Claypole thinks it is no coincidence that some of the greatest verbal artists – Henry James, Kendrick Lamar – have struggled with speech. The book doubles as a polemic against fluency: by unlearning our reflexive reverence for it, we can appreciate our disfluencies, and the “diversity and innovation they bring to human thought and language”.
But if its theoretical flights sometimes seem too vague, and its assault on “fluency” at once too scattershot and too utopian, his book is nevertheless humane, thought-provoking, and rich in experiential detail. I especially enjoyed a nugget from one of Claypole’s many interviews, with the writer Colm Tóibín, who recalled “a little fucker called Titch Hogan. He would follow me home from school going ‘dud-duh-duh-duh’ the whole way. I put his mother into one of my books.”
It must be equally hard for the fluent to imagine how it feels when a feared consonant seems physically stuck in your throat, or when, in the case of Tourette’s, an unbidden phrase leaps out of it.
Jonty Claypole’s book Words Fail Us is a pensive evocation of those feelings, which I would recommend to any fluent person trying to understand the tribulations of disfluency, and to any disfluent person who feels that he or she is enduring them alone... Claypole’s book is a compendium of people who have come to appreciate their own disfluency, often because the constant hunt for words they can say has made them verbally dextrous. For many disfluent people, writing offers a chance to slip free of their shackles and escape into fluency with the astonished glee of a jailbird who has eluded the guards. Kendrick Lamar, Lewis Carroll, Somerset Maugham and Henry James are just a few of the writers whose stammers Claypole believes enriched their work. In Words Fail Us he has given us another instance of this fine tradition.
Claypole is ambitious in his scope, and attempts to ensure that no one on the wide and complex spectrum is left out. As a result the sheer volume of information can feel a touch laboured. That said, Words Fail Us does provide a credible beginner’s guide to sufferers, their family and friends...