Buying a Big, Fat Dictionary.


Last week I took my fourteen-year-old daughter to the public library near our home. As is her wont, she disappeared into the stacks. I knew she would reappear when she was ready to leave, laden with a stack of books, asking for my library card because hers is always misplaced.

I wandered over to the corner  where old books are for sale, where  an elderly volunteer sits peacefully, watching over literature even the library does not want: microwave cookbooks,  tattered romances, so many beauty magazines.  Itanna surprises me that those devoted to beauty magazines are so conscientious about donating them to the library.

I found a hardback copy of a Henning Mankell book, signed by the author. My Estonian friend, Anna, a fellow fan, says Henning Mankell is a gateway drug to literary schlock. I mention she is Estonian because of her ethnic proximity to Sweden and her Nordic good looks and the fact she is a fellow Swedophile.  The Mankell book was ten dollars, the Veuve Clicquot of the library sale shelves.  The elderly gentleman who collected the money kept insisting it was $1, the standard, discarded hardcover price.  “Signed edition,” I kept repeating. “Hardcover,” he kept repeating. We worked it out.

Then, there on the bottom shelf, I spotted it: all heft and bravado, smarter than the beauty magazines, vocabulary light years beyond The Man from Beijing— a big, fat, 4-inch-thick, 10 pound dictionary.  Bigger than any dictionary I had before dictionaries were passé.

It was $4. I bought it, all 2,078 pages of it. It was published in 1989, and the price on the inside corner of the cover is $79.95. That’s more than $154 in today’s dollars. Have you spent $154 on a book lately?  On ONE book?

ImageToday a big, fat dictionary is superfluous in a world where we can Google anything we need:  the definition of a word,  Pi to the tenth place or a photo of Cary Grant in a bathing suit. Looking up words nowadays is precise and tidy business, just tap tap tap to the definition, read and exit. We no longer move through other words, see related meanings and come across even more words, paging through thousands of words, reciting the alphabet in our heads as we go, the smell of dusty paper in our nostrils. Do you remember that? It was a meditative experience, Lectio Divino.

“I had a cousin once who lived in your dictionary, inside the binding, and there was a tiny hole which he used for a door, and it led out between trichotomy and trick. Now what do you think of that? It was only a few minutes walk to trigger, then over the page to trinity, trinket and trional, and there my cousin used to fall asleep.”
                                   Janet Frame, Scented Gardens for the Blind

My children, 14 and 17, were immediately drawn to the big, fat besservisser. (Our Swedish exchange student taught me that word, because he is one. He also taught me fjortis, because my daughter is one.)  I found it in the living room where my son had been pouring over it. I found it in my daughter’s bedroom, open, half on the bed, half on the nightstand, nested in the rumpled blankets, as if they had been canoodling.

Where is your dictionary?

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14 thoughts on “Buying a Big, Fat Dictionary.

  1. Holly Cornwell

    My dictionary came with a magnifying glass. And I scream at people who put their drinks too close to it. It is 2 volumes shrunk down from 11(4 pages on a page, hence the magnifying glass) and is one of my most cherished possessions. Sounds like you got a good deal! On the Henning Menkell(sp) too. There is nothing like a good book as an object of beauty!

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  2. Bonnie

    This piece illuminates the lost art of language and communication in the modern age. Everything is instant, at the touch of a keyboard. Where is the wonder of investigation.?

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  3. Wait, your library has a section that sells used books for a dollar? I have to endure lines, people throwing elbows and dirty looks while we fight to get to the ‘good books’ at our twice yearly library book sale. It’s like Black Friday for bibliophiles.
    My dictionary is in my basement, you have inspired me to bring it upstairs to reside with the rest of the family.

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  4. I read a dictionary when I was little. I’d write down words that intrigued me in a noteook and carried both with me everywhere I went. 🙂
    I made it to the letter L before I stopped. I don’t remember why

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  5. Joan Biliski

    I really enjoyed reading your blog posting and began to wonder if the huge Oxford Dictionary I used to have went into a beach fire at some point – haven’t seen it in years. I have Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus in the box for the beach fire that my son will have this weekend. I am not sure if you are old enough to remember when that book was the rage – or maybe it was my hormones that were raging when I thought to buy it – can’t quite remember when they died. Now I feel guilty on having all those books packed in the box destined for the bonfire – but not guilty enough to bring them back into the house. Reduce, reduce reduce – gotta do it.

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  6. rita

    My dictionary is on the other side of the ocean. I seriously considered bringing it to this side of the ocean. I knew my daughter wanted it. (She mentioned it again just today.) It was so heavy, though, so I left it resting on the shelf. If I had traveled by ship instead of by airplane, I’m sure that I would have added it to my bags. I could have brought it out on the deck and lingered over it and taken the time to ponder a lot of things while I made my way over the waves.

    I like very much the quote about the cousin who lived in the dictionary. I’m going to share it with my daughter as I apologize for not bringing that big, fat dictionary along. I promise you and my daughter and your daughter that next time I’ll pack it.

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  7. Andy

    I once lost one of my favorite dictionaries to a flood, because I put it in storage in Grand Forks. I don’t even remember any of the other things I lost in that flood.

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  8. Julia

    First of all I must say I dislike controversy, confrontation and any sort of yuck like that. With that said…dictionaries have changed over the years. Years ago- maybe even 20, not that I’m that old- I heard in a sermon to pay attention to the changes in dictionaries. I filed it away in my brain. Just in the last few weeks my kids have started reading the dictionary (my 8 & 9 year old) and this warning popped up out of my brains filing system. This post has caused me to finally look into what I had been told so long ago. I thought maybe I remembered it was the 1928 that was the best dictionary…NOPE it is the 1828. I found this link http://www.mcguffeyreaders.com/1828dictionary.htm that says a lot. There is a quote from C.S. Lewis-a master at words-at the bottom of that page that really puts it all in perspective. Of course, as Christians, we believe we are forming a world view everyday by everything we put into our minds so it really matters to us. Will a 1992 dictionary mess us up? Probably not but just like an occasional rootbeer and cake won’t mess us up we’d rather put something good and just as tasty into my kids bodies on a regular basis. By the way, I didn’t realize until this morning that there is quite the controversy over the definition change of “marriage” in dictionaries.
    I promise to be more lighthearted from this day forward.

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  9. Tracy Rhodes

    Old dictionaries are the best. I lugged a big red Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged dictionary around for nearly two decades after I got it as a graduation gift. I finally gave it up when the cover ripped at the spine, but it was a tough call. I agree, the physical act of looking up a word in the dictionary can lead to such interesting side discoveries. I still sometimes just like to open a dictionary randomly and try to find a word I don’t know yet.

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