Read it before you see it

Long before it was a movie, ‘The Goldfinch’ cast a spell on its readers

With the recent release of a major motion picture based on Donna Tartt’s runaway bestseller, I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit my initial review of the book. This review was originally written in 2014.

Wow, what a sprawling, magnificent, compelling story Donna Tartt tells in The Goldfinch (2013, Little, Brown) that is about so much more than the painting referred to in the title. It’s about art, beauty, fear, abandonment, carelessness, remorse, redemption, sorrow and joy. It’s about the value of friendship, the pain of loss, the holes that life leaves in all of us and the ways we choose to fill them up.

Theo Decker is 13 years old when a tragedy leaves him without parents. He is taken in by the family of a school friend, and just when it seems his life has begun to stabilize he is uprooted and set on a path that leads him from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back again. He bounces around between various sets of parents, surrogate and otherwise, some of whom are loving but all of whom seem incapable of giving him the sort of focused attention that could help anchor him in the world around him. Instead, he is forced to use an inanimate object — that painting pictured on the cover — to be his touchstone. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t enough to keep him safe in a world filled with so many easy ways to flirt with danger.

The story that Theo tells is long, involved, intricate, densely layered with events that seem loaded with meaning beyond what they or he can bear. The further into the story I ventured, the stronger was my feeling of constant low-level anxiety for what would become of Theo. It seemed impossible from the very beginning that he would live happily ever after — that anyone in his world would — and every page I turned ratcheted up the tension.

I didn’t always like Theo. Often I disapproved of the choices he made and the things he did, but that didn’t stop me from desperately wanting him to find the sanctuary that he seemed to spend his whole life looking for. I didn’t always like the people he surrounded himself with. Or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t always like the things he did with and to the people who surrounded him, and I didn’t always like how even the most sympathetic of them still failed utterly at providing a safe harbor for a lost soul. And yet I still hoped, right up until the end, that each of them would be redeemed, that everything would work out, that everyone would — finally! — do the right thing for themselves and for Theo.

The Goldfinch isn’t a perfect book. It’s long, almost unbearably long, made bearable for me only by the fact of its being an ebook and thus not an intimidating physical chunk to remind me of just how much story was left to tell. There are sections that go on and on and don’t seem to do much to advance either the plot or the characters’ development. There are a few too many supporting characters who are sketchily drawn and serve mainly as a placeholder for a group stereotype. But always, there was some redeeming action or insight waiting on the other side, rewarding me for pushing on.

I finished reading The Goldfinch yesterday, and even as I’ve moved on to my next book I find myself thinking about Theo at random times during the day, as if he were someone I know. I recall particular passages or scenes and think about how often Tartt chooses to work against the expected tropes. The chilly upper-class woman whose family takes young Theo in turns out to genuinely like him and treat him as part of the family even long after he’s grown up. None of the most important characters are purely saints or sinners; just as in real life people turn out to be more complicated than that. Just as this book is more complicated than a story about a painting.

A watery way of life

‘A Chesapeake Requiem’ takes the reader inside the endangered world of Tangier Island

There’s a romance that lingers around certain places in America. Usually they are places that to outside observers have been “left behind” by modernity. Those of us frantically trying to keep up with the blistering pace of technology fool ourselves into thinking that the “good old days” represent some platonic ideal of how life should be lived. Reality, of course, looks different when viewed from inside the bubble,

Such is the case with Tangier Island, a seemingly idyllic throwback to a simpler time when men supported their families by working the land (or in this case, water), when everyone in a small town knew everyone else, when the attractions of nature, board games, and books outweighed the allure of instant messaging, video games, and social media. Every summer, tourists flock to this Chesapeake Bay island (only reachable by ferry, and navigable on land via bicycle or golf cart) to briefly gawk at people whom time has seemingly passed by.

