I once knew a Holocaust survivor, a Russian non-native English speaker with a thirst for learning, who kept a wonderful book: a logbook of obsessive reading with highly particular summaries. “War and Peace,” the survivor notated, “a bunch of people, war, and countries — can’t anyone get along?” “Madame Bovary,” she wrote, “a fancy lady spends a lot of time dreaming until all is lost for love.”
We are deep into a moment in which authors write of lives, often their own, through the habit of reading. Hearing of the trend from afar, a person could ask: does the practice signify a retreat to a self-reflexive cave? A recherché activity, a hall-of-mirrors exercise, a willed innocence? And yet, these last 15 years, books on reading have proliferated at the same time that newspaper space for discussing the magic of reading has shrunk. Consider Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book, a hundred others.
Such authors share the same gleam you find in the self-portrait of Diego Velázquez in “Las Meninas” in which the artist depicts himself as the aware but lowly court servant painting the aristocratic family. The artist supersedes his content, eyes leaping out of the frame at us, becoming our proxy for understanding a given milieu. With similar esprit, in many of these books, the authors gaze back at us reading them, showing how at a crucial point in life, a book or series swayed them unalterably. Reader, I was never the same, these books whisper, confidingly. The earth moved. These books on reading often also move earth, however subtly, achieving what Aristotle demanded for drama: both recognition and catharsis.
In Pamela Paul’s fifth book, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, she takes us traveling through a landscape of childhood aspiration and adolescently blind romanticism, the accruals and loss of adulthood, all told from a temperament with a fierce, passionate allegiance to principle. Her Bob is a logbook of reading and also a rueful, joyful autobiography of interests and selves, an elegy fond and bittersweet. Bob in its physical form — even when a mate, soon to be ex, actually writes in it himself — survives courtships, marriages, and the most Aristotelian of reversals.
On first reading, I felt the book created a new genre, the polemic picaresque, in which readers get to wander happily with a Michel de Montaigne-like narrator through varied realms while picking up bits of advice as buried treasure. Imagine a guide who seems at first to speak only of her small village and family while showing the reader a local tower, who meanwhile, subtly, persuades us of the greatness of the parish. On my second reading, Paul’s book seemed to be in conversation with Boswell’s travels with Johnson, Sei Shōnagon, or The Canterbury Tales, in which we roam aesthetic terrain with a hapless and memorable group of individuals, the world rich with surfaces while belying the deeper moral conviction and instruction to be had.
The journey is as good as the guide, and one of My Life with Bob’s pleasures is the humorous and affectionate light cast on the narrator’s strong convictions. As a young girl, Paul begins with reading as a quirky hagiography, finding lives to learn and emulate, the horizon of her worldliness as wide as her last book read. Older, she shows great, impulsive agency in making book-inspired choices while becoming increasingly nostalgic for an earlier temporal freedom, leaving her reader to understand that a life too far from books is not just unexamined, but unfelt, unknown, unarticulated.
From the joy-filled vantage of someone illuminated, and even dominated, by books she has read, Paul inspires her reader to revisit works canonical and unsung. As the best memoir writers do, the witty persona Paul creates for her narrator is not so much heroine but more in the spirit of Paul Klee’s “Hero with a Broken Wing”: gifted and burdened by aspiration, she lives the paradox of being the obedient rebel and contrarian student who delights in having a mind with a thousand pockets. If August Wilson says everyone should wake to see the face of our own god in the mirror, in this case, for a very singular reader, the mirror itself is literature.
Below, Paul speaks of seeing her recollection of Bob emerge.
The Millions: You were a reader with a great understanding of privacy. What is your experience of My Life with Bob, an exegesis of such an important relic of the self, traveling out in the world?
Pamela Paul: A certain amount of trepidation. I never thought I would write a memoir, and in fact, didn’t think of this book as a memoir until Publishers Weekly announced the deal and called it one. My first thought was, “Oh, no — but they’re right! I guess it is a memoir.”
To my mind, it was to be a book about books, a book about travels, a book about storytelling. But of course, it’s not really about those things. It’s about the intersection of books and life, and about how what we read infiltrates, influences, reflects, expands on, and colors everything else. When we read, even when the book is temporarily put down with a bookmark firmly in place, the stories from inside the book don’t entirely recede from our consciousness. They become part of us. My stories are part of me, and therefore a lot more “me” had to be in this book that I am used to putting. My previous books were all journalistic investigations that had one or two first-person sentences in the introductions before firmly leaving that voice behind. This book is not only about me — it’s about (I hope) all readers and the way all of us experience stories. But it’s obviously quite personal.
