The author describes his book as a serendipitous linguistic travelogue, rather "stream-of-consciousness" in style. To me, it seemed much more orderly and coherent than most s.o.c. writing. The text is logical and straightforward, written in traditional plain English. The subject matter is, however, a rapidly changing "thought collage" of fragmentary observations. Each chapter, which is set in a different city, contains a running commentary about language, historical events, and the linguist/semanticist author's personal associations which arise in response to the local surroundings he's passing through. The salient points he makes seldom extend over more than a few pages, sometimes over only a few sentences, so the book lends itself well to brief reading sessions. A good bedside book. Without concern about forgetting the thread and details of one long main discourse as with most books, the reader who grows weary can stick in a bookmark at the end of any bit of brief commentary and return when in a mood to take up the journey again. I've read the book in small takes over a very long period of time. It's so chock-full of fascinating information and observation that I want to re-read it again at least once. Besides being a factual feast augmented by the author's imagination and erudition, there's a lot of delightful humor along the way.
I found some of the most enjoyable commentary (for me personally) was associative trivia about the names of things. Three or four paragraphs were about how people often name personal objects that belong to them--not only transport objects like cars, boats, and planes, but even lawnmowers, refrigerators, and wheelbarrows. A man named his wheelbarrow Wilberforce; a woman named her hoover J. Edgar; a man named his butter-knife Marlon. One woman's reasoning for calling her pocket calculator Mr. Spock was because it was green, was extremely logical, and gave her the right answers. A family named its yucca plant Yorick in anticipation of being able to say at its demise, "Alas, poor Yorick!"
Crystal points out how names tend to build up nuances of associative meaning beyond their literal identity: For instance, Scotland Yard has come to be associated with police investigation, White Hall with civil service, Soho with a red-light district, Wimbledon with tennis, the World Trade Center with a terror crisis. He gives a list of famous place names and street names for the reader to read and see how many of them suggest associations. All are British but he points out that every country and city could make its own lists. [I, as an American, felt only pretty good that of 13 streets, I had clear associations with 3, and the strongest of my associations was with Baker Street (the location of Sherlock Holmes' apartment). I had fairly distinct associations with 7 out of 18 place names, those being Ascot, Balmoral, Billingsgate, Eton, Euston, Mayfair, and Sandhurst.]
(Some clever puns used for names of shops that the author noticed in San Francisco were delightful. Will leave to the reader the discovery of those--plus the authoritative statements that Crystal makes in his "search for the English language," which is the subject of his book.)
David Crystal is a well-known and well-respected commentator and writer about language, involved in a variety of literary and linguistic occupations and projects. His literary background and knowledge of the arts is evident throughout the book. Commentaries about Tolkien and Shakespeare should be informative and interesting to many readers. (Crystal has been an adviser as to authentic pronunciation of words from Shakespeare's plays. One learns with interest along the way that words were sometimes pronounced long ago with differently accented syllables than they are today. Like consider the odd way they used to say balCOny, TRAfalgar, reSEARCH...) There's also a great deal of commentary about cathedrals, churches, abbeys, location of holy objects, and cemeteries. Who knows how the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery got its name? Who knows in what city and church Chopin's heart resides? Did you know that the poet Byron pronounced his name "Burn"? The narrative is replete with all sorts of intriguing, obscure, and amusing information. Is a delightful source of learning.
Crystal starts out making observations about language in Wales, then moves about in England, Poland, and America (San Francisco only). Appended to the text is a 5-page list of references and sources, a 6-page index of places that occur in the text, a 6-page list of people and characters, and an 8-page index of topics. This would be a congenial book for lovers of word etymology, language change and development, regional dialects and speech patterns, literature, and history. It does not read like a scholarly treatise. The down-to-earth style would be accessible to most ordinary readers.