You might be at a dinner party, at a writers’ group meeting or just hanging out with some literary-minded friends. And someone poses a familiar question in a familiar scenario: you’re stranded on a desert island and you have to sacrifice all books except one in order to start the campfire. (Okay, I may have taken some artistic liberties with the question.) So which book gets saved? What is the one book you can’t live without?
I know there are some out there who would be grumbling about only being allowed to take one book. I mean, come on! Surely if you select The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you have to be allowed to take The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, too. It would just be malicious to make someone read the first instalment of Lisbeth Salander’s saga over and over again without ever being able to move on to the oh-so-satisfying second and third parts. But, hey, sometimes in life we’re forced to make tough decisions! This is one of them.
There’s a Goodreads thread on this very subject and some of the answers include The Bible, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice and Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Collection by Arthur Conan Doyle. (By the way, nice work to those selecting collected editions to cheekily bypass the one book only rule! Grumblers, take note.)
My decision is made simple by the fact that I am happy choosing just one book. With anticipation nicely built by now, I’m happy to declare publicly that the one book I can’t live without is… the dictionary!
“The dictionary!?!” I hear you say. To which I reaffirm, yes, the dictionary.
I doubt it would surprise anyone who knows me that I can quite happily pass an afternoon simply reading a dictionary.
“Really!?!” I can still hear you saying. Yes, really. Obviously, the level of my interest and engagement will depend on the specific dictionary – a simple list of words and their meanings can keep me occupied for hours but perhaps not the rest of my life on a desert island. I suppose it would depend on how long (or short) the rest of my life was going to be. But what I really enjoy is dictionaries that come with a myriad of extras.
My current preferred dictionary is the Macquarie International English Dictionary. The edition I have is over ten years old now so it might be time to upgrade, but apart from the standard alphabetical list of words and their meanings, it also contains the following:
*Common misspellings that redirect to the correct spellings
*Small biographies of well-known people throughout history
*Usage essays discussing commonly confused words and meanings that have evolved over time to encompass entirely different connotations (literally, anyone?)
*Longer essays on the history and formation of English as a whole and in its parts, a brief history of dictionaries, world English, Australian English (oh, it just goes on and on)
*Black and white illustrations of a random selection of words
By now I bet you’re less surprised that a dictionary could hold my interest for an extended period of time in the same way that a favourite novel could. And, oh boy, if I had all twenty volumes of the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, I would probably be set for a long, contented and frequently occupied life on that desert island. (To give an even greater perspective on how big the Oxford English Dictionary is, the third edition revisions are taking place over a thirty-seven year period (begun in 2000 and expected to be completed in 2037) at a projected cost of £34 million, according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online website.
Or maybe you’re still surprised. A guy at work, upon seeing me with my Macquarie International English Dictionary, engaged me in conversation and asked, “Is that yours? Did you bring it from home?” Within minutes, he regretted ever having started the discussion and called me a word nerd (although only after confessing to being a bit of a word nerd himself – his three contributions to our chat were conflate (the original versus the newer meaning), dendrochronologist (which he used to befuddle his son) and inculcate (which he professed a liking for), all quite nice contributions, I must admit).
But I take that description on willingly with more than a hint of pride. I am a word nerd, I love my dictionary and my desert island is calling.
So how about you? What one book can’t you live without?