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Surveying Sex, A To Z, In 'Dirty Words'

There are books, and then there are "Books We Like." Each week in Books We Like, our critics review their top picks for new fiction and nonfiction.

The very best entries in this tightly packed A-to-Z of highbrow ribaldry examine the kind of vulgarities that absolutely, positively do not belong on NPR's Web site. But that doesn't mean they're not worthy of, er, rigorous intellectual study.

Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex is a lewd but undeniably stimulating collection of essays, stories and poems from such pedigreed writers as Jonathan Ames and Martha McPhee. Each entry probes a different indecent delight — from Affair to Virginity, with stops at every C-, F- and T-word in between.

It's not all bleep-worthy. In just a few thoughtful pages, Philip Lopate explores the mysteries of duration, T Cooper provides a list of what transgender does and does not mean, while Michelle Richmond does the math — it's algebra — on the Lucky Pierre (I didn't know what it was, either). One of the strongest entries is Jonathan Wilson's essay on the American prejudice against a classic term for female parts — a vulgarism our British brothers and sisters apparently dispense freely in the elevator.

Although it is virtually impossible to digest this compendium without feeling for days as if everything you say is a double entendre, PG-rated riffs on words such as commitment, kissing and bad taste bind the collection with a promising moral: Some words may be vulgar, but none are truly dirty. Reading Dirty Words cover to cover isn't so much an exploration of sexual tastes and boundaries as it is a celebration of our splendid imagination and capacity for tolerance. Refer to it for the things you don't know (cicibeo) and for the things you think you know (tantric), then keep it on the top shelf. One day it'll come in handy for a talk on the birds, the bees ... and bestiality.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barrie Hardymon
Barrie Hardymon is the Senior Editor at NPR's Weekend Edition, and the lead editor for books. You can hear her on the radio talking everything from Middlemarch to middle grade novels, and she's also a frequent panelist on NPR's podcasts It's Been A Minute and Pop Culture Happy Hour. She went to Juilliard to study viola, ended up a cashier at the Strand, and finally got a degree from Johns Hopkins' Writing Seminars which qualified her solely for work in public radio. She lives and reads in Washington, DC.
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