It has been a year of reading in fits and starts, indeed of doing everything in fits and starts, fits and starts being the general run of things when you have a baby.
For articles I was writing, I happily revisited passages from several books, including:
For my next novel, I read bits of books about fathers, including letters between Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart; books about Italians, including Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation; and books about conspiracy theories and “the power of the lie,” including David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, and a timely new anthology entitled Orwell on Truth.
I read books that were sent to me, including Free Woman by Lara Feigel and the forthcoming Such Good Work by Johannes Lichtman. In preparation for events, I read Kevin Powers’s A Shout in the Ruins, Aminatta Forna’s Happiness, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. Each made me grateful for the forces that delivered it over my transom.
In London I read Sally Rooney’s absorbing Conversations with Friends while my daughter patiently paged through an old copy of The Cricket Caricatures of John Ireland.
On a flight from San Francisco to Boston I read Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina and wished it were twice as long.
On Thanksgiving I read Updike: Novels 1959-1965, including the biographical chronology at the end, marveling at a prolificacy I think only Simenon outmatched.
I read The New York Times, most avidly the obituaries, which are like little novels.
I read The New Yorker. I also listened to The New Yorker, and to Jeremy Black’s A Brief History of Italy, and Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight, because of course listening is a way of reading when your hands and eyes are otherwise occupied.
I read books about motherhood, including the Sebaldian Sight, by Jessie Greengrass; And Now We Have Everything, by Meaghan O’Connell; and too many books about how to get your baby to sleep, none of which helped except for the one that asked me to consider what kind of memories of my daughter’s infancy I would like to have.
I re-read Strunk & White.
I read What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, which Philip Roth sent me 40 days before he died.
And, with my daughter in my lap, I read many more books, most of them multiple times, including Il flauto magico, One White Rabbit, The Range Eternal, Where’s Mr. Lion?, Giochiamo a nascondino!, Pinocchio, Biancaneve, Good Night, Red Sox, and an especially treasured box set illustrated by the late artist Leo Lionni: Due topolini curiosi, whose cover features a duly curious little mouse with her whiskers buried in a book.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
I pulled the heavy red book down from my dad’s bookshelf. Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, its cover announced. “David Foster Wallace said it’s the only usage guide he ever consulted,” my dad said, a note of pride in his voice as if he and DFW had been old buddies. “I got it on sale at The Strand.”
“Huh,” I said and sat down, opening the tome on my lap to the word “eventuate,” the subject of a controversial debate with a coworker at my day job. The entry was short and snarky:
Eventuate is ‘an elaborate journalistic word that can usually be replaced by a simpler word to advantage.’ George P. Krapp, A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927).
Then came several examples of its misuse, explanations of what was wrong about it, and suggestions for words should have been used in it place (e.g., “happened,” “occurred,” “took place”). This comprehensive lesson perfectly resolved my confusion, since I had misconstrued the meaning of “eventuate” as something along the lines of “would eventually lead to.”
“This is terrific!” I told my dad. “Usually when I have a usage question at work, I just Google the question—like further vs. farther—and read the first few entries that pop up.”
It was nice to have such a complete and well-researched reference on language usage right here at my fingertips. I immediately looked up several more entries, and started chuckling and reading them aloud. “Hey, listen to this, about ‘insofar as:’ ‘the dangers range from mere feebleness or wordiness, through pleonasm or confusion of grammar.’ Zing!”
“Keep the Garner’s, then,” my dad said with a smile. “I never use it.”
Tickled, I hugged my newest diction and style guide to my chest. What a great new writer’s tool I didn’t even know that I needed. This got me thinking about my other writers’ tools. What are the books that every writer should have handy? My other go-to writing books are not necessarily manuals of mechanics, but instead are resources that provide inspiration, moral support, models of good writing, and above all, comfort.
When I was 18, taking expository writing in my first semester of college, my professor, Kevin DiPirro, assigned Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. It was an optional text, so while he assigned us to read certain chapters concurrently with our other assignments, we never once discussed the content of the book in class. Instead, we wrote expository essays trying to frame rhetorical situations, analyze evidence, and make well-researched arguments. But my teacher-student relationship with Natalie Goldberg started that year, and for that, I’ll always be grateful to Kevin.
