Alice Kaplan
Alice Kaplan Credit: Public Domain

One of the strangest side effects of studying a foreign language is the desire not just to immerse yourself in a new culture but to become a part of it, indistinguishable from a native speaker. Few writers have chronicled this phenomenon better than Alice Kaplan, in her 1993 memoir French Lessons and last year’s Dreaming in French, a triptych of portraits of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, each of whom spent a year in Paris in her early 20s. In both books, Kaplan demonstrates how a youthful love affair with French can produce lifelong aftershocks, even beyond nightmares arising from trauma induced by irregular verbs. It can shape you into a professor or a film critic or a first lady whose elegance intimidates and terrifies a nation. It can also, as in the case of Davis, turn you into a revolutionary.

As a writer, Kaplan is extraordinarily persuasive. She even manages to render Jackie Kennedy interesting, a feat unequaled by any of Kennedy’s other biographers. If you had the misfortune to study Spanish or German, you will be consumed by regret after reading her books. Or maybe amazement: Can the mere act of learning a language turn you into a sharper, more thoughtful, sophisticated citizen of the world?