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One person can't help stuttering. The other can't help laughing. And in the way one bodily betrayal of better intentions mirrors the other, we find ourselves in the gray area where mind and body connect--and, at the damnedest moments, disconnect. In a book that explores the phenomenon of stuttering from its practical and physical aspects to its historical profile to its existential implications, Marc Shell plumbs the depths of this murky region between will and flesh, intention and expression, idea and word. Looking into the difficulties encountered by people who stutter--as do fifty million worldwide--Shell shows that, however solitary stutterers may be in their quest for normalcy, they share a kinship with many other speakers, both impeded and fluent.
Stutter takes us back to a time when stuttering was believed to be "diagnosis-induced," then on to the complex mix of physical and psychological causes that were later discovered. Ranging from cartoon characters like Porky Pig to cultural icons like Marilyn Monroe, from Moses to Hamlet, Shell reveals how stuttering in literature plays a role in the formation of tone, narrative progression, and character. He considers such questions as: Why does stuttering disappear when the speaker chants? How does singing ease the verbal tics of Tourette's Syndrome? How do stutterers cope with the inexpressible, the unspeakable?
Written by someone who has himself struggled with stuttering all his life, this provocative and wide-ranging book shows that stuttering has implications for myriad types of expression and helps to define what it means to be human.
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Marc Shell is Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature and Professor of English at Harvard University.Review:
Most stutterers don't want to talk about their stuttering, since it brings on more self-consciousness and more stuttering. A person may be so ashamed of his stuttering that he carries a card saying he is mute. This book is liberating for those who suffer from stuttering. It is also full of information about the origins of stuttering and the history of how people sought to define, control, or cure stuttering.
--Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch'ien, assistant professor of English, University of Minnesota, and author of Weird English
Stutter is a sterling presentation of difficulties encountered by people who stutter. It demonstrates that stutterers are alone in their quest for normalcy, yet share a kinship with many other people, some who stutter and some who do not. Furthermore, the enigma of stuttering--questions as to why stuttering has existed throughout time, why persons who stutter don't stutter when they sing, the ridiculous therapeutic permutations they run through--all of this is well discussed. The book is not only easy to read, but fun.
--David B. Rosenfield, M.D., Director, Speech and Language Center, Baylor College of Medicine
Shell offers an impressive if challenging memoir-cum-treatise on the contributions of stuttering to the arts and beyond. Shell, who teaches comparative literature at Harvard, is fluent in cultures high, middle and low. He lunges between Moses and Marilyn Monroe, quoting rap music and Winston Churchill in nearly the same breath...There are touching passages about his experiences growing up in Quebec with a stutter (and with polio, the subject of his previous book). Surrounded by languages--French, English, Hebrew and Yiddish--Shell learned to find the 'right' word, that is, the pronounceable one, in another tongue. Similarly, he suggests that many great writers, such as Margaret Drabble, Lewis Carroll and W. Somerset Maugham, took up the pen as a way to 'cure' their stuttering, and that their difficulty with spoken words improved their facility with those written. Shell's virtuosic ability to summon references from neuroscience, religion and philosophy is both exhilarating and exhausting. Indeed, at times it seems as if the structure of his peripatetic book is a metaphor for what happens in the mind of a stutterer in the pause before articulation: a frantic search through the mind that finally alights in the right place. (Publishers Weekly 2005-12-05)
Literary scholar Marc Shell's Stutter doesn't attempt to solve the mystery. Instead, he enriches it, embroiders it and anchors stuttering and the people who d-d-do it--and laugh at it--firmly to literature and culture: Our fixation on words and language is couched within society as a whole. With wit, he extracts example after example from pop culture and high culture...Hams like Porky Pig are still part of the story, but so is Hamlet. Shell's close reading of Shakespeare reveals the Dane to be a stutterer. And you have to love any book that teaches you Serbo-Croatian tongue-twisters. Playing with words, riffing on their sounds, meanings and interconnections, Shell blurs the line between stuttering as metaphor and stuttering as, well, just plain stuttering...[A] tour de force.
--Ward Harkavy (Los Angeles Times Book Review 2006-01-22)
In Stutter, his impressive survey of cultural figures with 'cloven tongues' (including God), Shell describes the trauma of being unable to speak right. If you can't pronounce your name, he says, people will assume you don't know it. One partial remedy for stammering is to take on a new persona: sing, act, learn a new language. Henry James dealt with his impediment by speaking French. Carly Simon 'felt so strangulated talking' that she 'did the natural thing'--perform music. For the more than 50 million people in the world with a 'handicap in the mouth,' picking the right words becomes an emotional process. (When Somerset Maugham, also tongue-tied, read his novels out loud, he'd replace 'difficult' terms with their synonyms.) Anxious and isolated, stutterers often find more creative modes of expression. It's one way out of what Roger Rabbit calls 'p-p-pp-p-p-p...jail!' The other option is silence.
--Rachel Aviv (Village Voice 2006-02-10)
What links Moses, Hamlet and Porky Pig? They're stutterers, like Marc Shell--a Harvard comparative literature prof and author of Stutter, a subtle exploration of his affliction's contribution to the arts. (Maclean's 2006-01-30)
[An] erudite book...Shell does convince the reader that stuttering is an intriguing and enigmatic phenomenon...Shell is as versed in the neurophysiological discussions of stuttering as he is in the literary and popular cultural ones...Though humiliating and socially isolating for the sufferer, stuttering also seems to be a curious source of creative energy. Because it forces speech into new patterns, stuttering may enrich writing. At least, a surprisingly large number of writers are stutterers...Stuttering can be seen as a creative, rhetorical, neurological anomaly, both curse and blessing, which puts in question any simple-minded distinction between normal and abnormal. The explicit message of this book...is that some of the disorders that cause us to stumble and suffer are not simply pathologies to be knocked on the head with drugs: they also offer rich ground for the exploration of what it means to be human.
--Harry Eyres (Financial Times 2006-03-18)
Shell, a comparative-literature professor and a stutterer, examines stuttering from the perspectives of history, literature, popular culture, science, and personal experience. His discussion raises fascinating questions--Why do stutterers find relief when singing? Was Hamlet a stutterer? Why is Porky Pig's stutter funny?--and he provides an engaging discussion of the historical importance of speaking "properly." (New Yorker 2006-03-27)
Shell's study mixes descriptions of his own experiences as a lifelong stutterer with a number of teasing, erudite, intriguing meditations on the cultural phenomenology of the stutter, in history, rhetoric, and writing...Fascinating, vagabond reflections on the phenomenon of stuttering.
--Steven Connor (Bookforum 2006-04-01)
Provocative and imaginative.
--Iain Finlayson (The Times 2006-04-01)
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