One afternoon, in a darkened corner of the library, I cracked open Writing Down the Bones. What’s this all about? I wondered. Natalie’s words spoke aloud to me, like a calm teacher, echoing in my mind:
Writing As Practice
This is the practice school of writing… You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance… Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’ You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination… My rule is to finish a notebook a month. Simply fill it. That is the practice.
Then, at the end of the chapter:
Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, with our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.
Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with this moment and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.
I wrote for about five or 10 minutes in my notebook, and wrote what was running through me. My experiences and deepest longings leapt straight from my heart and out onto the page through my hand, and the act of writing became so simple and direct that it was as if my brain was just a spectator, anxious mutterings quieted at last. By the time I finished, I was quietly sobbing in that dark corner of the library, in the sheltered desk carrel that shielded me from the rest of the campus studying on that day in late September of 2002. Something was unleashed that day, and I was so moved by that feeling of being granted permission to write any way I wanted that I dated that page in Writing Down the Bones. Something big happened here today.
I kept that book with me, when things were great and when things were shitty, when I felt despair or years of writer’s block or crippling fear. It’s okay, just write for 10 minutes. Natalie has given me permission to write the worst junk imaginable, because it is the practice that matters. Now, more than a decade later, in my writing sessions, I can finally distinguish the feeling of the juice, the flow of when I’m finally cooking with gas or sparks are flying—pick your metaphor—and I can channel that energy into whatever feels important to work on. But first I have to warm up. Even if I’m writing every day consistently, I still have to shake off the rust and the stiff joints and re-enter the river of writing, the thrall of my own subconscious voice, in order to be receptive enough to conduct electricity when lightning strikes. When I’m stuck, I open up Writing Down the Bones and read:
Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit.’ Tell what kind of fruit—‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names.
Don’t Marry the Fly
Watch when you listen to a piece of writing. There might be spaces where your mind wanders.
A New Moment
Katagiri Roshi often used to say: ‘Take one step off a hundred-foot pole.’
One paradox of my writer’s toolbox of books is that I don’t often write at my writing desk—preferring instead the anonymous yet community feel of a table at my local coffee shop. But I tend to carry that dog-eared and war-torn copy of Writing Down the Bones with me wherever I go. Sometimes I switch it out for my almost-as-demolished copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which is funnier and a bit more genre-specific about writing fiction. Over the years, I have trafficked through copies of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, On Writing by Stephen King, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett—which technically isn’t a craft book, but I lump it in, because it’s a memoir of being a young unpublished writer and of “making it,” documenting one particularly deep writing friendship. You could say that I’m a craft book junkie. You could say that.
I also keep books around that remind me of what I love about good writing. I have books that I reread just for the feeling of basking in good writing, like snuggling under a warm blanket or quenching my thirst with a perfectly cold glass of water. Novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Motherless Brooklyn, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Fight Club, and the Unbearable Lightness of Being are some of these books, and in college, along with the books I was reading for classes, I kept a “greatest hits” shelf of books that made me feel better just by dint of their being nearby.
Yet I don’t own a dictionary. My fiancé, a recreational poet, has a rhyming dictionary, which it has never occurred to me to purchase. I use an online thesaurus regularly at work, but in this digital age, I would never buy a hardcover copy.
Recently, I picked up a copy of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, which I think of as a kind of lifestyle companion for writers delusional enough to think they might someday might make real money from this. It has anecdotal guidance and moral support for writers and those pursuing the writing life, a type of useful and practical advice that reminds me of my regular bimonthly Poets & Writers arrival. My subscription always seems on the verge of lapsing, but I read the magazine cover to cover whenever it arrives. I read the Residencies and Conferences and Grants and Awards sections with a pen in my hand.
I was giddy but apprehensive about my gift of Garner’s Modern Usage. My first thought was, I should bring this to work! In my office, my windowsill-turned-bookshelf has on it a weathered copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, an ancient copy of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s Elements of Style, an untouched copy of the AP Style Guide, and Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors. The latter is interesting but not comprehensive, so I eventually stopped looking up entries that didn’t exist. But it has a beautiful cover.
