There are those, frog’s leg French toast, who feel your Uncle Blogsy, entertaining though he may be on the subject of Book Fair oddities, is unworthy to be a Book Fair manager because he does not understand day-to-day readers. “He may be okay with limited edition Civil War memoirs,” they say, “But he doesn’t realize most people just want to walk in, buy the latest bestseller on politics, and walk out again. He can’t handle REAL books.”
Well, all righty, then. Let’s discuss a subject which is less susceptible to excitement. What about dictionaries?
We get a lot of dictionaries, from those little paperback handy items to the kind your mom bought in the supermarket one letter a week to the hefty Webster’s International. I have spoken before of the Great War which resulted when the third edition of the Webster’s International listed “ain’t” as word; did you ever hear about the court decision which made it possible for any company to call its dictionary “Webster’s Dictionary”? The key to knowing which book has the proper pedigree is to look at the name of the publisher. The Merriam-Webster folks are the ones who inherited the dictionary business from Noah Webster himself. As a next-best, if the publisher includes the word Collins somewhere (Collins World, Harper Collins, etc.), this supposedly indicates a fairly decent piece of work.
Some people love their unabridged dictionaries, and I recall with a grin the young man who lugged his copy of the second edition of Webster’s International all around the Book Fair, proud not only of owning such an impressive reference work but also because his father had praised him for talking me down on the price. (Start ‘em young: learning how to haggle is a life’s work.) Other people adore that boxed two-volume Oxford English Dictionary, preferably in the slipcase which comes with the drawer holding a magnifying glass (unless the original owner decided to keep that when the dictionary was donated. For these people I have designed an afterlife in which they will always be one dime short of the price of the pay toilets.)
But probably the best-selling dictionary at the Book Fair is the Webster’s Collegiate. Some people want the edition they had on their desk at college, while other people will take any edition at all. Produced by Merriam Webster shortly after the first edition of the Webster International, it is recommended by no less than the Chicago Manual of Style. (We can discuss the war among fans of different style manuals some other time.) It should not be confused with any Webster’s College Dictionaries, which are not the same at all.
Another notable dictionary is The Century Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language, published in 1914, and important at least for getting the words Lexicon, Dictionary, and Encyclopedia into one title. It was published in ten volumes: not quite the size of the full Oxford English Dictionary, but still impressive.
But more impressive is that somebody at Century decided, “Hey, kids! What would this look like if it was all in one volume?”
It looks like a footstool, is what it looks like. Bound in brown corduroy, this nine thousand page mammoth is thicker than it is tall, and this copy of it, at least, has survived over a century of use to be donated to the Book Fair. (Maybe that’s why they called it the Century Dictionary.) Its weight matches its gargantuan aspect.
And I carried it into my work area without dropping it and breaking the binding. “Can’t handle real books”, huh?