Tuesday, October 03, 2023

'He Actually Read the Dictionary'

In one of the news weeklies long ago I read that Dr. Oliver Sacks enjoyed reading the Oxford English Dictionary. Was this mere bravado, another instance of Sacks polishing his image as a lovable, learned eccentric? Or, like his friend W.H. Auden, was he gleaning the dictionary for exotics to include in his writing? We’ll never know but later, in The Mind’s Eye (2010), I found this passage, describing a prize Sacks won at Oxford and what he did with the money: 

“This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s Bookshop, next door to the pub, and bought, for 44 pounds, the 12 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary – for me, the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf now and then, for bedtime reading.”


I know from first-hand experience that reading a good dictionary can be time-wastingly addictive, especially in its digital form -- and great fun. Talk about plot. Take a single English word, a common one, and track the flow of its etymology backwards, not neglecting all the tributaries. Learn history by tracing the evolution of its meanings, illustrated by a long selection of citations. Have fun while edifying yourself. As Wittgenstein puts it in his Tractatus: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”


Another dictionary reader was the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. The composer and conductor Mabel Daniels begins “A Musical Memoir,” published in 1963 in the Colby Quarterly, like this:


“Edwin Arlington Robinson sat with Webster's Unabridged open across his knees. His long, slender frame in the inevitable gray suit was bent almost double as he peered down nearsightedly through his spectacles. He was supposedly searching for the derivation of passacaglia, but from the length of time it took him to do so, I surmised he had forgotten that detail and was browsing happily through the contiguous pages. Suddenly he looked up and said, ‘If I could have only one book, do you know what I’d choose?’ I hesitated; then, ‘The Bible,’ I replied, ‘or Shakespeare?’ -- knowing that he often began his working day by reading one of the plays. ‘No,’ he said, ‘the dictionary! You’ve no idea how interesting it is to read just as one reads a book. It would last for years.’”


I don’t think the poet is just showing off. The vocabulary in his poetry, on most occasions, is notably sturdy and plain. He’s no Hart Crane, armed with a fancy vocabulary. Robinson’s biographer Scott Donaldson tells us he “loved the English language – he often read in the dictionary as a warm-up for writing,” and describes his morning ritual:


“Situated faithfully at his studio by nine o'clock each morning, he did not usually set pen to paper until eleven or later. During that time he often read from one of the three books that always lay on his work table: a Bible, the collected Shakespeare, and the dictionary. The Bible provided him with much of the material he fashioned into poems. He used Antony and Cleopatra to prepare for each day’s work on Tristram. He actually read the dictionary rather than consulting it as a reference tool . . .”


The sole exotic word in Robinson’s verse that comes to mind is alange in “The Clerks” from his first collection, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896).


[See Donaldson’s Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (2007).]


Isaac said...

From Jacques Barzun's Review of Eric Partridge's Origins:

"As a man grows older it is likely that the new books to which he forms a permanent attachment are reference books. An encyclopedic reader such as Shaw observed this in himself and on this point, I know, my friends Auden and Trilling report the same experience as I. Hand over to one of us a new Dictionary, 'Companion,' or Guide, and our eyes first light up and then turn dreamy: we have seized the volume and are off, arm in arm with the guide or companion; the addictionary weakness prevails: we have dropped out of the conversation and fallen into the deep trance of following alphabetized definitions, row on row, the army of unalterable law."

Richard Zuelch said...

I may have mentioned this before, but: another type of reference work that can be read like a normal book is books of quotations. I recently bought "A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources," selected and edited by H. L. Mencken (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1942). It's sitting on my shelf alongside the three volumes of Mencken's "The American Language."

Bartlett's is more famous, but Mencken's is more quirky and, therefore, more interesting.

John Dieffenbach said...

As a painter would find interest in how different substances affect hue, or a musician how various woods can change timbre, writers study words for their origin and fit for the mood of their work. To learn that so many others find joy in reading the dictionary and, as you beautifully captured it, Patrick, like to "track the flow of its etymology backwards, not neglecting all the tributaries" brings me comfort. Reading about words is a wonderful way to explore history and sound, and occasionally leads to discovering a vibrant and oddly-shaped tile that we put in our pocket for later use to complete our mosaic.

slr in tx said...

The wind bloweth where it listeth; so, too, he who is abroad in the OED.