TM: What are you reading — or hoping to read — now?
PP: I choose my books on a gut level, to match a strong mood or an urge or even a need. But it’s not a one-step or simple process. That’s one of the reasons I ask what books people have on their nightstand in my By the Book interviews: I’m curious about how people narrow down and make their choices among all the possibilities. Personally, I keep a large pile on my nightstand — on the wide edge of my platform bed, actually — and then a few other piles across from the bed on a room-length wall of built-in bookshelves. Like all readers, I have so many books that I’d like to read, that I intend to read, that I feel I must read, but I never truly know what I’ll read next until the moment I finish the previous book.
This doesn’t mean I don’t plan. I do all kinds of planning! And then I cast those plans aside. Right now, for example, I was planning to be reading Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena because the reviews were strong and so many people I respect have recommended it. The glowing praise for his follow-up collection of short stories pushed that book further to the top of the list. So it was on my shortlist. Then I did something I’ve never done before: I enlisted my two older children to help me decide between reading the Marra, Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris or Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop next. I read the back covers and inside jackets aloud to them. My daughter voted for Marra and my son for Zola. I read the Zola first, and so had turned to the Marra next to be fair. But a few chapters in, I found that it wasn’t quite matching my mood. This isn’t to say I didn’t like it — thus far, I like it very much and I plan to go back to it. But it just wasn’t what I needed at the moment.
What I needed, I realized, and this is what had drawn me to all three of those books, was a book that was engrossing and serious and relevant to my life right now, but also an escape. And that was accompanied by an urge to read about an earlier era in journalism. Scoop wasn’t quite the right book because I didn’t want humor (I’ve kind of been adverse to comedy, overall, since the fall — read into that what you will, though I hope it means I haven’t permanently lost my sense of humor). “Scoop will be read one day…I do love Waugh.
Then, on a shelf I keep devoted to books about writing and about journalism, I noticed Ben Bradlee’s memoir, A Good Life: Newspaper and Other Adventures. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it was published, which to my embarrassment was in 1995, therefore making it a book I’ve meant to read for 22 years now. I adored Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which I’d read as soon as it came out. I picked up the Bradlee and it fits every need I have at this moment: Serious, yet also entertaining. Relevant to my life (journalism), yet also a departure (journalism back when it was strictly about print). Plus, Bradlee is a terrific narrator. You can hear his distinctive voice, his infectious personality. And the part I’m up to now is very much a different world: His experiences in the Navy in World War II, his early days at a startup weekly newspaper in New Hampshire, his experience as a press attaché in Paris. I’m just now getting back to Washington and his Newsweek years. It’s a delight on every level.
Do other readers go through a version of this elaborate mood-matching process when considering what to read next? I suspect many do. To me, it’s one of the great decisions we get to make in life, and we get to make it again and again: What to Read Next.
TM: What is the relation of risk to your practice of writing? And what was your process in sequencing and editing this book, and did it differ from your others?
PP: This book was completely different from any other book I’ve written. My previous books were essentially argument books: journalistic investigations that set out to explore a subject through research and reporting, marshal the evidence, and make a case. My first book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, came out of personal experience — an early marriage and divorce — but I quite adamantly didn’t want the book to be about me, so after the first paragraph, the first person dropped out. That book still felt personal. I discovered and learned through other people’s answers and lessons that I was seeking to help make sense of my own experience. What did these other young divorced people know that I didn’t yet know myself? What had they learned two or five years after their marriages ended that they didn’t know at the point of rupture? The next two books came out of reported stories that I wrote for Time magazine and expanded on issues around consumer culture that I thought worth further exploration. For all of those books, the driving goal was to prove a point.
By contrast, I had nothing to prove with this book. I am not trying to persuade anyone of anything. So the underlying motivation is altogether different, and that fundamentally changes the writing process. This book isn’t probably not going to change anyone’s mind about anything (except perhaps about the wisdom of writing down what you read). So it has to want to be read for other reasons.
