Thursday, February 18, 2010

The mystery of defining things

Day 9 of the "What are you reading, and why?" project, and I appear to have Internet, however briefly, this morning. Why I have it sometimes and why I don't is a mystery to me.

And that is why Jo was recently reading The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. She and some friends enjoy reading mysteries, and one of them recommended to her this real-life mystery about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. This won't be a spoiler, as the book opens with the revelation that James Murray, the OED editor, has gone to meet Dr. W. C. Minor, one of his major contributors of definitions, and discovers that the writer lives in an asylum for the criminally insane. And the book then lays out how this came to be!

I remember first hearing about this book from my friend Gary, who is always asking people "What are you reading?" and it is always fun to find out what he is reading. I discovered E. O. Wilson, and Consilience, through Gary, checking it out from the library to read it and then later finding it for $1 on the summer sale cart at Babbitt's and snatching it up to keep and re-read. I have acquired more Wilson since, and went to hear him speak when he came to Illinois Wesleyan University a couple years ago.

This must have been in 1998, when The Professor and the Madman first came out, as I couldn't read it right then. So many books I've written about recently came out in 1998, when I had a fulltime teaching job, an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old. Egad, how did I get any reading done? Oh, yeah, I didn't. I read what my students were reading and what they were writing, and I read to my kids. Anyway, Jo gave me her used paperback copy, and now I remember that it opens each chapter with a pertinent definition, an organizing principle I loved the first time around. It will be fun to re-read this one, in snippets, focussing on the words.

A few years back, a family friend was dying who told us to take anything we wanted, and he had books, many, many books, and I inherited his OED, the two-volume mini-print set that requires a magnifying class. (We get these at Babbitt's, too, glass and all, and sell them regularly.) Somehow I failed to take, or find (his apartment was very, very crowded), the magnifying glass, so now I squint at the mini-definitions through my bifocals.

I love definitions. Definitions, multiple and layered, and word origins help me write poems. They help me choose the precise word, and sometimes the word with a "secret" (like the kind actors sometimes carry around, developing a character) or, yes, a mystery. Some of my poems thus contain words with very precise meanings that then keep unfolding if you learn that this word also means....or that the root of this word actually means....or that the irony here is that, over time, the word has come to mean the opposite of itself, etc. I have retained an alternate and archaic spelling of a particular word in one poem because it then has its first meaning--to measure--and also its second meaning--to challenge. Like Emily Dickinson, I love words!!

So! Words can contain mystery and history. Winchester's is a book of nonfiction that reads with the delight and suspense of fiction, and particularly mystery. Meanwhile, Peg is reading Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean's Watch, which she identifies as "sweet little historical fictional stories." And that is indeed how I love to learn history, through fiction!

Some even argue that a lot of history is fiction, in a sense--that historians have used their imaginations to piece all the clues together. What do you think about that?

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