I finished a book yesterday, Kory Stamper’s Word by Word, the Secret Life of Dictionaries. I listened to the audiobook because I enjoy hearing authors read their own books, and Ms. Stamper, in particular, has a good voice for audiobooks. She has a conversational tone that captures the nuances of her writing. I first noticed this in her short Ask the Editor videos for Merriam-Webster’s online presence. You may remember that I posted her ‘Plural of Octopus’ video here. She describes herself as shy, not caring for human contact, but she’s quite animated.
Talk of voices and reading aside, there is the problem that I regularly face when reading a book that I love. The morning after. You know what I’m talking about. One day you feel like you’re in love and everything in the world is right, and it’s because you’re reading a book that makes you happy. Sometimes you look forward to the end of the workday, not because you don’t like your job, but because you get to go read afterward.
Then it happens. You finish the book. At first you sit and savor the moment. When I finished reading The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, I couldn’t start another book for days. The writing stayed with me for a while, and I didn’t want to mess that up by starting a new book. But, it was almost as if I had nothing to come home to. I had become so fond of reading this story, that I was genuinely sad that I had finished. And, the task of finding another book that is as impactful is nearly impossible. It can take a while to work myself into another read, to reset my mental palate.
This morning was different than that, even. I woke up and lay in bed. My cats were happy with this, but that’s beside the point. It almost felt like I had broken up. Reading Word by Word, as well as listening to the podcast, FiatLex (a podcast about dictionaries by people who write them) and the occasional Ask the Editor video gives one the feeling that they have a group of friends. This is the dark underside of social media. We feel like we have all these friends, but really they are just people who are out there talking about things that interest them, who occasionally interact with you. It’s a harsh reality to wake up and remember that you don’t really know these people, they certainly don’t know you and the sense of camaraderie this time was possibly a little too strong.
When I first saw the book, it seemed fascinating and very personal. A book about how dictionaries are written by a real human being that works on them. How awesome is that?! Kory writes, not just about how definitions are made and updated, but about her personal story, about what led her to begin this career and what made her stay. “I didn’t choose the dictionary life. The dictionary life chose me.” What I wasn’t expecting was the drama in some of chapters and the emotion in the epilogue. I don’t want to give too much away, but I recommend you read this book for the sheer joy of it.
Also, I can’t help but have a greater appreciation for dictionaries and reference books. To a certain extent, Merriam-Webster strives to keep their dictionary as impersonal as possible. It’s a reference and people should be able to count on an objective definition, one without somebody’s preconceived notions, opinions or prejudices. That sort of perception leads us to take dictionaries for granted. It is nice to hear the voices of the humans behind them. I’ve learned an appreciation for the front matter in dictionaries. Hell, I’ve learned that the front matter exists. I’ve learned to read the definitions with more attention, and it thrills me to know that they base their definitions on documented usage. We’ve always taken it for granted that dictionaries are an authority, but to know that there is a ginormous collection of documentation that goes back years and decades is amazing.
It’s true that Kory, Peter Sokolowski, Steve Kleinedler, Emily Brewster and all the other people Kory talks about do not know me. Considering the way Kory describes them, they’d probably feel very uncomfortable knowing that I enjoy reading about them. That’s not to say that I won’t keep trying. I interact with them on Twitter (respectfully); I listen to the podcasts and make comments. I promote the podcast to my friends, acquaintances and followers. It’s possible that they might get used to seeing me in their feed. It’s also possible that I wouldn’t like them if I knew them personally. I suppose this is the new world: virtual relationships. I felt a little down this morning when I woke up. But, the Rather Earnest Painter is coming back after my first cup of coffee. Be careful world. I feel good.
Read with fresh eyes the Definition for built-out.