The Kingdom of Speech – a book report

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The Kingdom of Speech – a book report

I must admit that I still love books, not e-books, but the physical object and that lets me wander through bookstores making serendipitous discoveries. To my great joy, I found this new release, The Kingdom of Speech, as I was about to leave my local bookstore. Here is my report.

The Kingdom of Speech

Author: Tom Wolfe – and while it is the same Tom Wolfe author of Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full, this is written by the author who has returned to his journalistic roots, the author of The Right Stuff or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I loved that Tom Wolfe and I am happy he has returned.


Alfred Wallace – “a thirty-five-year-old, tall, lanky, long-bearded barely grade-school-educated, self-taught British naturalist who was off – alone – studying the flora and fauna of a volcanic island off the Malay Archipelago….”

Several British Gentlemen – “Other European aristocrats, even some French ones, lifted their forearms before their faces to shield their eyes in the British Gentlemen’s presence. The gleam and refinement of the usual frills – manners, dress, demeanor, tortured accent, wit and wit’s lacerating weapon, irony – were the least of it.” Most particularly Charles Darwin – “He paid for his son Charles to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh (the boy dropped out), then sent him to Christ’s Collee at Cambridge to become a clergyman (the boy dropped out), then had to settle for the boy dropping down to the bottom at Cambridge and barely getting a bachelor of arts degree (without honors or the vaguest idea of what to do with his life) and then begrudgingly paid for the boy to enjoy a five-year voyage of exploration, or sightseeing, or something, aboard a ship named for a dog…”

Noam Chomsky – “In just five years, 1953-57, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student – a student, in his twenties – had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called social science into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it…”

Daniel L Everett – “Everett was everything Chomsky wasn’t; a rugged outdoorsman, a hard rider with a thatch reddish beard and a head of thick thatch reddish hair. He could have passed for a ranch hand or a West Virginia gas driller.”

The Topic

The theory of everything or cosmogonism “the compulsion to find the ever-elusive Theory of Everything, an idea or narrative that reveals everything in the world to be part of a single and suddenly clear pattern.”

The Plot

For both Darwin and Chomsky, an obstacle kept their grand theories from explaining everything. Wallace raised the issue of abstract thought, and Max Mueller suggested that speech separated man from animal. Everett demonstrated that speech did not consist of a universal grammar as Chomsky had argued.  There are two entwined stories. The first revolving around the world of ideas, today's academia. Darwin and Chomsky both were disruptive paradigm changing intellects. They were upended in their quest for a theory of everything by two men, two 'flycatchers' in Wolfe's description - men whose academic pedigree or approach made them appear to be diminishable within academia's foodchain. 

At the same time, it is the story of speech. Did it evolve, as Darwin required, developing in humans from the songs of birds? Or was there an exceptionalism for humans, a non-evolved quality that arose in man, separating him from animals, as Wallace argued about abstract thought. Did speech reside in a language center, with universal building blocks as Chomsky first suggested, or was speech an exception, an artifact of man's sociability turned into civilization? 

Here are Wolfe's parting words

“Words are artifacts, and until man had speech, he couldn’t create any other artifacts… To say that animals evolved from man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michaelangelo’s David. Speech is what man pays homage to in every moment he can image.”

Tom Wolfe has returned with a story of two great scientists, their foils and their time. He brings two scientific moments to life in the same way he spoke of Ken Kesey and the Mercury Astronauts. I can't recommend the book enough, 170 pages, a weekend read.