The subtitle of Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island (Harper Collins, 2018) offers the reader a clue that not all is what it seems, and as the pages turn the dilemma faced by the people of Tangier becomes more and more clear: Rising waters in the Chesapeake (caused by a number of factors including coastal erosion and climate change) have swallowed two-thirds of Tangier’s land mass in the past two centuries. The best-case scenario, if no man-made intervention is made, is that the island will be uninhabitable within 50 years. The math is not promising: The current population is fewer than 500 people. The cost of shoring up the island is measured in the tens of millions of dollars.

Swift, a longtime journalist in Virginia, who had visited Tangier earlier this millennium while reporting a story, felt compelled to return in 2015 and chronicle life on the island in depth. By living for a full year on the island, he was able to earn the trust of the islanders, who opened their lives to him in really moving ways. Swift shares with the reader not only the scientific and political ramifications of the island’s disappearing land mass, but the essential humanity of the people whose families have lived and worked on the island for generations. We learn about the island’s past glories as a preeminent source of the coveted blue crab, its difficult present as the watery bounty in the Bay and the land under their feet both become ever more scarce, and its grim future as its young people graduate from high school and most of them move off-island, never to return.

Whenever a reporter embeds themselves into a place there can be a temptation to over-identify with your subject matter, resulting in journalism that fails to cast an objective eye on the situation. Happily, that’s not the case with Swift. While it’s clear that he feels affection and respect for the people he meets and lives among on Tangier, he doesn’t shy away from detailing their shortcomings. In particular, the near-universal refusal to believe that climate change is real, let alone playing a role in their island’s peril, is frustrating to read about, as is their hostility to the environmentalists who want to help save the island but who are mistrusted as also wanting to regulate the fisheries that support the islanders. I felt the same about the people’s baffling passivity in the face of their problems; at one point, several of the old watermen are sitting around talking about a meeting on the mainland where decisions will be made that could seriously impact their ability to earn a living from crabbing. “Somebody should go down there and represent the island,” they all agree. But no one is willing to actually do it, and so the meeting takes place without any representation from the people whose lives will be affected.

Beyond the science and the politics, however, I found myself enthralled by Swift’s pellucid descriptions of everyday life. I felt as though I was on board the crabbing boat of Ooker Eskridge, mayor of Tangier and hard-working waterman, as he pulled up his catch and sorted it into pots of jimmies (males), sooks and sallies (females), and peelers (those about to shed their shell and become the coveted soft-shell crab). Late in the book, a sudden storm blows up and puts the lives of father-and-son crabbers in peril when they are caught in the squall far from shore. I could feel the sleet lashing my face and the desperation of the men as they fought to save themselves and their boat. And when word reaches land that they are in trouble, fishermen who had just fought through the same storm and thankfully reached the safety harbor don’t hesitate for an instant before turning around and heading back into the dangerous waters to try to save their friends. 

I didn’t come away from A Chesapeake Requiem with any brilliant ideas about what should be done. Should millions of dollars be spent to save what’s left of the island and its few hundred residents? Would the money be better spent to re-locate the people of Tangier to the mainland? What do we as a society lose when we lose places like Tangier — what value do you place on that sort of community benefit when you are calculating what saving the island is worth? Swift doesn’t pretend to have the answers, either, but his moving and enlightening work helped me understand just what’s at stake on this small patch of land so far away from me.

Jackson Brodie returns

Nine years on, the moody detective picks up right where he left off in ‘Big Sky’

When last we saw Jackson Brodie, in 2011’s Started Early, Took My Dog, the introspective private investigator at the center of Kate Atkinson’s literary mystery series was wandering around Yorkshire, trying to track down an adopted woman’s biological family while coping with a rescued dog and his own personal dramas involving at least two ex-wives and a vanished fortune. Along the way, he managed to more-or-less solve a decades-old crime and rescue another stray — this time a toddler. 

He had a lot going on, is what I’m saying. 

