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Fox, Margalit 1961-

Fox, Margalit 1961-

PERSONAL:

Born April 25, 1961, in Glen Cove, NY; daughter of David (a physicist) and Laura Fox; married George Robinson (writer and critic), 1986. Education: State University of New York at Stony Brook, B.A., 1982, M.A., 1983; Columbia University, M.A., 1991.

ADDRESSES:

Home—New York, NY. Office—New York Times, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Writer. New York Times, New York, NY, editor of New York Times Book Review, 1994-2004, staff writer, 2004—.

WRITINGS:

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to books, including Best Newspaper Writing, 2005; and The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006. Contributor to periodicals, including New York Times Book Review, New York Newsday, and Variety.

SIDELIGHTS:

Margalit Fox is a reporter and obituary writer for the New York Times as well as the author of Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind (2007). She holds bachelor's and master's degrees in linguistics and a master's degree in journalism. Fox said in an interview for the Official Margalit Fox Web site that she had long wanted to bring her two major fields of study together into a book and was excited to discover a topic that compelled her to do so. The topic was given to her while she was having lunch with her former academic advisor, Mark Aronoff. Aronoff, an internationally respected linguist, was part of a team of scientists working with an isolated group of Bedouins in Israel, and he invited Fox to join him. This group, which has an extraordinarily high rate of hereditary deafness, had developed its own form of sign language. Fox explained that there is no universal sign language; like other languages, sign language varies from country to country. The importance to linguists of this isolated Bedouin community is that the language's roots can be studied. Remarkably, sign language is used throughout the village. "You literally cannot tell from watching the signing people who is deaf and who is hearing," Fox told Charlene Brusso in an interview for Publishers Weekly. "It's extraordinary." The author recounts her experiences with this unique village in Talking Hands.

"Fox takes readers on a fascinating tour of deaf communication," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Through her book, Fox explains linguistic concepts and introduces her audience "to a silent world where communication is anything but … awkward," according to the Publishers Weekly critic. A reviewer for Science News called the Bedouin community a "living laboratory" and noted Fox's emphasis on "the difference between spoken and nonauditory communication." What Leah Hager Cohen, writing for New York Times Book Review, found compelling about Talking Hands was Fox's trained journalistic eye that could pull out the most "telling detail."

Some critics took issue with the book's organization and academic tone. While certain chapters relay the details about Fox's interaction with the villagers, other chapters are more dense and scholarly. A reviewer for Kirkus Reviews concluded that Fox's book provided "a smooth narrative sometimes slowed by academic writing." Cohen, on the other hand, called Talking Hands "thoughtfully structured and intellectually rigorous." Specifically, Cohen felt that the nonnarrative chapters offered "an exhaustive, energetic and frequently elegant tour through the world of sign language."

Fox told CA: "I've always dreamed of getting paid to write and think deeply about all sorts of things, and I originally intended to get a Ph.D. in linguistics and become an academic. But after a year in a doctoral program, I had to face the fact that I just wasn't temperamentally suited to a life of scholarship in a single discipline. Happily, I was able to make my way to journalism, the best kind of enfranchised dilettantism there is. Being a journalist is an unparalleled opportunity to look over the shoulders of a host of people doing a host of things, and report back on what one finds there.

"My first training, from about the age of twelve through the end of college, was as a cellist, and I played quite seriously during those years. That training has helped me immeasurably as a writer, as it has given me an acute awareness of things like tone, pace and cadence—elements just as vital in the making of prose as they are in the playing of music. The writers I admire are all clean, elegant stylists who display this kind of masterly, seemingly effortless, tonal command: E.B. White, Red Smith, Tracy Kidder, and John McPhee, to name a few.

"As a daily newspaper reporter who has also written a heavily researched narrative nonfiction book, I'm living both extremes of the writing process at once. By day, as an obituary writer for the New York Times, I'm obliged to live with the ever-present ticking clock and gun to the head, inhaling the life of someone (usually someone I've never heard of before) in a matter of hours and exhaling it onto the screen in time to file the obit on deadline. One learns to make every second count. By contrast, it took me five years to report and write Talking Hands. After I signed the contract to write the book, I spent the entire first year just reading the professional literature on sign-language linguistics: I didn't even touch the computer keyboard until the second year. So where newspaper writing is a twenty-five-yard dash every single day, book writing is an ultra-marathon. And each, in its way, turns out to be a very nice counterweight to the other.

"Being a writer of nonfiction is a valuable exercise in humility: one is reminded every day, in the course of this kind of work, how little one truly knows about a given subject. The positive side of this is that to practice journalism is to receive a free, ongoing, and rarely dull postgraduate education in an astonishing range of subjects—and get paid for it, to boot. And that is a very rare privilege.

"If a single young person reads Talking Hands and decides as a result to go into sign-language linguistics, or even linguistics in general, the book will truly have served it purpose."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2007, review of Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind.

New York Times Book Review, August 19, 2007, Leah Hager Cohen, "Some Kind of Sign," p. 9.

Publishers Weekly, May 14, 2007, review of Talking Hands, p. 42; June 11, 2007, Charlene Brusso, "PW Talks with Margalit Fox: Signs of Pure Language," p. 47.

Science News, September 1, 2007, review of Talking Hands, p. 143.

ONLINE

Official Margalit Fox Web site,http://www.talkinghandsbook.com (January 29, 2008).

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