Category: On Writing
“Blogs, and Poetics, and Hermeneutics — Oh My!”

Over the last year-and-a-half, my wife and I have been reading Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain aloud to each other.1  While doing so, I started to form a brilliant theory about how traveling parties in quest stories often function as reflections of a specific trait in the protagonist — it was going to be the Greatest Blog Post that the world had ever seen!  That is, until Betsy Bird at the School Library Journal went and ruined everything by beating me to the punch.

Last week Betsy posted a piece entitled The Oz Quest Theory: Are Four Characters Too Many? She suggested that Wizard of Oz is but one example in a long list of quest books in which the hero picks up three sidekicks who represent guts, heart, and brains.  One of the reasons I like Betsy’s blog is that everybody reads it, which means that everybody also leaves comments.  Some readers mentioned titles that either broke or followed the “rule of three”,  others floated theories about what might be motivating the pattern, a few even chimed in to ask “what’s the point?”

While reading these comments, I noticed that there seemed to be two separate conversations taking place — each exploring different questions:

1)  How might three be a uniquely suitable number for storytelling?

2)  Why might three be a uniquely significant number in our culture/world?

These are two fundamentally different questions, and looking back you can see the tension that stems from people talking at cross purposes.2  The comments thread is also a perfect snapshot of a philosophical battle as old as literature.  It’s the reason MFA writing programs are distinct from Lit PhD programs.  It is the difference between poetics and hermeneutics.

If you want a scholarly breakdown of these terms, click here.  In the broadest sense, poetics is concerned with how and hermeneutics is concerned with why.  Poetics people look at stories the way auto mechanics look at a car engine:  they want to know how every moving part fits together to make a unified machine (maybe in the hope they might one day build a car of their own?).  Sticking with the metaphor, hermeneutics people don’t really care about what’s under the hood; instead they’re more concerned with what it means to live in a world with cars.

Often, the people most drawn to poetics are people who work directly with the nuts and bolts of storytelling — authors, editors, and dramaturges.  People who deal with hermeneutical questions are those whose job it is to administer books to the world — scholars, librarians, and teachers.  I have often found that people from one camp have little interest in the questions of the other.  (My own marriage is an example of this Capulet-versus-Montigues battle.)

So which camp is better?  Well, I might be slightly more interested in poetics, but I’d be a fool to argue that hermeneutics isn’t absolutely essential.  After all, hermeneutics is what justifies the very act of making of books (as Mary has informed me on more than one occasion!).

Perhaps this is what I find so compelling about the children’s literature community?  There exists an  unusual amount of cross-fertilizaton between poetics and hermeneutics — authors, editors, librarians, teachers, and readers all coming together to discuss this thing they all love.3  Is it messy?  Of course!  Is it frustrating?  Sometimes.  But what fun would a quest be without a few friends?


  1. For the record, I do a pretty awesome Gurgi … ask me to bust it out the next time you see me.
  2. As for my own contribution, I stupidly tried to tackle both questions simultaneously — which just made me sound scatterbrained.
  3. Except, I would point out when it comes to booking conferences:  ALA always seems to book the same weekend as major literary conferences (MLA and ChLA).  Because of this, Mary will miss my first book signing, and I will miss her presenting a paper on Octavian Nothing.  Not cool, conference planning people, not cool…
My Editor can Beat up Your Editor …

A few months back, my editor and I were caught in a heated “discussion” regarding a certain passage of Peter Nimble.1  Essentially, she wanted me to remove a paragraph on the grounds that it slowed down the action.  Understand that I am usually very eager to rip apart my own work in response to a note … but this particular passage was different.2  When I sat down to write a book, I essentially sat down to write this one passage — and now I was being told to cut it out entirely!

There were a LOT of phone calls, during which I would list countless reasons why these few sentences were necessary to the book.  Every time she would say she understood my feelings, but that she couldn’t in good conscience agree.  Finally, after what seemed like weeks of back-and-forth, I tried cutting it out — just to see how it read.

You know how this story goes:  she was right, I was wrong, “kill your darlings,” blah, blah, blah.3

When I looked over the final proofs of that chapter a few weeks ago, I was overwhelmed with gratitude.  My editor is a busy lady, and I’m sure it would have been much easier for her to just let me have my way.  But she stuck to her guns, and the book is better for it.

Shortly after that issue was resolved, I sent over a picture as a sort of peace offering:

Way to be awesome, Editorus Rex.


