‘Adam’s Task’: Alberto Manguel on the Dictionary

For many people, their first encounter with the history of the book is reading Alberto Manguel’s narratives that effectively combine historical detail, beautiful descriptions and personal anecdotes that give a unique spiritual element to the author’s encounters with books. These qualities that we have come to associate with Manguel in the written word were strongly felt in the engaging and thought-provoking lecture the author gave on ‘Adam’s Task: A Dictionary Story’.

The prevailing image of the dictionary as a functional book listing words with their definitions was immediately challenged by Manguel’s perception of it as a magical object with mysterious powers containing the modern language in its entirety: past forgotten languages and future words not yet known to name new experiences. At one time the dictionary held a place of importance, regarded as an essential possession along with a copy of the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare, but is increasingly unlikely to be found on today’s bookshelves. Whilst electronic versions offer a viable alternative, one feels they are even more functional than their paper counterpart as they do not offer the serendipity of discovering new words as you flick through the pages. During the course of the lecture, Manguel elevated the dictionary from a mere book of words with definitions laying forgotten on bookshelves, to a book that defines humanity itself, an essential volume containing our past, present and future. Instead of casually standing by and allowing this important book to become obsolete, Manguel forces us to consider the significance of loosing such a book, that it would be like losing our memory and losing our ‘guardian angel’ of the library.

Manguel reminded us of the dictionary’s impressive historical pedigree and made me realise that there are few books that can claim such longevity, continually updated so that it has remained relevant for successive generations and tailor-made for individual languages. The dictionary dates back 3000 years to the clay tablets of Mesopotamia on which the cuneiform writing is not ordered alphabetically but thematically. The first dictionary, as we would recognise it, was the lexicon produced in Alexandria in 4th century BC by Philitas of Cos. However, in those cultures that do not have an alphabet, different lexicographical systems were adopted, such as the Chinese system based on either the radicals (strokes) of the Chinese characters or the tones and sounds of the spoken word. The oldest surviving Chinese dictionary from 3rd century BC, the Erya (or Erh-ya) means ‘approaching what is correct, proper and refined.’ This was a dictionary that had been compiled to explain the meaning of ancient words and was important within Chinese culture for interpreting other classical works and making an essential contribution to a better life. By the time we get to Samual Johnson we have our first definition of the dictionary as ‘A book containing the words of any language in alphabetical order, with explanations of their meaning.’ It is this alphabetical system that underpins the dictionary system, and that ‘a literary masterpiece is nothing more than a dictionary out of order.’ Lexicographers tend to be passionate individuals whose names often became synonymous with their creations: (Noah) Webster and (Samuel) Johnson. Readers of dictionaries can be as equally passionate as their creators: Gustav Flaubert’s enthusiasm for the Dictionary of Commonplace and Ralph Waldo Emmerson’s sentiment that a dictionary was ‘… full of raw material. The raw material of possible poems and histories.’

The Bible recognises the importance of words, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Importantly, Adam is given the task of naming all the animals as names give meaning and are, Manguel tells us, the beginning of everything. If you thought dictionaries no longer had any importance then Manguel reminds us that they crucially contain the language that defines our culture, ethos and thoughts; they provide words to describe our human experiences making them seem certain; they are our biographies as everything we dream, want and feel can be found in a dictionary. If dictionaries record our lives then libraries, according to Manguel, are depositories of memory and the dictionary is our talisman against oblivion. Old words are not forgotten and new words are not left out in the cold; words we speak have the power to soar and vanish but written words are rooted on the page, tethered until we need them. The impact the lecture made on the audience was summed up in a voiced regret, during question time, about a decision to throw away a dictionary in a recent clear-out; I am sure we will all think twice now before disposing of our dictionaries.

Report by Susan Horne, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

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