My second thought was, Screw work, I want to keep this at home and use it for my own writing at my writing desk! My immediate third thought was, I have to clean my writing desk! Lacking bookshelf space, I started stacking books I’ve just read or want to read on one corner of the small wooden desk I shellacked with rejection slips years ago, back when literary magazines sent paper rejections. I have a tiny ceramic lamp that sits on the other corner of the desk, and without a home office space larger than the footprint of this desk, I’ve collected a variety of other things on its surface—papers, folders, envelopes, DVDs, an unpaid doctor’s bill. My checkbook, more books I’m planning to read, recent drafts of novel revisions, with all manner of handbags and tote bags hanging off the handles of my desk chair like a flea market handbag stall.
Could a single modern usage book revolutionize my home writing space and daily writing practice?
I’ve always thought of myself as a writing nomad. Natalie says,
Write Anyplace. Okay. Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams….Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write.
I write her words, copy them into my notebook, and in that moment, I am reborn. I like having authorities, teachers, mentors on the page. Natalie has taught me a great deal in the 15 years that I’ve been reading and rereading her book.
Maybe Bryan Garner can become my newest teacher on the page, in his witty biting asides about “eventuate” and “insofar as” and many other linguistic predicaments that I have yet to identify. Of course, one great appeal of having the voice of Garner giving me authoritative advice on proper usage is that hovering over his shoulder is the friendly specter of David Foster Wallace, and next to him, my dad nodding along and laughing at my enthusiasm. When he gifted me the book, he said, “This is a great reference for a writer.” It’s in those tiny moments that I feel his slight seal of approval, or at least simple affirmation, of that life that I’ve chosen for myself. He sees me as a writer. Thanks, dad.
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.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: In the age of Google and Wikipedia, reference books seem anachronistic, but some have not been superseded by the internet in their usefulness and convenience and even in their ability to divert and entertain. What is the one reference book you couldn’t live without?Andrew: It doesn’t fit on my bookshelves, and it dwarfs everything on my coffee table, so when not in use, I stand it up on the floor, where it leans casually against a pillar near my stereo speaker. Big, blue and glossy, my National Geographic Atlas of the World (Eighth Edition) has been with me for just over two years now, the result of a rare moment of book-buying extravagance.Admittedly, everything in it can probably be found somewhere online, and indeed if I’m at work I’m the first to be glad of Google or Mapquest if searching for something specific. But if I’m at home, there’s nothing like opening this massive book on my lap, or seeing it sprawl in front of me on the dining room table, seeing the world open up before me. Even if I’m not searching for something specific – indeed especially if I’m not – the very bigness of the atlas leaves me with an appreciation of the bigness of the world, and there’s little I enjoy more than getting lost in its pages.Lydia: My dear editor, there are some circles where you will get cut for talking about reference books like that. It was my great pleasure to spend the last two years working for an antiquarian bookseller, and as a result I encountered a bewildering number of bibliographies and reference books, many of which are not online and which have no useful online equivalent. The fourth edition of Besterman’s World Bibliography of Bibliographies, if you please, is five enormous volumes, and that was published in 1965. Some industry standards have made the switch to digital, but I think it will be a long time before the antiquarian (anachronistic?) book trade mulches all of its physical reference libraries. That said, I’m willing to be pragmatic about the eventual digitization of everything because it seems so unlikely that I would be able to amass a legitimate reference collection of my own. The Dictionary of National Biography, for example, is now available online by subscription for around 200 pounds a year, or free if your library subscribes. The set of 60 volumes, on the other hand, is a $5,000 proposition, not to mention the price of the square footage it sits on. But none of this answers your question. My favorite reference book is the book my boss told me to read when he hired me, John Carter’s legendary ABC For Book Collectors. It explains books as objects and commodities from A (advance copy) to Y (yellow-back) in a straightforward and engaging manner. It’s inexpensive, it’s small, it’s been around forever, and it’s fun to read. It is, dare I say, a must-have.Kevin: The key part of the question for me is “has not been superseded by the internet in its usefulness and convenience.” This leads me to pick that most common of all reference