When we meet him again in Big Sky (Little, Brown, 2019), nine years on (and after a string of World War II books from author Atkinson set), Brodie is still wandering around Yorkshire, sometimes in the company of his now-teenage son (by second ex-wife, Julia) and an aging Labrador retriever (also courtesy of Julia, who may not want to be married to Jackson anymore but trusts him implicitly with the things she loves most in the world). Brodie’s current job is tailing a local businessman to find out if he’s cheating on his wife. It’s dull work, but leave it to Brodie to inadvertantly stumble into a much larger, more sinister case simply by virtue of being in the wrong place at the right time. It isn’t long before he finds himself in the midst of marital secrets, cold cases, and human trafficking on a brisk, business-like scale.

I would certainly classify the Jackson Brodie series in the mystery genre, but Atkinson’s writing does not lend itself to the terse, straightforward “just the facts, ma’am” narrative that most people think of when they think of detective stories. She operates on a near stream-of-conscious level that has lots of space for digressions, asides, and parenthetical additions. Indeed, the first chapter of Big Sky is a scene between Jackson and his son, but the parenthetical conversations, both remembered and imagined, with Julia make her as present a character as if she wasn’t miles away filming a television series at the time. This is not a story to knock off while waiting for your car’s oil change in a noisy mechanic’s waiting room, or in 15-minute bursts of reading time at the end of the day. Atkinson’s demands my full attention when I read her work, but she rewards me with stories and characters that spring to life in my mind.

It had been so long since I read Started Early, Took My Dog that I worried I wouldn’t remember enough to be able to fall back into Jackson Brodie’s world. Those fears were unfounded — I mean, I really didn’t remember much in the way of details but it turned out not to matter in the end. Other than Julia, the only recurring character who makes a significant re-appearance here is Reggie Chase, whom we first met in When Will There Be Good News (2008). Then, she was a Scottish teenager with a tough home life; now, she is a police officer investigating the cold case that brings her back into Jackson’s orbit.

I was disappointed back in 2011 when Atkinson announced that she was done writing about Jackson Brodie, and I rejoiced when she said he was returning this year. The books she wrote in the meantime were critically acclaimed and I thoroughly enjoyed them, which made the return of Jackson Brodie seem like more of a celebration than a grasping at previous success. I don’t know if we’ll meet up with Jackson further down the road, but I’m happy to trust to Atkinson’s instincts about what she needs to write.

Ellery Queen takes a trip

The sleuth leaves the city behind to tackle a small-town family’s misery in ‘calamity town’

My mom had the Wrightsville Murders omnibus pictured at left on our bookshelves when I was growing up. It was a big heavy hardcover book containing three full-length Ellery Queen novels — Calamity Town, Crazy Like a Fox, and Ten Days’ Wonder — that I devoured starting in about sixth grade (40-some years ago). And I knew I had re-read it more than once, but I don’t think I fully grasped how often I must have read and re-read it until I started my most recent read of the first book in the omnibus, Calamity Town.

On every page — nearly in every paragraph — there was a phrase or sentence or scrap of dialogue that triggered the strongest sense of dejà vu. It wasn’t so much that I remember the outlines of the story or whodunit (I actually didn’t) but that I remembered actual words and phrases! I’ve never had that happen before and it was a pleasingly disconcerting sensation.

Fortunately the vertigo wore off after Part I (which makes me wonder if I read and re-read just the first section over and over? I wish I could go back in time to find out, but then again that would mean living through junior high and high school again and no thank you) and I could just enjoy the book for what it is, which is a splendidly plotted mystery full of appealing characters put into realistic situations and left to find their way out.

A brief plot overview: It’s 1940, and famous writer Ellery Queen has traveled to Wrightsville, a small town in upstate New York, in search of “color” for his next mystery novel. While there, he is befriended by the Wright family, descendants of the town’s founder. That leaves him in the perfect place to observe as one misadventure after another befalls the family, culminating in the requisite murder.

