Posts Tagged ‘dictionaries’

A Writer’s Best (Non-Human) Friend

June 26, 2010

After all these years, I specifically remember only two of the presents I received upon graduating from high school. I know there were many others, and I recall the wonderful gathering of friends and family at our house — and the many cards wishing me well. But, material presents, I remember two: the Taylor family gave me a big black umbrella, which I thought was very cool — it seemed like just the thing to have as a college student; the other, from my parents, was Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary. They filled out the front page: Presented to Fred Durbin by Mom & Dad, June 6, 1984. [Wow! That was the anniversary of D day, 40 years later! Isn’t that a solemn realization in and of itself? Forty years before I exited the troop ship and charged up onto the beach of the world, other young — and not-so-young — guys were doing it for real. If they hadn’t done what they did then, I would have been going out into a much different world. . . .]

But anyway: that dictionary has been my constant companion ever since. It’s been to college, it’s crossed the ocean several times, and wherever I’ve set up a workspace for even a short while, my dictionary has been within easy reach.

In 1993-4, the year I worked for a Japanese company thinly disguised as a school, I had an actual desk at work — that’s the only year I’ve ever had a workspace all my own on the job, a desk with my stuff on and in it — and yes, to be sure, my dictionary was there. My fellow native-English-speaking teachers, who had desks all around mine, regarded me as “the guy to have proofread your writing before you use it in any public way.” One co-worker in particular would ask me to proofread things, and whenever I would frown slightly and reach for my dictionary, she would laugh and say, “Okay, what did I misspell now?” (A dictionary at work is a great tool for politeness. It takes the heat for you. You never have to tell co-workers that you think they’re wrong; you adopt the official stance of being “not sure,” you look it up, and the authoritative answer is there in black-and-white!)

About ten or so years ago, I got to  thinking that the language had changed enough since 1984 that it was time for a new dictionary. Not that I wanted to get rid of my dear old Webster’s from my parents — not at all! But I felt it was time for that one to have a junior partner, a helper, a back-watcher. My mom was of the opinion that dictionaries never go out of date; she was still using the Webster’s she received when she went to college. Truth be told, I was using that one (of hers), too. It was our “house dictionary.” Mom had it on a wooden stand that was probably supposed to have been for a Bible. Throughout my childhood and even into my Japan years (since my dictionary was in Japan), I would run into the dining room when I needed to look up a word. It was tattered from decades of use and the pages were yellowing, but it still got the job done.

But I longed for a dictionary that reflected the current language, so when my friend C. in Niigata asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said I’d really like the latest edition of Webster’s Dictionary. As it turned out, the local bookstore didn’t have a Webster’s when we went shopping. However, they had a beautiful Oxford English Dictionary. I immediately saw the wisdom and attractiveness of having both my Webster’s (American) and the Oxford (British). I could compare spellings and usages in the two countries as well as across time. So that was my birthday present from C. that year, and it’s one of the birthday presents I’ll always remember most — because now it stays with me, too, wherever I am.

C. is full of questions. Once he asked me something about the battle of Thermopylae. The next time I saw him, I gave him some detailed notes. He said, “Wow! You went ‘Net-surfing!” I said, “No, I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary you gave me.”

After my year in the States, I was shipping things back to Japan, and the guy who runs the shipping company in my hometown looked askance at these two heavy dictionaries I was sending overseas. It’s not cheap to send books that hefty. He asked, “Don’t they have dictionaries in Japan?” Well, yes, they do . . . but these were my dictionaries. They have children in Europe, too, but if you’re moving there with your family, I’ll bet you’ll take your own kids, even though they cost.

A third dictionary joined the team after Mom passed away: not her old one, which is now in storage (but will be back on my shelf someday, Lord willing, when/if I set up a desk in the States), but a deluxe Merriam-Webster’s that my dad gave her. I haven’t really gotten into the habit of using it, because my Webster’s and Oxford do the job so well for me. But still, I’m glad the deluxe edition is there.

So what’s all the fuss? What’s so great about dictionaries? After all, our computers have spell-checkers, right? And if you need to know anything, you can look it up on-line. Plus, there are perfectly good, state-of-the-art electronic dictionaries no bigger than a pocket calculator that could save me hundreds of dollars in shipping expenses. Yes, but. . . .

Partly, it’s the difference between buying a book on Amazon and buying a book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. The difference is getting to see and walk past and handle all those books you don’t buy.

When I go to look up a word in a paper dictionary, I almost never get to that word without being ensnared by four or five other words first. Seriously — can you go right to the word you went after, and not read anything else? It’s like putting a mouse into a cheese shop and telling him, “Go straight to the far wall, tag it, and come straight back here.” Not going to happen.