books, the dictionary. Mine is a Webster’s New Collegiate won as a prize in high school.When thinking about this question, I considered the ways the Internet typically holds an advantage over physical books. They are, I think, four: first, the Internet is dynamic and easily edited, allowing it to respond to changes in knowledge; second, the Internet takes up little room in your house, making it a nice alternative to a cabinet full of encyclopedias; third, the Internet is associative, allowing you to look up one thing in Wikipedia, and then click through to five other related topics you had not thought about before; and fourth, the Internet has multimedia.The dictionary, though, neither needs nor responds well to the type of advantages the Internet has to offer. It’s content is largely consistent from year-to-year and never needs revising. It takes up little room. It’s not used in a way that benefits that much from associate or multimedia options. In sum, the Internet can no more improve on the dictionary than it can on the wheel.Garth: I have three desk references that I find indispensable. One is the Oxford English Dictionary; I’ve got the two-volume compact edition with the magnifying glass, which I picked up for $37 at a used bookstore. Not every writer will find himself resorting to hippopotomonstrosesquipedalia such as “quiptificate,” or “horripilating,” but, perhaps to my discredit, I sometimes do. Luxuriating in the etymological swarf of the O.E.D. is also a great way to procrastinate, in that it gives me the illusion of time usefully spent. Right next to the thick two volumes is the American Map Corporation’s remarkable Truckers Atlas for Professional Drivers. If you need to locate a character within an American state or major city, the 400-page Truckers Atlas is your man. Finally, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature comes in handy for blog pieces. The entries are fairly bland, but are great for fact-checking, and the book has a nice globalist bent.Anne: I fear I’m far too digitized. Despite the Mennonite origin of my last name, I am by no means a Luddite. My favorite reference is the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary on CD-ROM – it’s an amazing tool, with the definition of every word in the the English language only a few taps away at the keyboard, and without the heft of the paper dictionary. It’s also great for finding words when you only half recall the word, because when you enter a word that’s not in the dictionary, it suggests a list of words you may be looking for. You can do a reverse word look-up as well as a search for words that rhyme. Also useful, though not quite as nifty, is the online version, which has all the benefits of the CD-ROM except you have to pay a yearly fee for the service and if you’re without web access, you’re without your dictionary. (Plus, an open web browser makes for an easy distraction when writing.)I love the breadth of the Oxford English Dictionary, especially because it shows a word’s origins and the ways the use has changed over time, but I haven’t had access to the online version since college and there isn’t room for the old-fashioned form in my Brooklyn apartment. Despite its unreliability, I am madly in love with Wikipedia for the expansive information it offers about seemingly everything. I still consult Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms as well as the Merriam Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, one was a staple in my college literature classes and the other I purchased for ten dollars in a discount bookstore. They’re both useful but not irreplaceable. When I was working as a copy editor and proofreader, I lived by Fowlers and The Chicago Manual of Style. Now they’re both gathering dust on my bookshelf.Emily: I’m a sucker for etymology. English words and phrases aren’t only the means by which stories are told, they have stories to tell themselves about our past – about ancestors and mores and customs long dead. Cobweb, for example, tells of a time in England’s Anglo-Saxon past when a spider was a coppe. Corduroy, “corde du roi” or “cord fit for a king,” tells of a time when what we know as a sturdy, humble fabric was made of silk instead of cotton and was used exclusively by French royalty for their hunting costumes. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) is a great source of etymological lore, and so long as my generous patrons at Stanford University continue to allow me remote access, the online version of the OED is the reference I can’t do without, and the reference that Wiki and Google just can’t touch. For example, did you know that the sports term “hat trick” comes to us from cricket?2. a. Cricket. The feat of a bowler who takes three wickets by three successive balls: orig. considered to entitle him to be presented by his club with a new hat or some equivalent.1877 J. LILLYWHITE Cricketers’ Compan. 181 Having on one occasion taken six wickets in seven balls, thus performing the hat-trick successfully. 1882 Daily Tel. 19 May, He thus accomplished the feat known as the ‘hat trick’, and was warmly applauded. 