Who needs a doorstop of a book when a right click is right at hand?
The first dictionary that I ever owned was won by me in a drawing competition at school. It was the first prize, a miniature dictionary bound in red, which I still preserve. Below her signature the principal had inscribed the date, '17.11.79' – which means I was nine years old then, most likely in the fourth standard. For many years after that I did not need another dictionary: the 5,000 or so entries in that tiny gem were more than sufficient to define the world I lived in.
I vaguely remember buying a dictionary much later, perhaps in high school, though I have no particular memories of it, which is very strange. All I remember is that I bought it only to prevent my prized possession from being shredded to pieces. But once I became an adult and decided to make a living out of the written word, I began to invest in voluminous dictionaries – the heavier the better. It was as good as bringing home a teacher who would look over your shoulder while you read a book or wrote a report, and at other times would sit patiently on your desk.
There is something venerable about the dictionary. It's a sage, grandfather, headmaster, teacher, judge, cop – all rolled, rather bound, into one. It's an institution by itself and perhaps the only thing in the world that is capable of making anyone, no matter how educated and accomplished, feel small. After all, the dictionary always knows something that you don't.
Of all the dictionaries I possess today, my favourite remains the One Hour Wordpower Dictionary, co-published by The Sunday Times of London. Simply because it was the first purchase I made after arriving in Delhi to join PTI as a probationary journalist, way back in 1994. I had bought it from a bookshop on Janpath; its pages have since yellowed and I don't think it's still in print. I also like it because it does not follow the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for pronunciations. If you want to know how the word 'jugular' sounds, it simply tells you: jug-yoo-la. Subsequently, from a book fair in Pragati Maidan, I bought the BBC English Dictionary. And then many more. It is a different matter that most of them remained untouched, their pages accessed only by particles of dust.
Today, the dictionary-buying days are way behind me. I no longer need one. Why just me? When was the last time you actually reached out for one? Haven't you been right-clicking on words all this while? But remember, each time you right-click on a word, the sale of dictionaries drops by one percent – okay, I just made up that figure, but I can't be way off the mark. A distributor told me the other day that bookshops were indeed recording a decline in the sale of not just dictionaries but reference books as a whole. Reference books, he said, are fast migrating to the textbook category and it is just a matter of time before general bookshops stop stocking dictionaries and encyclopedias.
I am not shedding a tear. But one fear grips me every now and then: what if I am asked to write a test in written English, with nothing but a pen and a few A-4 sheets at my disposal? I will stand completely exposed! To begin with, I wouldn't know how to spell ‘manoeuvre' (I actually had to dig out a dusty dictionary to type out the word for your benefit because spellcheck gives only the American spelling). I wouldn't even know whether it is ‘focused' or ‘focussed.'
Since I've already crossed the age of 40, it is unlikely that I will ever be asked to write a test again, but you never know. Imagine a 40-year-old journalist not knowing how to spell ‘manoeuvre'. The horror it will evoke, according to me, will be just as bad as the one that will strike you when you arrive in a strange town to find your mobile phone missing. You can't even call your wife to inform her about your plight because you never felt the need to remember her number. You are as good as a lost child who remembers what his home looks like but doesn't know how to get there. So much for the dependence on gadgets.
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, November 19, 2011.