If I had a driving sense of purpose with this book in terms of its relationship to readers, it was to write something that was a pleasure to read. Because I get so much pleasure from books, and from my Book of Books. When people have told me they’ve read my previous books, my knee-jerk response has always been, “I’m sorry.” That may sound ridiculous and self-defeating, but I don’t think my earlier books were particularly fun to read. Enlightening, in certain ways, perhaps. But not enjoyable. I wanted to write a book that might be an actual enjoyable reading experience. And that made the book an actual pleasure to write — even when I was writing about embarrassing or frightening or upsetting experiences, like the end of my first marriage or my father’s death.
But I like that you compare it to a journey because that’s how it feels to me. Like a journey through life with books as constant companion. With little discoveries made, both within and outside of books, along the way.
TM: Having also encountered Thalia Zepatos’s book of advice for the independent woman traveler at a young age, to my detriment or advantage, I was nonetheless happy to see her mentioned. Yet what makes your suitcase so singular is the manner in which your narrator, like a lover or devotee, brings books as an offering to beautiful environments, most notably in an outdoor scene in China. Similarly, a landscape can be ruined for your narrator by the errancy of the particular author you happen to be reading, your mind infected by a particular voice. Books similarly permeate the courtships with men you end up marrying. In such moments, you do a great deal to erase the binary of life versus art, the dichotomy that Cynthia Ozick felt she misunderstood as a dictum from Henry James: “Life! Life, not art!” Was there something not mentioned in your book, whether in early environ or temperament, that may have led to this happy erasure, a habit of convergence? The curiosity the reader has — having traveled with you through travel, jobs, marriages, divorces, children — is whether your narrator would say her highest self, her best part, was formed by reading rather than life?
PP: For me, reading Thalia Zepatos was inspiring in the most concrete sense of the word: It inspired me to something I didn’t feel capable of or well-suited for. I read her book and then did something that was highly unlikely given the cautious, ambitious, responsible, fearful person I was at that time. I threw aside all my life and career goals and set out to do something that I knew I might hate. Something that terrified me. Something that nobody like me would do. As I put it in the book, it was as if 5 percent of me made a decision and dragged along the other 95 percent. It ended up being the best decision I’ve ever made.
TM: Your narrator is similarly remarkable in the complexity of being a success-driven rebel: she is both the child who early on learns not to procrastinate, getting her work done first so she can with easier mind enjoy the poking of her pencil into the carpet, and the principle-driven rebel. Within aspirational milieus, in equal measure, she passionately protests and excels within received dictates. One of the abiding sub rosa questions in the book has to do with the quirkiness of free will and self-determination against given legacies: your narrator finds herself shooting out of a particular set of birthright assumptions. How does this complexity inform your relation to your life in writing and reading these days?
PP: I just wrote a piece adapted from the book called “The Joy of Hate Reading” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times that describes one of the key ways I’ve come to read and write, which is to challenge myself through words. It’s a way to remind myself of how little I actually know. As a writer, with this book, I set out to write the kind of book I never thought I’d write — a memoir. And as a reader, I am always pushing myself to try out books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I have a kind of perverse urge to constantly test my own assumptions. To a certain extent this has always been there. I was a supremely unathletic child, always picked second-to-last for sports teams in elementary school (an excruciating experience that I wrote about in my college application essay). But when I got to college, I ended up joining the rugby team. It was an entirely absurd decision to make — I have never once hit a ball with a baseball bat in my life. But I joined the rugby team and I loved it. I still have near-zero interest in sports, but I recently read The Throwback Special because it’s about football. (I loved that too.)
TM: “Without imagination of another’s mind there can be no understanding of that other and hence no love,” Sherwin Nuland writes in relation to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry,” a quotation you cite in your book when talking of a first love. How would you relate BOB to that very same imagination?
PP: Reading is ultimately about empathy — about experiencing another person’s story, his version of events, his voice, his way of viewing the world. To me one of the beauties of literature is that two different people from very different worlds can read the same book, and share that experience, even as if in different variations. You can have a 16-year-old girl in India read The Underground Railroad and a 45-year-old stay-at-home mother in Indiana read that same book. They will read it in different ways, but also, in similar ways, sharing a version of the characters’ experience, both with each other, and with the author. That’s connection.
TM: Everyone who has ever worked in publishing or known anyone with a foot near the industry knows something about towering piles of books that have arrived over the transom. Does your delighted, curatorial rapture about books remain intact or has it shifted emphasis? You speak movingly about your almost physical pain as, in an early bookstore job, you had to tear covers off books to be remaindered. Has the status of books as beloved fetish objects begun to alter or have you become just more focused in your pursuit?
