September 24, 2019

I’m uncharacteristically inarticulate today, and not my usual inexhaustible self. I’m writing about Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing, and after that I need to write about Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word. But whether as a result of exhaustion or just the two books’ gravitas, I’m having trouble expressing how meaningful they were for me.

Both are staggering works of research, genius, and empathy.

The former is a novel about the evacuation of East Prussia. Its dozens of characters, drawn vividly but with impressive economy, alternately delay and scramble before the inexorable advance of the Red Army in 1945.

The latter is a history of the relationship between empires and languages. A textbook in size and scope, it’s about how and why certain languages became spoken as first or second languages across vast territories.

Neither is without troubling aspects, and both have changed my world-view.

The trauma of All for Nothing makes it hard to write about. I’ve written a thousand words or so, but working on the words I’ve written is slower than usual.

And the scope of Empires of the Word makes it hard to review. It took me over a year to read, with fairly continuous effort, because it is so dense, so interesting, and so paradigm-shifting.

Here’s to a night of rest, and another go tomorrow…

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.