In his new Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion (Graywolf), Stavans pushes the limits of how reference books can be read. He does so by pointing out their necessary imperfections, such as trying to lock a language in its time and place, à la Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. To Stavans, a dictionary takes on many other roles: sharp consultant, witty comrade, flip arm candy, live-in partner. In an ode to the rigid orthographic volumes, he even titles a chapter “Sleeping With My OED.”
The book is a brave feat not only because it shows he’s got academic boxing gloves on, but also for the intimate vantage point it affords readers. By opening up his personal life, Stavans seems to enhance his linguistic argument, recognizing that this intimacy—e.g., the hyper-detailed description of Stavans’s personal library bookshelves and his eight-year-old son’s talk of heaven—is part of why people read.
Unfortunately, there are a number of pointless swipes at lexicographers other than the hip, “radical” Stavans. Claiming that “many common curses” aren’t to be found in dictionaries is a moldy complaint that a glance at anything published in the last couple of decades should have forestalled, and talking about “the growing dialects that lexicographers fear” is dumb and insulting—the words are the interviewer’s, but they seem to represent Stavans’ chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, at least as reflected here. On the other hand, we know better than to trust how reporters represent linguists.