Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Oxford English Dictionary

“Standing before the counter of the hardware store…”

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"Standing before the counter of the hardware store..."

(Note: This post is the thirty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 32. You can read the earlier installments here.)

Writers are craftsmen. At least, that’s how we like to think of ourselves. “Poetry” originally comes from the root word meaning to do or to make—trust me, I spent years studying this stuff—and it’s not surprising that writers often talk about themselves as if they were blue-collar workers. Television writers talk about “laying pipe,” novelists spend almost as much time discussing structure as engineers do, and much of the language of revision sounds like it’s talking about wood carving: we cut, trim, and shape, even if we’re doing nothing more than moving digital representations of words around on a screen. As my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary points out, a draft was originally any kind of drawing on paper, and more specifically a design, sketch, or blueprint for a more complete work of art, and only later assumed its current meaning as something that causes writers to tear their hair out. And this is part of the reason I often turn for instruction to such varied trades as architecture, animation, and the visual arts.

This also explains why writers tend to be so fascinated by the lore of other crafts and trades. Moby-Dick is a manual of whaling. James M. Cain teaches us a lot about murder, but also insurance investigation. Foucault’s Pendulum includes an entire chapter on the workings of a modern vanity press. These digressions are partly a way of filling out the world of a novel—if a writer gets these kinds of details right, we’re implicitly more likely to trust what he says about the subtleties of human behavior—but they’re also a reflection of how writers see themselves. This is a peculiar craft we’ve chosen, and it results in something so intangible that physical books themselves are no longer necessary, but the work it requires is tedious, solitary, and painstaking. As a result, we tend to be drawn to examples of skill and artistic dexterity wherever we find them, and take pleasure in translating these trades into the only medium we know how to use, as if we’re secretly talking about ourselves all the while.

"Looking for signs of craquelure..."

When it comes to suspense and mystery fiction, this impulse can take authors to strange places. Thrillers have often been criticized for laying out the details of illegal activity in ways that seem to glamorize or encourage it: The Day of the Jackal is a miniature textbook on passport fraud, for instance, and plenty of technothrillers go on for pages about the intricacies of weaponry and improvised explosives. In The Icon Thief, we’ve already seen Ilya construct a handheld laser from a flashlight and optical drive—although this information is readily available online—and City of Exiles shows its villain constructing a workable cell phone detonator, although I kept certain details deliberately vague. Not surprisingly, some readers don’t care for this sort of thing: one very intelligent review on Goodreads says that the latter novel has “that kind of fetishism of hardware that thrillers seem to require.” But really, every novel fetishizes its subject to some extent: it’s just that suspense happens to concern itself with hardware that runs toward the lurid or criminal.

Chapter 31 of The Icon Thief is a nice example, to the point where it actually begins with Ilya paying for his purchases at the counter of a hardware store. In terms of plot, it’s a relatively quiet scene that lays the groundwork for a series of more kinetic chapters to come. But it also provides a quick rundown of Ilya’s preparations for a life on the run: he disguises himself with a few items from a drugstore, steals a driver’s license from a bicycle rental kiosk in the park, and takes apart a stolen painting to make it more portable. These are all details I could have skipped, but I liked writing about the process of undoing the canvas from its wooden frame—which is something I did a lot in painting classes in college—and rolling it up into a tube, “looking for signs of craquelure.” (Honestly, I suspect that I wrote this entire chapter just to use the word “craquelure.”) And it serves a useful purpose: Ilya can now carry the painting around for the rest of the book without making a point of it. Which just gives me more time to write about hardware…

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2013 at 9:50 am

Our love in a cottage

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Yesterday, I wrote in great detail about my acquisition of a Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but I didn’t tell the full story. Inside the dictionary’s slipcase, in the drawer that contained its accompanying magnifying glass, I discovered this card. And while I’ve found a lot of interesting things in used books over the years—a leaflet from the Famous Writers School, a notecard listing interesting facts about snails, a three-page letter to someone’s mother in a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow—this might be the most fascinating, and moving. For those who can’t make it out, it includes a photocopy of the dictionary’s entry on Love, which reads in part:

c. Love in a cottage: a euphemistic expression for marriage with insufficient means.

And written beneath it:

I’d not trade our Brooklyn “love in a cottage” for anything in the world. Much love,
R.D.  12/25/85

Whoever R.D. is, or was, I’m sure this dictionary made a beautiful Christmas present twenty-six years ago, and I’m honored to have it in my own little cottage. Happy holidays to you and yours, and I look forward to seeing you in the New Year!

Written by nevalalee

December 23, 2011 at 10:00 am

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The Oxford English Addictionary

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As I mentioned yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, I found myself the proud new owner of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I was all set to sit down with my prize, but unfortunately, fate had other plans: the following day, I was on a plane to Hong Kong, and spent the next two weeks traveling there and in China. And while it was a wonderful trip, I have to admit that my thoughts occasionally strayed back home, where my dictionary was patiently waiting. Upon my return, then, I threw down my suitcase and all but tore into the dining room—the only place in the house with a table large enough to comfortably accommodate this kind of work—for some quality time with the OED. (My sister-in-law says that this serves as ample proof that I’m a huge nerd, which will surely come as a surprise to this blog’s regular readers.)