  1. My editor has a pretty low online profile, so I’ll respect that by not publishing her name … of course if you reallywant to know who she is, it’s printed in back of Peter Nimble!
  2. In fact, both my wife and agent have at times argued that I can be too eager in this regard. Perhaps that’s a subject for another day.
  3. Author and blogger Wendy Palmer has a neat little series on writing rules that are often misapplied — including the infamous “Kill your darlings.” It’s worth reading, if for no other reason than to learn that Faulkner didn’t originate that phrase.
SPEAK, JELLICOE ROAD, and Revelation Narratives

My first year of grad-school, I wrote a terrible play about a woman who hadn’t slept for 17 years.  At the center of the story was a mystery regarding what had happened to make her stop sleeping.  When I went back home over holiday, I had a former drama professor look at the script.  He promptly told me why the play didn’t work:  I had written a revelation story and didn’t know it.

Revelation stories, he explained, are plots in which the central dramatic event is the revelation of information to the audience.  The key phrase in that definition is “to the audience”.  In revelation plays, the climax takes place not on stage, but in the seats.1

These sorts of narratives are hardly limited to theatre.  A recent(ish) example from the literary world might be Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.

[COMMENCE SPOILER ALERT!]
Speak tells the story of a high school freshman recovering from a recent sexual assault.  The book begins after this assault took place, and its climax involves the protagonist learning to “speak” of what happened.  While Anderson does a pretty good job of making this revelation feel dramatic, the early chapters of her book rely heavily on the assumption that readers will readily identify with the protagonist’s emotional life — and that that identification will be enough to carry them all the way to the climax.  While the gamble pays off in this book, I have seen many other stories (my play included) where it blows up in the author’s face.
[END SPOILER ALERT.]

The primary problem with revelation narratives is that all the interesting stuff happens in flashback.  So how does an author bring those past events into the present-tense (where the audience can experience it in realtime)?   Usually authors spice up the revelation by making the characters deal with the past trauma.   But on the spectrum of dramatic impact, “dealing with issues” is pretty weak — no matter how well it’s written.

Even if you pull this off, there’s still the added challenge of not pissing off your reader.  In her recent book on publishing, children’s book editor Cheryl Klein talks briefly about the storytelling power behind mystery:

“I want to think about mystery a little more because it’s probably the single most effective plot technique for hooking a reader:  Have a secret, let the reader know there’s a secret, and then don’t tell them what it is until it absolutely serves your purpose to do so.  It’s a classic childhood strategy, the equivalent of dancing around your reader saying ‘neener-neener-neener.'”

I think that Cheryl is spot-on so far as it relates to individual scenes.  However, occasionally a story drags out the mystery so long that reading the book feels like 300 pages of “neener-neener.”  Not exactly the best way to win over your audience.

When I first started reading Melina Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road for our children’s literature class, I thought I was getting into a Speak-style revelation narrative.  The hero, Tyler Markum constantly eludes to some past events that have defined her.2  But when Tyler finally gets around to sharing her memories, she learns her understanding of the events was either incomplete or flat-out wrong.  That added element creates a nice Rashomon-style twist to the moments of revelation — and it also keeps the storytelling focus on the chracters, where it belongs.


  1. Mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers has talked about the danger of art whose sole purpose is in manipulating the audience:  “In the end it is directed to putting the behaviour of the audience beneath the will of the spell-binder, and its true name is not ‘art,’ but ‘artmagic.’ In its vulgarest form it becomes pure propaganda.” A bit extreme for me, but still interesting.
  2. Several other characters in Jellicoe Road also have secrets that are constantly being teased — the book is nothing if not teasy.
Plot vs. Story in THE CHOCOLATE WAR

Last week in our Children’s Literature course, Mary and I discussed Robert Cormier’s proto-YA novel The Chocolate War (1974). For those who have not read it, The Chocolate War is a harrowing story of a freshman who dares to buck convention by refusing to participate in the school-wide chocolate sale.  This book was a perfect followup to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  In some ways, The Chocolate War is a continuation of Flies’ thesis about the depravity of human nature, but unlike the earlier book, The Chocolate War does not seek shelter in rules and law — in fact, social strictures are depicted as fundamentally destructive.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.  Today I want to talk about a unique way that Robert Cormier achieves a sense of “interiority” in his writing.  YA literature is often noted for its use of interiority — working overtime to forge a direct, emotional connection between reader and protagonist.  We don’t just know what the main character did, we know how they felt while they were doing it. (This probably explains why so many adolescent girls are in love with Holden Caulfield.)

