Dictionaries: for Whom the (Electronic) Bell Tolls

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.

Books and Kindles: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Eat Them with Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

Image of Kindle with All Roads Are Circles onscreen

Yeah, thought I'd put my novel onscreen. Sneaky, eh?

Books, ugh, repellent things. The fluttering of pages, the implicit mockery of cold text, the muscle- and mind-straining weight of ideas. Better to corral all those meandering words and their unseemly punctuation into an electron pool, where you can sip from modest, reduced-page cups of their content, where you can make type sizes wiggle to your wishes, where you can search and highlight and transfer and connect and criss-cross and cannibalize and—whew! [Daubs fevered brow.]

Actually, I love books, those creaky old antiques. If you drop hardcover books on eggs, they make a satisfying squish. If you argue with their authors, you can fling them across the room with a cascade of curses and get a resounding “bang!” from the wall opposite. But the reason I’m even blithering about books is that before I left for a recent two-month stint in the Bahamas, I was given a first-generation Kindle, a discard from a fellow who now is proudly armed with an iPad.

The Salt Slime of the Ancient Reader
Taking a pile of books to the Bahamas was a no-no, mostly for weight issues. And because, having lived in the tropics before, I knew that all things material are subject to the insidious insistence from nature that solids return to goo. For instance, my host in the tropics had vast shelves of great books, which I eagerly scanned. But picking one (and another and another) to leaf through—ahhgggh! All covered with that strange salt-slime that adheres to anything that is stationary for a period in the humid climes. Most unpleasant.

Thus, I Kindleized my reading, and I admit to the pleasure of summoning up multiple books for chunky savoring in one reading session. All those good free Domino Project works, Poke the Box, Do the Work, Self-Reliance and more. And because I am a dweeb, Grammatically Correct and Portable MFA in Creative Writing (even more portable on a Kindle). And a mystery story collection. And my own novel, pictured so promotionally in the image above.

The Palm V—Looking Back Through Time’s Cracked Screen
But I’ve never been the Luddite sort regardless, railing about ereaders being the death of the printed word. Publishing is evolving in crazy, lurching ways, but I think it’s mostly to the good. I’ll frequent (and buy in) bookstores till the day I go blind, happy with the serendipity of the shelves, the sense of discovery and promise the stores afford, and the fine feelings I actually get from the fluttering of pages. But I wrote a newspaper piece, sometime around the Ice Age of 1999, about having jolly fun reading Mark Twain on an airplane with my Palm V. Petrol-based ink, soy ink or e-ink—it’s the ideas therein that make one think.

One disclaimer on this particular model of Kindle: Steve Jobs would have had the designer drawn and quartered. You can barely hold the damn thing without accidentally turning pages, backwards and forwards. Set it down at an angle, set it down on something soft, lift it to move it—your place is whisked to the next electronic edge. I know the newer models have corrected this egregious inelegance, but I can’t callously throw this thing against the wall like I might the printed Portable MFA.

One small coda: today, we renewed our subscription to the Sunday paper. I read a lot of news online (discounting whatever mind rot news-noodling provokes), but no matter the readily available onscreen/Kindle/iPad/ version of the paper, there’s still something about flipping through the physical sections of the newspaper, in bed with a second cup of Sunday coffee …