Most of the books I have bought in recent years have been 50 cent jobs from the array of good books being remaindered outside The Word bookshop on Milton street in Montreal. To my knowledge this is the only bookshop these days that still puts out good, readable works in this way, at giveaway prices. Two of my recent purchases there have been remarkable British novels, one by Andrea Newman, An Evil Streak, a deliciously witty and thoroughly amoral work about the nasty love held by an uncle for his niece, whose love life he controls and manipulates to tragic effect, and the other a book called The Blue Afternoon, by William Boyd, a strange tale about a scruffy old man who turns up in the life of a successful woman architect in Los Angeles with the story that he is her father, and thereafter leads her into the story of his great love affair for another man’s wife during his younger years as a surgeon in Manila, Philippines, again leading towards a tragic, or at least very sad, ending.
It was the first book of Boyd’s I have ever read, and it has persuaded me to read more. And as for Newman, I had never even heard of her, although I have subsequently discovered that she has written at least eight other novels with the same disturbing and page-turning effect, one of which, with the wicked title of A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, apparently held the British viewing audience spellbound every Sunday night for weeks, just as I remember a BBC version of The Count of Monte Cristo, starring that spectacularly brilliant and romantic actor Alan Badel, doing during the 1960s. Not a bad one dollar’s worth from The Word, in sum.
But I have an even cheaper occasional source of books. I walk most days through the McGill university campus, past the McGill library, where they have the habit, from time to time, of putting out books they are anxious to get rid of, hoping that passers-by will take them off their hands for free. I have indulged that hope frequently. I remember one day when they laid out two beautiful dictionaries, the Concise Collins, in a 1988 new edition (1392 pages), and the Third College Edition also 1988, of Webster’s New World Dictionary of American English (1576 pages). These were such beautiful books, so crammed with knowledge that everyone who works with words needs, that I simply couldn’t pass them by. I lugged them the mile or so to my home, to offer them to my children, who, wouldn’t you know, shoved their noses in the air with a gesture of incredulity, and asked, “Why would I need a dictionary? I have a dictionary already online.”
I didn't need a new dictionary, either, as it happens, because my Bible still is The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, an immense book of 2515 pages, first published in 1933 and revised and reprinted thirteen times up to the 1960s, when my wife wrote a note in front saying she had bought it in the rain for my birthday in 1965. That would have been my 37th birthday: how did I ever manage before, without it?
The preface is a lovely piece of arcane Britishness: “This Dictionary is an abridgement officially authorized by the Delegates of the Oxford University Press of a New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, later known as the Oxford Englsh Dictionary. The need for such an abridged form of the great work was envisaged at the outset. The publication of this work is, in fact, a fulfilment of one of the provisions of the agreement entered into in the year 1879 between the Philological Society and the Oxford University Press. The relevant clause of the Indenture is as follows:
“The Delegates may (if and when they think fit) prepare and publish any Dictionaries compiled or abridged from the principal Dictionary and in such form as they may think fit, and may deal with the same in all respects at their discretion.
“It was not until 1902 that the project of an abridgement was initiated. It was clear that the editors and staff engaged on the principal work had their hands too full to undertake it….”
And so “a scholar from outside”, Mr William Little, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, began the work and continued it until his death in 1922, and the work thereafter was continued by a succession of others, one of whom was the famous H. W. Fowler, famous for his own indispensible work, Modern English Usage, first published in April 1926, and constantly reprinted and revised since then.
I also have two other valuable books I picked up at the same source, the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations (first published in 1995), compiled by Ned Sherrin who was a well-known presenter of humorous TV programmes in the 1960s, and Funk and Wagnall’s Modern Guide to Synonyms, edited by S.I. Hayakawa, who was Professor of English and Speech at San Francisco State College.
When I saw the name, I remembered this professor had won fame as a hatchet man for Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California, and who, like his master, was bitterly opposed to student activism, and the black protest movement. Hayakawa was a Canadian who had migrated to the United States, where he worked all his professional life, and was appointed by Reagan to be president of the university. I remember the noted Montreal architect Moshe Safdie showing me a model of a revolutionary-type building he had designed for the student body at the San Francisco State University. Although only in a cardboard model when he showed it to me, it was composed, in the Safdie manner, of building blocks, piled on one another, but its distinctive feature was that Safdie proposed its having no front door into the building, which would be entered by students climbing the gently-sloping roofs, where they would enter classrooms as they came upon them. Hayakawa, however, as president, was at war with the very student body for whom Safdie was doing his work, and he quickly cancelled the project.
The student rebellion, led by the Third World Liberation Front, supported by the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers, proposed a black studies department independent of the university administration, with open admission for black students. Hayakawa’s opposition to these demands won him a political following among the right-wing. According to Wikipedia, “He became popular with conservative voters after he pulled the wires out from the loud speakers on a protesters' van at an outdoor rally. He relented in 1968, and created the first-in-the-nation College of Ethnic Studies.” But he had discovered a taste for politics, and in 1976 he won election to the US Senate, where he served until 1983. He died at the age of 85 in 1992.
I started out this piece with a different objective, and have gotten sidetracked along the way. I set out to tell how his week I picked up four books from the McGill Library castoffs, one of which was a slim volume on the History of Europe in the 20th century by two American professors. I wondered why I had bothered to take this book, but then I realized it was just the journalist in me: during my career I have learned a little bit about a wide variety of things, and that includes Europe and its history. I know something of what happened in Europe from the time I was born in 1928, but virtually nothing of the years before that, although there are thousands of learned works written on the period, by such as A.J.P. Taylor, Margaret Macmillan, and others, none of which have I had the courage to confront. So, squirrel-like, I was hoping this slim volume, evidently designed for laymen like myself, might give me some information I do not have, and even allow me to pretend that I know more than I do, the favorite journalist’s trick.
So far, after reading only one chapter, I have been delighted with the amazing facts outlined in the book: but I am afraid that will have to wait for another Chronicle, which will at least give me time to finish the book, and thereafter, with any luck, be able to pass on some of the insights it has granted me (I hope).