DICTIONARY DAYS: A Defining Passion

Ilan Stavans, Author . Graywolf $17 (256p) ISBN 978-1-55597-419-0

Springing from his free-form talk at a Michigan Quarterly Review panel discussion, this discursive and charming collection of personal essays by prolific Amherst professor Stavans (Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language ) explores his lifelong obsession with dictionaries, concordances and lexicons. Just a few examples from his bulging reference shelves include Dr. Johnson's seminal dictionary, the Byzantine Lexeis, the medieval Kitab al-'Ain and Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas . Stavans's ideal of the dictionary represents not only "raw material" for polyglot scholars like himself. It's also "the code to forthcoming masterpieces" such as Don Quixote, Moby-Dick and all of Shakespeare. Stavans cites these and more with offhand erudition. Drawing on his Mexican-American and Jewish backgrounds, he shares his experiences with English, Spanish and Yiddish and ventures into encounters with Arabic, Chinese and Sumerian. He muses on the meanings of particular words (like "love" and "death") in many languages and on the ambiguous status of colloquial speech, such as Spanglish and four-letter words. At his most playful, Stavans reveals his instructional debt to Fictionary, his deep enjoyment of "cheesy" Mexican musicals and his dreams of fantastical blank books that contain only transporting aromas. Unlike most dictionaries, Stavans's eclectic volume feels too brief, but it shares their enlightening and browsable qualities for anyone who loves the serendipities of language. (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 03/14/2005
Release date: 04/01/2005
Genre: Nonfiction
Discover what to read next