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The Reading Life

Nostalgia jumps from the pages of an old dictionary

August 14, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Helping a kid pack for college is like going on a scavenger hunt. For the last few days, my wife and I have been working with our son to clear out old clothes, old books, old souvenirs, to decide what he’ll keep and what he’ll discard as he heads east at the end of the week. We’ve found photos, notebooks, lost school projects, all of them touched, in some sense, with the weight of memory.

This is what we have left of him as a young boy, as a kindergartner and a middle-schooler. Just last night, I spent half an hour or so paging through an eighth-grade project on Thomas Paine and a second-grade “Book of Sayings”: “You can lead a horse to water,” my son warns us, “but don’t push him in.”

Perhaps the week’s most unexpected discovery was a 1975 Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, bound in leather and monogrammed in gold with my initials, which my mother gave me when I left home for school. I had forgotten the book even existed until it was presented to me … or, more accurately, returned.

When had I passed this over to my son? I couldn’t tell you -- nor why, nearly 40 years after I’d received it, it was still around. It is, after all, not a book I treasure or one that represents me; with their whiff of aspiration, the leather and the gold embossing express my mother’s sensibility, not mine.

Nor do I recall using it particularly; when I needed a dictionary, this was almost never the one to which I turned. In any case, I’m not a dictionary person, really, preferring to pick up my words in context, from the line of an essay or a story or a poem.

Still, there is something about this book, and its accumulated years, that struck me, as if it were a touchstone, a connection point. When my mother gave it to me, she was not yet 40, and I was a teenager. Now she is in her late 70s and I am past 50, the parent of teenagers myself.

Amid that sort of flux, the presence — or survival — of such a book offers its own kind of reassurance, about what remains and what will never remain, about the air of safety that objects breathe into our lives.

On the one hand, that’s little more than an illusion. The dictionary reveals this not by what it contains but by what it doesn’t: no citations for “blog” or “Internet,” although I do find “cybernetics,” “cybernation,” “cyborg,” as well as all those four-letter words we’ve come to take for granted, but which gave me such a cheap thrill when, as a teenager, I first looked them up.

And yet, if this has anything to tell us — that language changes, that like all of us, it is alive, adaptive, in a constant state of evolution — it also suggests something else, a kind of throughline, by which although we ultimately lose everything, there are some things we can hold on to, if only for the time being.

My old dictionary, it turns out, may be one such object, important less for what it contains than for what it exemplifies. It’s sitting on my desk now: an artifact, a reminder, a way to trace a line between us, to bring the present (for the moment, anyway) full circle with the past.


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