Honor the Lexicographers

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On Tuesday I headed over to a book store in the Haight for the launch of Dictionary Stories, a peculiar little book by my pal Jez Burrows, and it just happens to be one of the most charming and joyous things I’ve ever read. In fact the book is overflowing with charm and I find myself thinking about it constantly.

Here’s the cover:

But what is Dictionary Stories? At first it’s a little difficult to describe, but let me try. It’s a collection of short stories where every word inside has been gathered from the example sentences that you find in a dictionary. Take the word “murder” for instance where the example in the New Oxford American Dictionary might read “Somebody tried to murder Joe”. In the introduction of the book Jez writes about the first time he read that sentence:

If you’re anything like me, you have questions: Who is Joe? Is Joe okay? What did Joe do to attract this sort of heat? Yet sadly, Joe’s story begins and ends in this humble example sentence.

And so Jez wondered: what would happen if you finished Joe’s story with all of these example sentences available in the dictionary? What sort of stories might you find?

Spend the better part of a year reading and reconfiguring the dictionary to write a book of stories, and you’ll emerge on the other side with more than just paper cuts and a modestly enhanced vocabulary. You’ll remember how inspiration and small pleasures can hide in plain sight, patiently waiting for a keen coconspirator to spring them loose. You’ll find intimate connections between seemingly impossible bedfellows, and the universe will suddenly seem more knowable, if only for a second. You’ll discover the word “famulus,” “flocculent,” and “minibeast,” then sadly realize that, in all likelihood, you’ll never be able to drop them into casual conversation.

During the book launch party and his interview with Robin Sloan, Jez mentioned that with Dictionary Stories he was trying to “honor the lexicographers” – the people that sampled and wrote the example sentences in the dictionaries that he then remixed. And there’s something delightful about that, about Jez not only trying to make you laugh and smile and hop off your seat, but also trying to impress and respect the people that provide us with our dictionaries.

This book is just the sort of thing to make me reel with jealousy because not only is the design of the book wonderful, with several illustrations also drawn by Jez scattered throughout the text, but the accompanying videos are also frustratingly brilliant, too. Take this video that Jez made featuring Roman Mars called Early Drafts of the Five Stages of Grief. But I warn you: it is very good and might be the highlight of your day.

Speaking of the design though – the book, the website, and all of the videos are beautifully typeset in Tiempos Text by the Klim type foundry and it’s use is spot on.

In fact I wish there was something to criticize about Jez’s book but I find myself only complimenting it the more I try to find something questionable. It’s like reading a Wodehouse novel where all of a sudden you remember what language is capable of and what we all should aspire to.

In short, you’ll find yourself laughing at the punchlines and shuddering at the break-ups in Dictionary Stories, and you’ll finish the book wondering what other stories you might find in unlikely places.