Cranky idealist changed his fortunes by turning his readers' stomachs

June 11, 2006|By HARRY MERRITT | HARRY MERRITT,SUN REPORTER

Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair

Anthony Arthur

American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds

James Maguire

Rodale / 372 pages / $24.95

If o-r-t-h-o-g-r-a-p-h-y - spelling - is more to your liking, American Bee is the book for you.

James Maguire, who lives in Towson, has written a sweet and utterly charming book about intense young scholars and their efforts to win the annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.

He profiles several past winners and five of the leading competitors at the 2005 bee, including New Jersey's Katharine "Kerry" Close, whose correct spelling of "ursprache" recently enabled her to win the 2006 title. He provides a rich history of how the spelling bee rose from simple origins to become the nationally televised behemoth it is today.

These smart, weird kids devote untold hours to studying words - how to spell them, what they mean, what their antecedents are. They memorize the Paideia, a list of 3,800 words used in the regional contests that lead up to the national. The 2004 national winner, David Tidmarsh of South Bend, Ind., worked even harder, studying the 475,000 words in Webster's Unabridged.

Tidmarsh's effort was extreme but not without reason. After all, in the national, cloistered words few of us would ever know, much less use, get sprung on wary spellers. Recognize banausic? Pudibund? How about scherenschnitte?

Kerry Close, who sails boats off the Jersey shore, is a tall, WASP-y looking blond girl. That makes her a rarity among recent winners, many of whom, such as 2005's Anurag Kashyap, are the children of immigrants from India. Competitive spelling turns out to be a strong interest in these Indian families, Maguire says, and an Indian-American organization sponsors a separate nationwide contest that has given these children "invaluable competitive experience" for the Bee.

"For recent immigrants, success in [the National Spelling Bee] has always been a signifier of acceptance in the New World," Maguire writes. " ... The Bee is a true meritocracy. It is the levelest of playing fields, paying no regard to whether a speller came from the finest private schools of Philadelphia or a one-room schoolhouse in Floyd County, Indiana, from Japan or from Italy."

Harry Merritt, editor of The Sun's Modern Life section, is filling in for regular reviewer Carl Schoettler, who is on a medical leave.

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