Perhaps because they take Ellery out of his usual New York City locale, the Wrightsville novels have always had an extra appeal for me. Whereas the “regular” Queen mysteries set in NYC seem to rely on intricately formed plots with clues and red herrings scattered about, in Wrightsville the characters come to life fully formed and breathing. Incredibly for a novel written in the 1940s, there is virtually no offensive racial stereotyping or cheap laughs gained at the expense of the “hicks” that populate Wrightsville. Ellery does not condescend to his hosts, not even the Town Soak who is prone to declaiming Shakespeare from his drunken perch at the base of the founder’s statue in the town square. It feels so much like a real town that I am half convinced I’ve been there before.

I guess the best thing I can say about this novel is that now I remember why I read and re-read it over and over all those years ago. It’s a magnificent piece of scene-setting and characterization, with a mystery that more than lives up to its surrounding structure. I have a feeling I won’t wait another 30 years before reading this one again …

Illusions of safety and danger

Dennis Lehane dives deep in ‘Since We Fell’

Rachel Childs is a television journalist in Boston whose career is on a steep upward trajectory until she is sent to Haiti on assignment after the devastating 2010 earthquake. The horror she sees and experiences there leave her with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that becomes apparent when she breaks down during a live broadcast.

Back in Boston, her news career in shambles, Rachel struggles with panic attacks that leave her afraid to even leave her apartment. Her relationship with a co-worker doesn’t survive, but when she meets an old acquaintance by chance, his patient understanding of her problems leads to romance and eventually marriage. With Brian’s help, Rachel starts to re-emerge from her self-imposed exile. Her tentative journey back to normalcy is jolted, however, when on one of her first solo trips downtown she discovers Brian in a place he shouldn’t be. The discovery prompts her to use her investigative reporting skills to get to the bottom of the mystery without tipping him off to her suspicions leads her deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation where no one is who they seem.

For my money, Dennis Lehane is one of the most underrated mystery/thriller writers in the business. Yes, several of his previous novels, Mystic River and Shutter Island among them, were turned into feature films, but the books themselves never generate much discussion among my friends who enjoy Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay, and others. With Since We Fell (Ecco, 2017), Lehane has delivered another intricately plotted examination of people who are not what they seem being driven to extremes by circumstances they can’t control. I appreciated that Rachel, despite her emotional fragility through much of the first part of the novel, is far from a hapless victim waiting to be rescued. She manages to engineer her own rescue on her own terms, even as she accepts the consequences of what she has to do in the process.

Lehane builds the narrative tension slowly but surely (perhaps a little too slowly at first) to a white-knuckle finish that seems both unexpected and inevitable. Nothing about this book made me any less eager to read the next offering from a first-rate writer.

The Irish Book of Job

John Boyne puts his hero through some heavy trials in ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’

So many friends on LibraryThing have recommended John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Hogarth, 2017) to me, and one went so far as to send me a copy of the trade paperback (thanks, Amber!) It took me entirely too long to get around to it, but once I did I understood entirely the enthusiasm.

The focus of the story is on Cyril Avery (who is not, his adoptive parents are quick to tell anyone who asks, a real Avery). Cyril’s teenage single mother was literally thrown out of church and her home village in 1945 when the priest learned she was pregnant; she ends up in Dublin, where she sets up an unconventional household with two gay men. Once she gives Cyril up, she loses touch with Cyril for many years, although their lives have a way of crossing at intervals, with neither of them any the wiser about who the other is. This aspect of the narrative was amusing but strained credulity quite a bit for me.

The narrative follows Cyril and his adventures — or more accurately his misadventures — as he grows up and tries to find his place in a world that doesn’t value him. The story leaps forward in seven-year intervals into the 21st century. At times it seemed like a retelling of the Book of Job with an Irish brogue. Just about any calamity that can befall a young, introverted gay man and his acquaintances lands on poor Cyril and friends. But the conceit allows us to view momentous events in the history of Ireland and of gay rights worldwide through one sensitive young man’s eyes, so perhaps Boyne can be forgiven for ladling on the pathos so thickly.