PP: I feel like I live in a castle of riches at The New York Times Book Review. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel giddy by the unopened cartons of books awaiting me, eager to see the contents inside, excited by the galleys on the shelves and delighted and slightly stunned that I get to take finished copies home with me. Books to me are still treasures. I’m still greedy and I’m extremely grateful. I am not nearly as focused in my acquisitiveness as I should be and have towering shelves of books at home to attest to that weakness.
Image Credit: Marcia Ciriello.
About halfway through the screening of the new documentary Herblock: The Black and the White, one of the closing entries in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it occurred to me that you haven’t really made it in America until someone has made a movie about you.
Three of the many talking heads in this documentary — reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and former executive editor Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post — have already been the subjects of a movie, the much-praised 1976 feature film All the President’s Men, which was based on Woodward and Bernstein’s book about the fall of President Richard Nixon. What’s more, the actors who played the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters in that movie — Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman — are the subjects of a new documentary about the making of the original feature film and the enduring fascination with Watergate. This new documentary is called, appropriately if unimaginatively, All the President’s Men Revisited. Stop the presses! Hollywood people never tire of talking about themselves and their achievements!
But back to Herblock. It’s a heartfelt, uplifting documentary about the legendary Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Lawrence Block, known universally by his nom de guerre, Herblock. Peppered with the predictable talking heads — though not Redford and Hoffman, mercifully — it tells the story of a self-effacing artist from Chicago whose patriotism, prescience, and deft pencil led American journalism’s charge against such bogeymen as Hitler (even before he was elected chancellor), the gun lobby, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, segregationists, big oil, big business, big military budgets, big money in politics (as early as 1950), the arms race, Stalin, the Vietnam War, and, most famously, Richard Nixon. Herblock drew McCarthy and Nixon with swarthy mugs, sweating, frequently crawling out of mud puddles or open sewer holes. Herblock coined the pejorative “McCarthyism,” and he hated Nixon’s guts and wasn’t shy about saying so. In our watered-down, fair-minded times, such venom is bracing.
In addition to all those talking heads, the documentary consists of many pictures of Herblock’s cartoons, interspersed with a long on-camera interview with him in his cluttered office at the Post. Dressed in his trademark baggy sweater, he comes across as a wise, witty uncle. “He worked until he died,” says one of the talking heads. Not quite. Herblock’s last cartoon appeared on Aug. 26, 2001, and he died six weeks later at 91, after working at the Post for 55 years and winning three Pulitzer Prizes, the Medal of Freedom, and an uncountable number of enemies among the rich, the powerful, and the corrupt.
The film makes the points that Herblock was always looking out for the little guy, that he was an ardent believer in the importance of a free press in a democracy, and that he enjoyed complete editorial freedom. This last point was not always the case. During the 1952 presidential campaign, the Post editorial board supported the Republican candidate, Dwight Eisenhower. Herblock drew scathing cartoons of Ike, portraying him as an out-of-touch lightweight. When the Post started pulling his anti-Eisenhower cartoons, readers howled — and pointed out that Herblock was syndicated in hundreds of other papers and they would take their business elsewhere. The Post editors caved in, and Herblock was forevermore off the leash.
After the Herblock screening ended and the applause died, the documentary’s director and co-writer, Michael Stevens, stepped onto the stage to answer questions. First he introduced several people in the audience who were involved in making the movie, including Alan Mandell, who, it turns out, is an actor who played Herblock in those interview scenes in Herblock’s office. This bit of legerdemain was jarring — I had assumed I was watching the real Herblock on the screen, not a convincing look-alike. Was it dishonest of Stevens to put words in the mouth of an actor in a documentary, without alerting the audience? And where did those words come from — the dozen books Herblock published in his lifetime? Interviews he gave? Stevens’s imagination? I raised my hand but never got to ask my questions.
[Editor’s Note: Filmmaker Michael Stevens has pointed out to us that this question is answered in the film’s credits, which state: “starring ALAN MANDELL as HERBERT BLOCK based on the writings and speeches of HERBERT BLOCK”]
As I headed home from the theater, those unsettling questions were crowded out of my mind by a memory. One of my most prized possessions is a photograph that was taken in The Washington Post newsroom on election night in 1952, when I was three months old and an out-of-touch lightweight named Dwight Eisenhower was in the process of defeating Adlai Stevenson for the presidency. The photograph depicts a scene of great hubbub — reporters crowding around a messy table full of old newspapers and sandwiches and coffee cups, while a man pours coffee from a big white hobo pot. It’s not hard to imagine the clatter of typewriters, the screaming of telephones, the distant murmur of a police radio, the cigarette smoke bluing the air. It’s a man’s world, and for me there is only one man in it: the guy pouring the coffee: my father.