It’s no surprise that The Chocolate War — a seminal work of YA literature — trades in interiority.  But what is surprising is how the book goes about creating it.  Generally speaking, most books aiming for interiority make use of the first-person narrative mode.1  As a writer, I’m a bit leery of this technique.  Sure, a great number of brilliant novels have been written in the first person.  But I also feel that less talented authors sometimes use this device to compensate for an anemic narrative.  Most of the Twilight books contain about 100 pages of plot sandwiched between 500 pages of, er, “interiority.”

Robert Cormier was a journalist, and it shows in his clean prose.  Authors who rely too heavily on first person narration should feel shame when reading The Chocolate War, which somehow creates intimacy between reader and hero without ever ever breaking from the third person.  Even more, Cormier doesn’t even bother to stay with his protagonist in every chapter — instead he nimbly hops from one side-character to another, shifting his third-person-limited perspective every few pages.  In fact, every public scene containing the protagonist (Jerry Renault) is narrated from the perspective of an outside observer, and it’s only after school that we get to hear out hero’s take on the events that transpired.  I would judge that at most 1/4 of the book is told from Jerry’s POV, and yet, by the end, we somehow know him like a flesh-and-blood friend.

How does Cormier pull it off?  I’ve read the book three times in as many months and still can’t answer that question.  However, on this most recent reading, I started to wonder if Jerry’s aloofness was actually part of the puzzle.  Perhaps the reason that we connect with Jerry so much is because we long to connect with him, and so when we do get a rare glimpse inside his head, we make the most of it.

My former writing teacher Milan Stitt once outlined the difference between “plot” and “story.”  He defined plot as the chronological list of events that transpire.  Story is the act of telling those events in a way that creates meaning.  These are two very different skill sets, and while the ability to concoct engaging plots is helpful, it is secondary to the ability to tell those events in a way that pays off.  The gap between plot and story is the reason your mom can’t retell a joke.2

Cormier understood that a book about selling chocolates would not work unless he made it meaningful … unless he made it a story.3  Many people have observed that DIARY OF A WIMPY KID’s Greg Heffley is a sort of middle-grade version of Holden Caulfield … I wonder if there’s a middle-grade version of Jerry Renault out there?  Any ideas?


  1. Some go one further and employ the present-tense. If you like hearing people dump on contemporary literary conventions, I urge you to read Philip Pullman’s delightful takedown of this trend.
  2. I see now that this comes dangerously close to a “your mom” jab … Please accept my heartfelt apologies, Moms of the World.
  3. Robert Cormier died in November 2000, and Publisher’s Weekly released this touching memorial discussing the man and his work.
PETER PAN WEEK Day 1: Literary Dress Rehearsals

As promised, I’m devoting this entire week to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  Today I’d like to discuss the long path leading up to the creation of this iconic character.

Thanks to Johnny Depp, most people know that Peter Pan was a 1904 stage play before it was a novel, but what Finding Neverland fails to mention is that the character of Peter Pan actually goes back even further — to a book called  The Little White Bird.  Published in 1902, The Little White Bird was an adult novel that featured an unaging boy named Peter Pan who lived among birds in the middle of Kensington Gardens.

It would be a stretch to call this earlier book a prequel.  Yes, the kid’s name is Peter Pan, and, yes, he refuses to grow up, but that’s where the similarities end.  This proto-Peter lacks the cockiness and capricious violence of his later incarnation.   When he meets a girl, he asks to marry her.  When he’s granted a wish by the fairy queen, he asks to return to his mother.  I simply cannot accept that this pansy would turn into the pirate-murdering, rooster-crowing, teeth-gnashing Peter Pan that I know and love.1

I don’t think Barrie intended for his readers to see the characters as contiguous.  Rather, I think he considered Kensington Peter to be a sort of “dress rehearsal” — one of many incarnations necessary for the creation of his final character.  Even the stage play, which much more closely resembles the 1911 novel, lacks much of the depth of character and theme found in the later book.  Scholar Jack Zipes agrees in his introduction to a Penguin edition of Peter Pan:

“There is a sense that [Barrie] wanted to provide definitive closure to the story with the publication of the prose novel in 1911 … The ‘definitive’ novel is the most complicated and sophisticated of all the versions of Peter Pan.”