In many ways, The Heart’s Invisible Furies reminded me very much of the best of John Irving’s work, in particular The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Both novelists have a knack for creating quirky characters and putting crisp, eloquent words in their mouths. I’ll certainly seek out other novels by Boyne to see if the comparison holds up or is merely coincidental to this work.

‘Yells for Ourselves’ gets up close and personal with the NY Mets

Sports stories — and especially baseball stories — are written at certain altitudes, as it were. Some are written from 30,000 feet, taking a wide overview of what’s happening across a broad span of time. Some cruise along at a lower altitude, focusing on a particular team or player but still encompassing a number of years, or vice versa. And still others, like Yells for Ourselves: A Story of New York City and the New York Mets at the Dawn of the Millennium (2019, Quill) do their best work at ground level, up close and personal with a particular team at a very specific point in time.

In the case of Matthew Callan’s historical recounting, the team is the New York Mets and the time is 1999 and 2000. Callan writes with the enthusiasm of a fan but the skill of a journalist. His primary source appears to be his personal observation of the seasons in question, and his only secondary sources are quotes from contemporary news accounts. As such, the book is somewhat lacking in the kind of historical grounding that I think Callan intended, that could only be achieved by revisiting the key figures in the story to get their perspective from today. He does do a good job of placing the team within the context of New York City’s history and its battle for the city’s affections with the New York Yankees, perhaps the most famous sports franchise in any sport. As Callan tells it, the Mets ascended in attention and affection when New York was going through tough times in the 1970s and 1980s, battling high crime and bad press. In those days, the Mets were symbolic of the scrappy blue-collar underdog identity to which the city’s residents related most strongly. As the city righted itself in the 1990s (albeit under somewhat questionable law enforcement policies) its identity tilted more toward Wall Street and the Yankees, with their illustrious history of world championships and timelessly “classic” look, once again leaving the Mets on the outside looking in.

Even more than those analogies between baseball and economics, however, Yells for Ourselves is primarily a nearly day-by-day accounting of two seasons of the New York Mets, with all the ups and downs that devout followers find so agonizing. The sheer detail might be overwhelming to any but the most avid Mets fans. More general baseball enthusiasts should find the reminders of familiar players and events a pleasant trip down memory lane, along with a glimpse behind the curtain of events they only viewed from afar. Casual fans and those who do not follow baseball at all may well find themselves turning instead to something a bit less meticulously detailed.

For all that Yells for Ourselves seems to be a labor of love by a lifelong Mets fan, the writing is professional and far from a slog. It is well written and edited, and does not suffer from a confusion of timeline or purpose. In that Callan has more than done his favorite team justice, even as he despairs at their foibles.

Viral video opens old wounds in ‘The Hidden Things’

With The Hidden Things (Gallery Books, 2019) Jamie Mason has crafted a solid suspense thriller that is firmly rooted in contemporary culture. It all begins when 14-year-old Carly fends off a would-be attacker who follows her home from school. Their encounter in the front hallway of her family’s home is captured by the surveillance cameras that her stepfather, John, had installed. Predictably in the 2010s, the video goes viral on social media after first being posted on the local police website. Soon Carly is fielding questions and attention from friends and strangers alike, who all know her as the plucky teen who defeated the bad guy.

Carly’s a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, but not so much that she doesn’t notice how oddly John is acting in the wake of the incident. And she isn’t immune to the household tension that erupts because neither Carly nor her mom realized John had installed surveillance cameras inside as well as outside the house.

Many cities away, the viral video comes to the attention of a group of people who are particularly interested, not in Carly and her heroics, but in what’s shown in the background: The corner of an old painting that was stolen from a museum and later thought to be lost forever when an underground sale went awry. How did it end up in Carly’s house? And to what lengths will people go to get it back?