A few words about the Compact OED itself. As many of you probably know, the Compact Edition contains all the material of the twelve-volume Oxford English Dictionary, with the text photographically reduced so that four pages fit on each regular page of the two-volume version, to be read with an included magnifying glass. The copy I purchased is the second edition, not the third, which means that it lacks the supplements and updates that the dictionary has acquired since 1971. All the same, these updates comprise maybe five percent of the dictionary’s total length, and the older edition may actually be more useful for my purposes: with the four-up format, I can just about read the text even without the magnifying glass, while the latest edition is nine-up, making the type too small to browse conveniently.

And you need to be able to browse in this dictionary, which is a browser’s paradise. Opening it now at random, I’m at a loss as to where to begin: there’s Duumvirate, Dwale, and close to a whole page devoted to variations on Dwarf, with citations ranging from the year 1450 (“that wretchit dorche”) to 1846 (“If a dwarf on the shoulders of a giant can see further than the giant, he is no less a dwarf in comparison to the giant”). Turning to another page, we have Mithridatic, Mitraille (“Small missiles, as fragments of iron, heads of nails, etc. shot in masses from a cannon”), and Mitre (“A headband or fillet worn by ancient Greek women; also, a kind of head-dress common among Asiatics, the wearing of which by men was regarded by the Romans as a mark of effeminacy”). And these are just a few pages chosen randomly out of more than sixteen thousand. The result isn’t just a dictionary, but an entire world, at least the part described in English, and it offers a lifetime’s worth of exploration.

Clearly, I’m addicted: reading this dictionary makes me feel as if I’ll never need to do anything else. Steve Jobs once called the Whole Earth Catalog “Google in paperback form,” and the Compact OED, in this wonderfully browsable edition, gives me something of the same sensation: each page opens up onto new horizons, with one word leading to another, and to unexpected byways of etymology, history, and literature—as big as the Web, but richer and more nourishing. The result seems less like a book than a living being, vibrating with possibility even as it sits reassuringly on the shelf. Whether or not it will enhance my vocabulary remains to be seen, but it’s already had a fertilizing effect on my imagination. Perhaps it will for you as well, or for someone you love. After all, Christmas is coming. What better gift could there be?

Written by nevalalee

December 22, 2011 at 10:16 am

The joys of thrift-store browsing

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If browsing in a bookshop is, as I’ve often said before, a kind of dreaming, sifting through the books in a large thrift store is like the lowest dream level in Inception, where the dreams of countless others end up jumbled together without rhyme or reason. (You can also end up stranded there for longer than you expect.) I’m always a little thrilled whenever I wander into a thrift store for the first time, never knowing if I’ll find the sad little collection of ’70s paperbacks at your average Goodwill or an awe-inspiring labyrinth like the one in the late, lamented Ark in Chicago. Browsing in used bookstores always involves some measure of serendipity, an openness to happy accidents, and a thrift store, in particular, is the opposite of a nicely curated experience like that at Barnes & Noble or Amazon: usually frustrating, but sometimes enlightening, both in terms of the specific books you find and for the art of browsing in general. And every now and then, you’ll find something that makes you want to shout: Eureka!

One fascinating thing about thrift stores is that you’ll often see patterns in the books on hand, titles that repeatedly appear there and nowhere else, giving you an uncanny glimpse into what our culture’s detritus will look like after we’re gone. Some are easy to understand: Reader’s Digest condensed book collections, obsolete technical manuals or Dummies books, the various editions of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Then there the novels that large numbers of people bought and then decided, for one reason or another, to give away. Some are the difficult books that followed a big bestseller: I’ll almost always see a copy or two of A Maggot by John Fowles, for instance. Other books that seem to crop up frequently in thrift stores: Bag of Bones by Stephen King, The Bull From the Sea by Marie Renault, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. And there’s often an entire shelf’s worth of The Da Vinci Code, neatly lined up like the matching volumes of an exceptionally uninformative encyclopedia.

And then there are the unexpected treasures. Even a recent trip to Village Discount Outlet, by far the most chaotic of all Chicago thrift stores, resulted in a vintage copy of The Sesame Street Dictionary, which I’d nostalgically been meaning to pick up for a long time. Before the Ark closed, during a strange acquisitive phase, I picked up two shopping bags of old first editions, including a pristine hardcover copy of The Pillars of the Earth. (Originally, I’d intended to buy these first editions for a few dollars each, then resell them for a profit online. In the end, the math didn’t quite work out, so they’re still in a box at the back of my closet, awaiting their moment of glory.) I even once found a signed and inscribed copy of George S. Kaufman and His Friends by the legendary author and agent Scott Meredith—with a twenty-dollar bill inside. For a long time, this ranked as my most satisfying catch. A few weeks ago, however, I managed to top it.

One of the small pleasures of my recent move to Oak Park is that I’m now just a two-minute walk from a branch of the Brown Elephant, one of the Chicago area’s nicest thrift stores. I browse there idly from time to time, and last month, a few days before Thanksgiving, on a shelf near the front of the store, I saw a prize I’d been hoping to find for most of my life: the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in two volumes, complete with magnifying glass. The price? Ninety dollars. But I also knew that the store would be slashing all prices in half on Black Friday. So I waited. And waited. And when the morning after Thanksgiving came, I dropped my parents off at the airport, drove home, lined up in front of the store with the other shoppers, and ran straight for the front shelf when the doors opened. The dictionary was there. Clutching it in my arms, I headed for the cash register, probably elbowing a few old ladies out of the way in the process. I’m looking at it now as I write this. Eureka.

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