To anyone outside the publishing industry or academia, the runaway-bestseller status of Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots & Leaves must have been a little baffling; who knew America was panting for an affronted-yet-cheery guide to standard British punctuation? But while its punctuation guidelines weren't always useful to American writers, Eats, Shoots was still a humorous, uplifting guide to and affirmation for "sticklers," people who secretly find signs reading NO DOG'S or "MELONS" 2 DOLLAR,S almost physically painful. And while Truss' follow-up, Talk To The Hand, is aimed at a much wider audience, it takes much the same tone with its simultaneously self-effacing and thoroughly frustrated rant about the common discourtesy of the world today.
Truss clarifies early on that Talk To The Hand isn't another instruction manual; it doesn't teach good manners, it just explains bad ones. Each of her subtitular "Six Good Reasons To Stay Home And Bolt The Door" is a mini-essay on one variety of modern incivility. Those essays tend to wander off the point, as Truss wryly muses her way through anecdotes, theories, news items, personal angst, and quotes by everyone from Aristotle to Charles Dickens to Henry James to contemporary writers like Mark Caldwell, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Steven Johnson. (If nothing else, the book amounts to a terrific suggested-reading list.) The categories often seem arbitrary, as Truss' themes overlap and merge, with the ideas that carry through the length of the book generally proving the strongest—one of the most compelling is Truss' running analysis of the "universal Eff-Off reflex," which leads people to angrily dismiss any criticism of their obnoxious behavior. Truss' thoughts on the difference between public and private behavior, and the way the barriers between them have broken down, are insightful, and while they probably won't make loud, intimate public cell-phone conversations any more enjoyable, they do give them a context beyond the arm's-length response of "What a jerk."
Like Eats, Shoots, Talk To The Hand is a thoroughly British book, peppered with slang and references to UK politics and culture, but unlike Eats, Shoots, it centers on principles that extend equally well to America, which is suffering no less than Truss' homeland from "lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence." The huffy tone of that quote belies Talk To The Hand's bouncy, thoroughly entertaining tone, which makes it a fun, quick read as well as a smart one. It's not likely to change the world, but like Truss' last bestseller, it should at least make readers feel less alone in a cold, rude world.