I love the details of that photograph. The map of the world on the wall. The copy spike on the cluttered table. The milk in glass bottles. The lovingly wrapped sandwiches. The stacks of china cups and saucers. And, above all, my father’s patent-leather hair, his French cuffs, the dainty way he holds the coffee pot’s lid with his left pinkie as he pours for his fellow newsmen. That picture seems like an artifact from some prehistoric age.
My father was a respected Post reporter and rewrite man at the time — “the fastest typist in the newspaper business,” as Bradlee, then a hard-charging fellow reporter, would later put it in his memoir, A Good Life. (Upon reading those words in the 1990s, my father, a proud man, had sniffed, “I like to think I was the fastest writer in the newspaper business.”) Bradlee does not appear in that election-night photograph. Neither does Herblock, who had his own office down the hall. But the most noticeable absence, for me, was not the men who have now been immortalized by movies; it was an old-school police reporter named Alfred E. Lewis who worked on a series of articles with my father that nearly won a Pulitzer Prize. Lewis spent 50 years as a lowly cop reporter at the Post, nearly as long as Herblock, without acquiring a fraction of the cartoonist’s fame or fortune.
The series my father and Lewis collaborated on was called “The Charmed Life of Emmett Warring,” about a powerful and slippery D.C. racketeer, a prime target in the Post’s campaign to root out police corruption. The articles ran on the front page every day for a week and jumped to two full inside pages, an astoundingly detailed and literary collaboration between a gumshoe street reporter and a lightning-fast rewrite man. Years later, after he had left the newspaper business, my father showed me a typed, single-spaced, two-page memo from his editor, spelling out the kind of detail he wanted in the series, right down to how many pairs of shoes Emmett Warring owned, what his house looked like, what brand of booze he drank, and how much of it. That memo is still astonishing to me — the realization that people cared so much and worked so hard at putting out a daily newspaper.
Bradlee, in his memoir, called Al Lewis “the prototypical police reporter, who had loved cops more than civilians for almost fifty years.” My father told me that Al Lewis had a hard time writing coherent English prose, but he knew every cop and every criminal in D.C., and he frequently beat the cops to the scene of a crime. In other words, he was an invaluable asset to the paper’s city desk. Twenty years after Ike’s victory, Lewis hadn’t lost a step.
On Sunday, June 18, 1972, the Post ran what appeared to be a routine breaking-and-entering story. It opened like this, straight, no frills:
5 Held in Plot to Bug Democrats’ Office Here
By Alfred E. Lewis, Post Staff Writer
Five men, one of whom said he is a former employee of the Central Intelligence Agency, were arrested at 2:30 a.m. yesterday in what authorities described as an elaborate plot to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee here.
It turned out that when Lewis arrived at the Watergate complex with the acting police chief several hours after the bungled burglary, he sailed past the roped-off reporters outside the building and went right up to the crime scene, where he gathered vital color and details. Eight other reporters contributed legwork to Lewis’s report in that Sunday’s paper. One was a hungry young hun named Bob Woodward; another was “Peck’s bad boy,” in Bradlee’s words, a renegade named Carl Bernstein. At the time no one appreciated the story’s implications. But it’s a safe bet that the Post’s first Watergate story would not have had such punch and detail without the contacts and legwork of an old-school cop reporter named Al Lewis. And no one connected the mushrooming scandal’s dots more quickly than Herblock.
Herblock is a welcome reminder that there was a time, not so very long ago, when American newspapers were stocked with people like Herb Block and Al Lewis and Dick Morris, men and women who were passionate about producing quality journalism and didn’t give a thought to ratings, celebrity, blog hits, or search engine optimization. Today, even a superb investigative reporter like Bob Woodward has been neutered by the seductive fame and money that fester inside the Beltway. People in America are still producing quality journalism, but, like serious fiction, it is being pushed deeper and deeper into the margins of the culture by forces that seem unstoppable.
All the more reason to remember and celebrate faceless foot soldiers like Al Lewis. I say he deserves to be the subject of a documentary or feature film at least as much as the far more decorated Woodward and Bernstein and Bradlee and Herblock. I have a strong hunch that Herblock, that great champion of the unsung little guy, would have agreed with me.
