Book review: Dictionary of the Undoing, by John Freeman

John Freeman has been described by Dave Eggers as “one of the pre-eminent book people of our time”. Given that Eggers himself is one of the pre-eminent book people of our time, that’s a pretty serious compliment, but it’s also an accurate one. After years as a prolific literary critic, Freeman was editor of the leading literary journal Granta from 2009 to 2013 and then went on to establish Freeman’s, a biannual journal of new fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that occupies a similarly highbrow market niche but with marginally lower design values. His books, which include How to Read a Novelist (a collection of author interviews) and The Tyranny of E-mail (a survey of how human correspondence has evolved over the ages) have been translated into more than 20 languages, and his work has appeared in such august publications as the New Yorker and the Paris Review. In his spare time he’s also a published poet – his debut collection, Maps, was published in 2017.

John Freeman
John Freeman

In the introduction to his latest book, The Dictionary of the Undoing, Freeman observes that “something is very wrong with the world” and sets out to put things right armed with nothing but the power of language. His central premise is that language is a tool that has been “vandalised” by the powers that be, and in order for us to achieve a necessary shift in perspective it must be reclaimed. He suggests that, rather than trying to pick fights over words that have been “weaponised into nonsense” (and yes, a certain “barely literate” world leader looms large in this book) it is instead important to “grab the words that have possibility in them and begin using them anew”.  

And so, Freeman takes us through an alphabet of words which, he believes, have the power to effect change, if only we can come to understand them in subtly different ways. In the current climate, he argues, the word “agitate” has negative connotations: we are all agitated, in the era of social media, and agitated people are “more easily manipulated... agitated consumers buy... agitated consumers eat faster.” What would happen, he wonders, if we all turned away from our screens and looked to “the street, the public square, the free press (printed on paper and distributed)” and determined to “redefine agitate as an active word... as in to agitate for change”.

To B next, and bodies: “Our culture,” Freeman writes, “has become a machine tuned to … show us images of black and brown bodies being abused and women’s bodies being abused, to screen pornographies of violence constantly.” The solution? Understand that the body is also “a container for joy” and understand how deeply governments “fear the power of the body”, particularly when those bodies take to the streets in large numbers. 
There are certain things about this book that some readers might find irksome – to British ears, it might sound a little strident at times, and there’s not much humour to lift the mood. Whatever you think of the style of delivery, though, you can’t fault the logic. Roger Cox

Dictionary of the Undoing, by John Freeman, Corsair, 178pp, £12.99