Dictionaries

Because I am a writer and a linguist, I use dictionaries constantly. The most often consulted are those on my computer, the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language and the Oxford English Dictionary, which runs to twenty volumes in its current hardcopy edition. Close by, I have hardcopy editions of the Merriam-Webster and, open on a stand near my desk, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, one large volume. On my bookshelves and no longer in use are several other English-language dictionaries.

Then there are the foreign language dictionaries in the seven languages I’ve worked in. I have unabridged-size volumes for Spanish, Italian, French, and German, and smaller dictionaries in Latin, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Of these, the Chinese-English dictionaries are the most interesting because they arrange their entries by the 214 character radicals and by the number of strokes in both the radical and the phonetic components of the character.

Of all my dictionaries, my favorite is the Eugène Gouin Dictionnaire Vietnamien Chinois Français, that is, Dictionary of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, an unabridged-size volume that offers the French and Chinese equivalents for Vietnamese words, published in 1957. It is almost 13 inches long, 10 inches wide, and 3 inches thick. I bought the Gouin in the early 1960s in Vietnam and in the 1970s, still in Vietnam, paid a bookshop to replace the flimsy original cover with a sturdy leather-covered backing which I have since had to reinforce with heavy masking tape. These days, the dictionary occupies an honored place on a maple bookstand in my office.

The only books that outnumber my dictionaries are my musical scores of operas, symphonies, and piano music that I have been collecting since I was a child. Nearby are tapes and CDs of the music I love, ranging from Bach through Mozart and Beethoven and the moderns. Then there are the books I have reviewed. As I look at the bookshelves surrounding my desk in my office, I can read my own history. Even the books I have written myself are there. An observer could learn a great deal about me just from looking at my books.

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