"If you can't be funny," Harold Ross used to tell his writers at the New Yorker years ago, "at least be interesting." He was the founding editor of that magazine, which continues to maintain high editorial standards in everything from comedy to commas.
His advice is not bad for such a publication and for the kind of non-fiction books I especially savor, the latest being at 2010 book by Dianne Hales, Bella Lingua, which succeeds in being informative and entertaining at the same time.
Being a sometime student of Italian, who taught Dante and longs for a third trip to Italy, I have long appreciated most things Italian: the food, the music, the culture, and, of course, the musical, playful language. This is what Hales manages to capture in her book.
It's remarkable that an American with no knowledge of the language or country managed to immerse herself in the Italian language with such enthusiasm and good humor that she makes the reader--or at least me--want to read on, beyond the opening chapters.
What is the secret of her success? The main one is that she provides a bounty of examples of what Italians say, and don't say: they don't have a word for "lonely," she points out, or for "spelling." There is no need for either, for reasons she explains. And some words, like brio and gusto and inamorata, are untranslatable. So is Bravo!
Hales gives the earthy and colorful details of Italian speech so that the reader gets a sense of the country and its people: the emotional pull is there. And so is wit and a lively writing style and a feel as I'm reading that I am there on that beautiful peninsula.
The reason, as she makes clear, is that a love of a people's language opens the door to their soul. And Italian, the most musical of tongues, is also the most emotionally expressive. The words are mostly easy to pronounce and play with, and Hales clearly enjoys her subject and knows how to make it interesting--the hallmark of good writing.
Any topic can be rendered dull or interesting, depending on the way an author approaches his or her subject. Mere knowledge of the subject is never enough.
It takes an effortless ease and grace that the Italians call (in another untranslatable word) "sprezzatura," in which what is challenging is made to look easy.
This book has made me eager to return to the study of Italiano, so to its skillful author I say, Bravo!