The venerable Oxford philologist Max Müller held that ‘mythology, which was the bane of the ancient world, is in truth a disease of language’. Gods filled a void, reanimating meaning as words became more fixed and less metaphorical. A more fundamental disease of language — the words themselves — is the subject of Paul Kingsnorth’s memoir.
It takes the form of a series of meditations that weave to and fro around the question that forms its narrative thread: should he give up writing in favour of a more innocent life of working his land and raising his family? The old trope of the writer as wordsmith, forger of truth and meaning, no longer applies: instead, the words, and their compulsion to exist, own him. ‘I feel that words are savage gods and that in the end, however well you serve them, they will eat you alive,’ Kingsnorth writes.