This is the ultimate book for someone like me, an amateur linguist and lover of literature. While Burgess covers some territory with which I am intimately familiar (and makes some minor factual errors), I can't but recommend the book whole-heartedly.
Aimed at British readers (noticeable only in the sections on phonology, or the production of sounds), Burgess gives a crash course on linguistics and language in a tone that is at once entertaining and informative, bookish without being pedantic. He argues persuasively for the teaching of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) in schools and, near the end of the book, even ventures into how the study of the components of langugae can inform the reading of modern poetry and prose.
While it will help for a reader to be familiar with some basics of linguistics (phonology more than syntax, morphology or grammar), it is not required. I couldn't help wishing, as I read the book, that it had been my introduction to the subject. After learning about how speech sounds are produced by the lips, teeth and tongue, and learning about how they are categorized scientifically and recorded in various alphabets, Burgess plunges us into perhaps the greatest linguistic development of the last two centuries, the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European, the language from which sprang Greek, Latin, Russian, Sanskrit, German, English, Spanish, French, Swedish, Persian and so many others. The miracle of being able to find instant cognates in other languages once you know a few simple rules of sound changes is superbly demonstrated by Burgess here.
Burgess also discusses two non-Indo-European languages, each in its own individual chapter: Malay & Japanese. His knowledge of Malay, formed by his longtime residence in Indonesia, is very deep and he was able to give a great deal of interesting information to a Malay layman like me. His Japanese chapter is from the perspective of an outsider with limited knowledge, and I found it less informative but still interesting.
Finally, Burgess turns his cannons on the canon of English literature, and its medium, the English language. His jaunt through the very tortured history of English is extremely well done. This is the sort of non-fiction writing that manages to put you at the calm center of a whirlwind of historical and literary events. I compare it, not lightly, with the essays of Jorge Luis Borges in its lucidity and magisterial effect.
Like Borges, Burgess writes about the metaphysics of translation and the essentiality of reading poetry in its native tongue. Where the two great writer-scholars differ is on the subject of James Joyce, regarding whom Burgess manages to slip in a very convincing apology. Burgess' explication of a passage from FINNEGAN'S WAKE is no doubt a preview from his book length treatment of the same subject in RE JOYCE.
Fan of Burgess' fictions, especially A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, will find much of interest in this book, which gives up his secrets of language manipulation so lightly and with such goodwill. Burgess, told he had a terminal illness, was motivated to be quite prolific as a writer, and there are arguments to be made for which of his books are worth reading first. Not having read them all, I will not speculate that this is among them.
All I can say is that, for readers like myself who have an abiding interest in language and literature, time reading this book is time well-spent.