What Book Would You Take to a Desert Island?

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2 Book recs

Film rec

Article abstract, on Virtue and Vice*

Toolbox, Improve writing, ages 9 to 99

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What book would you take to a desert island? I didn’t know and hadn’t given it much thought until Saturday when I told my husband. Assuming there was enough food and shelter to keep me, the question was not one of survival. It’s a rhetorical question, one to make you think. What do you believe is that good that you could hunker down and spend the remainder of your days with it?

But, I need to tell you how I got there. I came across a recommendation in my reading for the best, absolute pinnacle of lexicography in one volume. Then I started a chat with a book scout. I hadn’t intended to reach such a person and frankly didn’t know such jobs existed. That’s what he called himself, BookScoutJohn. He and I had texted back and forth to learn about the editions and re-printings. He assured me, I think this is the one you want. He sent links to essays and entries on this edition.

With over 600,000 entries, full page illustrations and book plates, compiled by a staff of 207 editors, expert scholars in each field of human knowledge, the book I’d take to a desert island is Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, copyright 1934 with additional printings through 1947, which includes new words such as Social Security Act and testosterone. SSA, new? Of course, the act was passed in 1935. The lexicon is over 16 pounds with more than 3000 pages, and another 300 some for history of the world and nations. John sent a Drexel stand which can prop the book at an angle, like a patio chaise. It’s 6.5 inches thick with lovely curlicues on the sides of the text-block.

The tome is in exquisite condition and cost me $135 with stand and postage.* It arrived on my doorstep Saturday. I was giddy as I removed the bubble wrap and slid my hands across the aged burgundy front cover, lifted its heft onto the stand, and opened it.The endpaper is a gorgeous rich swirl of green and browns and the frontispiece is a color photo of Noah Webster, the lexicographer and brainchild for which it’s named and the father/inventor of the first American dictionary. There are CXII or 112 pages of introductory notes and statements (as well as two pages of photos of the editorial board).

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The book made me think of the writer and former director of the National Library of Argentina Jorge Luis Borges and his tour of a Scottish library where he licked the spine of a volume by Sir Walter Scott. I did not do that, but I did breathe it in, my nose touching the pages, inhaling the smell of old paper and ink, the reaches of humanity, the knowledge.

Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition–Webster II–is the culmination of a century’s experience in dictionary making. For more than 100 years the work of the editorial staff has been continuous… 207 special editors labored ten years to make this a comprehensive, authoritative and up-to-date reference work to serve today’s needs.*

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IMPROVE WRITING

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A dictionary, a good one such as this, is not just a writer’s tool, it is everyone’s tool. All of us write in a digital age, when many if not most interactions are remote. Many know us through written communication. In grade school when we learned English, we worked on vocabulary and grammar, every week another 10 words, another 20. My husband said his teacher told the class they would each remember the first word of their first vocabulary list forever. Mark said the teacher was right: the word was adage and he defined it for me. The teacher said he’d give bonus points if they could find the word outside the classroom: in the paper, a parent’s book, or elsewhere. After vocabulary, we learned grammar to understand the machinery of a sentence. Such is the case with all languages; we expand vocabulary and study grammar. We practice by speaking and writing and reading.

Word work by using a good dictionary improves our facility with language, enriches us, deepens understanding, expands knowledge, and improves writing. To grow as a writer is to expand your word bank, to read widely and deeply, to learn root words, etymologies, usage, context, literary usage. To find the right word, the mot juste.

Do you remember your first dictionary? My eighth grade English teacher Miss Michaelson would accept none other than Merriam-Webster’s–the continuation of Noah Webster’s work acquired by the publisher G & C Merriam. She emphasized that to us and I can see her still. Online dictionaries* are helpful, a starting point, but entries lack the richness, history, and depth of a quality reference. Skip the thesaurus and go directly to the dictionary, where there is much more about the actual word than an approximation, a synonym or list of similar terms.

One of the pages filled with photos then bios of the editorial staff.

The arrival of Webster’s 2nd was an occasion. So, Mark and I watched The Professor and the Madman again, which dramatizes the true story of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)–yes the first edition of that dictionary was written across the pond after Noah Webster’s 1806 dictionary–the desire to amass and define the length and breadth of the English speaking world. To collect every word in the English language. If you’re not familiar with the OED, the current print edition is 20 volumes and takes up a set of shelves. Libraries make the investment and set them aside in the classics or reference room, the quiet area where there are no snotty kids or grubby fingers.

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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

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AND, a note on why you should care. It’s about curiosity. Everything is about curiosity when you get down to it. Stick with me, to find the rub. The professor James A. H. Murray (Mel Gibson) is the primary author of the OED, a man of God and family, an autodidact. The madman is William Chester Minor (Sean Penn) and a former officer and surgeon in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, who fatally shoots a man and is institutionalized. He suffers delusions and is ultimately diagnosed as a schizophrenic but he is instrumental in the research for Murray’s OED. As a madman, Minor’s contributions to this crowning work of human achievement in the nineteenth century are scandalous.

There is a certain admirable trait these men possess, a quality which distinguishes them, as it has for Noah Webster.* And, it is curiosity. In her recent article, Rachel Aumiller examines curiosity* by dividing it into two forms for the purposes of literary study: erotic and nonerotic. She analyzes the Golden Ass and the classic myth of Psyche (and Eros or Cupid) through this dual lens, and concludes that there is virtue in breaking with the strictures of society, in the value gleaned from erotic as well as nonerotic curiosity, not just for those willing to explore but those willing to read of the explorations.