As someone who has read Peter Pan a number of times, I think the work shows.  The 1911 edition, while simple in language, is unbelievably rich in theme.2  The idea that something this good can only be got after countless revisions thrills me as a reader, but the writer in me trembles.  There is something terrifying in the possibility that a great character may take several passes to get right — that long after publication a story might still bear revision.  When do you stop revisiting past work?  Unless you’re George Lucas, the answer to this question might be “never.”

Other Examples of Literary Dress Rehearsals

In the interest of expanding the conversation, I tried to think of some other books that functioned as literary dress rehearsals.  I’m sure there are a lot more out there, but here’s what came to mind:

Huckleberry FinnMore than once during the latest Huck Finn Debacle, I had to remind myself that  Huck started out in 1876 as a supporting character in Tom Sawyer. It wasn’t until eight years later that he got his due in Huck Finn.

 

Sara Crewe – Frances Hodgson Burnett’s wonderful heroine first found life in a stripped-down serial novel in 1888.   Fourteen years later, she appeared in a stage adaptation titled A Little Un-Fairy Princess.  It was only after that that Burnett revised A Little Princess to create the Sara we know today.

 

Gollum –  In many ways, The Hobbit is a functional prequel to The Lord of the Rings.  However, I’ve always felt there was a serious disconnect in the two characterizations of Gollum.3 His moral journey in the later books belies the riddle-asking monster-in-the-dark characterization from the earlier volume.

 

The Addams Family – Strictly speaking, these aren’t “literary” characters, but I often think about the fact that Charles Addams drew the members of his “Addams Family” for years before thinking to give them names.  It wasn’t until the 1964 television show that the family really hit pop culture.  Looking back on Addams’ older cartoons, you can see how over time he was able to tweak and refine his family into the distinct characters we know today.

Bod Owens – A more contemporary example of character dress-rehearsal might be Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I know a central chapter from the novel (“The Witch’s Headstone”) was first published as a standalone short story, but I have not read the original version.  I’m curious to know whether the characterization of Bod Owens changed in any significant ways — anyone out there have a copy?

So those are a few literary dress rehearsals that I can think of.  I have this nagging feeling that I’m missing some big examples … feel free to toss in others in the comments.

Tomorrow, check in to learn why I long believed Peter Pan to be an unfilmable story . . . and read about the London stage production that proved me wrong.

*     *     *

For those who missed the other “Peter Pan Week” posts:

Day Two: The Problem with Peter

Day Three: Tink or Belle?

Day Four: The Neverland Connundrum

Day Five: Loss and Exclusion in Peter Pan (special guest post!)

Also, you can also read my ham-fisted attempt to connect Peter Pan to The Hunger Games here.


  1. there is a whole separate conversation to be had about how the “rules” of Kensington Gardens” don’t work with the “rules” of Neverland — more  evidence that the two books were not meant to exist in the same universe.
  2. My wife has observed that she can’t read the book with a pen in her hand because she’ll compulsively underline every sentence — they’re all that good.
  3. This is closely related to the differing characterization of “the ring,” which too conveniently transforms from a straightforward invisibility-device to an all-powerful MacGuffin .
What oft was OMG WHERE’S MY PEN?!

Yesterday, I talked briefly about the joy of finding how books from my past have subconsciously influenced my work.  Today, I’d like to discuss the opposite discovery:  when you read something new that puts words to your most secret thoughts.  Those are the moments when I leap from my chair and scramble for a pen because what I’ve just read must be written down!  English poet Alexander Pope describes this “aha!” moment perfectly:

True wit is nature to advantage dressed
What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.

So many great authors have inspired this feeling in me.  Here are a few such “ne’er so well expressed” observations that have really blown me away:

MOBY DICK – Herman Melville

“… truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.”

I have often argued this same point among friends and family:  that the secret to being cozy lies in a part of you being cold;  the moment a person is warm all over, they are too warm.  However much I may have felt this in life, I could never have said it so well as Melville.


The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton

Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.”

Chesterton is a master of pith.  Case in point: before having really read any Dickens, I was still able to read his book Charles Dickens: the last of the Great Men and love every word — that takes a special type of writer.  (If you like the above line, I’d recommend you check out the ChestertonQuote Twitter feed.)


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling

Describing the color of polyjuice potion:

“Both glasses hissed and frothed: Goyle’s turned the khaki color of a booger.”

A small observation, but profound nonetheless.



