(I was going to give this the Gaslight square until I read the author’s note: “This book began as two simple questions: Do words mean different things to men and women? And if they do, is it possible that we have lost something in the process of defining them.” Question square it is.)
This one will definitely be on my favorite books of the year list. Hearbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure.
Esme’s father is an Oxford lexicographer working on creating the first Oxford English Dictionary. Having lost her mother, Esme often accompanies her father to work in the “Scriptorium,” a garden shed turned office, where the team works to collect and verify words for inclusion in the dictionary. As a young child, she entertains herself by hiding underneath the desks of the men in the “Scrippy” and watching them as they work. Always curious, Esme begins to secret away neglected slips of paper used to catalog words and their definitions. As Esme grows into adulthood, she builds a collection of “lost” words, or often “lost” definitions, not valued by the lexicographers. The words of the disregarded and demeaned.
It’s just as much a book about the development of the Oxford English Dictionary as it is about a young woman who questions everything in her search to belong. It’s also about the struggle of a father who mourns the loss of his wife and is desperate to pave the best path that he can for the young woman his daugher is becoming.
While I use dictionaries a lot, I am ashamed to say that I had never given any thought to how they came to exist in the first place. This is historical fiction, but I get the sense that Williams did extensive research on the topic. While some of the characters may be invented, and certainly the minutiae of the lives of actual historical figures is extrapolated here, the mechanics of putting together a dictionary seem to be rooted in fact. It is a fascinating cultural study of written and oral history. A look into the ownership of language, how words are used to marginalize and how they can be reclaimed.