Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The Lost Reference Library

 I do love perusing the dictionary to find how many words I don't use – words that have specific, sharp, focused meaning.”

Geoffrey Rush

Way back in second grade, after I had so much difficulty learning to read in first grade, I remember my teacher stressing to us the importance of using the classroom dictionary. The maxim seemed simple: if you saw a word you didn’t know, get up, go to the shelf, and consult the dictionary to learn its meaning. And we rarely bothered. Getting up, paging through the thickest book we’d ever seen, and rummaging around just for a word we didn’t know or to check spelling seemed like too much effort. These days, of course, we have online resources, spell- and grammar-check, and auto-correct. They’re great if we actively take advantage of them to improve our vocabulary and knowledge, but it’s far more tempting to simply rely on auto-correct to spell words properly (and reliance on that often leads to new problems).

When I was growing up (long ago in the last third of the 20th century...) spelling, proper grammar, and knowing the right word to use were our responsibilities. They helped us learn to communicate better, to tailor our language to our audience, and to seek the correct way of using words...or even, understanding that, help us to break those rules to make a point. I got my first desk in 1976 (before that my brother and I did our homework at the kitchen table); my parents soon purchased and installed adjustable bookshelves on the walls around it. Although most of the shelves eventually held fantasy and science-fiction paperbacks, those within easiest reach remained a dictionary and thesaurus. Every dorm room, every apartment, even a decade into the 21st century my desk always had room for several relevant reference volumes: usually a dictionary, a style guide, and any materials for my immediate writing assignment. I didn’t always reach for that dictionary, but it was always close at hand.

I still have a small shelf of old writing reference volumes, though they no longer stand on my desk within easy reach. They sit on a shelf in my office, gathering dust since I rarely consult them anymore: a dictionary and thesaurus, several style guides, a biographical dictionary, two volumes of quotes, and a general desk reference book. A pile of foreign language dictionaries sits nearby. Internet resources have long since usurped their place. We’re constantly online on computers, tablets, or cell phones. We have ready access to electronic, constantly updated versions of these print resources. And, much to my chagrin – for I’m an old curmudgeon and dislike most anything new-fangled – I must admit this is a good thing...at least for those who actually use these resources.

I often click my browser bookmark for Merriam-Webster Online and use the dictionary and thesaurus to help me learn the meaning of the specific word I’m using, determine if it’s the right one for the context or mood, and find alternatives. Having an audio pronunciation proves far easier than understanding or looking up all the phonetic symbols (though it’s still a good skill to have). The website also offers features about word origins and use to engage readers and expand their understanding of language.

Google Translate helps when I want to use foreign words in my work, a hazard of writing historical fiction or real-world-inspired roleplaying game material. It also serves as a good name generator. Let’s say a fantasy or sci-fi character has a particular trait, but I don’t want to use the English word as a name. Run it through a few different languages to see what sounds good for the setting that also might evoke the character trait in an English speaker...often truncating words, altering spellings, or jumbling the syllables along the way to devise a novel name.

Wikipedia and other websites help give me a generalized overview of topics with which I have little familiarity. In the past I would have relied on public libraries or my own personal collection for this kind of information, but I’ve never felt comfortable in the former and realize the limitations of the latter. Various quotation sites help me search for epigraphs easily, as Hobby Games Recce readers no doubt noticed over the years. Good online sources often lead me to useful material in printed books...which I often order from online venues.

I cannot speak for others, but I’ve made a commitment to use online language resources more as I write, especially since it requires such little effort today. No wandering off to the dictionary, paging through its musty pages checking guide words in the top corners to see how close I am, no deciphering phonetic pronunciation guides. I regret in our fast-paced, workaholic-survivalist, instant-gratification internet society we rarely take the time to understand and use these tools, all based on old, once-in-print resources. Too often society values only the product of our work and offers little or no appreciation the process itself, of the value of taking one’s time to do a quality job right.

An Invitation to Explore

Beyond their essential reference function, these resources – online or in print – invite us to wander around, much like meandering through the stacks of a good library, perusing titles, and finding inspiration to explore new topics.

An anecdote from my ancient past might help demonstrate. Back in college – while I was perusing a bachelor’s degree in creative writing – I happened to page through the dictionary seeking a word in the M section, glancing at guide words in the page corners to direct my search. I stumbled on one word, based on a proper name, I’d never heard before: “Memnonian.” The entry itself was for “Memnon,” with the guide word an adjective form:

Memnon: 1. Gr. Myth. an Ethiopian king killed by Achilles in the Trojan War and made immortal by Zeus. 2. a gigantic statue of an Egyptian king at Thebes, said to have emitted a musical sound at sunrise.

I was immediately captivated by the second meaning; somewhere was a statue of a pharaoh that made a sound at dawn. I’d never heard of this before, despite a passing familiarity with ancient Egyptian art and history (thanks to childhood visits to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art). Back in the mid-1980s I had no computer, no access to an all-knowing world wide web. So I trekked across campus (no doubt through snow drifts) to Hamilton College’s wonderful library. Here I found among the stacks books to feed my hunger to know more: illustrated volumes about European powers looting Egypt’s ancient treasures, books on ancient Egypt, even an original early 19th century account of an adventurer’s expedition to recover a massive statue of “Memnon” now residing in the British Museum (which my explorations of Victorian history and colonialist culture remind me remains problematic at best). My investigation of that name in the dictionary led me into a life-long love of ancient and Victorian Egypt, an appreciation of Islamic art, and my first short story sale years later based on the singing statue of Memnon.

We can find creative and intellectual inspiration everywhere...we just need to have an inquisitive nature and a willingness to learn. I’m fortunate that in my youth my family encouraged us with books, trips to historical sites and museums, and other experiences, some brief, others enduring years, to see what might inspire us. Reference volumes offer one avenue of exploration. Even in old print books browsing and chance encounters can inspire and lead us along the path to greater knowledge.

Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.”

- Nathaniel Hawthorne

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