Foundling – D. M. Cornish

This next one is unusual because it’s not actually from a book.  Rather, it’s from the jacket copy of D.M. Cornish’s “Foundling” trilogy.  Still, it puts words to something I’ve felt for a long time:

“Convinced as a child that writers had a key to unlock other worlds and convinced as a young man that there were ways to be fantastical without conforming to the generally accepted notions of fantasy …”1


These are but a few writers who reached into my brain and scooped out (what I had thought to be) original thoughts.  Ordinarily this would make me feel violated or robbed, but these authors managed to express the thought so perfectly that I can’t help but feel like I’ve just discovered a conspirator … or a new friend.

  1. emphasis mine
On the Shoulders of A LITTLE PRINCESS

In last week’s children’s literature class, Mary taught Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess.  This meant I got to kick back and just enjoy re-reading the book.  While doing do, I came across a passage in which Sara describes the view from her attic window:

“You can see all sorts of things you can’t see downstairs,” she said … “Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky—and sparrows hopping about and talking to each other just as if they were people—and other attic windows where heads may pop out any minute and you can wonder who they belong to. And it all feels as high up—as if it was another world.” 

The subject comes up again a few chapters later:

When the square suddenly seemed to begin to glow in an enchanted way and look wonderful in spite of its sooty trees and railings, Sara knew something was going on in the sky. … she invariably stole away and crept up the flights of stairs, and, climbing on the old table, got her head and body as far out of the window as possible. When she had accomplished this, she always drew a long breath and looked all round her. It used to seem as if she had all the sky and the world to herself. 

These passages stood out to me because I am in the middle of writing a book that is largely “about” rooftops, and it includes a few observations very similar to the ones above.  While I did not deliberately set out to copy pay homage to A Little Princess, I am pretty sure I couldn’t have written my rooftop story if I hadn’t of first read them in Burnett when I was a child.  (I can’t help but wonder if PL Travers felt the same way?)

This happens to me a lot.  While revising Peter Nimble & his Fantastic Eyes, I was continually rediscovering how this or that moment/character/theme/word was actually inspired by something I had read long ago.  This seems right to me.  Some writers make a big deal out of creating from nothing;  I, for one, am more comforted by the thought that I create from the things that live within me  — things put there by other, greater minds.  On the shoulders of giants, and such.  I love realizing how forgotten books are still unconsciously informing me, and I hope to continue making such discoveries for as long as I write.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

The other day I was having trouble with a script and so I took a long walk. We have a dollar theater about eight miles from the house, which is a perfect distance (provided you have a ride home1). I love dollar theaters because they stop me from being picky: how can I resent a movie that only cost a buck? Even when the movie is terrible, I can at least spend the time productively by analyzing why the movie is terrible … Which is exactly what I did while watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Over the years, I have had a very love/hate relationship with Lewis’ fantasy series2. One of the books’ most divisive elements is its use of Christian imagery … some might even say allegory. I’ve spoken with countless friends who still remember the day they realized that Lewis had woven covert religious themes into his narrative. At ALA last month, Neil Gaiman reminisced about this moment in his own life. Laura Miller wrote a book about it. Phillip Pullman wrote several.

I’m starting to think that the discovery that the Chronicles of Narnia are about something is the bookish child’s version of learning that [SPOILER ALERT]  there’s no Santa Claus. It is the moment when we discover that authors aren’t just nice men and women trying to entertain us with a story; instead they’re trying to communicate some lesson to us — which makes them no different than every other bossy adult in our lives. Perhaps even more important, it is usually a discovery we make on our own.

I have re-read (and now watched) The Chronicles of Narnia with this question in mind. And the more time I spend with these stories, the less I think that the outrage is justified. Certainly Lewis has created Narnia as a moral universe — where every new place and challenge is a proving ground for personal integrity. But what good story doesn’t do that? Why do we roll our eyes at the heavy-handed moralizing of Eustace’s avarice, but thrill at seeing Ofelia approach the table of the Pale Man? Or seeing Harry Potter discover the secret of the mirror of Erised?

I suspect that the anger concerning The Chronicles of Narnia is less about Lewis’ specific message and more about the fact that he has a message at all. It is outrage at the very notion of authorial intent.

