Book Review: You Talkin’ To Me? by Sam Leith

You Talkin' to meThey say to never judge a book by its cover. One can only hope that Sam Leith’s book on rhetoric, You Talkin’ to Me?, rises above the graphic design disaster of its open-mouthed, red-lipped cover. It richly deserves to.

Leith’s book is, in fact, a magnificently entertaining romp through the intricacies of classic rhetorical technique from Aristotle to Obama. He traces the art of persuasion from its ancient origins to the modern world. Rhetoric is all around us. And Leith cleverly explains how the nuts and bolts of rhetoric work in speeches from Cicero, to Elizabeth I to Richard Nixon and Obama.

Rhetoric is language at play; language plus. It is what persuades and cajoles, inspires and bamboozles, thrills and misdirects. It causes criminals to be convicted and then frees those criminals on appeal. It causes governments to rise and fall, best men to be ever after shunned by their friends’ brides and perfectly sensible adults to march with steady purpose towards machine guns.

He thoroughly examines the technical language of rhetoric, explaining terms such as auxesis (“a generalized term for cranking things up, the use of inflated language”), paralipsis (“discussing material in a speech while pretending you’re not going to talk about it”) and tmesis (“sticking a word or phrase into the middle of another word. Do people really do that? Abso-fackin’-lutely!”).

The book is structured around the classical subdivisions of rhetoric. First, the five aspects of rhetoric – invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. Then, the three branches of oratory: the deliberative or legislative (an appeal to action), the judicial (dealing with questions of justice) and the epideictic (speeches of praise and blame).

Unexpected comparisons

But the genius of the book, where it rises far above the abysmal cover art, is the irreverent and humorous range of examples he calls on to illustrate rhetoric in action. Sure, he trots out the usual cast of characters found in most of the books on speechwriting: Churchill, Martin Luther King, Cicero, and Lincoln. But I know of no other book on the subject which applies equal rigor to a rhetorical analysis of eight-year-old Eric Cartman’s song “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch” from South Park. Or compares the speaking abilities of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost with the Devil’s “rhetorical chops” in the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore movie Bedazzled.

Time and again he makes rhetoric come alive in our world. Consider ethos:

From the school playground to the battlefield, from the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles to the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry, who you are is the first thing you need to establish if you intend to be heard.

Indeed, who would expect Jennifer Lopez’s appeal to ethos as “I’m still Jenny from the block” to be compared with the opening Adolf Hitler’s speech workers in Berlin “Once I stood amongst you”.

Or to have the ascending tricolon – a set of three terms, increasing in force – at the start of Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar (“Friends, Romans, countrymen … ”) compared with the opening chords of AC/DC’s 1980 single “Back in Black” (“a single stressed syllable, then a trochee, then a dactyl … DUM! DUH-Dum! DUH-duh-dum!”).

British rhetoric

American readers should be forewarned about the use of British idiom and references. You’ll get more out of the book if you not only know what a “fortnight ” is; but something about the reputation of the politician George Osborne, and Mandy Rice-Davies’s role in the Profumo scandal. You’ll also need to be aware of what being “saluted by a disgruntled van driver on the Hangar Lane Gyratory” implies (Americans might say “being given the finger on the New Jersey Turnpike”).

The Unknown Speechwriter

I especially enjoyed the chapter on political speechwriters. He acknowledges Judson Welliver, the first presidential speechwriter, who served in Warren Harding’s time. He reviews Ronnie Millar’s contribution to Margaret Thatcher’s speech on becoming the first woman prime minister – showing where the politician inserted edits into the writers’ original draft. Likewise, Peggy Noonan’s work with Ronald Reagan and her battles with the policy wonks in the administration who fought against what they saw as overly poetic drafts is reviewed.

Two lessons

Two lessons from the book stand out. The first is that rhetoric needs to be matched to the occasion. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech used biblical texts and call and response phrasing that resonated with the largely African-American audience.

The second big point is that it is vital, in speechwriting, to get as much said as quickly as possible. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was a mere 250 words, delivered after the main speaker, Edward Everett, had droned on for hours.

Sam Leith’s book meets his goal of showing how rhetoric is not just a dry academic subject, but “gathers in the folds of its rope everything makes us human”. As for that cover … enough said.

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5 Comments so far
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Thanks for the helpful review. I decided to buy 😉

Ditto, this looks great!

Here’s Sam Leith’s insightful article in The Guardian on the difference between US and UK politicians use of rhetoric.

Another review of the book

Interesting that in the UK this book is known as Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama. I wonder if it was issued as “You Talkin’…” over here because this would be too “loaded” a title in the US of A?



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