Monday, December 13, 2010

Review of My Dictionary

Is there an iPad or one of these in everyone's future?
I have a friend who is what used to be called a "booster." Boosters once were commonly found lurking among Rotarians and other such groups of business people. They were quite often loudly heard boosting the latest greatest thing that was, incidentally, likely to make some people in suits a lot of money. A power plant, a factory, a new subdivision.

When it comes to digital technology, especially the use of portable versions of the computer (e.g., iPhone, iPad, e-readers), my friend sees almost limitless possibilities for their use in education. He emphasizes how through these devices a cornucopia of knowledge on the Internet can be delivered to students at anytime. Simultaneously students can use the devices to easily connect with peers and discuss what they're learning.

 booster: 1 a person who  boosts; an enthusiastic supporter     

In his enthusiasm my friend goes around the country, and sometimes overseas, and delivers speeches about what is unfolding. He says the change we're looking at is a on par with  the one wrought by Gutenberg's printing press when, for the first time, books potentially could be made available to the masses, not just to the wealthy or a cloistered religious elite.

He forecasts the new prevalence of the digital version of ink (especially once all the old books are scanned into the new system) will soon allow each of us to hold in his or her hand all the world's writings from all eras, past and present. There will be no barriers to information in terms of time to acquire it or having to relocate ourselves to access it. It will all come to us instantaneously.

This means books, as we've known them for centuries--physical volumes housed in libraries and bookstores--are essentially dead.

He may be right. 
Or it could be that he's only partially right. Or it could be he's completely wrong.

Our son, who at age 12 is savvy beyond his years, reminded me when we were out walking last night how the Victorians thought steam was final word in technological marvels. Once they had steam in their factories and driving their ships, they thought it was only a matter of time before everything would be powered by steam. Horseless carriages. Crafts for flying through the air. But the Victorians were wrong about steam. It's heyday was something less than a hundred years.

About the only steam-anything you'll buy today is a steam iron.

The Good, The Bad, the Jury's Still Out: Even if my friend is correct that books and book stores and libraries as we have known them are bound to go away, I'm not prepared to concede that every aspect of "new" is "better." In fact, if I consult my dictionary, nowhere in the definition of "new" am I told that "new" always equals "better."

Of course, sometimes the new thing brought to the market is indeed better (caller ID and men's briefs are two of my favorites), but sometimes it's eventually recognized as bad (DDT and Yugos). Most often what is new is a confusing mix of costs and benefits (women's high heels and Dipping Dots).

Digitizing Our Books: It's easy to see a benefit to having books available through electronic devices. When I travel I don't have to pack up the heavy things and squeeze them into the overhead bin on the airplane or pay to check a bag containing them. I can even foresee the day when I will rejoice that our son's textbooks are offered to him digitally and he can put away the crippling 30 lb. backpack he lugs to school each day. The portability of e-books is a decided advantage.

But there may be costs the boosters have not recognized yet.

Start with the promise of access. Is it always really good that I stay deep in the couch cushions at home and pull up book after book with a tap of my finger? Frankly, I enjoy driving to my downtown library and following the numbers on the shelves until I find the book I seek out. Of course, the entire process is far from instant, taking me about 45-minutes round-trip and, yes, I will burn fossil fuel when I drive my car.

  enjoy: 1 to take pleasure or satisfaction in 2 to have for one's use, benefit

But on the other side of the balance sheet, in the library I will meet adults and bump up against excited children. I will smell the books. I'll smile at the woman who checks out the books. I'll even do enough walking that a few calories will be burned as opposed to staying at home on the couch. So there's an entire social, physical, and mental health benefit to the process.

And still another benefit awaits me when I get home with my analogue version of the book. As I sit down and open up a physical book, I am able to experience the sensation that knowledge and words have weight and texture.

She's So Heavy:
Meet my dictionary. If it were human, it would now be old
enough to have graduated from college. But could it find
a job in this down economy?
The mention of weight brings me to just about my favorite book. It also happens to be the largest.

As I pick up my Webster's Third College Dictionary and thumb through it, what I balance in my lap amounts to a heavy portion of the best of what our language has to offer. How heavy? I decided to take the dictionary to the bathroom scales.

Four and a half pounds! But actually that is nothing.

If I want the complete riches of the English language, then it comes in a Vatican-size residence for the text: the Oxford English Dictionary in twenty volumes.

A few years ago a man in England named Ammon Shea read the entire OED which amounted to 21,731 pages. He read some days for 10 hours straight and it still took him a year to get through the entire work. It was hard going, but he reported in the book he wrote about his experience that it was also rewarding. Obviously he learned some new words. A lot of them. But he also thought the panoply of vocabulary had aspects of reading a great novel.

                              Ammon Shea at work reading...the dictionary.

Word Fights: The dictionary figures in one of my favorite classroom stories from college. 
John Hersey 1914-1993

When I was at Yale I was fortunate to be able to take a creative writing class from the writer John Hersey. Hersey was a tall, patrician man and the author of many books and novels, including the bestsellers A Bell For Adano, A Single Pebble, and Hiroshima, the latter being the definitive on-the-ground account of what it was like when the first atomic bomb was dropped.
Everyone was in the class because Hersey represented a rare chance to study writing at the feet of (intake of breath) a Famous Writer.

