Mr. Skinner is a magazine writer, and his book has forty short chapters that read like magazine articles, clear, easy to go through, and sometimes breezy. Some of them read like potted history or filler. If you don't know much about H.L. Mencken's campaign for recognition of a distinctively American English, Mr. Skinner's chapter on him won't tell you much more than a morsel. I'm not sure that Dwight Macdonald's veering political convictions over the decades tell us much that we need to know. He is, however, good about the lesser-known personalities at Merriam-Webster and the company ethos. It's quite a readable book, and you may find your jaw sagging a little as you read his accounts of the hysterical attacks on the dictionary and its chief lexicographer.
I wish that he had not stopped short. He does describe the attempts by which James Parton, publisher of American Heritage, connived to take over Merriam-Webster and, failing that, how he founded his own American Heritage Dictionary, boasting the advice on usage from a panel of notables, many of whom had attacked Webster's Third.
But there is, as Paul Harvey always said, The Rest of the Story. People crave authority about language, which is what the American Heritage notables were supposed to cough up. But they couldn't agree among themselves. The dictionary had to settle for registering their votes on usage, and readers still had to make up their own minds. And now, deliciously, the chair of the venerable Usage Panel in the fifth edition (quite an excellent dictionary), is Professor Steven Pinker of Harvard University, one of the very tribe of language relativists. And his predecessor was the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. The kind of lexicography that Philip Gove represented, seeking to find out how people actually speak and write the language, and telling the truth about it, remains dominant to this day.
If you, too, crave authority, wishing to get reliable advice about speaking and writing English, you still have available Bryan Garner, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and, well, modesty forbids.
Disclosure: As regular readers of this blog are aware, I have made the acquaintance since starting it of a number of lexicographers and linguists, from whom I have learned a great deal and whom I hold in highest admiration and respect.
*There are, in fact, people so fatuous as to claim to prefer Webster's Second today. I'm talking about you, Clark Elder Morrow.
**An odd book. It has a section of biographical information about Philip Gove, a section on Merriam-Webster's lexicographical and business practices, and an account of the controversy, as if the controversy itself were not enough matter for a book.