And you can also use it to bash rodents
For the past 30 years or so, I’ve kept a hardcover dictionary, usually a Merriam-Webster’s, near my bed. Reading in bed at night has long been one of my delicious pleasures, and because words themselves are the savory nuggets of that deliciousness, I’ve never found it tedious to pause in the narrative to look up an unfamiliar or unusually wrought word. Quite the opposite. True, sometimes throwing a rock under the wheels of your reading journey can be disruptive, but I’ve more often found that considering why an author might use a particular word helps me parse the narrative all the better, and thus roll more smoothly through it.
However, once you pick up a dictionary to sniff out one savory nugget, your word-stimulated appetite might hunt out all the more, so your reading attentions turn from the original story to that herd of words corralled by the alphabet. So, grabbing the weighty word-cage from the bedside table is less an annoyance than a pleasure. But I do wonder how much longer such a big box of words will come in that container: a couple of weeks ago, I read that MacMillan, one of the larger reference book publishers, would be printing its final physical edition this year, becoming instead an online reference source for language arts.
Death (or at least gone to the hot tub) of a salesperson
That’s not any kind of shock: the stalwart Merriam-Webster Collegiate at my bedside is published through Encyclopedia Britannica, which ceased the print edition—after 244 years of publication—of its 32-volume set in 2010, to concentrate on its digital assets. And the most venerable of the dictionary publishers, Oxford University Press, also dropped the curtain on the 126-year print publication of “the definitive record of the English language” in 2010. The third edition of the Oxford, which will be available exclusively online, won’t be release until around 2037, which tells you that cooking with words takes a sweet, slow simmer.
I’m sure if there are any surviving door-to-door salespeople who used to trundle the Britannica around, they would issue a world-weary, “It’s about time.” That’s probably just as well: According to a 2006 report by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Britannica’s own market research showed that the typical encyclopedia owner opened the books just once or twice a year. They undoubtedly provided more of a touch of intellectual window dressing for many families.
Not to bury Webster, but to praise him (Er, it. Or them.)
However, this is no lamentation for the death of the physical tome. For me, I’m often as not starting the engine of that big Webster’s tank because of a wiggly word I spotted in my Kindle reading. I love the page-by-page presence of books, always will, but I have no quarrel with the e-readers of the world; I am one of them, I have one of them—there’s much to recommend them. As Seth Godin says, in many ways, the physical book is a “souvenir”—with information being instant, the physical book is more of a trophy of sorts, though one I hope isn’t designated as wallpaper like those old Britannicas.
Here’s to the book, long live the book (but I’ll be peeking at the Kindle I’m hiding behind the book cover as well).
You ought to see my flask collection too
As a postscript to this bookish bender, you may be amused by the video that graces my About page, which shows me wrestling with a portion of my collection of reference works. Books, can’t live without them, can’t get good gas mileage if you fill your trunk with ‘em.