The American Esperanto Book, by Arthur Baker
As someone who reads a great deal of materials in and about Esperanto , a significant challenge presents itself in the way that so many similar books with similar aims seek to distinguish themselves from all the other books. This book demonstrates one of the more ironic aspects of Esperanto literature, in that a language that prides itself on being a universal language nevertheless targets its appeal in very specific ways, including very specifically to cultures. While the United States is not the most popular nation among which are Esperantists, for somewhat specific reasons, it is remarkable and striking that one of the foremost American Esperantists wrote a book seeking to appeal to and explain the interaction between American culture and our own native use of language and the universal culture of Esperantism, and this book does a good job at capturing that tension between the universal and the particular that marks the efforts of any universal culture at understanding the specific and parochial interests of its intended audience. In stark contrast to many books I read, I can feel pretty confident about being part of this book’s intended target audience, and there is something gratifying in that.
What makes this book an American Esperanto Book, after all? The contents of this book are not particularly surprising when looked at from the larger context of Esperanto educational material. The book itself was published in 1907 by an early adopter of the language in the United States. In contrast to many other more recent Esperanto books, the table of contents is located at the beginning rather than the end. The book spends a bit under 80 pages discussing the alphabet and grammar of Esperanto, another 100 pages or so showing various translation exercises, another few pages showing examples of correspondence and then contains an interesting essay on Esperantism, under the assumption that anyone who reads this far into the book will be pretty committed to the ideals of learning a universal language with a feeling of peace and respect for other people. At this point, for unknown reasons, the pagination starts again and the book contains an Esperanto-English dictionary and then an English-Esperanto dictionary, both of them labeled as vocabularies. Throughout, the author seeks to impress upon his audience the need to shorten vowels, get used to some of the more unusual sounds in Esperanto, and to understand the flexibility of word order that results from a proper use of the accusative case.
I cannot be sure just how successful this book was when written to promote the learning of Esperanto to the wider reading public. The fact that I have the book in my own library now, after more than a century, and the fact that it remains a worthwhile and functional book, though, suggests the book has considerable enduring matter. I found it striking and noteworthy to reflect upon the additional materials that were located in the book by the previous owner of the book, including an old article an a long-forgotten pictographic language that demonstrates the difficulty that universal languages have in catching on because of the learning demands they place on people who think, usually falsely, that they already know how to communicate well enough already. The encouragement to learn languages is a reminder that we cannot be understood by others who might wish to understand us if they could, and that there are others who we cannot understand at present, yet many who have an interest in universal communication strongly underestimate the challenges to universal language competence, whether that is in English or any other language. Those who have acquired the habit of learning other languages often struggle to understand the mindset of those who have no such interest, and who are unmoved by appeals to ideals of peace and unity with humanity. The fact that this book at least seeks to appeal to Americans is a strong point in favor of the wisdom of its author and others like him.
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