The Value(s) of Books

There’s a new book I want. Well, it’s two books, the two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. I like very much my Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, which has smart little editorials on words and their usage from Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Stephin Merritt, and other smart people whose opinions I don’t just trust but more like place the entirety of my faith in. (And I know, having read thoroughly my DFW, that the late grammarian would have no problems with the preposition hanging out at the end of that there sentence up there.) The other great thing about the OAWT is its superlative tables for certain groups of adjectives. Like the one that ties “kind” to “cruel” through words like “humane” and “inoffensive” and “pitiless”. Also the tables of specifics for those writers like this one who tend always to satisfy themselves with dull generics. A whole table of terms involved with knitting and crocheting! A list of oaths and curses inclusive of both “fuck it” and “jeez Louise”!

What this thesaurus lacks, however, is 40+ years of careful OED-style collaborative research that not only shows gradations of meaning, but also historical accounts of how and when those gradations arose. Right now I can’t imagine a specific instance in which this would be useful for me, or at least where a use of this tool in my writing wouldn’t come across so blatantly: Here’s Dave dropping in another thesaurused term from the 18th century again…., but being as I am a person who likes to have a lot of tools around for whenever they may be needed, I read about this tool this morning in the Times and thought to buy it.

Two problems:

  1. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is out of stock.
  2. Were it in stock, it would cost $400.

I’m not of the sort that insists everything be free and immediately accessible online, and I was fully prepared to pay more than $100 for this product, as I paid more than $100 for my two-volume condensed OED (bought before my university gave me free online access through its library’s subscription). But $400? The packaging of this text, the size of its books, the heft its hardcovers, the big tall volume-cozy it comes in, all reek of bibliophile marketing. Here is a thing that is meant to look grand on your shelf. Hence the bibliophile pricing.

I’ve known a few bibliophiles in my day—people for whom the book itself, the edition, the binding, the whole artistry of it, is often as important (if not more so) as what the book contains—and I’ve at times been a bit of a bibliophile myself, so I think I understand them. I know them when I see them and to risk generalization they tend not to be my students. And here I’m letting “my students” stand once again as solipsistic shorthand for “the younger generation of potential future readers”. They tend to be people for whom books mean a great deal, to the point where the story or argument or language or imagery or what have you that a book contains is so potent that it needs a kind of talismanic home, one to show off to visitors the way we do our framed 8×10 matte finish photographs that suggest the depth of the loved ones they depict.

But here’s the thing: the HTotOED is a great tool not just for writers but also for if not budding bibliophiles than at least lexophiles, or I guess budding philologists, in the old fashion. Language’s mutability in the present and shifting over time is one of its, I think, most alluring qualities. I’ve seen this happen. Students are engaged in my brief lectures over the differences between Latinate and Anglo-Saxon terms. They like finding different ways to word the descriptions or actions.

They also like to laugh at my nerdy devotion to words and grammar and books about same—a role I like to play up in the classroom. And nothing’s more insane and laughable than a person paying $400 for a thesaurus. I guess what I’m getting at is that, in the fear of diminishing readers (a fear that’s probably unfounded) or at least diminishing buyers of print books, this text’s packaging and pricing seems like such a terrible idea. It’s like fated for poor/no use. What good is a heavy hardcover volume? This netbook I’m using right now weighs so much less. Why no softcover version, one I could toss on the floor when I need more desk space, and then kick out the way of my rolling chair, and then pick up and dogear as needed?

A confession: I haven’t touched my OED in years, not when a snappier version is bookmarked in my browser.

Those in the publishing industry who read this blog (ha!): is it a longevity thing? Does Oxford UP want this to be a once-in-a-lifetime purchase that is willed to one’s heirs and lasts for essentially ever, and thus uses certain acid-free stocks and sturdy glues that will facilitate such permanence? I can’t figure it out. I’m the total ideal audience for this book!

Or no wait, institutional libraries are.

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