Hersey was kind to me. Believing I had notable talent, he personally submitted a story of mine to The Atlantic Monthly. He was also fairly acerbic as he upheld the highest standards in writing. One day he began bashing the dictionary. The dictionary? Yes indeed.

"In Webster's Third, damn them, they've made 'nauseated' and 'nauseous' synonyms. They've destroyed a perfectly good word," he lectured. "Soon we'll all be reduced to just making grunts!"

Hmm. This sounded serious. My profs, especially civilized ones like Mr. Hersey, didn't usually cuss. But perhaps it was called for. People grunting throughout the day did seem an unpleasant prospect. As Mr. Hersey backed up and gave us some definitions, I understood why he thought the new version of the dictionary was doing us all a disfavor.

That day I learned from the writer (and never forgot) that "nauseated," means "I feel like I'm going to vomit." "Nauseous" (pre-Webster's Third) can only mean "capable of inducing a nauseated feeling in someone" as in "They encountered a nauseous odor." So if someone pre-Webster's Third said, "I feel nauseous," they were actually (stupidly) saying, "I feel like I can make other people throw up!"

But Webster's Third, in a language liberalizing move, had added a second definition to describe how some people misused "nauseous" when they really ought to say "nauseated." For an old-school fellow like Mr. Hersey this was a red flag in front of the bull. A dictionary ought to prescribe, not describe; otherwise, the misuage was legitimized.

All right, good and well. Still, I also could see how people confused the two words and meanings. Doesn't saying "I feel nauseous" just sound, well, more sickly, more nauseated?

The larger lesson stayed with me in any case. Words are important. This is a creedal statement for anyone who even dreams of being a writer.

  creed: 1 a brief authoritative formula of religous belief 2 a set of fundamental beliefs

Consider just one page of the dictionary...

Dictionary Adventures:
A number of years ago I wrote a novel that I never could get published. The heroine is a famous but disenchanted Hollywood movie star who slips away to a small seaside town in Oregon. There she meets a man nicknamed Shep. Shep is a fisherman whom everyone regards as a sort of holy fool. Shep is always talking extravagantly about the nature of reality, the sheer miracle of it all. One day he pulls out a staggeringly massive unabridged Webster's, turns to one of the "C" pages, and starts lecturing the actress on the definitions . As he nears the end of his two-page soliloquy he's  really getting worked up.

            "And we must not overlook coriums, attached to every bug! Here we find the long middle part of the beetle’s wing. What can that wing do? It traverses great distances and, just as easily, folds up and disappears beneath the streamlined armor in order to join a body waddling across the hard ground.
            "Oh! The coquilla nut! You’ll find it in the top of the piassava palm that grows in Brazil. Break open the nut and smash and knead its meat and you obtain rich oil. However, do not discard the hard brown shell. Touched by human hands and tools a different result is derived. It can be carved and polished like the finest ivory.
            "Please don’t forget the short tale of cordierite. Formed in the fiery belly of the earth it is coughed to the surface. The colors dazzle the eyes of those who pick it up and hold the bluish crystal in their palms. And it finds its way into necklaces and jewelry and where it has often brought delight to kings and queens.
            "And I still have not told you of the coquito, that palm of Chili whose sap is sweet and becomes a tongue tingling wine, or the impossibly beautiful Ionian isle of Corfu, or the amazing coreopsis, those plants with dazzling yellow, crimson or maroon flowers, or the cordgrass that grows ten feet high in the middle of forbidding tidal mud flats, or the delicately drooping pink and white flowers of the coral bells blooming nearly half the year on our own continent, or the deeply hued Cordovan leather, made from fine goat skins obtainable in Spain, and the men and women who walk the dusty roads in shoes made of it.”
            Shep stopped speaking.  He reached a hand to his forehead.  The fingers stayed there as if feeling the after-vibrations of his own thought...         

Rating Time: My character's point is that the dictionary is not just information. It's a collection of names for wonders that humans have encountered. Every entry there contains a story. The words have dimension because they are attached to human actions and thoughts. Holding the book in our hands, running our fingers over the paper as we turn pages, picking up a pencil or highlighter and rubbing our own response into the page encourages us to realize this dimensionality.

I treasure the dents on the cover as well as the barely visible
Simon & Schuster logo in bas relief.

But what happens if we flatten all that out digitally? I would have no Webster's 3rd with beat-up indents in the cover and creases in the pages. Using a computer as the sole source of my information I would acquire words the way someone who is fed through a tube gains calories. The tube does its job, efficiently and quickly, yet the flavor and the pleasure of chewing have been removed.

I've had my trusty Webster's Third for 22 years. It serves me well. Since I'm enough of a language liberal to overlook the "nauseated" and "nauseous" scandal, I can give it without qualms four stars **** - V.W.


No comments:

Post a Comment