Mr. Bobrick, who has written books on topics as diverse as subways, Siberia and Ivan the Terrible, was himself a stutterer, and his final chapter includes an account of his own struggles with this mysterious difficulty. But most of the book tries, not quite successfully, to interweave two general themes: medical treatments for stuttering and the problems faced by its more famous victims.
Moses was a stutterer; so was Demosthenes. Britain's two greatest modern orators, Aneurin Bevan and Winston Churchill, both succeeded despite early stuttering. Others sought to flee rather than conquer. The poet Philip Larkin wrote his destinations on scraps of paper rather than address ticket sellers; Jonathan Miller, when narrating the television medical series "The Body in Question," avoided mentioning anyone, however important, whose name he couldn't pronounce; Henry James pretended to be searching for le mot juste (and sometimes was -- his strategy succeeded precisely because no one could distinguish deliberate from involuntary hesitations). Marilyn Monroe's sexy whisper, Carly Simon's singing and the weird word blends of Lewis Carroll ("chortle," "slithy," "gallumph") are all claimed to stem from this "baffling malady."
Mr. Bobrick knows that stuttering can be funny; he cites a hilarious description by Patrick Campbell, the British humorist and stutterer, of his own "muted gibbon" cry and of what happens when two stutterers meet. Mr. Bobrick grants too that stuttering may occasionally prove advantageous, as when Kim Philby, then a suspected spy, survived a hostile interrogation because his speech impediment slowed proceedings down to a pace he could handle. But Mr. Bobrick's main emphasis falls on the mental agony that stuttering causes and on the changes it may bring about in stutterers' lives.
They speak of "latent terror," of being "virtually friendless," of "claustrophobia, isolating fear and searing episodes of humiliation." Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt and perhaps Charles Darwin all gave up possible careers in the church because of stuttering; Somerset Maugham lost his faith in God when prayers to remove the impediment remained unanswered. Mr. Bobrick suffered a nervous breakdown and abandoned all hope of teaching professionally.
But what causes such experiences? What Mr. Bobrick calls "one of the great conundrums of medical history" has been ascribed to countless factors, from sexual fixations to deformities of the palate. Only recently have experts begun to propose more plausible answers. Stuttering now seems best described as a genetically transmitted nervous disorder probably causing spasmodic disruptions of the auditory feedback loop that normally enables us -- automatically and quite unconsciously -- to monitor and control our speech. But no simple, reliable treatment has yet emerged.
"Knotted Tongues" contains useful information for the two and a half million stutterers in the United States and many esoteric facts that should entertain general readers. One might wish, though, that Mr. Bobrick had said more about his own cure; after describing, briefly and rather vaguely, a therapeutic system said to increase control of speech by slowing it down, he tells us only that he underwent this treatment "eight years ago, and I have seldom stuttered since." No setbacks, no uncertainties? And just how seldom is seldom?
In general, the book would have benefited from a more focused presentation. Clumsy transitions -- "Sovereigns tend to die hard, and so from Claudius to England's Charles I we may scarcely break our stride" or "One of the therapists who worked with Maugham also worked with King George VI" -- are all too frequent. Worse, instead of describing famous stutterers in one section and attempted remedies in another, Mr. Bobrick keeps skipping back and forth between the two. The choppiness caused by such procedures detracts from an otherwise sensible and salutary account of a common but far-from-commonplace malady.