Picture Books.

Are today’s students required, when they make bad choices at school, to copy pages out of the dictionary? This question assumes, of course, that schools continue to make use of dictionaries in their paper form at all. Apparently, school libraries have been shrinking in size since 1995, and why would these embattled librarians choose actual dictionaries over other books when you can type “define: subvention” into your browser and find out how a dozen different dictionaries define it? At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, looking up information with “define:” is to using a paper dictionary as McDonald’s is to a farmers’ market. You’ll get your basic needs met, but where’s the discovery?

If there’s a market for dictionary nostalgia, you can’t get much better than the Pictorial Webster’s (Chronicle Books) for filling in the gaps left by the internet and most modern paper dictionaries. A fine-press bookmaker, John Carrera, came across a Webster’s International Dictionary from 1898. He was taken with the illustrations, long gone from any dictionaries of the present, and proceeded to spend the next ten years tracking down, cleaning, and cataloging the original wood engravings used.

The result is a gorgeous and fascinating collection of pictures, and without peer – they don’t make ’em like this anymore. Carrera has done beautiful work restoring these images, and we can forgive him for indulging in the urge to bookend the engravings with multiple essays – he’s certainly earned the chance to stretch out with a few words regarding this book’s genesis and his hopes that it could inspire new creativity. Whether or not this book will lead to the next Tesla remains to be seen, but with the holidays coming, you’d be hard pressed to find a book packed with more uncharted territory to explore, or more sheer visual browsing pleasure. Even if you still have one of those musty old paper dictionaries.

-Matthew Tiffany
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