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Everything I need to know is back on the shelf

By John Gould / December 15, 2000



As movers are inclined to do, ours dumped our goods precipitously in our new digs and departed in the same manner. So I have been opening boxes and putting my books on new shelves, an opportunity to give each in turn a love pat, thank it for previous support, and rededicate it to future purposes.

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I refer to my functional library that stands alert at my elbows when I need to know something that will impress my readers and make them think I'm smart. Such as how to spell "accommodate" and how many apostles there were and which of them was Guildenstern. I have never known the quiz show "Jeopardy!" to construe anno Domini correctly and I should be ashamed to expose myself that way.

Around the turn of the century, a school of journalism was proposed, and Bill Nye, an estimable journalist of the day, opined that there was only one thing you could teach a boy that would qualify him as a reporter. That was how to make an adhesive paste that wouldn't sour in hot weather.

But in serious vein, Bill Nye also outlined a course of study for such a school. It called for 99 years of close academic attention to everything from the hilarious orthography of the English language to calcimining bedrooms.

My advice to a youngster coming up is less complicated. I'd tell him to get a library like mine and then double-space his copy, leaving plenty of margin for the editor's corrections. After these many anni, I feel I speak from a posture of experience. I always use BC for early dates, and figure anybody who knows enough to read will know anything else is AD. In this way I don't abuse my high-school ablatives and make a fool of myself.

Eddie Dunn liked to tell his young reporters, "What happens is news; who did it is journalism." He'd tell them, "Get the names, boys, get the names!" Eddie won a Pulitzer by printing the daily list of Ponzi depositors, column after column. Since his Boston Post had the largest morning circulation in the United States, it was absurd to question his opinion.

Edward J. Dunn was the last of America's great city editors, and when I reported that the man broke a leg, Eddie wrote on my copy, "Which leg?"

My little library is not for relaxed reading or to amuse. It's a working collection of authorities to give me quality as I grind the grammatics that a wide world awaits. Take, for instance, the Bible. It is the rule and guide of our faith, respected as such, but when I need to know if 'twas Laban or Jacob whose beasts had spots, the Bible is there next to the telephone directory and the Old Farmer's Almanac.

If I need more than that, I have an encyclopedia I got at Shop-'n'-Save, one volume at a time, for a box top and 35 cents. I keep John Milton with my Bible, not just for "Paradise Lost," but for his other verses and "The Areopagitica," which any writer should venerate. Close by, I have readers of Greek and Roman classics, Palgrave's Golden Treasury, English and Scottish ballads, Bobby Burns, "Moby Dick," "Huck Finn," Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, and odds and ends like them that stand ready on call.

I have English, French, German, and Latin dictionaries. Also Roget's Thesaurus, and a keepsake copy of "How to Divide the Word," which was a guide to compositors published in '08 by Grosset & Dunlap at 25 cents. It doesn't give definitions, but shows syllables. Is it li-mit or lim-it?

Strangely, perhaps, I include "Gargantua et Pantagruel," which others often shun, because it is the work of the most fully educated man up to his time. I turn to Webster's Geographical Dictionary often, and have Attwood's "The Length and Breadth of Maine," an indispensable compilation of every detail about my state's geography. Also Jim Brunelle's good Maine almanac, where I can find how many Democrats dwell together in Unity. What I'm trying to say is that a budding journalist doesn't need to know much, so long as he knows where to go find out.

I have the collected Carroll writings, rather than just "Alice," so can I find "The Snark" and the riddles. I have Chaucer, Keats, Longfellow, David McCord's "What Cheer," and Sherlock Holmes. I have histories of this and that, including the hilarious history of Maine by Abbott that says Maine was settled before Columbus discovered America by nefarious English who were completely depraved and whose only laudable act was driving out the French who'd already been here for 400 years.

Very important is the seasonal Red Sox schedule.

Did I omit Fanny Farmer? So often she "seasons to taste," and so it should be with libraries and journalism.

I have paid the movers their extortion, and they are gone. I have stowed my books, and am reminded of Emile Pierre Duval, who telephoned the police to report a theft. He said, "I'm come home, an' I'm look, an' I'm see my chain saw, missing!"

I make no accusations, but I'm look, an' I'm see one book, missing. It is my prized copy of the collector's impossible dream, "1,001 Ways to Make Money." It is a detailed compendium of every flimflam swindle ever contrived, and I had barely begun.

I had tried making two barrels of ink from citric acid, two shingle nails, and rain water, and then they invented the ball point. I was thinking about making lamp chimneys from old pickle jars when the movers came.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society