Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

This one is another book from the pile of unread books I’d accumulated over the years. I bought Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries in New York back in 2017 and finally read this at the end of 2019. So here’s a familiar sounding remark about my latest read: I can’t believe I didn’t read this sooner. (I am currently on a book-buying ban—I make exceptions here and there, particularly for nonfiction—so I can focus on reading the books I already have.)

Reading this was fun. Like the dictionary, it wasn’t instructive (or meant to be); it was descriptive. I wasn’t expecting to bookmark anything on this book, but there were some anecdotes that jived with my humor that I wanted to make sure I could easily find them in the future. Here are two fun pages: 133 and 199—check them out.

Perhaps another reason I am partial to this book is that I have always enjoyed reading and writing. I also used to have very strong opinions about grammar, but I eventually grew to appreciate how language evolves and with it its words and grammar. (Although I have finally accepted the existence of “irregardless,” I still avoid using it like the plague.) It was interesting to read about how the evolution of a word’s definition is captured by lexicographers. In a way, they’re historians.

Something that took me by surprise was that people actually take the time to write to dictionary editors to express their opinions. Wow, people read the dictionary? As it turns out, the answer is yes, and these people’s opinions must be heard. Even lexicographers must read and address angry emails. Imagine that. But there were some friendly neighborhood emails, too (there were a bunch of interesting comments about “irregardless”). As with every industry, there are a handful of thoughtful people that write in out of goodwill. (To these people—thank you. Your words are always a breath of fresh air.)

Finally, there was something about Kory Stamper’s writing style that captured my heart. I found it quite charming, as if I was reading a fairy tale or something. Everything flowed so well that I found myself reading through the night, and let me emphasize that this is the only nonfiction book (by far) that I have chosen to read over sleep. I enjoyed it that much. Eventually sleep got in the way, but don’t let that invalidate my praise.

Novel Reactions: The Lean Startup

In preparation for reentering the workforce, I also read The Lean Startup. I liked that the book provided real life examples and was not too prescriptive, in a workbook kind of way. It was easy to read and to follow, and it helped a lot that I was annotating as I read through. The numerous flags (I know, they were a lot) actually helped me out when I was writing summary notes after finishing the book.

There were a lot of repeated concepts throughout the book, but I think that was Eric Ries’ way of putting everything together and making sure that everything sticks. The two main ideas I learned from the book were (1) avoid wasting time and effort by testing a minimum viable product and obtaining consumer insight sooner and (2) use validated learning to know when to pivot or to persevere. The book made a lot of sense, at least for someone in the startup world, and I rank it highly (probably top 5) among my nonfiction reads.

Also, kudos to Eric Ries and his editors for keeping the book’s tone condescension-free. (I know, I also noticed that this is a recurring thing I point out for nonfiction…) Even when Ries was talking about his experience at IMVU, his tone remained normal, humble even, and I think that is one of the reasons I found this book so pleasant and enjoyable to read.

So yes, I think people should pick up this book and read it! It may not resonate to everyone (the strategy is a little industry-specific), but there are good points here even for well established companies. (Ries talks about Toyota a lot.) If this isn’t the book for you, you can always pivot, too.