In his latest newsletter, my friend Alan Jacobs notes that Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary is now fully online, and points to his 2006 piece, “Bran Flakes and Harmless Drudges: Dr. Johnson and his Dictionary,” in which he recounts much of Johnson’s struggle putting together his book of words. (I was particularly sympathetic to Johnson’s disgust at his own “idleness” while holding a firm conviction that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” I do love a man who contains multitudes… especially multitudes who hate each other.)
At the very end of the piece, Alan writes about the magic of paper dictionaries (emphasis mine):
Surely every user of dictionaries or encyclopedias can recall many serendipitous discoveries: as we flip through pages in search of some particular chunk of information, our eyes are snagged by some oddity, some word or phrase or person or place, unlooked-for but all the more irresistible for that. On my way to “serendipity” I trip over “solleret,” and discover that those weird, broad metal shoes that I’ve seen on the feet of armored knights have a name. But this sort of thing never happens to me when I look up a word in an online dictionary. The great blessing of Google is its uncanny skill in finding what you’re looking for; the curse is that it so rarely finds any of those lovely odd things you’re not looking for. For that pleasure, it seems, we need books.
Fifteen years later, this is no less true: the magic of a paper dictionary is the magic of finding things you didn’t know you were looking for. It’s a magic that electronic texts, for all their usefulness and convenience, still haven’t touched.
The supposed “shortcomings” of paper are what, in fact, make it such a wonderful technology. Here’s Alan, again (with emphasis mine, again):
George Landow has written that “the linear habits of thought associated with print technology often force us to think in particular ways that require narrowness, decontextualization, and intellectual attenuation, if not downright impoverishment.” But it turns out that, when it comes to dictionaries anyway, it’s hypertext that narrows and impoverishes. The simple fact that I cannot pick up a dictionary and turn to the precise page I wish, or, even if I could do that, focus my eyes only on the one definition I was looking for — the very crudity, as it were, of the technology is what enriches me and opens my world to possibilities.
Get your paper dictionary today! You shan’t regret it.