I spend a lot of time in bookstores. A single bookstore, actually. I also happen to work in this bookstore, tucked away on the East End of Long Island, where the busy summer season inevitably slows until long off-season hours are spent idly thumbing the bookshelves.
One such long, rainy Saturday in April, I sat down with the yellowest book I’ve ever picked up: Between You & Me by Mary Norris, a copyeditor at The New Yorker for the last thirty-plus years. I read it distractedly, between customers and daydreams of myself in a Manhattan high rise debating the necessity of semicolons, delighting my editors with caught misspellings. What I remember most clearly is her discussion, early in the book, of the “sacred hierarchy” of dictionaries used at The New Yorker: Little Red Web, Web 3, and, of course, the beautifully illustrated, eighty-year-old, three-thousand page Web II.
That same day, through certain bookworm connections, I was invited to look through the backstock of a library sale. My host led me up a staircase, down a hallway, up another staircase. When she unlocked the door the automatic light flipped on, illuminating a treasure trove.
Take whatever you want, the librarian said.
I swear, it was the first thing I saw. Lying alone on the bottom shelf of a library cart, spine sideways: a big bulk of a book, Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged. Web II.
That is how we came into possession of this hardcover behemoth. The book from which we cull our Obsolete Word of the Week. The book that gives us back drupe, drawlatch, and journey-bated. The book that may well one day decide some quarrel between editors.