Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Death of the Dictionary?

When I was in elementary school, I remember learning math facts. 4 + 4 = 8, 3 x 4 = 12, etc. We would have timed tests, 3 minutes for 50 addition or subtraction problems, 5 minutes for multiplication. We would complain about never needing to know this anyway. We could just use a calculator! The teacher smiled knowingly, and said smugly, "When you are older, you won't always have a calculator handy in your pocket to help you out."


Less mathy, but with a similar nostalgia, I recall a set of 1978 World Book Encyclopedias at my house, and how incredibly proud I was to show them off to any visitors. We had ALL of the knowledge, here in our house! I would sit on the floor with the L volume in my lap, looking up lions and Louisiana and leather and Abraham Lincoln. So much to know!

All of that is at our fingertips, now. All of it can be found in seconds.

I had this notion the other day, and no matter how old and curmudgeonly I may sound saying it, I'm going to say it.

I miss encyclopedias. I miss the necessity to go to our local library on a weekly basis. I miss card catalogs and the wonder of stacks and stacks and stacks of books. What did they all contain?

But I get the most panicky about the death of the dictionary. I love words so much. I never look up only ONE word. There is always the page browse, searching for other unknown words. The words that surround the word, the words on the next page. The language of origin and the root word, on which so many other words rely. Words are my friends. Like anecdote and deference and diatribe and ambivalence. I tuck words away in my heart, like escutcheon and flummox and defenestrate (thank you, David, for that gem). On many an occasion, I have just opened the dictionary out of curiosity, to see what new words I might find there.

And there's the thing about digitizing everything. We are losing the collateral or adjacent or auxiliary learning. The learning because you're already there. The expanse of knowledge, by being in a place where there is always more to know. The stuff you learn about, when you're learning about other stuff. 

That's the part that I'm lamenting.

So much of our learning is get in, get what we need, get out. The Internet is efficient! We want to know; we find out. Mid-conversation, we look things up.

Admittedly, I am part of this changing tide. I ask Siri for definitions, now. I look up facts. I get in, get what I need, and get out. But I am looking back to the World Book Encyclopedia on my lap in my room, and I'm so thankful that it was mine. I am looking at my American Heritage dictionary, held together with duct tape on its breaking spine, and thanking it for all the good times. And, if I am truthful, I have a sinking feeling about this move forward.

I can't help but worry that part of our human curiosity is being deadened by the quick access to knowledge any time, any where, in the convenience of our pockets.

The Internet is awesome, in the truest sense of awesome. It's so vast and so filled with amazing things. I am ready to appreciate it. But even as Dorothy left the magical place of Oz to return home, I too must realize my beloved books can't last forever. They can't all come home with me. It's time to say my farewell to my old friends, with whom I've had so many adventures. Goodbye World Book Encyclopedia. Don't cry. You'll warp so dreadfully. Goodbye, library stacks. I'm going to miss the way that you smell and provide hiding places for wonderment and fascination. Goodbye, dictionary. I think I'll miss you most of all.

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