Daniel Krieger has a wonderful piece at about Madeline Kripke, who has 20,000 books in her West Village apartment, most of them dictionaries:

Kripke, who is sixty-nine, grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, the daughter of a Conservative rabbi. As a child, she was solitary, and often retreated into her room where she would lose herself in books rather than play with her brother, who was always absorbed in thought (and later became a philosopher).

“I read and read and read and read and read,” she says. In fifth grade, her parents gave her a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and that changed everything. “It unlocked the world for me because I could read at any vocabulary level I wanted,” she says, and went on to negotiate more sophisticated titles, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and The Frogs by Aristophanes. She was diligent about learning words, and would enter all the new ones she came across daily in a notebook. Then she would review them, trying to commit them to memory.

The story of how she got into collecting (after years of copyediting and proofreading), and the amazing things she owns (she has a dozen “unrecorded” books, meaning there aren’t any other known copies), make this a fascinating read. Too bad there’s a typo at the very end (presumably it wasn’t Krieger who spelled jactitate “jacktitate”).


  1. “Never go on a movie date with a cinematographer, for all he will talk about afterwards is how the shadow of the boom was briefly visible in scene 29.”

  2. Madeline Kripke was mentioned here before. The dead link AE Monthly link there should now go to this profile. As John Emerson pointed out in the earlier post, she is Saul Kripke’s sister. He is here just “a philosopher.”

  3. Yeah, I was wondering if she was one of those Kripkes (I missed the reference to her brother). In a previous season of employment, I had a co-worker who was one of those Fodors. We had an interesting talk about what it’s like to be the only non-Phud in the family.

  4. I don’t know how you get twenty thousand mostly dictionaries into a West Village apartment without losing access to the bathroom, and I’m glad I don’t live underneath.

  5. Do any of those dictionaries have an index?

  6. I have a vague memory of an anecdote about a book thief who got off a charge because his lawyer was able to prove that the stolen item was not the only copy in the world, as he (or was it the original collector?) had supposed. Which fact left either the original collector or the thief (perhaps they were rival collectors?) weeping as he left the court room: “It wasn’t a unique, it wasn’t a unique!”
    The last line has always stuck with me, but now I have to wonder if the word was not “unrecorded”.
    (If the story sounds familiar, I’d love a cite.)

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    The sources seem divided as to the extent to which she is (or was?) a dealer as opposed to merely a collector. Of course one expects a dealer in rare/used books (or in rare/used anything . . .) to carry an inventory of a size that might be so large as to be eccentric for a mere personal collection, so claiming to be a dealer can have certain advantages as a cover story . . .

  8. The OED website now makes Madeline Kripke’s childhood method of recording words she looked up blessedly easily. If you set up an account, you can save any entry. I return every week or so to browse the list I’ve created over the past year and a half, since gaining access.
    As John Emerson pointed out in the earlier post, she is Saul Kripke’s sister. He is here just “a philosopher.”
    Yeah, although I really enjoyed the piece (great pictures), you’d think a quick Google search would show that “the philosopher Saul Kripke” would be more appropriate than “a philosopher.”

  9. I just found out that Madeline Kripke succumbed to the coronavirus a week ago. That’s very sad. The obituary is affectionate and appreciative, as it can’t help but be.

  10. Unpacking the Kripke Collection, the introduction to a series of posts about what Michael Adams (of the Lilly Library) finds there. Wish I could be looking over his shoulder!

  11. Sez there she had an impressive collection of Tijuana bibles. I knew of them, but not under that name.

  12. Odd — I would have thought everyone who knew about them knew them by that name (which is an excellent one).

  13. I remember seeing them in El Paso in the late 50s. When I know how to get somewhere, I often don’t bother to learn the street names.

  14. Makes sense. I don’t think I ever saw them in the wild, so I learned about them by name.

  15. I got off the bus some months ago (the stop was, anomalously, in the middle of the block) and asked several passers-by “What street is this?” None of them knew. Later on I figured out that they were probably all just following their phones, and had no idea whether they were in New York or Chicago.

  16. ktschwarz says

    The spelling of jactitate in the article was corrected sometime between then and now. Who knows, maybe they got a trackback and read your post.

  17. A new piece by April White in Atlas Obscura; a sample:

    “We don’t really know how many books it is,” says Michael Adams, a lexicographer and chair of the English department at Indiana University Bloomington. More than 1,500 boxes, with vague labels such as “Kripke documents” or “Kripke: 17 books,” arrived at the school’s Lilly Library on two tractor-trailers in late 2021. The delivery was accompanied by a nearly 2,000-page catalog detailing some 6,000 volumes. But that’s only a fraction of the total. In summer 2023, the library hired a group of students to simply open each box and list its contents. By the fall, their count stood at about 9,700. “And they’ve got a long way to go,” says Adams. “20,000 sounds like a pretty good estimate.”

    It will take years to fully process a collection of that size, but Adams just can’t wait. So he’s unpacking Kripke’s trove and sharing it online, the same way the women he considers a friend built it, one book at a time. “I go into the room where all of the boxes are and I open up a box and pull something out,” Adams says. He might find a rare and valuable Latin dictionary from 1502, or some edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (the collection might have every printing of every edition)—but that’s not really what he’s hunting for. He’s looking for treasures like Kripke’s “slang wall.”

    Thanks, Maidhc!

  18. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    women for woman above seriously derailed my parsing of the deep (triple?) embedding of the relative clause he considers a friend. Interestingly, after going WTF once I did get the correct parse without spotting the plural/singular mismatch (women vs a friend) and only on rereading word by word did I find the root cause. (Woman refers to Kripke who was very singular). Of course I can’t be sure what my first partial parse was, maybe something about Adams involving some (otherwise not mentioned) female friends in the box opening, except that it came to a screeching halt because built it made no sense.

    (This infelicity was on Atlas Obscura already, so I’m not blaming Maidhc or Hat).

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