As for Minor, in real life he had a penchant for New York’s red light district and his dissolute misadventures, as it could only be viewed in the times, brought him hardship as a surgeon and officer. The Army sent him to Florida and he likely had to compartmentalize feelings or inclinations not deemed acceptable by society and himself. While working on the OED in an English asylum he could bear his sexual delusions no longer and cut off his penis, which is captured in a horrific and graphic scene in the film. What of such a man, who suffers under the burden of a mental disorder barely understood and certainly not properly treated at the time?

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AY THERE’S THE RUB

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Here is the rub of Murray’s humanity, his decency and love for his friend, as abiding as both men’s insatiable curiosity for words. It is this sense of decency, Murray’s appeal–SPOILER ALERT–to the young Winston Churchill to liberate his friend the madman. Murray and Minor had each of them devoted the better part of themselves to this endeavor, the first of its kind in human history. Their work left a legacy beyond their flaws and struggles of the mundane, the asylum walls, and the provincial minds of man. The rub for both men is rooted in a common trait.

Webster’s 2nd Ed. page 647 with entry for curiosity. Two illustrations of over 12,000: the Curlew and a Curling Stone/Diagram of either end of a Curling Rink.

It is this level of curiosity which is passion, the intensity and feeling so strong as to be undeniable, unstoppable. Erotic desire drives us and nonerotic desire drives us.To get the right word, to capture the exact photo, to find the particular partner. To inhale the other and drink him in with all his funk and fanfare. To find the divine. These two aspects of curiosity are inseparable.

So, how do I tap into such a well as that of the good professor and the scandalous madman, and does each of us have the ability to find her own?

curiosity n.1. Careful attention; nicety; exactness; fastidiousness. . . 5. Interest in experience, collection, or special inquiry; connoisseurship.

curious adj. . . . 3. Careful or anxious to learn; eager for knowledge; given to research or inquiry; habitually inquisitive; prying.

(Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd Ed, page 647. Word work with my new lexicon on curiosity and eros helped me have a better grasp of Aumiller’s article and helped me write this letter)

I have happened on such pleasure and joy in words, spoken and written, the simple arrangement of one after the other on a line. In a sentence. When I read or hear them, I see my friend or the writer or the speaker rise up before me. I feel him, so vibrant and alive.

As is the case with the lasting advice of my wise and curmudgeonly advisor, Fred: Find what it is you care enough about to write a book, what will sustain your interest for a year, more.

Dr. William Chester Minor to the widow: It’s freedom, Mrs. Merrett. I can fly out of this place on the backs of books. I’ve gone to the end of the world on the wings of words… . When I read, no one is after me. When I read, I am the one who is chasing–chasing after God.

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FOOTNOTES

*Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition. (Copyright 1934 with New Words, Reference History). Essay link on Webster’s Third Edition vs Second. I purchased mine on Ebay from John Coleman’s shop, BookEddy. Priscilla Long bought hers for a scant $60 in the early 2000s and a copy as a wedding present for $125. My price at $135 seemed fair given shipping and a lovely stand which were included. The edition is classified as vintage and becoming rare. The India Paper bound leather copy is pricey and nearly perfect editions go for well over $1,000. The essay makes an argument for the shorter 3rd edition, which a careful reader today will see supports the 2nd edition as a superior work in scholarly research, number of entries, reference history.

*Swear words, obscenities, and profanity do not make this dictionary. I checked. Eros and erotic did, but then, well there’s not much obscene about these. Profanity did not go mainstream in dictionaries until the 60s. Learn more here, Charlie Munger and the Art of Swearing. And, here. The Surprising Origins of Your Favorite F*cking Swear Words, Mashable, 2017.

*Webster’s 2nd is a vintage work, for evaluations of modern print dictionaries to have and to hold, check out Word Up, Which Dictionary is Best? And here are the, Top 10 Online Dictionaries.

*Notice the use of the present tense. A trait both men possess. Such men had lived, have lived, and live! Writing, as with film, is described in the present tense.

*Read the book by Simon Winchestor here, if you want the real thing. Or, watch the movie wether you’re a word bird or not, because you use words and speak the language. The illiterate widow who has suffered the world gets it, so there’s hope for you and for me. The Professor and the Madman.

*Rachel Aumiller makes the case in her article, The Virtue of Erotic Curiosity. (In Focus: Virtue and …. Vice, Philosophy and Literature, 46-1, April 2022). The curious may peruse the text in full at this link. It is not long, 18 pages of text double-spaced. The Golden Ass is the only ancient Latin novel to survive in its entirety, published sometime in the second century. Here is the abstract.

Abstract. Apuleius’s The Golden Ass presents curiosity as the protagonist’s downfall, yet ultimately recodes curiosity as the single virtue through which the human soul achieves not only immortality but joy. I identify Apuleius’s treatment of curiosity as falling into the categories of erotic and nonerotic. The union of Eros and the curious human soul suggests that one who is erotically curious can take pleasure in her devotion to one, precisely because she has eyes for the beauty of many.

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Aug 25, 2022

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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