This is part one of a two-part piece; part two will appear in
We are condemned to loss. From the moment we come into this world, we lose everything we believe is ours, from the comfort of the womb to the memory of a lifetime. Circumstances change, desires wane, our memory loses its hold. We walk toward the grave shedding stuff: toys, playmates, parents, teachers, homeland, enthusiasms, dates, tastes, beliefs, knick-knacks accumulated on the shore throughout the years. All these and many more (but I can’t now remember what they are) drift away, forgotten, as if to lighten our descent into the realm of shadows. Death is not, as we like to suppose, a sudden night caller, but rather resembles one of those dishonest guests who come for a weekend and gradually outstay their welcome, taking up more and more room over longer and longer periods, until we feel that neither our house nor our life belong to us any longer. “Where did we put that book?” we ask. “Where is that photograph I knew I had?” “What was that name, that address, that unforgettable look, that memorable line?” Alms for oblivion, someone wrote, but rest of the lines I knew have also vanished, gone into the guest’s pocket, never to be seen again.
And yet, a cluster of these things clings on, doggedly resisting abduction, so that in the dim light of old age we might recognize a few familiar faces, a few dear bits and pieces— a few but not many, and not always. Most of them are neither notorious nor prestigious: our memory is not picky. A smile floats down, disembodied, like the grin on the Cheshire Cat; a snippet of a song; a paragraph in a story; the dappled image of a forest; a conversation of no importance—these persist, scattered on the ground after the garbage truck has passed. In this heap of leftovers are also a few solid objects: maybe a cup, a pen, a stone, a volume of poetry and, why not, a dictionary.
For my generation (I was born in the first half of the previous century) dictionaries mattered. Our elders treasured their Bible, or the Complete Works of Shakespeare, or Betty Crocker’s cookbook. For the generations of this third millennium, it will perhaps not be a book at all but a nostalgic Gameboy or an iphone. But for many readers of my age, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the Petit Robert, the Sopena, Webster’s were the names of our libraries’ guardian angels. Mine, when I was in high school, was the Spanish edition of the Petit Larousse Illustré, with its pink stratum of foreign phrases separating common words from proper names.
In the days of my youth, for those of us who liked to read, the dictionary was a magical object of mysterious powers. First, because we were told that here, in this small fat volume, was almost the entirety of our common language; that between the drab covers were all the words that named everything in the world that we knew and also everything in the world that we did not know; that the dictionary held the past (all those words spoken by our grandparents and great-grandparents, mumbled in the dark and which are no longer used) and the future (words to name what we might one day want to say, when a new experience would call for them.) Second, because the dictionary, like a benevolent Sibyl, answered all our questions when we stumbled over difficult words in a story (even though, as Helen Keller’s teacher complains in The Miracle Worker, “What use is a dictionary if you have to know how a word is spelled before you can find out how to spell it?”).
We were taught to be curious. Whenever we asked a teacher what something meant, we were told to “Look it up in the dictionary!” We never thought of this as a punishment. On the contrary: with this command we were given entry to a magic cavern in which one word would lead without rhyme or reason (except an arbitrary alphabetical reason) to the next. We learned that even a great poet like Robert Browning could make dreadful mistakes for failing to consult the dictionary, as when, in his poem “Pippa Passes,” he speaks of a “nun’s twat” under the misapprehension that it is an article of religious clothing.
We would look up “snow banner,” for example, after reading in a Jack London story that “from the tip of every peak, swaying, undulating, flaring out broadly against the azure sky, streamed gigantic snow banners,” and discover not only the sense in which London used the word, but that, in Canada (a name that for me was still nothing but a vast pink shape on the map), “snow banner” meant the cloud tinged with pink that carries horizontal flurries across the skies. Several decades later, when caught in a blizzard in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I found that I had the word to name the experience. Aby Warburg, the great reader, defined for us all what he called a library’s “law of the good neighbour.” According to Warburg, the book with which one was familiar was not, in most cases, the book one needed. It was the unknown neighbour on the same shelf that contained the vital information. The same can be said of the words in a dictionary, though in the electronic age a virtual dictionary offers less of a chance for serendipity, or for the kind of happy distraction