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Why did I buy a really heavy dictionary?

October 19, 2010

Since reading Sven Birkerts’s truly excellent collection of essays The Gutenberg Elegies I have been thinking a lot about books, and in particular books in the form of a physical codex. I’m fairly certain it’s in Birkerts that I read that the internet (and most words in electronic form) are really scrolls rather than codexes – it isn’t called a ‘scrollbar’ for nothing. And it was definitely Birkerts that made me think about how and why it even matters whether we read from scrolls or codices or e-readers or audio books.

So the other day I decided that I’d pay a “Special Price” of $25 for the giant single-volume, 2000-odd-page Collins Dictionary. Why did this seem like a good idea, when the internet has all the definitions and more? Collins provides the very same definitions online for free, so it can’t even be an argument about quality. These are the advantages as I see them:

Purity of Purpose: The physical dictionary is only a dictionary, and doesn’t come inside a web browser with its temptations and distractions. When a novel chucks a weird word at you the dictionary provides just what is needed and no more. There is a definition, pronunciation, maybe a brief etymology, and that’s it. Online you might get a massive list of synonyms, antonyms, related terms, contextual examples and the clutter of images, logos, sidebar links and all the rest. It’s no slower to look up a word in the hard copy, and the text is beautifully typeset in a way that web pages never manage. There’s an aesthetic satisfaction as well as a practical one from using such an efficiently-designed object. The only extraneous things in a real dictionary are the surrounding words, and these feel like a more wholesome distraction than the internet’s tangle of links.

Stability: As the foreword to the dictionary emphasizes, language changes, which makes an up-to-date electronic resource appear very sensible. However, the ability to hold every word right there between two covers is very satisfying. I can remember looking through a very old dictionary when I was much younger and seeing old-fashioned terms I’d never heard of, like a word for a type of hat that nobody wears anymore, and feeling that sense of a different and partly vanished ancestral world. Paradoxically, it’s the fact that things are changing that makes the fixed print valuable as a time capsule of the language as I know it now. The fixed nature of the text also imparts authority in comparison to the internet, where having to choose between the slightly different definitions that pop up distracts from the sense that the dictionary has the final say. Even though logically the internet version of the dictionary must be more reliable, the tendency of most of the internet to change and disappear leaks onto reference pages and taints them just a little bit.

Ownership: Owning “stuff” is a bit passe for jaded post-consumers but there is an undeniable good feeling that comes from having the physical lump of paper sitting on a shelf or on your lap. On the internet you’re always taking your pick from what other people have offered you, and you never actually control or own the things you look up. This big heavy slab is mine-all-mine and I can do whatever I like with it.

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