Image Credits: Bill Morris and Wikipedia
My dictionary lives on the floor beside my desk — out of the way yet easy to reach when I need to consult it, which is something I do upwards of a dozen times a day. It’s the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a Christmas present from my father way back in 1974. After nearly four decades of service, the old warhorse is literally coming apart, its spine broken, its red cover crumbling, its pages yellowing at the edges and breaking free.
Why such loyalty to a book? Part of the answer is that, like most writers, I’m a creature of iron habit. Familiarity and routine tend to breed contentment rather than contempt. But mere familiarity would not be enough to make a writer stick with a tool as crucial as a dictionary. Much more important are what I consider the American Heritage’s three timeless virtues: its illustrations, its etymologies and, above all, its Usage Panel.
The illustrations in the first edition are black-and-white drawings, photographs, charts and maps, beautifully arrayed in the wide margins, a radical innovation in its day. The etymologies are concise, never fussy, frequently fascinating. (People who continue to consult unwieldy print dictionaries in our digital age, for instance, are distant descendants of Ned Lud(d), a late 18th-century English worker who destroyed textile machinery out of fear that this new technology would displace him and his fellow workmen.)
But the Usage Panel is what makes the American Heritage Dictionary unique and, for me, indispensable. For the first edition, the panel consisted of about 100 people, mostly professional writers and editors, mostly white, mostly male, with an average age of 68. They included Isaac Asimov, William F. Buckley Jr., John Ciardi, Malcolm Cowley, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Stegner; the women, outnumbered but not outgunned, included Pauline Kael, Margaret Mead, Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, and Gloria Steinem.
Their task, in a nod to the fact that language is a fluid and slippery substance, was to vote on the proper and improper usages of given words. The editors then tallied the ballots and used them as the basis for recommendations contained in several hundred Usage Notes. The notes make for enriching reading. Here, for instance, is the Usage Note on disinterested:
Disinterested differs from uninterested to the degree that lack of self-iinterest differs from lack of any interest. Disinterested is synonymous with impartial, unbiased. Uninterested has the sense of indifferent, not interested. According to 93 percent of the Usage Panel, disinterested is not acceptable in the sense of uninterested, though it is often thus employed.
The last sentence is telling: the Usage Panel was almost unanimous in its verdict, even though many people use the word incorrectly. In other words, as the makers of The American Heritage Dictionary see it, popular usage does not determine correctness; the consensus of knowledgeable people determines correctness.
The editor of the first edition, William Morris (no kin to me), made it clear in his introduction that the democratic methods of the Usage Panel should not be equated with a disdain for rules or an unwillingness to make value judgments. Unanimity of opinion was not the goal, and it was achieved just once — when 100 percent of the panel rejected simultaneous as an adverb. The dictionary debuted in 1969 and was a direct rebuke to the far more freewheeling Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which had appeared in 1961. In a sense, the AHD was a line in the sand between prescriptivists like Morris, who insist that one of a dictionary’s primary functions is to make informed distinctions between correct and incorrect uses of words, and descriptivists like Webster III’s makers, who contend that a dictionary’s function is merely to chronicle current practices. Here is Morris’s description of the prescriptivist goal for The American Heritage Dictionary: “It would faithfully record our language, the duty of any lexicographer, but would not, like so many others in these permissive times, rest there. On the contrary, it would add the essential dimension of guidance, that sensible guidance toward grace and precision, which intelligent people seek in a dictionary.” A good dictionary, he added, ought to be “a treasury of information about every aspect of words” and “an agreeable companion.”
After nearly four decades of poring over my first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary — it’s a book that invites you to read it rather than just refer to it — I can report that it has been a most agreeable companion.
Maybe the reason that old dictionary and I got along so well for so long was because the man who gave it to me was a Usage Panel in his own right. My father was a newspaper reporter at The Washington Post when I was born, a gifted rewrite man who got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize along with Al Lewis, the cop reporter who would break the story of the Watergate break-in some 20 years later. In addition to being punctilious about grammar, usage, spelling, and style, my father was a lightning-fast typist. Ben Bradlee, a fellow Post reporter who went on to fame as the paper’s editor, wrote in his 1995 memoir, A Good Life, that “Dick Morris was the fastest typist in the newsroom.” To which my father, a proud man, sniffed, “I like to think I was the fastest writer in the newsroom.”
