I first meet with the Reader of Dictionaries in a clean, well-lighted place. Across from me, the Reader reclines in a defective desk chair, hands behind his head, stories of the history of words and dictionaries pouring from him like the sun’s light pours in through the wide windows around him. No, don’t read the collegiate dictionaries, he advises. The Oxford English Dictionary, Johnson’s, Webster’s Second Edition, etc.; that’s the stuff…
It takes two meetings before all of the questions have been asked and answered. On the second afternoon, we sit at a picnic table amidst a quiet quad. It is winter in California, and the sky is a rebellious blue, the sun stubborn in its shining. With one hand, the Reader of Dictionaries shades his eyes from the brightness while his other hand rests on the table, tap, tap, tapping along to the almost imperceptible rhythm of life.
How are you today?
I’m fine… My conscience is bothering me. My conscience always bothers me a lot for small things, in most people’s mind, but to me, it’s not a small thing if I betray somebody’s trust, and I feel I did that. Now, I have to clarify this is not some salacious secret– it’s not. To me, I mean, to most people, it’s a rather mundane thing I’m talking about. I’m not going to give the details, but most people would think nothing of it; but to me, it’s heavy, and I think it’s a sign of my Catholic upbringing, where I took it very seriously, if not the religion, but the threat of punishment, I guess, for violations of trust when I was a kid. And I take it moreso than ever to this day. I just think it’s very, very important, if somebody trusts you, that you always maintain that trust.
If you could have witnessed any event in person, what would you have wanted to see?
I’ve thought about this many times. I have many, many things. Certainly, I would have liked to have accompanied a Roman army on their march. And I think I particularly would have liked to accompany them to their first battle with Hannibal as he came out of the Alps. Of course, they got decimated, so I wouldn’t want to be amongst their number, but I would’ve liked to witness that.
And another one: the guy who wrote the first dictionary, Dr. Johnson, used to be a member of a club (clubs were very fashionable in London), and they attracted playwrights, artists, politicians, all kinds of people. I would have liked to have been at one of their dinner-and-drinking meetings where Johnson was talking with his friends. I think it just would have been so much fun. So much conversation. But I could go on and on in that vein. There are many things I would have liked to have witnessed.
Do you have a favorite word?
No. I have many favorite words, but that doesn’t make sense; no. I like words, so I don’t have a favorite.
I think it was [Ambrose] Bierce who said that “cellar door” was one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language. Cellar door. And, you know what, I kind of agree. It’s rich. I mean, it makes you think of many things. It makes you think of shady summer days. It makes you think of fruit, like apples stored in the cellar and the smell that comes out of it, making wine. It’s really… I see his point. Cellar door. It is a really nice phrase. But if I were to say “cellar door” is my favorite word, you would correctly point out that it’s two words, and I think you need both.
Is there a person you looked up to as a child who helped you become the person you are today?
Yeah, of course, there are many. I certainly see my dad’s influence in my values. I see my mother’s influence, not necessarily all good, in the way I am, but I certainly see my mother in me. I see my brother in me. Again, not all good, but certainly some is good.
I think a more conventional answer is that I had a cross country coach in high school who was a model teacher to me, and I think I pattern my style after him. One characteristic of him that I always admired, in fact, we all admired, was that he would treat everybody the same. Whether they’re the fastest, the slowest, whether they were another coach, he never had a voice and a manner that was geared down for students. Everyone was the same, and we really appreciated that. He never valued the fastest over the slowest on the team. We were all part of the team, and we really liked this guy, and we’ve kept in touch. We’d take him to dinner. Yeah, [we] liked him.
What is the worst injury or illness you’ve ever had?
(Sighs.) Depression. That was the worst. As far as physical, well, I’ve been pretty lucky, but I know I got mononucleosis after I graduated and was working. I don’t know how I got it. I was also married at the time, and I was running, and I was doing a physical job in a mill. All of a sudden, I just had absolutely no energy, and I even would lie on the floor and think about climbing into bed, and then deciding it was too much work, I would just stay where I was. I’ve never been so completely physically debilitated as that. I also lost a lot of weight, which was good, and I remember, after getting it over, preparing a meal that was what I was used to preparing and being totally inable to eat it because I had [been so] reduced after months’ time. That was probably the worst, but I don’t mind it. I didn’t mind it. It’s not like depression. That horrible, horrible thing where you cannot rouse yourself to take an interest in anything. That was the worst.