There was an English prof we had in college who would say, “I got the new such-and-such dictionary. I haven’t finished reading it yet. I’m about halfway through.” We thought that was hilarious, the idea of sitting and reading a dictionary. Personally, I’ve never done that, but the longer I live and the more deeply I appreciate language, the less funny that sounds to me.

Dictionaries give you definitions, of course. When I read H.P. Lovecraft, he nearly always sends me running for the dictionary. When I read Lud-in-the-Mist, I made a list of words to look up. You want to know what the list was? I’ve got it right here. Are you ready?

pleached, propinquity, ribands, ribbands, chiaroscuro, hierophantic, cozeners/cozening, plangent, potsherds, poncifs, fulminate, byre, barouche, exogamy, cockchafe, spurious, disquisition, spinney, brawn [as a food], syllabub, squills, “mopping and mowing,” hartshorn, carminative, civet cat, velleity, tuftaffities, sententious, osier, porphyry, quinsy, perdurable, casuistry, cicerone, frangipane, perroration, pullulating

Be honest, now. If you knew the meanings of even most of those, you’re a far better man than I! (Even if, like Eowyn, you’re not a man!)

But also, dictionaries help us with spelling. Like I’ve said, “queue,” “oubliette,” and “oeuvre”. . . . I have to look them up every. Single. Time. (It’s like trying to figure out which side of the car the gas tank inlet is on. If you’re like me, you squirm inwardly every single time you pull into a gas station — which side is it?!)

But those are just the clinical uses of the dictionary. The real reason I love my dictionaries, not simply rely on them, is that they’re like friends who actually help me write.

Writing is a notoriously solitary activity. We writers cloister ourselves off from the world, face the blank screen or paper, and make our sacrifices. We miss the TV shows and the visits and the concerts, etc., in order to walk the lonely path, that line from word to word to word. No one can do it for us. No one can tell us what to write. Except. . . .

“Where do you get your ideas?” people ask us. “Where do these ideas come from?”

I think the single best answer just may be “from the dictionary.” The words we use are all in there, after all. (Well, no, that’s not true. We speculative fiction writers insist upon making up a sizable percentage of our vocabulary. But the dictionary is a great help in making things up, too.) I can’t tell you how many times the dictionary has bailed me out when I’ve needed a name for a character or a place. Not that I necessarily use a word as-is to be a character’s name — I’m not writing Pilgrim’s Progress. But words have resonances; words have sounds and elements. I may lift a part of this word and combine it with a part of that one. I may borrow a word for the way it means or the way it rings. One thing can lead to another — the dominoes fall — and sometimes the dictionary can even unravel plot problems. It’s the wise friend who’s always there. It’s comforting, solid, and infinitely sane. It’s realistic, your anchor to the Earth. It can absorb your tears and help you see more clearly when you’re ready to.

Webster’s is the king of dictionaries for two reasons: it shows where words are divided (which Oxford doesn’t) — and far more wonderfully, it comes with pictures! They’re not there for every word. But for a huge number of words whose meanings are hard to grasp or envision, Webster’s is there with a visual rendering. Again and again over the years, a picture has snagged my gaze, and I’ve understood something new and crucial about my story. If a picture truly is worth a thousand words, then Webster’s is priceless.

A dictionary can help you find things that you didn’t know you were looking for. Character names . . . costuming . . . architecture . . . plot points . . . conflicts . . . historical details . . . complications . . . specificity. Precision. The right tool for the right job. At every stage of the writing process, from conceptual work to the final buffing of a manuscript on its way out the door, a dictionary is the friend to have beside you.

So how about you, dear readers? In your walk of life — in your career or your hobby — what is the tool you wouldn’t want to be without, and why?



May 9, 2009

So, how is it that we’ve come along for more than a year without a posting dedicated entirely to books — especially since books are so central to the writing and reading life? Probably because it’s such a big topic. Well, now is the time to open that mighty can o’ worms, because it’s reading season!

"So many books, so little time."

"So many books, so little time."

In Japan, people say fall is the season for reading books. I’d guess most of us gathered here around this blog feel that books are always in season. For me, there’s no season like spring/early summer for making me want to immerse myself in a book. The love is there year-’round, but there’s something about the first arrival of warmer seasons — a time of so much promise and possibility — that makes it all the more urgent. Again, it’s all about doorways into summer — into the time of velvet nights and blazing sun, lost paths and silhouettes and icy blue shade.

I’ve always been extremely unusual as a reader/writer, because I’m such a walking contradiction. I absolutely love books — no one would deny that; but I’m also a glacially slow reader. Everyone else I know who loves books as much as I do tends to chain-read them: to devour book after book after book. I’m notorious for inching along. (A friend recently asked me with a cheerful smile, “So, what book are you going to read this year?”)

