When I got to the recording studio just off Times Square where Roy Blount, Jr. was recording an abridged audiobook edition of his forthcoming Alphabet Juice (due in October from FSG and Macmillan Audio) yesterday afternoon, he’d just finished up lunch and had already gone back into the soundproof booth. His publicist explained that he’d just wrapped up one interview, and they still had a day-and-a-half’s worth of material to record, so a chat wasn’t in the cards, but they did let me bring out my digital video camera while he went over the book’s opening pages, which explain why pigs go “oink,” except when they don’t…
Alphabet Juice is not quite a dictionary, not quite an encyclopedia, not quite a manual of style—more like a very personal guide, in alphabetical order, through some odd corners of the English language (and widespread misusages that drive Blount mad); I kept dipping into it for the rest of the afternoon, and no matter where I opened the book I always found something to nod or laugh at. Once our little upfront bit had been recorded, I got to stick around and watch while Blount settled in to his real task for the afternoon—picking up the manuscript pages at the start of the E chapter. “From time to time,” he noted, “just to show it can be done, someone will write a whole story or even a book without using the letter e… Eh.”
He paused. “Oh, I can do better than that.” He tried again, giving it more of an “ennh” tone, and then moved on, satisfied. Occasionally, as he worked his way through the chapter, he would double back to subtly shift his emphasis, and every once in a while a word completely threw him. “Ooion? Oh, I don’t how to pronounce that,” he lamented; a few minutes later, a mini-debate ensued over how to deal with the Latin infinitive scribere (to write). “Is it ‘scriberry’ or ‘scriburry’?” he asked. The engineer said he thought it was the former, but he wasn’t sure. “It’s ‘scriberry,'” I agreed; the engineer turned around. “I took Latin in high school,” I shrugged.
Deciding to accept this dubious expertise, the engineer gave Blount the go-ahead, then called back over his shoulder, laughing softly, “So that course came in handy, finally.” I nodded, and didn’t say anything about Blount pronouncing legere (to read) as “ledge-airy” rather than “leg-airy” later in the same sentence—I was originally taught that the Latin g was always hard, but my college professors allowed for some ambiguity on this point, and I didn’t want to seem pushy. Soon after that, Blount made a reference to “the scribes of imperial Reece and Groam,” caught himself, circled back, then said it again—which prompted him to skip ahead, ever so briefly, to an Anglo-Saxon word from the F chapter.