If you don’t know Fowler, let me introduce you: Henry Watson Fowler published Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926, a reference book that I was advised to purchase in grad school. In one of my purge-and-move adventures, I lost my copy and recently decided it was long overdue to return to my personal library. The third edition has been revised by R. W. Burchfield, billed on the cover as “The acknowledged authority on English usage.” Well, shoot, what makes him so special? Eight hundred and sixty four alphabetized pages of advice on how to spell, use, and appreciate a tasty chunk of our English lexicon. Oops, wrong word there; a lexicon is “a unidirectional bilingual dictionary of an ancient language.” See how helpful Fowler is? Don’t you like sounding smart? I do.
I plan to keep Fowler’s, as it’s fans call it, on my desk so that I won’t embarrass myself and confuse my readers. Fowler’s is not, though, the only reference book in my office. I also keep copies of the following:
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition
- The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale
- Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
- The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know
- Oh, yes, and William Harmon & C. Hugh Holman’s A Handbook to Literature
Warning, warning, danger, danger–these tomes are not suitable for reading in bed. If you dose off and drop any one of them on your face, you’ll regret it. But let’s agree that none of us knows half enough about our blessed English, the largest language in the world and the most used, having over 350 million native speakers. Before you invest in these books, explore them in your library to decide which ones you want, as new copies are expensive. If, like me, you operate on a slim budget, shop the used books in thrift stores, order used copies from Amazon, ABE or Powell’s. You’ll rejoice when the power goes out and you cannot Google the word you want. I love books.
English novelist E.M. Forster said, “Only, connect.” Writers need other writers, not just their books, essays, and poems, but flesh and blood people. Well, the less blood spilled, the better. So here’s your assignment if you don’t already belong to a vibrant, extensive writing community.
- Scan bulletin boards at church, a coffee shop, your local community college;
- Go to a reading at a bookstore or cafe, listen to the guest reader and strike up a conversation with a person sitting near to you. After you talk a bit about the guest reader, it’s okay to ask, “Do you write?”
- Scope out the Meet Ups in your area; i bet you’ll find a writing group or two or twelve;
- Post a request on your social media pages, but arrange to meet at a public venue before you ask strangers to sit at your kitchen table;
- Check the classified listings in writers’ magazines to see if there is an existing group you can get to;
- Take a writing class, either as part of your curriculum or as an audit;
- Build your own group by taking stock of the people you already know; chances are good that you already know other writers and they know other writers who know other writers, etc.
None of this is about spending a ton of money or about selling your book if you already have one. It’s about shop talk, mutual support, getting off your duff and meeting people who share your fascination with words lined up like good soldiers. If you live in a watchtower on top of an inaccessible mountain, you might resort to online connections, but then too there is the possibility of writing letters back and forth to a distant writer whom you know. (Remember letters, those folded sheets of paper tucked into an envelope, stamped and handed to the USPS for delivery?) “Only connect.”
When I was little, books were there. They are still there, here, everywhere. My earliest reading memory is of Dick, Jane, Spot, Puff and Sally. Bored out of my mind, I never knew which page I was supposed to read standing by my desk. I’d already read the whole book and got no joy from reading snippets to my equally bored classmates. It’s a wonder any of us grew to like reading with such a beginning. Somehow, though, even in rural settings where libraries and movie theaters were mysterious rumors, I read all of Nancy Drew, all of the Black Stallion books, tried and discarded the Bobbsey Twins, and disdained the series of historical novels my mother gave me in the sixth grade. I never saw the inside of the tiny library in East Sebago, Maine, where we lived while I was in high school. The school library was also the principal’s office, so you can imagine how inadequate that was.
Now books come and go, many staying with me. Some wander to a friend’s house and come back, and I’m delighted, having forgotten that I ever owned such a book. This week I’m in deep with futuristic books, as another writer and I will host a salon for Boulder Writers’ Workshop next weekend. We want to focus on world building, a special delight and challenge for novelists. So, I’ve been greedily buying and reading or rereading books by some of my favorite authors: Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuin, Marge Piercy. Yes, I buy ebooks. I also buy print books on line and in stores. I haunt used book shelves in thrift stores. Recently, I mentioned on Face Book visiting a bookstore I had not been to, Coyote Ridge Books in Broomfield, CO. What a delight to see a clean, well-lighted place with a knowledgeable guide who put his hand on just what I wanted. Blessed be real booksellers. Then I went to one of the big bookstores and found with minimal direction another book I needed. I was sorry to have bought it, because, like Dick & Jane and the Bobbseys, it will not stay long in my heart. But the point is that I knew how to get it, and I know that even this dud it will find its way to someone who loves it. Long may it live–in someone else’s bookcase.