by Sarah Clouser
On Saturday morning, my daughter unearths a dictionary from a shelf crammed full of books that are mostly covered in dust: an old humanities textbook on ancient civilizations, a book about gardening, and a how-to guide that was supposed to teach me how to get my children to sleep through the night.
“What’s this one?” she asks as she lugs the dictionary to the sofa. I explain that it is a book full of all of the words we speak and write. She is delighted that one book contains them all and immediately wants me to read it. I open to random pages and find words she knows: dorsal fin, quilt, mammoth.
I then find words that describe her and read them aloud: sweet, smart, energetic. She asks me to look up words that she thinks describe herself: princess, fabulous, girl.
She soon loses interest, as a four-year-old will do, and skips away to dress up like a doctor and care for her new baby doll. I continue flipping through the pages trying to remember the last time I actually looked up a word in a dictionary instead of grabbing my phone and searching online. Now, I wonder if my kids will ever use a dictionary that does not involve a screen.
As a child, I always enjoyed the process of turning the pages of a dictionary to copy vocabulary words into my notebook. There was something magical about holding one book that contained all of the answers to my assignment. I found it much more rewarding than the math homework that I saved for last, where there were only answers to the odd-numbered questions.
As I reflect on all of this, I neaten the books on my shelf, contemplate dusting, but return to my lazy Saturday morning station on the sofa instead. My five-year-old son soon plods down the stairs, rubbing his eyes and smiling sleepily when he sees me.
My daughter rushes over and excitedly exclaims, “We have a book full of words!” He shrugs and settles onto my lap as he reaches for his dinosaur encyclopedia.
He slowly starts flipping through the pages, looking for the orange tabs at the top to indicate that he is in the meat-eater section. He easily finds his new favorite dinosaur, Baryonyx, and asks me to read the page. He may not be interested in a “book full of words,” but he already loves the feel of pages beneath his fingers. He enjoys the satisfaction of being able to find the information he seeks by simply turning a page.
The other day at dinner he randomly spelled out s-a-u-r-u-s and told me, “That’s what most of the dinosaurs have at the end of their name, Mom.” A bubble of excitement raced up my throat as I realized that my boy is on the brink of reading.
Now, I read him his favorite page, which contains a line about a scientist making a hypothesis about what type of food Baryonyx ate. The general theory is that this dinosaur used his 12-inch thumb claw to catch fish. My son is impressed, and I show him an approximation of 12 inches by holding his two hands apart. Then he asks, “What does hypothesis mean?”
In my son, I see my own love of books, words, and letters. At night, he piles his dinosaur books on his nightstand and dives into them as soon as I shut the door. Although he still can’t read, he spends hours after he is supposed to be sleeping copying dinosaur names in long, crooked columns. He slides them under his door for me to find before I dive into my own pile of books on my nightstand.
I decide that even if he may never need to use a paper dictionary, I will show him what one is. Instead of defining hypothesis, I tell him, “Let’s look it up!” We take the dictionary off the shelf, and he marvels at the thinness of each page. He turns the pages slowly, listening for the distinct crinkle.
He eventually finds the ‘H’ section and looks up at me for further instruction. In his eyes dance a thousand questions. In his hands, he holds a thousand answers. A rush of words fill my head as I try to encapsulate this moment to remember later.
The word that lingers: possibility.
This summer I kept our WiFi unplugged except for short blocks of time–an hour in the morning, an hour in the evening. During an off-period, my 15-year-old daughter asked me the meaning of a word, I can’t remember which word. I told her to look it up and she said she couldn’t because the Internet was off. I pointed out that she had her very own dictionary collecting dust on a bookshelf, and she said, “Oh, yeah!” A half hour later she was still paging through it, mesmerized by all the words there at her fingertips. 🙂 I love your essay, Sarah, you really capture the magic of books.
Elizabeth, I love your story!
Such a beautiful piece.
Thank you, Vidya!