He had every right to be miffed. He was a fine writer and a fine editor, owner of a vast and ever-expanding vocabulary. Not once in his 86 years did I see him stumped when asked to define or spell a word. He was a big fan of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and he shared their belief that a person’s style of speaking and writing is an accurate barometer of that person’s intelligence and worth. As E.B. White put it, “Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition. This moral observation would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what a man is, rather than what he knows, will at last determine his style.”
My father shared Flaubert’s belief that there is a right word for every situation, there are a great many wrong ones, and sometimes there is one perfect word. I can still remember the night in high school when I finished typing up a 17-page paper on my latest passion, Albert Camus. It was due the next morning, and I took it downstairs to present it to my father, terribly proud of myself. He read the opening sentence and immediately reached for the Cross pen in his shirt pocket. I looked on, aghast, as he circled a word in ink. He read the sentence aloud: “Before his premature death in a car crash in 1960 at the age of 46, Albert Camus had cemented his reputation as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.” Then my father said, “The word premature usually refers to a birth that takes place before the baby is ready. Untimely is the word you want if you’re referring to a man’s death at a relatively early age. Or possibly inopportune.” He continued to carve up my paper with ink marks, then sent me back upstairs to rework it. I spent most of the night editing and retyping the mess. Of course I got an A+ for the paper. Far more important, I’ve never forgotten the difference between premature and untimely.
My father’s insistence on precision and Strunk and White’s emphasis on the importance of style are not the same as advocating slavish adherence to rules. Quite the opposite. While The Elements of Style contains many rules, in the end the thing that matters most to its authors is a writer’s “ear,” the ability to distinguish writing that sounds right from writing that sounds wrong. For this reason, many writers (the great Elmore Leonard among them) always read their stuff out loud to find out how it sounds. If it sounds awkward or clunky, it gets rewritten because good writing is music made of ink. To this end, the wise writer knows that rules are there for bending, or ignoring. Splitting infinitives, using the passive voice, stringing together adjectives, pairing none with a plural verb, starting a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a preposition — those things are all against the rules, yet they’re in every good writer’s tool kit. The issue is knowing when and how to use them to make the writing sound right. The issue, in a word, is style.
Those words, which my father and Strunk and White would have endorsed, appear on a refrigerator magnet that came with my copy of the new fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary. There is also an app (a $24.99 value) that allows one free download of the entire dictionary onto an iPad, iPhone, iPod, or Android. Alas, this Luddite doesn’t own any of these devices, but it was reassuring to know that the makers of my new dictionary are prescriptivists, not technophobes.
The book itself is a thing of beauty: 2,084 pages between sturdy cream-colored covers, weighing nearly eight pounds (up from a little over five pounds for the first edition). The illustrations in the fifth edition are in color, and the word entries are in blue ink, which was jarring at first but quickly became pleasing to the eye. The new edition, like the first, contains an extensive appendix of Indo-European Roots, a sort of pre-history of English words. The Usage Notes have been expanded, and they’re augmented by lists of Synonyms, notes on Our Living Language, and Word Histories, which are breezy, informative essays about how select words evolved. Here’s a sample Word History:
The word outlaw brings to mind the cattle rustlers and gunslingers of the Wild West, but it comes from a much earlier time, when guns were not yet invented but cattle stealing was. Outlaw can be traced back to the old Norse word utlagr, “outlawed, banished,” made up of ut, “out,” and log, “law.” An utlagi (derived from utlagr) was someone outside the protection of the law. The Scandinavians, who invaded and settled in England during the 8th through 11th century, gave us the Old English word utlaga, which designated someone who because of criminal acts had to give up his property to the crown and could be killed without recrimination. The legal status of the outlaw became less severe over the course of the Middle Ages. However, the looser use of the word to designate criminals in general, which arose in Middle English, lives on in tales of the Wild West.
And here’s a note on Our Living Language:
Gung ho is one of many words that entered the English language as a result of World War II. It comes from Mandarin Chinese gonghe, the slogan of the gongye hezuoshe, the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society. (The gong in gonghe means “work,” while he means “combine, join.”) Marine Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson (1896-1947) heard the expression and thought it was well-suited to the spirit he was trying to foster among his Marines, the famous “Carlson’s Raiders.” Carlson began to use it as a moniker for meetings in which problems were discussed and worked out, and his Marines began calling themselves the “Gung Ho Battalion.” Gung ho soon began to be used to describe any person who shows eagerness, as it still is today. Other words and expressions that entered the English language during World War II include flak, gizmo, task force, black market and hit the sack.