  1. 1. I tend to prefer walking all my miles in a straight line … which invariably results in my phoning Mary to pick me up. The woman is nothing if not patient.
  2. 2. I have long harbored an irrational hatred for The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeThe Magician’s Nephew, however, is one of my favorite stories of all time.
MFA Writing Programs: Lego vs. Construx

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a big fan of Lego1. Even as a child, I was not shy about my dislike for those rigid little bricks. My problem was that Lego was too detail-oriented. The work was painstaking and the rewards small: put together a bunch of rectangles to get … a bigger rectangle. Sure, some people can do incredible things, but who has that kind of time when they’re eight years old?

The building toy that won my heart (and allowance) was called Construx:

Totally awesome, right? Construx are similar to tinkertoys in the sense that consist mainly of beams and joints2. This type of system forces kids to think in structural terms. With Construx there is no such thing as a “final product” — even the models in that commercial looked unfinished. But what a child loses in polish, he or she gains in versatility and speed. It is essentially a concept driven building toy.

I do not actually think one toy is superior to the other. That depends on the kid. But I do think the differences between Lego and Construx perfectly reflect the two major styles of writing MFAs.

Graduate writing programs tend to fall into one of two categories: “Creative Wrtiting” (fiction and poetry) and “Dramatic Writing” (movies and plays). From what I have read and experienced myself, it seems that with each of these categories comes a different pedagogical approach.  Creative Writing seems to put a heavy focus on fine-tuning the details of a product — word choice, flow, tone, etc… Conversely, Dramatic Writing tends to emphasize the big picture issues — plot, pacing, character.

As with Lego vs. Construx, it all depends on the needs of the student. Some writers need help with fine-tuning, others need help with structure. Actually, writers need both — but hopefully they can figure out whatever they didn’t learn at grad school on their own.

I recently read a fascinating article by Cathy Day who has been teaching fiction-writing for years3. She identifies a problem with traditional Creative Writing MFA programs:  semester logistics makes novel-length assignments impossible, and so instructors instead focus on short stories — a medium that most students (not to mention the reading public) don’t even care about. This model is justified by the “learn to walk before you run” argument. Day, however, observes that such programs don’t help people run, they just teach people to walk really well.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with short stories (or walking!). But Day worries that all this focus on fine-tuning leads to graduates who are not prepared for the structural challenges unique to long-form projects. It sounds to me like she is wishing her students could play with fewer Legos and more Construx.

  1. 1.  I am aware that this is heresy; feel free to leave hate mail in the comments section
  2. 2. This toy was tragically discontinued in 1988, which meant much of my collecting involved dragging my mother to yard sales in search of discarded sets
  3. 1. Thanks to Liz Burns for the link!
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

I first learned of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable when reading an interview with JK Rowling. Once I became aware of it, I found references to the book all over the place. Apparently every writer in the world already owned and loved a copy. Obviously I needed one too!

The dictionary was written in 1870 by Reverend E. Cobham Brewer. Is was designed to be a sort of poor-man’s education in idiom, history, literature, and folklore. The combination of these different fields leads to some wonderful cross-referencing. Almost every entry contains a “See also” listing other related entries — an endless series of digressions-on-digressions. If Laurence Sterne wrote a reference book, it might look something like this.

It’s this rabbit-hole quality that makes Brewer’s such a valuable source for procrastinators writers.   Philip Pullman puts it perfectly in his forward to the recently published 18th edition:

“has anyone ever opened the great Dictionary of Phrase and Fable . . . looked up the one entry they wanted to read about, and then closed it at once? Of all the dictionaries in the world it is the most like a treasure-hunt, where one phrase leads to another, and that to a third, and before you know what’s happened, it’s time for lunch.”

As much as I love this new edition (which I got for Christmas), I was disappointed to see that many of the older, more obscure entries were cut out to make way for contemporary content. That’s a pity because part of the fun is in discovering words and phrases that I could never find on Wikipedia. Even Pullman can’t help but indicate his dismay at this fact, and he ends his forward with a teasing reference to a forgotten tradition of blessing the Duke of Argyle when scratching one’s back. Still, this new edition has plenty of wonderful gems to keep me busy for a while.

You may have figured out by now that I use the “Marginalia” box in the right column to put down things that I read, heard, or saw that day. The entries in that section are transcribed from my physical journal.1 I figured including a designated spot for such stuff might keep me accountable — I’m not allowed to sleep until I’ve learned something new. For the next couple weeks, I’ll be rooting through Brewer’s in search of interesting entries. Enjoy.

  1. 1. anyone who has ever met me can attest to the fact that I carry a black, spiral-bound journal with me everywhere I go. More on that later.
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