing a long book in so few words unables a reviewer to give the history in full. I encourage Roger Brinley and the book-buying public at large to buy the book and read it in full. It's a wonderful story.

Fundamental Differences

In his review of President Jimmy Carter's new book, Our Endangered Values (Book World, Nov. 6), Alan Wolfe writes, "It is true that fundamentalist Christians have retrograde views about women." This generalization, given with no supporting evidence and couched in negative rather than neutral terms, is clearly Wolfe's opinion, not just a restatement of something Carter has said in his book. Why is Wolfe allowed to use this book review as a pulpit for his own ideas? Surely it would be more accurate, and more evenhanded, to say something like this: Fundamentalist Christians believe in taking the Bible literally about human nature and the relationships and roles of men and women. And Wolfe's argument against Carter's statement that "Jesus Christ was the greatest liberator of women" falls into the classic trap of confusing the teachings of later church writers, who were often writing with a set agenda, with the teachings of the Bible itself.

If a reviewer is going to quote approvingly from the reviewed text, he should check the accuracy of the ideas in the quotation. This standard was not followed in the discussion of Carter's fulminations against the Southern Baptist Convention and its supposed hijacking by conservative leadership. An objective assessment of what actually happened in the SBC would show that the members of individual churches who sent delegates to the convention were the ones who actually changed the direction of the denomination, not some cabal at the top. Baptist churches are still autonomous; any individual church can pull out of a Baptist convention without having to worry about losing its property; no Baptist convention has the right to appoint pastors of churches. And to say that the 2000 statement of faith "made" Southern Baptist women "subservient" is just laughable. The actual words at issue are: "A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation." Where, Wolfe needs to demand of Carter, is the subservience in that? As a Southern Baptist woman myself, I'd like to hear the answer.


Falls Church, Va.

Alan Wolfe replies:

I like being accused of having opinions. Most people, after all, have them, including those who use letters to the editor to espouse them.

For the record, conservative political activists stacked the SBC with their followers to put it firmly in the hands of people quite unlike Jimmy Carter. I never said a word about the autonomy of local Baptist congregations. And people who are asked to "submit," graciously or otherwise, are asked to be subservient. The SBC did not ask spouses to submit to each other, only wives to submit to husbands.

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