Yes, in an age where 99 percent of all Western people consult the Internet for 100 percent of their informational needs (and fewer than 10 percent, in consequence, even own a print-and-paper dictionary, much less a big, elaborate volume like this one, striving to be timeless), it turns out the battle for the very soul of our linguistic integrity is being waged in the narrow, hithertofore unknown confines of the American Heritage’s Usage Panel.
We’re told that the Usage Panel constitutes ‘200 distinguished writers, scholars, scientists, and other respected users and students of the English language.’ And we can see by any random sampling of Usage Notes that these users and students are not only in serial disagreement but are, in fact, writhing in turmoil.
In an age of increasing digitalization (and hence, increasing marginalization), it’s hard not to view this fourth edition as a flag planted at the valiant edge of old technology.
And a glance at the membership of the Usage Panel (of course, being devoted to helpfulness, the American Heritage lists their names) gives us a glimpse into this epic Manichean war being waged on our behalf, on behalf of the sanctity of the written word, which comprises so much of who we’ve come to be. And the ledger is an ominous thing, not least because so many past members have died and had their definitions rendered obsolete.
No, the real reason for the element of quease involved is obvious from the composition of this Usage Panel, past and present.
Why, you’d read the same Tom Clancy potboiler over and over again, if it weren’t for the guidance you receive here at Stevereads.
And today we’re guiding you toward the latest hardcover American Heritage dictionary, the only example of its kind since Doctor Johnson’s that could be read for pleasure. And yet, what will strike any potential reader first is its sheer physical beauty, a big, heavy volume of impeccable solidity, fit to be chained to a medieval lectern, or to sit much-consulted on a swivel-shelf in some well-paneled study (we here at Stevereads have a volume always at the open in our palatial office to rebuke the vainglory of our grasping interns, but we also have one open in the oak-finished study of our retreat at Montauk, so that in idle moments late of evenings, with the fire crackling and our gigantic dogs Leni and Blondi gazing adoringly upon us, we may flip to a pertinent definition and sigh, ‘yes, we were, after all, entirely correct’).
But it has added features all its own, and they are remarkable, cropping up on virtually every page of the book in set-aside boxes.
There are discursions on grammar, elucidations on syntax, and one of the most fascinating recurring feature is something called ‘Our Living Language,’ which tracks the shifting vagaries of the way people talk, often making telling points along the way:“Ax, a common nonstandard variant of ask, is often identified as an especially salient feature of African American Vernacular English.
We merely lay their names before you – we trust you’ll readily see which side is which: On the one hand, we have Roy Blount, Letitia Baldridge, Jacques Barzun, Annie Dillard, Howard Fast, John Kenneth Galbraith, Robert Hass, Sue Hubbell, Molly Ivins, Alfred Kahn, Justin Kaplan, Garrison Keillor, Jean Kirkpatrick, William Least-Heat Moon, David Leavitt, Lois Lowry, William Manchester, Richard Rhodes, Frank Rich, Arthur Schlesinger, Elaine Showalter, Ted Sorensen, Wendy Wasserstein, Tony Randall, Eudora Welty, A. Anthony Lukas, Wallace Stegner, and the mighty Helen Vendler.
And on the other: Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove, Mark Doty, Robin Cook, Pat Conroy, Louise Erdrich, Henry Louis Gates Jr, James Gleick, Stephen Greenblatt, Mark Helprin, Oscar Hijuelos, Douglas Hofstadter, Erica Jong, Tracy Kidder, Jamaica Kincaid, Maxine Hong Kingston, Maxine Kumin, Armistead Maupin, Alice Munro, Mary Oliver, Steven Pinker, Robert Pinsky, E.
Annie Proulx, Judith Rossner, Antonin Scalia, Mona Simpson, Susan Sontag, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Anne Tyler, Fay Weldon, and David Foster Wallace.
Underneath the erudition and the pages so bright they seem illuminated, this epic battle is the real draw in the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.
Our book today is the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, and lest any of you protest that a mere reference work cannot take its place alongside the high (and low) works of literature with which we routinely deal here at Stevereads, pray think again.