Book Review: Sam Leith – You Talkin’ To Me?

In the very unfamiliar amount of free time I’ve had since finishing my exams back in June, I’ve at last had a chance to get through a list of interesting reads that has been building up for some time. The first of these is a book by Sam Leith, an English journalist, author and columnist on the subject of rhetoric. These are some of my thoughts on it.

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From my studies of Latin, in particular, the works of Cicero, I quickly picked up that rhetoric, the art of persuasion, was one of those grand old subjects that seems to have fallen by the wayside in modern teaching (like Latin itself, seemingly). Hearing of polyptoton (repetition of a word in a different form, e.g. ‘strong’ and ‘strength’), anaphora (repetition at the start of a clause), homoeoteleuta (several words ending with the same letter or letters) and all the other rhetorical tropes with their wonderful names at first rendered the subject slightly inaccessible. Having only ever encountered it in a Classical context, I’d never considered (how narrow-minded of me) that the same principles would apply in English prose too. As a result, one feature of particular enjoyment in Leith’s book was his presentation of rhetoric as something that is intrinsically part of language and human nature, rather than a complex art restricted to orators.

The way in which a forgotten art was made accessible to the modern reader is certainly something to recommend about this book. Another is Leith’s style of writing: relaxed and entertaining, without being too flippant. This allows a connection with the reader to be made, which makes the content significantly more accessible than it would be, for example, in a translation of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the great ancient tome on the subject. A book which, on the surface, would not necessarily appear a fairly easy read, ended up being so. There is something almost journalistic about the style, which, given Leith’s background, is hardly surprising. This is certainly refreshing in a subject area where the writing tends to be stylistically more serious, which is particularly important because the topic of rhetoric has very much passed out of modern thinking.

Often, we think of rhetoric as merely a series of fancy devices that make an essay or speech more refined. There are, in fact, five so-called ‘canons’ of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. The fact that rhetoric is much more than just its tropes reinforces the idea of it as an important part of language and human nature, which I believe is a key idea to take away from this book, and is one of the things that fascinated me the most whilst reading it. Interspersed between Leith’s examinations of each of the five canons are profiles of rhetoricians throughout the ages, from the ancients Cicero and Demosthenes to Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama in more recent times. I found this to be a particularly effective way of conveying the importance of rhetorical in its modern context, as the author showed how important the power of persuasion was to Obama in his first bid for the presidency of the USA.

Unfortunately, rhetoric is presented in the modern day as a smokescreen of sorts to cover up the deficiencies of politicians and other prominent members of the public. It is far too easy to say, without a proper understanding of the subject, ‘Oh, he’s just talked his way in’. Leith’s book puts a far more positive spin on the subject, as everyday conversations such as haggling with a shopkeeper (does anyone actually do that anymore?) and asking a waitress for a table near the window are brought under the wider umbrella of rhetoric. Something which, as I have mentioned time and time again, is intrinsically bound up with language surely cannot be as negative as it is often perceived to be.

As a law student (in the very near future), I found this book particularly relevant, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the law, politics, linguistics, or just human beings in general. It’s available on Amazon in hardback, paperback and Kindle edition at reasonable prices, and should be available in most bookshops. I can only hope I’ve read it carefully enough to persuade you to read it too.

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