David Crystal's "The Stories of English" is an excellent book. Here's why. For one thing, his approach to the history of the English language is significantly different from that taken by most other authors on the subject. For another, his presentation is linguistically professional without being dull.
The title of the book is important: it focuses the thesis. Crystal traces the development of standard English, as do other historical linguists and such popularizers as Robert MacNeil and Bill Bryson, but-different from them-he traces it alongside the development of competing non-standard, dialects. He insists that one needs to see standard English developing and then existing alongside these other dialects. There are, he urges, several "stories of English," each of which can and should be appreciated.
Crystal argues that there are, in fact, several standard forms of English, each with its own history as it diverges from standard British English. There is, for example, standard American English, standard Canadian English, standard Australian English, and so on, each with a number of non-standard varieties existing alongside it. And there are varieties of English employed in such nations as India, where they provide communication across native language lines and exhibit their own characteristics. The very term "standard" English requires definition.
Amazingly, given the subject he covers and given that he is a professional linguist, Crystal writes accessibly for an educated general audience. For one thing, he breaks into his narrative to offer specific examples and details set off in boxes from the main text. The material presented in his boxed examples clarifies points raised in the main text and, if they occasionally prove a bit heady going for non-specialists, they can be skipped without significant loss. His writing itself is clear, detailed, and often witty. Crystal has done a fine job of explaining sometimes arcane matter without dumbing down and without writing in so technical a manner as to baffle understanding.
Finally, Crystal reviews several implications of there being "stories" and not "a story" of the English language. He says we need what we refer to as "standard" English because of the advantages it provides: we can speak to other English speakers in other countries easily, we can have easy access to their written and oral cultural artifacts, and so on. However, we also need to become less judgmental about non-standard dialects and learn to appreciate them. They are, after all, a part of what we mean when we speak the word "English."
This book would make a fine textbook or corollary reading for a college course dealing with the history of the English language. But it is also just a plain good read for a terrified amateur interested in the subject.