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.

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1) by Philip Pullman

Here’s another book that made me question my life decisions. Why on earth did I wait this long to read La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust #1), when I’d had it with me for two years? (My childhood best friend gifted this to me last Christmas 2017.) Here, a confession: I was scared I wouldn’t fall in love with The Book of Dust as much as I did with His Dark Materials, which I’d read more than ten years ago (and also which the same friend introduced to me in high school).

I finally took the leap of faith (dramatic, I know) after seeing The Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust #2) at a bookstore. What? There were already paperback copies of book two, and I hadn’t even read book one?! I actually had different books to read lined up at that time, but it just so happened that (1) I’d misplaced the nonfiction book I was currently reading, and (2) I’d left the fantasy book I was planning to read behind when I left for home-home for the holidays. Well, that worked out; I was already itching to read La Belle Sauvage anyway.

The verdict: there were not many books I’d read this past year that enchanted me as much as La Belle Sauvage did.

Perhaps it’s because reading La Belle Sauvage felt familiar. As I’d mentioned earlier, I read His Dark Materials in high school, and I still remember feeling taken by Lyra and her world (and Will Parry). Part of me feels like The Book of Dust was written for readers who grew up with His Dark Materials, for readers who hold Lyra near and dear their hearts.

Now that I’m older, I felt tension in their world more than I did back in high school. Knowing more about the world, I felt anxious for Malcolm, whose growing up was expedited by the circumstances he found himself in. I empathized with Malcolm as he discovered what it meant to love, and I felt proud of him as he used both heart and mind to make his decisions. And because the entire series is a prequel, I knew from the start that everything was going to turn out alright in the end. Still I couldn’t help but ride the same roller coaster of emotions as Malcolm did throughout the book. Growing up is never easy for anyone—I will leave it at that.

Someone please give Philip Pullman ten million gold stars and me a (hardbound) copy of The Secret Commonwealth because I am entranced. I know it will be a while before I read the second book (to be fair, I am making good progress with my stack of unread books), but I have been telling my friends to read La Belle Sauvage because I want to gush about the book and more to them already. Please appreciate with me.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I have only one regret when it comes to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See: that I waited all this time to read it when I’ve had the book since 2015. I received this book as part of a book club from my first job, but I was too overwhelmed learning about clients and portfolios and all to read the book. And then I came up with more excuses through the years: the book was too long; the story seemed too sad (this was not false), and I didn’t want to feel sad at the moment. Whatever possessed me to finally pick it up this month is probably the biggest blessing the bookish me could have received in a while.

The book is set during the rise of Nazism through the German occupation of France, and it alternates points of views between Marie-Laure, who grew up solving puzzles that her locksmith father made for her and reading books that her father could procure for her (she’s particularly attached to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), and Werner, who grew up taking care of his younger sister Jutta at an orphanage and tinkering with radios and listening to broadcasts about science. I grew incredibly attached to all of the characters, especially Werner and Etienne. Although they had a different energy from the usual hero types, they didn’t go unnoticed.

And the story itself, wow. It breaks my heart to think about how everyone’s stories unfolded. It’s the kind of story that will gently take your heart, tickle it a bit, and then crush and tear it into tiny little pieces because that’s just how life is. The story is set during the war, after all. How could I have even been tricked into thinking that it could end happily? No, I am making excuses; I was not misled by the story, but I was hoping against all hope that it would end well. Hope is dangerous. So many emotions.