1896 WEST 1st Year at School xxvi, The achievement of the hat~trick afforded Eliot the proudest moment of his life.b. Hence gen., a threefold feat in other sports or activities.When Stanford gives me up and I am cut off from my beloved OED, there is William and Mary Morris’ Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins. It’s not as comprehensive as the OED, but its entries have an old-fashioned quality that sometimes verges into a delightfully colorful tastelessness (without sacrificing historical accuracy!). Take donnybrook:A true donnybrook consists of a knock-down-drag-out brawl with anywhere from a handful to a mob of participants. It takes it name from the town of Donnybrook, a suburb southeast of Dublin. There, from medieval times up to the middle of the nineteenth century, were held annual fairs, which for riotous debauchery rivaled the Saturnalian revels of Caesar’s time. They always wound up in fisticuffs and worse—much worse.Over the centuries the Irish have displayed a notable disinclination to avoid a good fight. Indeed, their hankering for a brawl is as legendary as their ability at handling their traditional weapon, the shillelagh. So it’s hardly to be wondered at that the annual spectacle of thousands of Irishmen flailing light-heartedly about with splendid disregard for the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules should have made the name donnybrook synonymous with brawling.Ah, yes, Irishmen and their shillelaghs. I think they also eat nothing but potatoes and babies and live in caves. No?Max: Even as a kid I always loved map books and encyclopedias. In the case of the latter I spent many hours with a well-worn set of Golden Book Encyclopedias and then later, many more with the family’s World Book set. With all the moving around I did after college, a reference library wasn’t a luxury I could afford to lug, but I do have a couple reference books I use regularly. One is my AP Stylebook, the one required reference of my journalism school years. I still keep it within reach for quick answers to questions like when to capitalize “chief justice” and what precisely is meant by the term “prime rate.”Also still getting ample use is a fat paperback, The Synonym Finder. When I was working at the bookstore in Los Angeles, a writer from out of town came in. She was suffering a bout of writer’s block and the only cure was The Synonym Finder. We had a single, very beat-up copy tucked away on our shelves, but she bought it gladly and with a sense of relief that was visible on her face. The episode convinced me, and I secured my own copy as soon as I could. She was right. It’s a superior thesaurus, and it has never disappointed me.With this Millions Quiz, we decided to try something new. We also polled members of The Millions Facebook Group to get their answers to our question. Here a few of the responses:Matthew Tiffany: Omit needless words. Omit. Needless. Words. Strunk & White.Anne Fernald: The Oxford Companion to English Literature (ed Margaret Drabble – it’s her voice I love) followed closely by M. H. Abrams’ Glossary of Literary Terms.Mike Lindgren: Chicago Manual of Style. It would not be readily reproducible online, and it is essential for anyone serious about the business of words.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What are your essential reference books?
A few posts back I touched upon the idea of the “style guide.” As a newly minted journalism student, I have been taught that these guides are essential for creating the “clean copy” that my editors will want to see. They are fascinating books in a way. In my AP Stylebook some entries are brief, just one word: tiptop says one, instructing me not hyphenate. Other entries go on for a few pages like the one for possessives, which explains how to deal with “nouns the same in singular and plural,” “special expressions,” and “quasi possessives.” I know, exciting. One of the undercurrents of journalism school seems to be that writing is a lot more than just putting words on paper. There are rules to be followed and facts to be vetted. The rules are covered by the Stylebook, but vetting the facts can often be done with The World Almanac and Book of Facts, where one might discover a daily astronomy calendar, a list of popes, and the name of every town in Alabama with more than 5,000 people. Armed with these two books, I ought to have much of the guidance I need, but I have also been known to refer to a couple of my favorite writing reference books when necessary. The Elements of Style is a thin, little book that is so elegant and efficient in teaching proper usage it supersedes many of the fatter, drier grammar books you may have encountered in your studies. I also love my The Synonym Finder, which I bought when I worked at the book store after a customer became misty when describing her devotion to it. I’m glad I bought it. Every time I go looking for a synonym, I find one so good that it feels like I’m cheating somehow. My reference library is by no means complete, however. I’m still looking for that perfect dictionary (any recommendations?). And though I’m always dropping hints that I’d love to get a nice hefty atlas for a gift, I still haven’t received one.