Do you believe honesty is always the best policy?
No, but I do practice that, not because I believe in it, but because my conscience will not allow me to do otherwise. I really do think, Is what I’m saying the truth? I think about this a lot. I do think, for me, honesty is the best policy. Of course, I’m not so ignorant of rhetoric that I don’t realize the many ways you can tell a lie while also speaking the truth. You can omit the truth to give some shade or some color to your answer. That’s why, in court, they ask you to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That’s a pretty good line. And yet, I’m so conscious of it that even when I’m not telling the whole truth, I then try to correct myself.
I’m going to give myself away, but when I’m teaching and I realize that I’m expressing my opinion, I try to point that out, and I try also to say, “Do not believe me. Hear me, but go and look for yourself and trust your judgement.” I have to keep saying that because it’s a heavy responsibility to give somebody an impression that something is true when it’s in fact, maybe, my total opinion. I totally believe it, and yet, I don’t feel exactly right giving that out for a student, for instance, to believe. Now, I’m very much conscious of honesty being the best policy for me.
Is there a particular life lesson you feel you’re still learning?
Oh, yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I’m always learning things from my students. I’m learning things all the time. I certainly need to improve my quick temper. I don’t know that I want to, but I should. Actually, my quick temper sometimes serves me good rhetorical purpose, as you may well know, but at the same time, it bothers my conscience. And I know I shouldn’t [get angry], and therefore that’s something I should work on.
Certainly, my self discipline; that is something I honestly believe in and yet don’t practice enough. Whether it be eating, pushing myself away from the YouTube and the internet and [getting] something serious done, keeping up with my work, my grading; these things. I surely hope I can learn enough to change. Whether or not I will, well, I guess that remains to be seen. But I also know it won’t happen unless I forcefully make it happen, so I’m perfectly aware I’m not being totally honest with myself when I throw it off, saying, “It remains to be seen whether or not I will acquire the discipline I need.” The fact is, I know the only way to do it is to do it, and to say anything else is a cop out.
Do you have any stories in mind that you would love to write?
Yes. All the time, I’m thinking of things to write. All the time, I’m thinking of characters to remember to put in those stories. I meet characters all over the place. I meet them in school; I know plenty of them. I have a very developed sense of how life is dramatic and interesting, and I get a lot of pleasure out of the drama, not high school drama, but rather the drama of history and life. I’d like to share that, if I could, through storytelling. I need to practice writing more to be able to develop my style better. Again, a discipline problem. But yeah, there is plenty.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
I see somebody who’s a heck of a lot older than what I feel. I’ll say, a heck of a lot [more] out of shape than what I remember. That’s what I see.
What is your greatest fear?
I think I could probably come up with greater fears than this, but the everyday fear is of humiliation in front of a crowd. I think that is a highly motivating thing. I know I often mention the Jerry Springer audience. Being jeered is something that scares me, you know, because I don’t know how to react about it. I need to be around rational people to feel even keel. So, perhaps to say it, to be under the mercy of irrational people is a major fear of mine, and I try to avoid it as much as possible.
Can you offer any profound advice?
I like to think so. You’re asking me to offer some? Read and backpack. The two things together, or at least, go off into the wild. Learn to love the wild lands and experiences of being in the wild. There’s a lot you can learn about many things there. I mean, not only the way the ecosystem works, the way the weather works, how to find yourself, how to keep yourself from getting lost, but you also learn important things like you don’t have to have a perfect temperature to be comfortable; you don’t need to be perfectly dry to be comfortable; you don’t need a comfortable bed to sleep comfortably. That’s a very important thing to understand in life.
The second was the reading business. Reading gives you contact with other people’s thinking. Of course, you also can get that through conversation, but most conversations are mundane, frivolous, and especially if they come in the form of a Tweet; so in fact, what a book is, is the recollection of the thoughts of a person condensed. Of course, there’s a lot of inane books, but there’s a lot of books that are really worth reading, and those are the ones to seek out.