The story is told from a variety of viewpoints, giving the reader insight into what all the main players are thinking and feeling. There’s Carly, of course, who is the heroine in more ways than one. But there’s also her stepfather, who finds himself trapped in a situation that could cause him to lose the comfortable home life he has finally found. And the other people who were involved in the caper-gone-wrong along with John are also given their turn in the spotlight: hapless loser Roy, ruthless bad guy Owen, and the enigmatic Marcelline, left for dead but very much alive. As they all converge on Carly’s home, no one’s sparing a thought for who might get caught in the crossfire. And it’s up to Carly to try to save herself, her family, and her “normal” teenage life.

Mason does a great job of juggling the rotating viewpoints without losing the reader’s attention. She managed to make me sympathize with each of them in turn, even when I knew the unspeakable things some of them had done. And she doesn’t try to wrap things up with a neat bow and unbelievable feats of strength from a young teenager. Carly is indeed her own savior (with a little help) but she is changed irrevocably by what she learns and what she is forced to do, and Mason doesn’t shy away from exploring the consequences of those actions. It kept me turning pages to the very end, and feeling satisfied when I closed the cover.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Up in the air

Only Dick Francis could combine horses and air travel in such a fascinating way

cover image of book Rat Race.

The most amazing thing about Rat Race, a 1970 mystery written by Dick Francis, is that it isn’t the only horse-racing mystery that Francis set in the world of aviation. Flying Finish, published four years earlier, delved into the world of long-distance horse transport. In both my 1980s-era paperback and a brand-new ebook edition of Rat Race by Canelo, there is an introduction from Francis explaining how the story came to be. His wife Mary figures prominently, as she apparently got so absorbed in researching the details of flying taxis that she took flying lessons and became a pilot herself. The Francises even had their own flying taxi service for a while before they sold out to a competitor.

Francis often publicly acknowledged the extensive research assistance that his wife did, to the extent that some people suspect she actually wrote the books. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know the care the Francises took to detail the specifics of various professions is one of the things that make reading Francis’ mysteries such a pleasure for me. Rat Race is no exception.

As I said, this book was originally published in 1970 and it shows in the cultural descriptions, in particular a hippie character named Chanter, who sprinkles around a generous helping of “man”s and disdain for authority as he’s casually groping the female love interest and railing against the establishment. Thankfully, he’s limited to two brief appearances, so don’t let him turn you off from this groovy story, man.

Matt Shore is a pilot. Once among the best in his profession, flying for B.O.A.C. (one of the forerunners of the current British Airways), Shore’s career has been on a bit of a downward spiral and he’s been reduced to working for a ramshackle flying taxi service that is barely keeping its wings above water. He’s depressed and keeps himself shut off from the world, until he is blasted — literally — out of his apathy when a bomb explodes on the plane he had been piloting just minutes earlier. It is seemingly only through the merest chance that Matt and his passengers — the top steeplechase jockey in Britain, a respected former Army Major, and an iron-glove woman trainer — escape serious injury. But accidents keep happening, and Matt realizes he needs to figure out where the danger is coming from before his career and his life both go up in smoke.

I remember when I first read this one ages ago, I was fascinated by the glimpse into the world of private aircraft. I think all of the experience that Mary Francis acquired in her research lends a nice air of authenticity. Of course, aviation technology has changed so much over the past 40-odd years that some of the dilemmas Matt faces probably wouldn’t happen today, but it hardly mattered to my enjoyment of the story.

The way Francis managed to meticulously and believably depict such a variety of different professions while maintaining a connection to the world of horses at the core of each book he wrote is remarkable. Plots set exclusively within the horse-racing scene so familiar to former jockey Francis would likely have grown stale in short order, but Francis deftly shows the reader how that industry closely interacts with so many other aspects of ordinary life. It’s always a pleasure to re-visit one of these old favorites.

You could look it up

Kory Stamper Shares Her Love For Language in the Delightful ‘Word by Word’

Every last syllable of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (Pantheon Books, 2017) is utterly delightful. You should seek it out and read it immediately. The End.

cover image for Word by Word book.

OK, that’s not much of a review. Let’s try again.

