I’ve mentioned before how much I love words. I Collect them. My book shelves are filled with dictionaries, thesauri, and word origin books. I once had this fabulous 1880’s set of Cyclopedic Dictionaries with every word known to the English language, and I do mean every word. The local library was throwing it away. Can you imagine? True, it was missing half of all the G words. Really though, how many G words does one need to know? The other volumes, with their ratty and taped bindings were still there. Homely as it was, this set made Miriam and Noah’s dictionaries look nothing less than amateurish. I took them home and loved them. I regret not using them to their full potential when I had the chance, but I wasn’t writing at the time.
One day my husband found bookworms on our bookshelf, honest-to-god bookworms! My precious old Cyclopedias were the source. It broke my heart to get rid of them but their parasites were attacking other books as well. I thought about putting them in the oven but they were so old and brittle I was sure I’d burn the house down. I wonder if another set is out there waiting for a wordy like me.
This fascination with words all started with the Reader’s Digest. As a very early reader growing up in a house with few books, I read the strangest things as a child. I could tell you the recipe for the Quaker Oatmeal meatloaf because it was on the box. I could tell you what the Surgeon General said about smoking from my parent’s cigarette packs, I could list the songs on the back of the Beatles’ first album, I could literally Sing Along with Mitch, and yes the cans of Alpo dog food really did have horse meat in them. As far as books went, we had an ancient set of encyclopedias that had these fascinating transparencies of both human and frog bodies, a partial set of Childcraft books from the 1950’s, an old Webster’s Dictionary, as well as a partial 1930’s set of My Book House books with their imaginative lithographs. My brother had comic books. I read them all. Most more than once.
In the first ten years of my life, the Chicago Tribune came to my house in the morning and the Daily News arrived early afternoon. My father and I read both newspapers together on Sunday. It was a ritual of sorts. We’d divide the papers…he’d take the front page and car sections and I’d take the “funnies” and the sports page. We’d read those quietly to ourselves, then we’d switch. I remember lying on my belly in the shaft of sunlight just behind the sofa and reading words that weren’t all understandable to my six-year-old or nine-year-old self.
“Dad, what is a demilitarized zone?”
“It’s a border between armies where no fighting takes place.”
“Dad, who’s Chairman Mao?”
“He is the leader of China.”
“Is Chairman his first name?”
“No, that’s his job. A chairman is the same as a president here.”
“Does he have a first name?”
“Read the article again and see if you can find it.”
“Oh, I think see it. His name is Mao Zadong. Isn’t that backwards?”
It makes me smile even remembering. When he’d had enough he say, “Come do the crossword puzzle with me.” My smile widens here. Up until he passed away, dad would bring me a half finished crossword puzzle to finish nearly every time he stopped by to visit. We’d finish that sucker too and always use a pencil just in case. 🙂
But what about that Reader’s Digest mentioned above?
By far the most interesting reading material in the house was my dad’s Reader’s Digest. I cut my teeth on Build Your Word Power. Every month Reader’s Digest put out a list of words intended to build one’s vocabulary. From ages six on into my early thirties, he’d hand me the digest and say, “Here, these are for you.” At his suggestion, I’d try to break them down and guess their meanings before I turned the page to read their definitions. It was here, where I saw for the first time, the relationship between words. Words like Cardinal, Cardiac, and Cardamom — red bird, red heart, red berries — they were all red. Unfortunately, by the time Latin class was supposed to come my way, it was cut from the public school budget. I would have kicked butt in ancient languages. I’ve self-taught the basics but would love a go at ancient Greek and Latin classes. I might do that one day.
I still do crossword puzzles but I don’t get the Reader’s Digest anymore. Just not enough hours in the day to read that along with everything else I read, but I do pounce on one if I happen to see it in the doctor’s office. First stop – Build Your Word Power. My dad challenged me to have a broader relationship with words because he loved words too. Essentially, he made me the Wordy I am.
Gratias ago vos abbas , illa lacuna es vobis. — Thank you dad, these words are for you.