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.

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8 thoughts on “Dictionaries: for Whom the (Electronic) Bell Tolls

  1. That little green container tells me that you don’t need to use the dictionary to look up the meaning of “bruxism.”

  2. Why, aren’t we a sneaky little spy, Miz Annie Dennison! Yes, though the item is less for grinding than for jaw-snapping, which yours truly does in the deep of the night when he has a Eureka! moment in his dreams.

  3. I was so heartened to see that little green container. Restored my faith in humanity, it did.

    I have adopted eBooks, except when I want a ‘souveneir.’ Yet sometimes I’m haunted by an article that I read years ago. It seems that if we want something written to truly last, the best place to put it is on paper. If it doesn’t burn and it’s not stored in the basement of a bookstore in Venice, it will survive longer than our digital media can ever hope to.

    Many forms of digital information storage deteriorate over time. And who’s to say someone in 100 years will be able to read what we use now? Can anyone say ‘8-track’?

    Europe’s oldest book is the St. Cuthbert’s gospel which dates from the seventh century. (It spent a lot of that time in a coffin, too.) There are four extant and readable copies of the Magna Carta. The Domesday Book from 1086 is alive and well, thank you for asking.

    Oh, and Domesday has in it the coolest names ever. Thorkil. Scrayingham. Buttercrambe and Coneysthorpe. OK I’m gonna go and get lost in it now.


  4. Rick, it is interesting how many ancient documents have been preserved, and are still readable. It does make me wonder if meteorites are punctuation marks edited out of great compositions being written in the broader cosmos. And I will hum a short, elegiac tune for the excellent 8-track player I had in a ’64 Dodge Dart.

    Hey, weren’t Buttercrambe and Coneysthorpe the swindling law team that bilked me in my purchase of a string of Bahamian islands?

  5. Mary Louise, wow, I love the words he circled: “witenagemot” — yeah, I’d be looking that one up too. I think Buttercrambe used that against me in my contract above.

    I’ve always been terrified if I marked up books with my own noodlings that the literary version of the mattress police would come after me.

  6. Hi Tom,

    I want to be you when I grow up. I am going all over the web trying to figure out the best way to be a freelance writer and I came across the Writer’s Bridge and that led me to your website. I saw where you are located in CA, which is not too far from where I am. But that doesn’t matter, I just want to email you and hear if you have any ideas on first steps. But on your webpage your email address link doesn’t work. Would you be so gracious as to let me pick your brain (over phone or via email???) or here on these postings??? I just don’t know where to start with getting freelance writing jobs.


  7. Kristina, you surely don’t want to be me—your shaving needs alone would increase ten-fold. But I’m not certain why my email address (bentguy@charter.net) doesn’t work for you when you click it from my Contact page—I just tried it and it worked for me. I should probably take advantage of that and write myself a stern letter about improving my diet.

    Anyway, I’m not sure if my own freelance stumblings would offer much guidance to you, but send me an email and we can discuss. Cheerio!

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