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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
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UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
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TRYING NEAIRA:
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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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Truss, Lynne: Talk to the Hand

  Amazon  

4 stars

Lynne Truss's little book on the decline of civility in the modern age, the follow-up to her very successful little book (Eats, Shoots & Leaves) on modern man's increasing ignorance of proper punctuation, is, like its predecessor, well-written, somewhat curmudgeonly, and eminently readable. Far from a prescriptionist book on etiquette, Talk to the Hand is rather a lament of modern mores. It is intended primarily for readers of a certain age--readers, as Truss puts it, whose elbow skin is inelastic, because the "outrage reflex" tends to "present itself in most people at just about the same time as their elbow skin starts to give out. ...People with young, flexible elbow skin spend less time defining themselves by things they don't like."

Truss divides the subject of incivility into six parts, the "six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door" of her subtitle. These are: (1) the decline in use of courtesy words; (2) the "unacceptable transfer of effort," that is, the growing tendency of businesses in particular to shift labor onto customers (think of automated help systems here or, I'll add, self-service checkouts in grocery stores); (3) the tendency to treat public space as private space; (4) hostile reactions to criticism; (5) disrespect of authority; and finally (6) offenses against society as a whole, such as littering.

As Ms. Truss is English, the book has mostly to do with modern English manners, or the lack thereof. Much of what she has to say will translate reasonably well for Americans, but I was occasionally at a loss to understand her, as for example here: "In a very short time, snobbery based on vocabulary and the milk-first/milk-second issue has virtually disappeared. Honestly, you can say 'serviette' at me all day until you are blue in the face, and I promise I won't even flinch." Milk? Serviettes? Color me mystified.

There are a number of pleasures awaiting readers of Talk to the Hand, among them the perverse joy to be had from getting worked up over one's own manners-related pet peeves. Truss is, besides, a good and often witty writer, and she makes a number of interesting observations in the book. Among these is her point that "our attitude to manners is...self-defined and self-exonerating. Each of us has got it just about right. ...Basically, everyone else has bad manners; we have occasional bad moments. Everyone else is rude; we are sometimes a bit preoccupied." Which brings me to another pleasure to be had from the book, that of disagreeing with Truss when she gets it wrong. She can't stand it when a waiter says "There you go" when putting a dish on the table? How possibly is that a problem?! And she actually told off a grocery store clerk for telling his co-worker a story about a dead woman while ringing people up? ("Stop telling that story, for pity's sake!") Is she nuts?!

By the way, that bit about the definition of good manners being subjective? QED.

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