Review: “Better Than Great” by Arthur Plotnik

I was recently sent a copy of this book by the publishers, Souvenir Press, who subsequently turned out to be the people who publish not only “Le Petomane” but also “The Specialist”, thereby making them almost certainly the best non-fiction publishers on the entire planet.

The purpose of “Better Than Great” is to tackle the problem that so frequently assails all of us: how to express the sheer wonderfulness of something without resorting to tired words such as “brilliant”, “fantastic” or “awesome”. To this end, the author has assembled no less than 6000 alternatives, arranged by categories such as “sublime”, “delicious” and “trendy”. Within each category, there is a brief introduction, followed by an alphabetical list of terms and a brief “vintage gold” section at the end (for example, the “vintage gold” section for the “cool” category includes such old favourites as “groovy” and “outta sight”, as well as “torrible”, which was new to me).

This is clearly a book for dipping into rather than reading from cover to cover, although the brief narrative sections are erudite and written with considerable wit and style. For example:

One way to make our acclaim forceful – attention-getting and convincing – is to associate it with powerful forces. Sinewy bridges. Incinerating wit. A fissionable fastball. Why hitch your wagon to feeble praise when you can harness the power of muscle, nature, even the atom?

The terms are illustrated with examples from a wide range of writers, from Annie Proulx to Wells Tower via Will Self. The terms themselves are, as you might expect, wide-ranging and occasionally bonkers. Opening one page at random, I came across the splendid term “Godzillian” in the “large” category, along with the useful numerical terms gazillion, jillion, goozle and grillion (I think I’ve got those in ascending order, but correct me if I’m wrong).

Is it a useful book, then? I think it might be. More specialised than thesaurus, but for that very reason possibly more useful. Is it entertaining? Most definitely. Is it – as Franz Kafka apparently said (on page 56) of what a book must be – an “axe for the frozen sea inside us”? Probably not. But all in all, it’s splendiferociously wonderful. (I made that one up. But you probably realised that.)

Here’s where you can order a copy. You might just get one for Christmas if you really hurry.

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