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, which means, essentially, that she and her colleagues write the dictionary. She’s long been one of my favorite word-nerd Twitter follows (@KoryStamper), because she is smart and profanely witty and even more in love with language than I am. More than once, as she has shared some wry observation about the lexicographical life, I’ve thought, “Man, that would be my dream job.” And now, she’s written a book for all of us who have ever wondered, “How on earth do you write a dictionary, exactly?”

Stamper cleverly constructed the book as a series of chapters, each focused on one particular dictionary word. But she uses a word’s story to tell her own, in the process highlighting all the aspects of lexicography that go far beyond writing definitions. The word “but” is the jumping-off point to discuss how grammar figures into dictionary writing, and the tremendous difficulty sometimes of pinning down just what part of speech a particular usage of a particular word actually is — and how none of that is what most people mean when they talk about grammar:

To them, “grammar” is a loose conglomeration of stylistic word choices that get codified into right and wrong, misspellings that every English speaker has made at some point in their life and yet are branded as “bad grammar,” half-remembered “rules” about usage shamed into them by their middle-school English teachers, and personal, sometimes irrational dislikes. This is the grammar that shows up on Internet memes about “your” and “you’re,” the sort of grammar people are referring to when they claim you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, the grammar that is invoked when people claim that the “10 items or less” sign at the grocery store is “bad grammar.”

Kory Stamper, Word by Word

That excerpt probably gives you a clue that Stamper is — as indeed are all lexicographers and the dictionaries they create — descriptionist rather than prescriptionist. Despite years of claims to the contrary (including the marketing materials of those self-same dictionaries!) the purpose of a dictionary is to describe and define language as it is being used by ordinary people right now, not to settle bets or teach anyone the One True Way. A similar message is conveyed in the chapter about “it’s,” wherein I learned that in fact the possessive and plural forms of that word were pretty much interchangeable for hundreds of years, including in the King James Bible and much of Shakespeare.

Other chapters use a specific word as the basis for illuminating the myriad tasks that a lexicographer performs every day: searching written materials to find new citations for new words as well as new ways of using old words; the tricky considerations that go into defining the word “surfboard,” which seems deceptively obvious until you try to pin it down; how small, ordinary words like “take” and “set” are the hardest to pin down because they have so many senses and subtleties of meaning (Stamper refers to them as “semantically oozy”). 

A chapter on revising the entry for “bitch” expands into a discussion of how dictionaries treat words that are considered vulgar or derogatory, and the problems that arise when not everyone agrees that certain words or sub-senses of words deserve to be labeled as such (including the problem that the majority of the people making those calls are still older white men of relative privilege who have not experienced having those words hurled at them in very personal ways).

But wait! There’s more! There are also chapters on the challenges of nailing down a word’s etymology, and how a good anecdote (“posh” is shorthand for “port out, starboard home”) is no substitute for actual documentation; the never-ending search to find the earliest known written use of each word; and the tricky business of conveying pronunciation that can accommodate dialect differences (this is why dictionaries use phonemic alphabets so that the letter i is pronounced like the vowel in pin, whatever that may sound like in your dialect). Again Stamper makes the point that the dictionary’s focus is on describing usage, not judging right and wrong.

The final chapter details how all hell broke loose in 2009, when some evangelicals noticed that the dictionary had added a sub-sense to the word “marriage” that described relationships between people of the same sex. (That the definition had changed six years earlier with no one noticing did not stem the outrage.) It’s a thoughtful intro to discussion of how people often get very angry about specific dictionary entries because they feel the dictionary is instigating societal changes that make them uncomfortable instead of simply describing how society has already changed. 

I no longer have any illusions that being a lexicographer is like getting to have ice cream for breakfast every day. It seems now to be a difficult, demanding, and rewarding endeavor that requires skills that go beyond just “loving words”. Loving words is definitely a prerequisite, though, and this book will give you an even greater appreciation of the nutty ways that English has developed and evolved over the centuries. If I had my life to live over, I could think of much worse ways to spend it than writing a dictionary.