It’s that ‘Back to School’ time of year, when I can’t walk past a stationery shop without nearly having a heart attack. Every time I go to Staples, I feel like I want to rip all the notebooks off the shelves and writhe about in them like an ecstatic horse. The Martha Stewart Home Office line gives me palpitations.
But there isn’t enough money to buy everything I want, and besides, I have cupboards full of notebooks and pens already – how many does a writer really need?
Need is not something we really think about much these days. It is not a First World problem, because most of have enough to meet our primary needs, and at that point, the word morphs into that seductive, purple velvet lined entity that is ‘Want’.
Want becomes most acute for me when I am in a book shop. It is very hard to avoid the conviction that that my life will not be complete until I have the latest edition of wotsit, or that Benedict Cumberbatch will fall in love with me, if only I buy that particular tome. I’m too much the magpie. I like the latest sparkling things. It’s a terrible affliction.
My new office space, and all the decluttering that went with it, has focussed my mind on this issue. How many books does a writer really need? And more to the point, how many books on writing does a writer really need?
The truth is, horrible though it may be, I don’t really need every copy of every book about writing that comes out. I can get them from the library if I want them. I only really need two books:
In my opinion, no house or building, or even tent, is complete without a dictionary. A reasonable one. I’m not saying you have to go out and buy the full length Oxford English Dictionary, which runs to an insane number of volumes, and which only public institutions and Russian oligarchs are probably capable of affording. You don’t even have to buy the two-volume Shorter version, which is still prohibitively expensive. Lets face it, you could probably look up the more obscure words that these monsters contain online.
But you need a dictionary.
A dictionary is your friend. A dictionary provides meaning in the world. It provides knowledge. It makes sense. Even if English is your mother tongue, and you think you know everything it has to offer, believe me, there will always be a seven letter word beginning with L that turns out to be a seventeenth Hungarian stomach pump that you never knew existed. That’s why I love the English language. In all its glory, it is like an endless adventure through the Amazon jungle, where thrilling new words are always lurking under unexpected leaves. And you never know when they might pop up.
Best to have a dictionary close at hand when you are reading. You never know. (You wouldn’t believe the number of times my husband has lost his temper with me in bed at night, when I have been reading my bedtime novel and found a word I don’t know – and asked him what it meant. He’s got a PhD, and wields words like ‘hermeneutics’ on a daily basis, so I assume he knows everything. He gets a bit short-tempered when asked about seventeenth century Hungarian stomach pumps when he’s sleepy!)
If you are intent on expanding your vocabulary, as I am, keep a little notebook too, to scribble down new words and meanings so that you remember them.
I have a very nice Chambers Dictionary, which my mother-in-law gave me. It was second hand, but the meanings it gives are accessible, and it has a wide enough variety of words to satisfy my needs at the moment. It is also a chunky 5.5cm thick, with nice fine paper, and so is a really satisfying thing to handle too. You can pick up reasonable dictionaries in stationers and book shops this time of year at great ‘Back to School’ prices, but second hand bookshops and charity shops are always a good bet too, because dictionaries are slow to go out of date, and the basics will always be of use.
(Some readers will be bouncing around in their seats at this point, and crying the praises of online and digital dictionaries. Yes, I get that they are useful, but they do not have the browsing dimension that real books do, and therefore I still recommend you get the hard copy.)
I originally wrote this as one post, but it got so big I decided to split it. I think it words better that way, and I hope you agree! So the next post, on Friday, will be about the second crucial book you need to have on your bookshelf. The thesaurus.
Meanwhile, Happy wording,