A Worn Paper Dictionary and the Lost Art of Discovery
When I was a little girl, I don't think my grandmother ever told me the meaning of a word. When I would ask, "Grandmother, what does inconspicuous mean?" or "Grandmother, what does byzantine mean?" She had but one answer: "Go look it up."
I'd trek over to the coffee table where a worn paper dictionary that appeared to be about fifty years my senior lay. The spine was cracked in so many places that you could hardly read whether it was an Oxford English Dictionary, a Merriam-Webster, or a crossword dictionary, for that matter.
The paper corners were torn, and the inner pages were fluffed--some having had coffee spilled on them--making the book look nearly twice as thick as it would've been when it was first bought. The pages were yellowing slightly.
I'd look up whatever word I had been curious about, and get acquainted with a few other interesting words I found on the same page. By the time I was done, I'd learned three or four new words instead of just the one I'd come for.
Over the years I learned the dictionary so well that I could pretty much just open it to the very page that contained the word I sought.
I'd completely forgotten about the old dictionary until a few weeks ago when I was reading an article for a class about collaborations between teachers and school librarians. There was a mention of the fact that students who read more tend to have better vocabularies, then the article went on to explain age appropriate researching activities for schoolchildren.
As I was reading, I remembered the dictionary. I thought about the last time I'd even used a real paper dictionary... and I realized I couldn't remember. It'd probably been years. Growing up with the internet and becoming digitally literate in high school and college, I realized that I've been using online dictionaries since I started my preteen awkward phase. And that's been awhile now.
I thought about how I never had to use any brain power to quickly alphabetize in my head to find a word in an online dictionary. I thought about how I only found the one word I came to find, and how I never just happened upon any interesting words. I thought about how I'd probably never own a tattered old dictionary and be able to tell a kid "go look it up" because she would've already been looking up the word on her iPad.
I thought about these things and I wondered if some things aren't better off left to paper. Not to say that we shouldn't have online dictionaries at all, but that the beauty of discovery is often lost when we're given exactly what we want the moment we want it. It just doesn't make for the most memorable learning experience. It doesn't leave much to serendipity.
I don't know if that old dictionary is still in the basket under my grandmother's coffee table, but if it is, I'm going to ask her if she'll let me give it a new home on my bookshelf.