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: kaddish.com

After the first few chapters of kaddish.com, I did not know how to feel. I’d expected the book to tell the story of Larry’s misadventures over the 11-month mourning period for his father. So after the first part ended, and Larry came home, and that was that, I’d felt short-changed. I couldn’t make sense of it. Suddenly, Larry was Reb Shuli, teaching at the school. How? His (re)conversion from atheism felt rushed. What? Like it’s hard to convert your heart?

Eh, anyway, I read on. I’ve always been a fan of Nathan Englander’s writing, and I began to think that perhaps it may have been too easy or predictable for the story to have only been set over that period of time. Of course. We needed to make it all the way to a midlife crisis and see that some actions do have lasting consequences. And we needed to make up for our mistakes. What lengths do we go to make amends, and when do we call it a day?

Only remember, … if you don’t find what you need over there, in this life it’s permissible to forgive oneself too.

Nathan Englander, kaddish.com

No need to answer. I’ll just leave that here. Also, I haven’t come across a quote I liked that much in a while. I needed that.

Although the synopsis on the book jacket was a little misleading (i.e. the story was not about the 11-month mourning period, but then again, who told me it would be anyway?), the rest of the story flowed well. I liked the story. It was also funny in a different way… in an ‘omg no, don’t do that!’ kind of way. Man, what a character.

Reading as an Extrovert

Reading is probably one of the most classic pastimes for introverts.

Introverts recharge by spending quality time on their own, and reading is a great way to pass the time. It is probably also quite calming for people; it’s nice and quiet, with no need to engage in the chaotic world that we all live in.

Except that I’m an extrovert. I recharge by meeting up with people and chatting them up. I can be loud and obnoxious, and just the right amount of social interaction can keep me going all day or night, minimal drinks required. If you ask me whether reading relaxes me, the answer is it does not. I won’t even try to read after a long day at work because I would feel more drained than I had just been. It would then be as if reading became a chore, and I would get all worked up because why do I have so many books to read anyway? What was I thinking?

Oh, yes, now I remember: I love to read—only I read when I’m already relaxed. I do not read when I am rattled because solitude does not calm nor recharge me one bit. I am a morning person, and I feel at my best while the sun is out. I feel calm when I wake up to the morning sunshine, so I read while I eat breakfast and drink coffee. I read before I face the challenges of the day, even if it is only for thirty minutes, because it is such a joy to read, and I will make sure it stays that way for me.

If I’m tired, I actually look forward to talking to people and telling them about my day, in person or in social media. I need the interaction. Not surprisingly, I’m reading at a slower pace than I was a few months ago. I was on vacation then. I’m not too bothered by the change of (reading) pace though because I’d rather have a pleasant time reading than get burnt out doing so.

Extroverts need to recharge, too—just in a seemingly counterintuitive way.