At some point in his or her life, every individual who grapples with the spelling of the English language faces what F. Scott Fitzgerald called 'a real dark night of the soul.' This troubling moment comes when they realize that, no, the spelling of the word they're in the middle of is not governed by rules; that no, it spells nothing like it sounds; and that no, its spelling does not resemble those of similar words--quite the opposite.
At this point the speller of English must face a basic truth: The spelling system they inhabit is chaotic and untrammeled. The universe, it seems to suggest, is random and uncaring. There is no logic, no order, no sense, just a series of random letter combinations.
--American Bee, James Maguire
This past week, I received a book entitled American Bee by James Maguire. Not only does it closely follow the experiences of several different winners and participants in the National Spelling Bee, it also explores the history of spelling bees and their place in American culture throughout time. A few hundred years ago, the first spelling contests were held in the Northeast, but they weren't even called bees--such contests were called "spelling schools" at the time. Nowadays, they're a global fixture, in Australia, Ghana, China, and Jamaica alike.
The book was written in 2006, which means that some of its information on how exactly the national spelling bee works is outdated. However, I am still learning a lot from the book, even as someone who has competed in two national spelling bees as well as over fifteen other bees. The book includes "champions' profiles" on people like David Scott Tidmarsh, Paige Kimble, Henry Feldman, and Jacques Bailly. Maguire also discusses the predominance of certain regional bees in certain times (i.e. the so-called "Denver Era"). It describes very well what it's like to be a speller--including pressure, friendship, nerves, the exhilaration of victory, studying (although at one point, it mentions a national champion who studied one hour a day for four months--which is far from the typical studying regimen of top competitors today), and, as quoted above, the indescribable time when one realizes that the mess that is the English language is insurmountably complex and impossible. Another thing I find enticing about the book is the way Maguire recognizes those who don't win, providing depth to not only their experiences, but the fact that sometimes a potential champion is taken out by sheer bad luck--not necessarily by lack of skill or preparation.
Overall, the book provides a lot of perspective for any reader, from a total outsider to a five-time national finalist. The aforementioned perspective doesn't just relate to the bee itself, but also on the people who have shaped it in its journey through time. No matter who you are, I highly recommend you read American Bee--odds are you'll like it, and you'll get a lesson in both history and spelling all wrapped up in one.