Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Oxford English Dictionary: the Digitalia Cometh

The last page turned, the cover closed: the book has ended. I think, 'I love this book. I am never getting rid of this book. Seriously. I have to remember not to lend it out and lose track of it, not to donate it...I am NEVER getting rid of this book.' *

To those whose inner landscape is built on a foundation of reading, of books, of connections that emerge from and depend on the magic of language, the feeling will be at least familiar. So rapidly have we moved from the 600 year old concept of all learning being available through the power of print to the ditigal landscape that we're still catching up with ourselves. And I'm a fan. I live and breathe and make my living in the digital space; I will ultimately share this with you using digital media. Most of my friends are people making at least part of their livings using the media, mindset and tools of...well, digitalia. And yet many of us share a connection to older media too profound to be characterized as nostalgia. And so, my loves, here is a small remembrance of the beauty of pre-digitalia and its resonance in the present.

Here is my Dear Old Person (who was undeniably my Dear Much Younger Person in those days) popping his head into the door of the Booksmith, saying hello. I include it to show you a glimpse of a local independent bookstore. I include it because you see the old brass plate on the door, and the way it opened inward so that our endless stream of friends, customers, visitors, malingerers and characters had to pretty much step into the sales counter to announce their arrival. I include it so you can see the Front Door of An Independent Bookseller's Life, which is not AT ALL the same thing as working in a bookstore. For those of you fortunate enough to live in markets where independent bookstores still live - or, bless 'em, actually thrive - it may not seem important. And if you've adapted wholly to digital media, barely missing the tactile connection with the physically printed word, printed photographs or artwork, good on ya. Enjoy your evening.

When Booksmith friend and patron Mrs. Detmold called us to order a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary people were still caught, uncertain, between the non-digital and its emerging alternatives. For Mrs. Detmold, however, there was no such uncertainty. She and her scholarly husband were firmly grounded in the 20th century even as it faded and we raced toward the 21st. Some of her own manners seemed to date to the previous century, including her quaint telephone manners. We had lots of regular customers whose loyalty drove them to visit the new Barnes & Nobles beginning to dot the Southeast, leaving with wish lists they called in to us, rather than buying on sight. Mrs. Detmold was one of these. Her phone calls began with her soft, sweet voice, announcing her name and enumerating her list, and ended when she simply hung up. When she was finished with her call, she didn't say, "Well, thanks - talk to you later," or "Bye bye, dear," or anything signature-like at all. When the list had been dictated, the order placed, she simply hung up. This all would have passed with little notice, except for the day she called to order that copy of the OED.

There was no computer in the Booksmith. We had a microfiche reader, and respectably tattered copied of Books in Print. We used these to locate things our customers requested, and the hardware tools were supplemented by our personal knowledge and networks. The tools we had, primitive as they seem now, generally provided at least ballpark estimates of pricing. When I found the version of the OED Mrs. Detmmold seemed to be reqesting, I was astonished. "Are you sure you don't want me to look for an abridged version of the dictionary?" I asked Mrs. Detmold. No, thank you, she said. I stammered out the price. Was she certain? The new OED, recently updated and unabridged, running to nearly 20 volumes, was about $2500.00, a sum that approached the limits of my imagination. Really? Was she really certain?

Yes, dear, she said, and hung up.

The order was placed with much seriousness and attention, and when the heavy boxes arrived, they were picked up with much the same feeling. And then, like the ending of a phone call with Mrs. Detmold, there was silence. A couple of months passed before she called to place an order. When she did, it was impossible not to ask: Were they satisfied with the order? Did they like it? (I know: it seemed the most ridiculous thing to ask about the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, but there it was.) Did they (timdly, this last was ventured), well, did they get much use from the Dictionary? There was a moment of silence, but not the stilted I'm-not-sure-about-this-telephone-business silence to which we'd all gotten accustomed. This was a puzzled silence, a moment in which Mrs. Detmold may have considered us the Oldest City's nicest Philistines, but Philistines, no less. Finally she said, "Oh, yes, dear. We use it all the time. Someone will mention a word, and off we go to the library to look it up. We just love it." She paused, and then added, "Every time we have company, I find someone or other in the library, curled up with one volume or another, just...well, you know, just READING it."

I set the phone down and returned to the tasks at hand: matchmaking between books and people, welcoming the unbelievably diverse Booksmith clientele, thinking about novels by Isabel Allende, collections of Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe and books like The 12-Volt Bible, and the history section where Dr. Michael Gannon made his home, and the historical fiction of local interest, where Eugenia Price's Maria and Patrick Smith's A Land Remembered were staples. New writers like Connie Fowler and Ernie Mickler and Carl Hiaasen were being hand-sold because our staff loved them. And yet, The Oxford English Dictionary had found its way to someone's libary, here in provincial little St. Augustine. Someone valued the pure possession of a beloved book, printed on paper, spanning many volumes, holding the accumulated and evolving secrets of the English language over time passing human understanding.

*The book is The Red Chamber, by Pauline A. Chen (Knopf, New York, 2012). It's a beautiful re-imagining of Cao Xuequin's "The Dream of the Red Chamber", itself, according to Chen, "...the eighteenth century novel widely considered the most important work of fiction in the Chinese literary tradition....largely unknown to western audiences...", a book I'd read and loved 20 years ago or more. Ironically, one of its themes is the careless certainty we have in our youth that everything is within reach, and the awareness that comes ever so slowly as we age that every choice leads inexorably to that which cannot be undone. It is beautifully told. Thank you, Pauline Chen.

Photo(c) Angela Christensen 2012 All rights reserved

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