These two huge plastic drawers are also full of books waiting to be read. But the real book-trove, because of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," is now back in Illinois: I have an entire room there stuffed with books. Oh, to have them all beneath one roof someday!

These two huge plastic drawers are also full of books waiting to be read. But the real book-trove, because of the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," is now back in Illinois: I have an entire room there stuffed with books. Oh, to have them all beneath one roof someday!

I think it has to do with how much I love books as objects. I love the idea of books. I feel better just knowing that books are around. I love the heft and feel of them, the covers and the pages, the paper quality, the way the words look on the page, those amazing things like tables of contents and forewords and dedications and title pages. . . .

When my cousin and I were little, we’d often read books together (different books, same room). It was like John Henry racing the steam drill. I’d be relishing a certain page, and he’d be zooming along, the bulk of the book steadily vanishing from his right hand and accumulating in his left. I’d enviously ask him how he did that. As he explained it, he’d sort of take in whole paragraphs at once instead of individual words. And he thought it was funny how I’d periodically declare “Cover-Staring Time” (that’s what I called it), when I’d close my book and admire the cover for awhile. [I guess that might have answered my own question: to get through the book, you have to be looking at what’s inside. . . .]

But it’s always felt so wrong to me to race through a book! There are all those beautiful words, with their sounds and nuances, and they’ve been arranged precisely as they are for a purpose. It’s always seemed crucially important to me to appreciate that purpose, to absorb everything from the text that the writer intended, and perhaps more.

My essential reference shelf: dictionaries (Oxford and Webster's), The Chicago Manual of Style, and Zimmerman's Dictionary of Classical Mythology.

My essential reference shelf: dictionaries (Oxford and Webster's), The Chicago Manual of Style, and Zimmerman's Dictionary of Classical Mythology.

Yes, two or three times over the years I’ve tried to teach myself speed-reading. I’ve read books on the subject (not just stared at their covers!), practiced the techniques and all. But when I’ve tried to apply that to a real book, I’ve inevitably slowed back down.

I’m not criticizing you, all you who read like the wind, like Hermes on roller skates. I know the beauty of what you do is that you can come back again and again to revisit the books you love. You can pass this way more than once! I do envy you . . . I want to be just like you when I grow up. I’m serious. That same friend who asked me about what book I’m going to read this year also advised me of one key to getting things read: “You have to make it a priority.” That’s true. I don’t have any fewer hours in the day than anyone else. I just don’t use enough of mine for reading. Maybe this will be the year that I can make a change!

On the other extreme, though, to give this discussion some balance: one of my high-school friends used to race through books, all the big fantasy series that abounded in that decade. We’d ask him what he thought of this one or that one, and he’d say, “Oh, I don’t know. I read it, but I didn’t pay attention to it.” So . . . maybe it’s better to just read one book a year, if you’re paying close attention to it. What do you think? You be the judge.

A famous writer whose identity escapes me now, in advising other writers, said, “Don’t read a hundred books. Instead, read your ten favorite books ten times each, really paying attention.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that. “The mill-wheels of God’s justice turn slowly, but they grind exceeding fine.” I suppose I do that with books: I grind them exceeding fine.




Room-Staring Time! This picture shows some knickknacks on my shelf. There’s Gandalf, of course, who needs no introduction. The cross was made from wood from the maple trees at the northeast corner of our yard in Illinois, under which I sat to write the poem “Glory Day,” which I still think is my best poem. The cross is standing in a spool from my mom’s sewing basket, and the base it stands on is a piece of plank from the barn I played in as a kid. There’s a thoughtful little gargoyle, a bean-bag cat, a terra-cotta warrior and his terra-cotta horse (bought at an exhibit I saw of the real things here in Niigata). There’s a box with a dragon on the lid. And see the little goat-man? That came as a premium, attached to a plastic jug of Diet Pepsi or Coke. It’s the “Goat Man,” part of a series of plastic replicas of paranormal beings. But for me, that figure became the character Gadmus in my NaNoWriMo novel Corin Booknose. Okay–ungroink–back to our regularly-scheduled discussion:

100_0352A week or two ago, a faithful reader requested reading lists. It’s a bottomless well, an insurmountable task, but let’s go there. We have to understand from the outset that there’s no way we’ll get everything essential onto the lists. But I think we can make helpful lists of some of the very best books out there. I think I’ve talked enough for this time around: I’m going to save my own picks for next time. But feel free to start jumping in: give us a list of any reasonable length — 3, 5, a dozen, 20 books — the books that belong on the small shelf; the best books you’ve discovered in your lifetime, be it short or long. Yes, this blog lies in the native country of fantasy, but you’re not required to limit yourself to that genre. You don’t have to worry about ranking them in order (unless you want to), and I think we all agree that The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down are there already.

Have at it! What book covers should I be staring at?