Jorge Luis Borges once demeaned the dictionary, writing, "It is often forgotten that [dictionaries] are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature."
I don't disagree with Borges — I love dictionaries precisely for the reasons he outlines. One can crack one open and, at the sight of the neat classification of meanings, imagine and nearly hallucinate the scent of formaldehyde no doubt involved in the dissection of keeping a living thing splayed out, labeled, and explained away.
Jez Burrows, a British designer, illustrator, and writer living in San Francisco, opened a dictionary in 2015 and looked up the word "study." The Oxford English Dictionary, defines it as "a state of contemplation or musing; a state of mental abstraction; a reverie." But it wasn't the definition that caught his eye, rather it was the example sentence:
"He perched on the edge of his seat, a study in confusion and misery."
To Burrows, the sentence, with its unexpected drama, glowed with "the incongruity of a neon sign in a renaissance painting." He was taken by this solitary man adrift in the dictionary and perhaps not wanting to leave him to his own devices, kept him company by adjoining him to another example sentence:
He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery, a study of a man devoured by his own mediocrity.
Dictionary Stories by Jez Burrows is an exercise in creative limitation. Composed of example sentences from twelve different dictionaries, this story collection is a chaotically engaging work. The stories in this collection boast quite a range — from enthralling to entertaining, mildly titillating to moving, philosophical to chuckle-worthy. The writing is of course, and quite literally, exemplary. But the art of this book is in Burrow's enjoyable, incongruous collage that sums up to a meaningful whole. Here is one story "Madame Eva," under the section Prophecy:
"You'll never amount to anything." Her voice was flat and emotionless.
They sat looking at each other without speaking. He slapped down a fiver. She considered him coolly for a moment. Madame Eva bent once more over the crystal ball. Her eyes dilated in the dark. She sat back and exhaled deeply.
"You'll get used to it."
I swooned for most of the short passages, appreciating how Burrows' sense of collage often found depth in this specific length. Dictionaries, in their mastery of catalog, are well suited for making lists, and Burrows' lists were majestic. In "Sample Problems: Intermediate Mathematics for Poets" Burrows writes:
What is the volume of a cube with sides 3 centimeters long, one afternoon in late October, as the sunset tinges the lake with pink?
With this collection, I was inundated with the desire to lay the book down and think a while. Indeed, Dictionary Stories is made to be read slowly and intermittently. It is one of those books to be kept bedside and opened to a page at random to read one story before going to sleep.
However, I was glad to have kept reading at length, for I was awash again with this captivating mathematical problem:
At a latitude of 51° north and a longitude of 2° west, Mary laid a clean square of white toweling carefully on the grass. She was like a child. Careful. Thoughtful. Beautiful. Find the cube root of the result.
While collage of first person narration proved to be a challenging task for Burrows — some read like poorly-glued sentences — my favorite one happens to be in first person, under Hallucination.
We were face to face with death during the avalanche. The storm moved in fast and furious, the lights flickered, and suddenly it was dark. The snow was so heavy, we feared the roof would fall in. Now we've been snowed in for a week, and everyone has cabin fever [...]
I thought I saw my father, but I must have been seeing things; he died twenty years ago. He was playing chess with his uncle. He was dressed in white from head to toe. When he saw me, he smiled. I asked him when he was coming back, I asked him but he didn't answer. He just dropped two sugar cubes into his coffee, and blew on his hands to warm them up.
Dictionary Stories is a moving work. If you need me, I might be found playing in a corner with my dictionary.
Jez Burrows celebrates the release of Dictionary Stories Tuesday, April 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Booksmith (1644 Haight St) in San Francisco.
The Spine is a biweekly column. Catch us back here in two weeks.