For the fifth edition, the Usage Panel was doubled in size and made more inclusive in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and specialty. In addition to writers and editors, the panel included scientists, scholars, linguists, translators, cartoonists, film directors, even a former U.S. senator and a Supreme Court justice. My guess is that the average age of the panelists is now closer to 48 than 68. The writers included Margaret Atwood, Harold Bloom, Roy Blount Jr., Junot Diaz, Joan Didion, Rita Dove, Frances FitzGerald, Jonathan Franzen, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Oscar Hijuelos, Jamaica Kincaid, Maxine Hong Kingston, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Patchett, John Sayles, David Sedaris, William T. Vollmann, and John Edgar Wideman. Among the panelists who died during the decade the dictionary was being put together were Molly Ivins, Leonard Michaels, and David Foster Wallace.
The fifth edition contains 10,000 new words that were not in the fourth (published in 2000), which contained 10,000 new words that were not in the third (published in 1992). Among the new entries are asshat (vulgar slang for a contemptible or detestable person), filk (a genre of music popular among devotees of science fiction and fantasy literature), and ollie (a skateboard maneuver). I knew what an ollie was, but I was delighted to learn its etymology: it’s the nickname of Alan Gelfand (born 1963), the American skateboarder who developed the trick.
For all its many virtues, the fifth edition is not perfect. Its one glaring flaw is an introductory essay written by the chairman of the Usage Panel, Steven Pinker, a Harvard University linguist and cognitive scientist who is also an avowed descriptivist. In “Usage in The American Heritage Dictionary,” Pinker writes, “(W)hen many speakers misuse a word on many occasions in the same way — like credible for credulous, enervate for excite, or protagonist for proponent — who’s to say they’re wrong? When enough people misuse a word, it becomes perverse to insist that they’re misusing it at all.”
What’s that whirring noise I hear? Is it William Morris, who died in 1994, spinning in his grave? Pinker’s argument is the very sort of “permissive” thinking Morris so vigorously decried in his introduction to the first edition. It’s also the reason we get presidents like George W. Bush, who uttered gobbledygook like misunderestimate and said vulcanize when he meant Balkanize.
After his descriptivist, usage-determines-correctness salvo, Pinker goes on to disparage something he calls “the paradox of false consensus.” (For some reason he calls this paradox bubba meises, which is Yiddish for “grandmother’s tales,” when the English expression “old wives’ tales” would have done the job.) The most notorious bubbe meise, Pinker claims, is the prohibition against split infinitives, which, as we have seen, is an old rule that skilled writers feel free to flout whenever it suits their needs. But Pinker sees something nefarious, even dangerous, in such rules. He writes:
How do ludicrous fetishes like the prohibition of split verbs become entrenched? For a false consensus to take root against people’s better judgment it needs the additional push of enforcement. People not only avow a dubious belief that they think everyone else avows, but they punish those who fail to avow it, largely out of the belief — also false — that everyone else wants it enforced. False conformity and false enforcement can magnify each other, creating a vicious circle that entraps a community into a practice that few of its members would accept on their own…The same cycle of false enforcement could entrench a linguistic bubba meise as a bogus rule of usage. It begins when a self-anointed expert elevates one of his peeves or cockamamie theories into an authoritative pronouncement that some usage is incorrect, or better still, ignorant, barbaric, and vulgar.
Insecure writers are intimidated into avoiding the usage. They add momentum to the false consensus by derogating those who don’t keep the faith, much like the crowds who denounced witches, class enemies and communists out of fear that they would be denounced first.
I’m still having trouble believing that such lame logic and tawdry sensationalism — beware the witch hunt! watch out for Red-baiters! — were allowed between the covers of this otherwise wonderful book. I can only guess that the editors were hoping that by including Pinker’s gibberish they would defuse charges of elitism. If so, they’ve shown poor judgment and a surprising lack of respect for this dictionary’s rich history, high standards and unapologetically prescriptivist leanings.
So go ahead and call me Cotton Mather or Joe McCarthy or, worse, an elitist. But I’m going to keep following the guidance of Ann Patchett, Cynthia Ozick, David Foster Wallace and their hundreds of elite colleagues who contributed to this new incarnation of The American Heritage Dictionary. It’s one of the most agreeable companions any lover of the English language could hope to have.
Images courtesy of the author.